Upland Heathland typically occurs on well-drained, nutrient-poor, acid soils. This habitat lies below 600 metres (alpine or montane zone) but usually above the upper limit of agricultural enclosure at 300 metres (NIEA, 2003).

 Key Characteristics

  • Site: Upland areas between 300-600m
  • Soil: Nutrient-poor, acid soils
  • Main species: Heather (dwarf shrubs)
  • UK: 2-3 million ha
  • NI: 58,500 ha

Habitat Description

  • Upland Heathland, as the name suggests, occur on ‘upland’ areas between 300 & 600 metres. Similar to Lowland Heathland, it includes both dry & wet heathlands, depending on the environmental conditions.
  • Wet heaths, which occur when the water table is high & drainage is low, are usually found in the north & west due to the higher rainfall & where slopes of hills or mountains are too steep for the build up of peat (NIEA, 2003).
  • If wet heaths are of high quality they are usually dominated by cross-leaved heath, purple moor-grass, deer grass & common heather. Beneath these shrubs, there is typically ‘carpets’ of mosses to include the Sphagnum species (NIEA, 2003).
  • Characteristic species include bell heather & bilberry. These shrubs have coverage of at least 25% (NIEA, 2003). Other dwarf shrubs include crowberry & western gorse (south & west). These higher species support the growth of lower plants such as mosses, liverworts & lichens (McLaughlin, 2007).
  • Various plant communities included in NVC of Great Britain grow on Upland Heathland:  H12 Calluna – V. myrtillus, H10 Calluna – E. cinerea, H21 Calluna – V. myrtillus – Sphagnum capillifolium, M15 Scirpus cespitosus – E. tetralix, H18 Vaccinium myrtillus – Deschampsia flexuosa, H9 Calluna – D. flexuosa, H16 Calluna – Arctostaphylos uva-uri & M16 E. tetralix – Sphagnum compactum.
  • Upland Heathlands are structurally diverse, with heather at different stages of growth. High quality habitats tend to include mature heather.
  • Mosaics of different habitats are a common feature, such as blanket bog, fens & flushes, bracken, scrub, grassland, gorse, woodland, freshwater & rock habitats (NIEA, 2003).

 Current Status in UK & Northern Ireland

  • In the UK Upland Heathland covers between 2-3 million ha, with the majority in Scotland (1,700,000 – 2,500,000 ha) (NIEA, 2003).
  • The NICS (2000) estimated that Upland Heathland covers 58,500 ha in Northern Ireland. Current assessments on the extent, distribution & condition of Upland Heathlands have not been conducted.
  • Upland Heathland is under pressure from heavy grazing (mainly by sheep, occasionally cattle). Grazing is a major problem as 13,000 ha in NI uplands is acid mat grass hill pasture with less than the typical 25% cover of characteristic dwarf shrubs. This loss of the dwarf shrub layer is a result of continuous heavy grazing which has the greatest impact during the winter when the shrubs are most vulnerable. The NIEA Action Plan (2003) predicts that there will be further significant loss of upland communities to upland acid grassland if current grazing levels continue.
  • Upland Heathland suffers from agricultural intensification & afforestation. In a six year period (1992-1998) Copper & McCann (2001) estimated that 20% of wet heath mosaic & 28% of dry heath mosaic was lost in NI.
  • Degradation of Upland Heathland additionally occurs through burning, trampling, conversion to grassland, forestry, planning developments & invasive species (e.g. bracken) (NIEA, 2003).

Designated Sites

  • Antrim Hills

Further Information