Heathland habitats

4. Heathland

  • Heathland is fundamentally a transitional habitat: it is not the end point of natural succession. Neglected heathlands will eventually transition into woodland communities and therefore must be controlled.
  • There are a number of different species of heather in the UK. The most common and widespread are: ling, bell heather, and cross-leaved heather. More on heather species
  • Heather plants are highly sensitive to frequent disturbance, especially from golfing traffic. A number of measures can be implemented to minimise trampling including informing members, creating appropriate pathways and installing signage. More on heather trampling

Heather management

  • Aim to keep the majority of heather within the ‘building phase’ of its lifecycle (stages are: pioneer; building; mature; degenerate). Some areas can be left to reach maturity however.
  • Management should be carried out in autumn and should mimic grazing through cutting, scarifying and collecting, on an infrequent basis. Heather brash can be sown into other areas. More on heather management
  • Burning is regularly used as a heather management method outside of golf and if considering doing so on a golf course, local by-laws should be consulted and the local fire brigade should also be made aware. More on heather burning
  • Should heather beetle damage occur, the offending heather beetle population cannot be controlled with chemicals, therefore, the best solution is to scarify the worst hit heather stands. More on heather beetle damage

Heather regeneration

  • The main method of heathland regeneration in previously heather-dominated areas involves removing the existing vegetation and thatch layer to expose the underlying heather seed in the humus layer.
  • Turf stripping areas within heather that have become dominated with grasses such as purple moor grass should be carried out in autumn/early winter. Results may take time, with heather being seen in 8 months or up to two years.
  • Heather regeneration in areas without viable heather can also be turfstripped, followed by spreading seed or transplanting whole heather plants from one area to another, perhaps consider establishing a heather nursery if possible. More on heather regeneration


  • Bracken or fern? Bracken has dense foliage and a deep litter layer which help it outcompete other plants. It can be very invasive and is the only fern that generally requires management to control spread.
  • A few individual bracken plants can spread over a wide area, connected by underground rhizomes, which makes it much harder to control.
  • Effective bracken control must target the whole plant through continuous manual or mechanical ‘bashing’ and bruising. More on physical control
  • Asulox or Glyphosate can be applied to emerging bracken plants once the first fronds open, towards the end of May. The type of chemical used will depend on the placement of the bracken. More on chemical control

Heathland trees

  • Natural succession in heathland areas leads to scrub and woodland development, with self-set trees sporadically appearing within the heathland habitat.
  • Whilst woodlands and self-set trees within heather should largely be removed, some individual trees can be beneficial, providing stepping stones for small birds and acting as distance markers for golfers. More on heathland tree benefits
  • Self-set trees can be removed via hand pulling or mechanically with a strimmer or rotary deck. Chemical control should not be used. More on removing self-set trees
  • Mature plantation woodland within heathland will eventually shade and kill the heather. Before removing any mature trees, it is important to consider the effects that their removal will have on protected species and to consult with members and the wider community. Other points to remember

Gorse management

  • Gorse provides shelter for small birds and can be of high wildlife value but it can also be quite aggressive and requires regular monitoring and management due to its ability to rapidly spread.
  • There are three main gorse species: the most common is European gorse; Western gorse; and dwarf gorse. Broom is a related species, growing within similar environmental conditions to gorse. More on gorse and broom
  • Tips for managing gorse include marking a ‘gorse line’ to which the gorse cannot encroach any further; breaking up large gorse stands to create stepping stone habitats; and removing gorse plants when small and young to reduce time and costs.
  • Established gorse plants can be coppiced to ~15cm above ground to improve health and vigour, whilst also controlling spread and extending the lifespan. More on managing existing gorse

Introducing new gorse

  • Gorse can be introduced to provide strategy and to also provide additional habitat on parkland courses, however, it should not be introduced into areas of heath or on links sites.
  • Optimum conditions for gorse establishment include a soil pH of 4-8 and freely draining soils.
  • Gorse can be introduced from seed that has been collected from other gorse stands on the golf course, or from elsewhere, preferably local. Alternatively, gorse can be introduced by using container grown plants, planting individuals in small groupings in the selected area.
  • More on introducing new gorse