Heathland: charismatic landscape put under modern day pressures.
THE ANGLIAN GLACIATIONS OF 350,000 YEARS AGO left behind the gravels, sand and chalk erratic and boulder clays that still determine the natural vegetation patterns that exist throughout Norfolk to this day. This is most apparent when studying the distribution of the county's heathlands that have developed over a sweep of gravels that extend from the North Norfolk coastline to Norwich. A greensand ridge supports the heaths and mires of Western Norfolk whilst the sand and gravel soils (at a relief of up to 100m above sea level) hold the eastern and central heathlands containing valley mires of European importance.
Often wrongly seen as wasteland with little or no biological importance, heath once covered vast areas of Norfolk, yet is now much reduced due to the needs of agriculture and housing. However, what does remain is of vital importance to summer migrants such as the nocturnal, cryptically camouflaged nightjar or the cold-blooded adder, Britain's only venomous reptile. For much of the year a heathland can look particularly uninspiring, even during spring months the only flashes of colour you might find are the bright yellow stands of gorse, with little else to spike your imagination. This is partly true, a lowland heath takes its time to come alive, although if you know where to look, you will find that the reptilian inhabitants of this particular terrain begin their bid for summertime mobility as early as February; adders and common lizards will bask in the early, milky sunshine close to their hibernacula for several weeks before the real business of the year begins.
It's a sobering fact that up to 90% of Britain's heathland has been destroyed during the last century, and Norfolk has seen no exception to this decline. It is not all doom and gloom though, with the recognised importance of heath and it's incredibly diverse flora and fauna, great efforts are now being made to restore much of it back to its former glory. Lowland heath is a UK Biodiversity Action Plan priority habitat, which, with combined support from local landowners and authorities, should allow us to enjoy the warming buzz of insects and exuberant colour we associate with heathland during the summer months for generations to come.
Pristine valley mire such as this is of international importance, hosting plant communities that include sundews, cotton grasses, orchids and marsh gentians, as well as many rare dragonflies. (PANORAMA COMPOSED FROM TWENTY-FIVE IMAGES)
There is no better sight than to gaze across a dry Norfolk heath during late summer when the purple haze of flowering ling and bell heather is at its peak. Buzzing with activity, it provides a valuable food source for bees and myriads of other insects. (PANORAMA COMPOSED FROM TEN IMAGES)
Late summer is heathland's primetime, when a magenta haze carpets the ground like a clinging mist, and the whir of insect wings is impossible to escape. The warmth of the season radiates from patches of bare, sandy soil and the purple flowers of ling provide heather nectar for the irrepressibly busy bees and other invertebrates that work from dawn to dusk, ensuring the continuation of their species into the following year. It is not only the dry heath that contains fascinating wildlife communities; indeed, the wet heath that became the county's valley mires and bogs has an even more diverse range of flora and fauna; insectivorous plants such as sundew trap insects on their sticky, hair like glands before slowly digesting them with specially secreted proteolytic enzymes while blocks of cotton grass wave in the wind like landlocked banks of fluffy white clouds.