Credit: nightjar by Andy Hay. 

All birds nest in trees, right? Not quite. Over half of the UK’s most threatened species nest on, or near to the ground, so it’s crucial that you Watch Your Step in the countryside says RSPB England’s Beth Markey. 

Heathland is a type of open landscape dominated by dense heather, gorse and low-lying shrubs. Two hundred years ago, heathland blanketed the UK but today, tragically less than 15% of this habitat remains, making it rarer than rainforest. 

If you visit heathland nature reserves such as RSPB Arne and RSPB Minsmere, you may be lucky enough to see habitat specialist birds like Dartford warblers singing enthusiastically from the top of gorse bushes or nightjars churring at dusk. During the breeding season, these species build nests under or around the heathland’s sheltered vegetation, making them near impossible to spot with the naked eye. 

Why are heathland specialist birds in trouble? 

 Credit: nightjar by Mike Richards 

With tireless conservation efforts in place to save heathland, the survival of many heathland species hangs in the balance. Nightjars are summer visitors to the UK. Famed for their eerie churring call, nocturnal behaviour and a history of folklore, nightjars are completely unique in character and loved by birders across the UK. 

Nightjars inhabit lowland heathland – an incredibly rare habitat found in small pockets across the country – as well as forest clearings and coppice woods. Following a catastrophic decline between the 1960’s and 1990’s as a result of large-scale heathland loss amongst other factors, the nightjar population is now on the up.  

Nevertheless, nightjars are still at risk from habitat change and disturbance. Evidence shows that significantly fewer chicks are raised to adulthood on sites with high levels of disturbance than on undisturbed sites. 

On lowland heathland, nightjar nests are usually located in small, naturally occurring gaps in deep heather in dry heath. Much like other heathland species, nightjars' nest close to the ground. This offers shelter away from predators but makes them almost impossible to spot. 

Nightjars usually raise two broods of one to two chicks and come out to feed at dawn and dusk. If wandering off the beaten track, you may not notice that you’ve entered nest territory at all – your first sign will often be a distress call or defensive behaviour from an adult bird. If that happens, back away carefully to avoid further damage. 

What is the RSPB doing to help breeding heathland birds? 

 Credit: Dartford warbler by Ben Hall 

One of the many reserves you can find nightjars and other heathland species, including Dartford warblers and woodlarks, is RSPB Arne - a Dorset nature reserve acquired by the RSPB in 1967. At that time, there were only ten pairs of Dartford warblers in the UK – two of which were at Arne. 

Since then, the RSPB has acquired and restored even more land at Arne, increasing the site to 6.3 square kilometres for the benefit of birds, bats, beetles and more. Dartford warblers have thrived, with 100 pairs breeding on the reserve and surrounding Hyde’s Heath, Grange Heath and Stoborough Heath, all of which have been acquired by the RSPB. 

Together, these reserves form the southern end of the newly designated Purbeck Heaths super-National Nature Reserve, encompassing a total of 33 square kilometres and covering land managed by National Trust, Natural England, Dorset Wildlife Trust, Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, Forestry England and the Rempstone Estate. In the 19th century, lowland heathland blanketed south-east Dorset for miles but since then, more than 85 per cent of this habitat has been lost. Critical conservation work is key to joining this unique habitat. 

Similar work has taken place at RSPB the Lodge – a heathland nature reserve home to breeding hobbies, ravens, common lizards, green tiger beetles, nightjars, woodlarks and natterjack toads. Heathland covered The Lodge for 5000 years, but in a similar story to Arne, almost all was lost to forestry and agriculture in the 19th century. 

Work to turn the tide began in 2005, culminating in the restoration of around 40 hectares of heathland. More recently, six Dartmoor ponies were welcomed onto the reserve to help tame bramble, bracken and scrub for the benefit of birds like woodlark and nightjar. 

How can you help? 

 Credit: woodlark by Chris Gomersall 

Other species that inhabit heathland habitats include Dartford warblerswoodlarks and skylarks. Much like nightjars, their nests are well-camouflaged. A skylark egg can be as small as 17mm across – that’s around the width of a 5p piece, so it’s easy to miss them until they’re under your feet. 

When visiting heathland nature reserves and other outdoor spaces, there are three simple steps you can take to keep breeding birds safe: 

  1. Stick to marked paths: this way, you’re unlikely to encounter a nesting species. 
  1. Only take dogs where permitted: obey signs and be sure to keep dogs on leads. Even if your dog is not actively causing any harm, disturbance can cause birds to abandon their nest.  
  1. Pack a picnic, not a barbeque: this is particularly true in heathland areas where fire can spread incredibly quickly. 

There are numerous ways to enjoy birds during the spring and summer season without disturbing nests, including visiting hides or watching them parent their young from a distance with binoculars. Heathland birds can be seen at reserves including RSPB Aylesbeare Common, RSPB Hazeley HeathRSPB Farnham HeathRSPB MinsmereRSPB The Lodge and RSPB Arne. 

With heathlands continuing to be lost, we’re fighting to save these special places that so many important species call home. With the support of our members, we can help restore heathlands by joining and expanding these habitats to provide more space for wildlife to breed. Our conservation work helps keep heathlands, the birds that call them home and their chicks safe, but as a charity, we can only continue this vital work if people support us. More than a million people already support our work as RSPB members – will you join them today?