Lowland Heath

Durham Lowland Priority Habitats
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Lowland Heath Action Plan

Priority Habitats:Lowland HeathAcid Grassland

Priorities
1. Safeguard key lowland heath and acid grassland sites and ensure their appropriate management for BAP species.
2. Increase the extent of lowland heathland through restoration of degraded sites or creation of new habitat on suitable sites.
3. Manage larger areas of lowland heath to create or extend structural diversity, including areas of developing scrub and areas of fen.

Lowland Heath Targets
Vision Statement: To increase the extent of lowland heath in good condition, and to expand the area of lowland heath.

Target Type Unit Value
1. To maintain the extent of lowland heath in the Durham BAP area. maintain ha tbc
2. To increase the extent of lowland heathland in the Durham BAP area expand ha 30
3. To achieve favourable or recovering condition for lowland heath within SSSIs in the Durham BAP area. achieve condition ha  tbc
4. To achieve favourable or recovering condition for lowland heath outside of SSSIs in the Durham BAP area. achieve condition ha  tbc

Lowland Acid Grassland Targets
Vision Statement: To have a better understanding of the distribution of this habitat, and for all remaining sites to be protected and appropriately managed.

Target Type Unit Value
1. To maintain the extent and condition of lowland acid grassland in the Durham BAP area. maintain ha tbc
2. To restore lowland dry acid grassland in the Durham BAP area. restore ha 10
3. To re-establish grassland of wildlife value in the Durham BAP area. expand ha 5

Lowland heath is characterized by dwarf shrubs such as heather and cross-leaved heath and is generally found below 300m in altitude. In the absence of an agreed altitudinal cut-off between lowland and upland heath in the north of England, however, and in order to define lowland heath for monitoring purposes, heathland outside the North Pennines Natural Area is taken to be lowland and vice versa.

In good condition, lowland heathland consists of a dwarf shrub layer of varying heights and structure with areas of bare ground, gorse, bogs and open water as well as scattered trees and scrub. This diversity of habitat supports a wide range of characteristic species including rare invertebrates, reptiles, flowering plants, mosses, liverworts and lichens, which are in turn, an important factor in determining habitat quality.

Lowland heath is a priority for nature conservation because it is a rare and threatened habitat. In England only one sixth of the heathland present in 1800 now remains. There are around 95,000 hectares of lowland heathland in the UK with 61% found in England. The most significant areas are in the south and south-west, Staffordshire, East Anglia, and south and west Wales. The UK has an important proportion (about 20%) of the international total of this habitat.

Durham is close to the northern limit of the habitat and as such it is relatively rare in the county. Under previous definitions around 114 ha were said to exist in County Durham and southern Tyne and Wear (Brodin 2001), the largest single site being Waldridge Fell in Chester-le-Street. This definition clearly excluded large areas of heath near to the 300m altitudinal limit, such as Hedleyhope Fell which lies between the 170m and 300m contours, and which was recently acquired by the Durham Wildlife Trust, or Knitsely Fell between 150m and 270m.

Large sites such as Hedleyhope, Knitsley and Waldridge Fells are also the most diverse, supporting a range of habitats including mires, scrub, acid grassland and areas dominated by heather & bracken. However large sites are now the exception and most sites are small and highly fragmented within the Durham portion of the Northumbrian Coal Measures Natural Area.

Lowland Acid Grassland

In many parts of the Northumbrian Coal Measures where heath has disappeared, fragments of lowland acid grassland remain, isolated from the heathland mosaic.  Lowland acid grassland is also known to have developed on drained areas of floodplain meadow in Gateshead, although reasons for this are not clear. Lowland acid grassland is not necessarily species rich, but has a characteristic suite of species including heath bedstraw, heath woodrush, tormentil and wavy hair grass. It is a rare and fragmented resource in the Durham BAP area and therefore a priority habitat in its own right.

Some Brownfield sites in the Northumbrian Coal Measures, such as Tanfield Railway sidings in Gateshead, are developing naturally towards lowland heath or acid grassland.

Areas of acid grassland within heath can be botanically important in their own right, and a number of these grasslands support significant numbers of waxcap and related fungi (see Waxcap Grassland action plan).

Related species

DBAP species that should benefit from this plan include the Small pearl-bordered fritillary. Large colonies were once found at Waldridge fell, but now only survive in heathland areas at around 300m altitude.  Green hairstreak is found at Waldridge and Hedleyhope Fells, a butterfly that relies on bilberry as its larval foodplant. Nightjars prefer bare patches in heathland as nesting sites. In Durham the largest population is in Hamsterley Forest but it is thought there are smaller populations scattered throughout the county.

Adders are thought to be widespread throughout the county with Pow Hill being listed as a particularly good area for the species. Slow worms are also relatively widespread but at a much lower population level than adders, it is thought that Waldridge Fell may hold a significant population.

Threats

  • Intensive agricultural practices such as overgrazing and agricultural improvement.
  • Nutrient enrichment- especially from intensive livestock farming practices.
  • Fragmentation and disturbance from developments such as housing and road construction and from mineral extraction.
  • Deliberate fire lighting by vandals.
  • Intensive recreational pressures.
  • Scrub and tree encroachment, due to a lack of suitable grazing.
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