Heathlands are ecosystems created by human use of resources as wells as an important part of Europe’s cultural landscape. They usually evolved after forests on dry sites were cleared and reforestation was subsequently prevented by grazing. Another cause is the military use of land. The use of ordnance often results in spreading fires that create wide, open and burned areas as ideal sites for heather plants.
In natural conditions, uninfluenced by humans, heather is no permanently established ecosystem, but only transitional biotopes that develop over the medium term after natural fire events until they are increasingly replaced by woods. This natural dynamic with its catastrophes and their consequences no longer occurs in today’s anthropogenically shaped world. In the modern landscape, heather is dependent on the preservation by artificial care to be not displaced by natural succession.
After the broom heather colonizes the empty areas as a frugal pioneer plant, processes of soil formation begin. The conditions are becoming more suitable for many tree species, causing them to migrate in greater numbers and increasingly displace the broom heather. Birches, pines and aspens take the lead, while heather stands become overmature after a few years.
As they age, the shrubs lose vitality, flower less intensively and show high percentages of dead twigs and branches. They can hardly be replaced by younger individuals, because these cannot find a free germination site in the thick layer of moss that has formed under the older plants. In any case, Calluna seeds develop best after a fire and otherwise remain dormant.
However, existing open soil are not only used by heather, so the young plants must compete with other species that are now established. Many of them can make better use of the enriched nutrients now in the soil than the frugal slow-growing dwarf shrubs and so quickly establish themselves.
Thus, three major issues arise for the conservation of heaths:
For the preservation of heathland habitats, there are consequently three major aspects:
- The removal of trees;
- A rejuvenation of heathland population;
- The reduction of nutrients in the soil.
images & text by Dr. Carsten Neumann; Herbert Riemann; Heinz Sielmann Stiftung: Jörg Fürstenow, Dr. Jörg Müller, images by Sebastian Hennigs