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Ecosystems

Heath and moorland

Heathland above the cliffs of southern CornwallHeathland above the cliffs of southern CornwallHeaths are lowland habitats found in areas that have infertile sandy or gravelly soils, where rainwater soaks away quickly, carrying away the soil nutrients with it. Heathland vegetation consists mostly of low shrubs and rough grasses. Upland heathlands often have water-logged, peaty soils and are known as moorlands. Both heathland and moorland habitats are described as "semi-natural" because they are landscapes that have been shaped almost entirely by human activity. Moorland is especially common in upland regions of Britain, but heathland is now rare in Europe. Some of the world's dry scrublands, such as the fynbos of southern Africa, are often described as heathland.

Gorse on Salthouse Heath, north NorfolkGorse on Salthouse Heath, north Norfolk 

Heathland

Most heathland in Britain has been created by humans. It dates from at least 5000 years ago, when people first started clearing woodlands growing on infertile soils—probably to lure wild animals such as deer into clearings so they could be hunted more easily. Later, the cleared land was used to graze livestock. Grazing and tree clearances caused the nutrient levels in the soil to fall even more. However, these soils were perfect for certain hardy plants that grow naturally only on coasts (including sand dunes and cliff tops) and mountainsides, where exposure to high winds prevents tree growth. These plants, including heather, bilberry, gorse and bracken, soon colonized the new open spaces inland to form heaths.

Some moorland in Britain, such as in the islands and extreme north of Scotland, is natural: it has never had a cover of trees. Farther south in England, however, much of what is now moorland was forested thousands of years ago. How much the deforestation was caused by changes to the climate and how much by human activity is unknown.

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