Heathland is a generally open, dynamic landscape supporting a range of plant communities that develop on impoverished, usually acidic soils. Typical vegetation includes heathers (e.g. common heather, bell heather, cross-leaved heath), rough grasses (e.g. bristle bent, wavy hair grass), mire, gorse and other scrub together with bareground, scattered trees and areas of secondary woodland. These in turn support a specific assemblage of invertebrates, birds and other animals.
Lowland heaths are special and increasingly rare. For thousands of years people have worked their heaths, creating, maintaining and reshaping this unique environment. Farmers once placed great value upon heathlands, for example as a source of fuel, grazing and bedding for animals, but these are now found more easily elsewhere. Without this historic harvesting, heaths gradually give way to scrub and eventually to established woodland, and the varied plants and animals that make heathlands unique are lost.
Across Europe the decline of grazing, burning and cutting has resulted in many areas of heathland degrading to land dominated by bracken, gorse, and other scrub.
During the middle part of last century, farming methods altered as farmers were encouraged to turn to improved fields and convert or abandon vast areas of heathland. The loss of grazing culminated in many heathland areas succumbing to invasive scrub, whilst many remaining areas were lost to urban development.
The impact upon the landscape both culturally and ecologically was dramatic as traditional farming systems began to disappear. The loss and disintegration of heathland has led to significant declines in many plant and animal species. In addition, many archaeological sites have been damaged or lost in the face of invasive scrub and urban development.