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A heath or heathland is a dwarf-shrub habitat found on mainly infertile acidic soils, characterised by open, low growing woody vegetation, often dominated by plants of the Ericaceae. There is no clear difference between heath and moorland but moorland is generally related to high-ground heaths with — especially in Great Britain — a cooler and damper climate.

Heaths are widespread worldwide. They form extensive and highly diverse communities across Australia in humid and sub-humid areas. Fire regimes with recurring burning are required for the maintenance of the heathlands. Even more diverse though less widespread heath communities occur in Southern Africa. Extensive heath communities can also be found in Californiamarker, New Caledoniamarker, central Chilemarker and along the shores of the Mediterranean Seamarker. In addition to these extensive heath areas, the vegetation type is also found in scattered locations across all continents, except Antarctica.


Heathland is favoured where climatic conditions are typically warm and dry, particularly in summer, and soils acidic, of low fertility, and often sandy and very free-draining; bogs do occur where drainage is poor, but are usually only small in extent. Heaths are dominated by low shrubs, 0.2–2 m tall.

Heath vegetation is extremely plant-species rich, and heathlands of Australia are home to some 3,700 endemic or typical species in addition to numerous less restricted species. The fynbosmarker heathlands of South Africa are second only to tropical rainforests in plant biodiversity with over 7,000 species. In marked contrast the tiny pockets of heathland in Europe are extremely depauperate with a flora comprised primarily of heather (Calluna vulgaris), heath (Erica species) and gorse (Ulex species).

The bird fauna of heathlands are usually cosmopolitan species of the region. In the depauperate heathlands of Europe bird species tend to be more characteristic of the community and include Montagu's Harrier, and the Tree Pipit. In Australia the heathland avian fauna is dominated by nectar feeding birds such as Honey-eaters and lorikeets although numerous other birds from emus to eagles are also common Australian heathlands. Australian heathlands are also home to the world's only nectar feeding terrestrial mammal: the Honey Possum. The bird fauna of the South African fynbos includes sunbirds warblers and siskins. Heathlands are also an excellent habitat for insects including ants, moths, butterflies and wasps with many species being restricted entirely to it.

Anthropogenic heaths

Anthropogenic heaths habitats are a cultural landscape that can be found worldwide in locations as diverse as northern and western Europe, the Americas, Australia, New Zealandmarker, Madagascarmarker and New Guineamarker.

These heaths were originally created or expanded by centuries of human clearance of the natural forest and woodland vegetation, by grazing and burning. In some cases this clearance went so far that parts of the heathland have given way to open spots of pure sand and sand dunes, with a very local desert climate that, even in Europe can create local temperatures of 50 degrees Celsius in summer, drying the sand spot bordering the heathland and further raising its vulnerability for wildfires.

In recent years the conservation value of even these man-made heaths has become much more appreciated, and consequently most heathlands are protected. However they are also threatened by tree incursion because of the discontinuation of traditional management techniques such as grazing and burning that mediated the landscapes. Some are also threatened by urban sprawl. Anthropogenic heathlands are maintained artificially by a combination of grazing and periodic burning (known as Swailing), or (rarely) mowing; if not so maintained, they are rapidly re-colonised by forest or woodland. The re-colonising tree species will depend on what is available as the local seed source, and thus it may not reflect the natural vegetation before the heathland became established.

See also

Specific references

  1. Specht, R.L. 'Heathlands' in 'Australian Vegetation' R.H. Groves ed. Cambridge University Press 1988
  2. Specht, R.L. 'Heathlands' in 'Australian Vegetation' R.H. Groves ed. Cambridge University Press 1988
  3. WWF Ecoregion profile. Montane fynbos and renosterveld (AT1203)
  4. WWF Ecoregion profile. Montane fynbos and renosterveld (AT1203)
  5. Specht, R.L. 'Heathlands' in 'Australian Vegetation' R.H. Groves ed. Cambridge University Press 1988

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