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Moorland or moor is a type of habitat found in upland areas, characterised by low growing vegetation on acidic soils. Moorland nowadays generally means uncultivated hill land (such as Dartmoormarker in South West England), but the Old English mōr also refers to low-lying wetlands (such as Sedgemoor, also SW England). It is closely related to heath although experts disagree on precisely what distinguishes the types of vegetation. Oliver Rackham points out that long-term general usage has been that moors are used to describe highland (and therefore high-rainfall zones), whereas heath refers to lowland zones which are more likely to be the result of human activity.

Moorland habitats are most extensive in the neotropics and tropical Africa but also occur in northern and western Europe, Northern Australia, North America, Central Asia, and the Indian subcontinent. Most of the world's moorlands are very diverse ecosystems. In the extensive moorlands of the tropics species diversity can be extremely high. Moorland also bears a relationship to tundra (where the subsoil is permafrost or permanently frozen soil), appearing as the tundra retreats and inhabiting the area between the permafrost and the natural tree zone. The boundary between tundra and moorland constantly shifts with climatic change.

Heather moorland

Along with heathland, moorland is the most extensive natural vegetation of the British Isles. The eastern British moorlands are similar to heaths but are differentiated by having a covering of peat. On western moors the peat layer may be several metres thick. Scottish ‘muirs’ are generally heather moors, but will also have extensive covering of grass, cotton-grass, mosses, bracken and under-shrubs such as crowberry; with the wetter moorland having sphagnum moss merging into bog-land.

There is uncertainty about how many moors were created by human activity. Rackham writes that pollen analysis shows that some moorland, such as in the islands and extreme north of Scotland, are clearly natural, never having had trees; whereas much of the Pennine moorland area was forested in Mesolithic times. How much the destruction of this forest was caused by climatic changes and how much by human activity is uncertain.

The ecology of moorland

A variety of distinct habitat types are found in different world regions of moorland. The wildlife and vegetation forms often lead to high endemism because of the severe soil and microclimate characteristics. For example, in England's Exmoormarker is found the rare species of Exmoor Pony, which has adapted to the harsh, arid conditions of that environment.

In Europe, the associated fauna consists of bird species such as Red Grouse, Hen Harrier, Merlin, Golden Plover, Curlew, Sky Lark, Meadow Pipit, Whinchat, Ring Ouzel, and Twite. Other species dominate in moorlands elsewhere. Reptiles are few due to the cooler conditions. In Europe, only the Common Viper is frequent, though in other regions moorlands are commonly home to dozens of reptile species. Amphibians such as frogs are well-represented in moorlands. When moorland is overgrazed, woody vegetation is often lost, being replaced by coarse, unpalatable grasses and bracken, with a greatly reduced fauna.

Some hill sheep breeds, such as Scottish Blackface, thrive on the austere conditions of heather moors.


Burning of moorland has been practiced for a number of reasons, for example when grazing is insufficient to control growth. This is recorded in Britain in the fourteenth century. Uncontrolled burning frequently caused (and causes) problems, and was forbidden by statute in 1607. With the rise of sheep and grouse management in the nineteenth century it again became common practice. Heather is burnt at about 10 or 12 years old when it will regenerate easily. Left longer, the woodier stems will burn more aggressively and will hinder regrowth. Burning of moorland vegetation needs to be very carefully controlled as the peat itself can catch fire, and this can be difficult if not impossible to extinguish. In addition, uncontrolled burning of heather can promote alternative bracken and rough grass growth which ultimately produces poorer grazing. As a result burning is now considered, at best, a controversial practice; Rackham calls it ‘second-best land management’.

Mechanical cutting of the heather has been used in Europe, but it is important for the material to be removed to avoid smothering regrowth. If heather and other vegetation is left for too long, a large volume of dry and combustible material builds up. This may result in a wildfire burning out a large area, although it has been found that heather seeds germinate better if subject to the brief heat of controlled burning. Generally, moorland wildlife has evolved to cope with even major fires and are easily able to recover if such intense burnings are not too frequent.

Moorland in literature

The development of a sensitivity to nature and one's physical surroundings grew with the rise of interest in landscape painting, and particularly the works of artists that favoured wide and deep prospects, and rugged scenery. To the English Romantic imagination moorlands fitted this image perfectly, enhancing the emotional impact of the story by placing it within a heightened and evocative landscape. Moorland forms the setting of various works of late Romantic English literature, ranging from the Yorkshiremarker moorland in Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights and The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett to Dartmoormarker in Arthur Conan Doyle's Holmesian mystery The Hound of the Baskervilles. The Famous Five series, which was composed by Enid Blyton, involved the youth adventuring across various moorlands where they confronted criminals or other individuals of interest. Such a setting enhanced the plot as the drama unfolded away from the functioning world where the children could solve their own problems and face greater danger.

Notable moorlands

Notable areas of upland moorland in Britain include the Dark Peak, the Forest of Bowland, the Lake Districtmarker, the Pennines, Mid Wales, the Southern Uplands of Scotland, the Scottish Highlands, and a few very small pockets in western Herefordshiremarker. There are numerous moorlands outside the UK; some other notable examples are:


  1. Birks and Madsen (1979). Journal of Ecology, 67.
  2. Turner and Hodgson (1979). Journal of Ecology, 67.
  3. Camilla Bonn (1998). 'That Jack Cunningham wants half of us out of farming', in Country Life, 15 January 1998, pp. 28–35.
  4. McDermot (1911). The History of the Forest of Exmoor.
  5. Gimingham (1972). Ecology of heathlands. Chapman & Hall, London.
  6. Norton Anthology of English Literature; Romantic Literature.

See also

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