How to Photograph Heathland Flowers in the UK
In mid to late summer, our heathland and moorland comes alive with flowers, creating a pageant of colour. Heathers and other heathland flowers peak at the same time to maximise the chances of encouraging insects to pollinate them. The resulting spectacle is irresistible for a landscape photographer.
What is a heathland?
Heathland is a semi-natural habitat in the UK, but much of what we see today was created by our own actions. Our early ancestors felled trees to create space for grazing and growing crops. In areas where the ground lacked fertility, neither lush grasses nor crops could thrive and so a mix of coarse grasses, heathers, gorse and other scrubby plants took hold.
These areas were used for light grazing with hardy domestic animals and, in order to maintain a heathland, we need to continue this practice today. Otherwise, scrub and woodland would eventually take hold again.
Heathland and moorland are very similar in appearance. In fact, distinguishing between the two can be difficult. But, generally, most moorland occurs at higher altitudes, above 300 metres, and has fewer scrubby plants. The highest moorland is above the tree line where climatic conditions prevent the growth of trees.
We tend to use the term “heath” when an area has been formed by our actions. Conversely, a “moor” is a wild place, found at higher altitudes, that is more likely to have been formed naturally. However, grazing by animals, either domestic or wild, usually plays a part in keep scrub and trees at bay here too.
We often refer to areas of heath at lower altitudes as “lowland heath,” and most of this type of habitat occurs in the south of Britain. Some of the best examples can be found in Norfolk, Suffolk, Surrey, Hampshire, Dorset, Devon, and Cornwall (where old mining sites are particularly good).
Despite the fact that we have lost about 85% of our lowland heath to development and agriculture in the last 150 years, we still have an amazing 20% of the world’s lowland heath in the UK. This is a statistic which should make us realise how important this habitat is to us.
It is heathland, and specifically its flora, rather than moorland on which I shall focus most of my attention in this article.
When to visit heathland and moorlands
Heath and moor are at their most colourful from mid-July to early September. The two main flowers are bell heather, which peaks in late July, and heather which follows on in August.
That said, local conditions can make a difference and I would suggest that it is still worth getting out onto heathland in late September, particularly early and late in the day when the warm tones of the low sun enhance the colours of the remaining flowers and even the seed heads of the heathers.
The heathland habitat is very rich in insect life and much of this can be found throughout the summer, so there is plenty to see and photograph from June through to September.
Heathland locations in the UK
Here are some great heathland locations around the UK:
- Aylesbeare Common (Devon)
- Thursley Common (Surrey)
- Suffolk Coast and Heaths AONB
- Lizard Peninsula (Cornwall)
- Ex-mining sites such as Botallack and Levant at St Agnes Head have very photogenic heathland adjacent to the coast in Cornwall
- Arne (Dorset)
- Vast areas of The New Forest in Hampshire are lowland heath
What can you find in heathland?
Heathland is a very special habitat for a limited range of quite specific species. For example, we have all six native British reptiles on lowland heath in the south of Britain.
Insects are abundant with many damselflies, dragonflies, grasshoppers and crickets, as well as a few butterflies such as grayling and small heath. Spiders are quite exciting, but none more so than the colourful wasp spider which is now relatively common in southern Britain.
Birds found on lowland heathland include the Dartford warbler, tree pipit, woodlark and nightjar.
Now, let’s look in a little more detail at some of the flowers found on heathland:
1. Heather, Calluna vulgaris
This is the most common species of heather on most heaths and moors. It grows on dry and wet ground at any altitude. It has tiny pale-pink flowers carried on narrow flower spikes. Peaks in August.
2. Bell Heather, Erica cinerea
Another widespread and abundant species found on many heaths and moors. It has larger flowers which are bell-shaped, but most notably a deep pink colour. These flowers grow in clusters towards the top of the stem. Peaks from mid-July to early August.
3. Cross-leaved Heath, Erica tetralix
This species has flowers shaped like those of bell heather, but they are a paler pink and found only at the very top of the flower spike. Distinctively, the stems of these flowers’ spikes carry ranks of four tiny leaves which form a cross-shape. This species likes wet heath and moorland and peaks in July and August.
Those three flowers make up the majority of colour on most heathland (and moorland) in the UK, but there are other flowers and plants of interest to look out for.
4. Other flowers to look out for
One with contrasting colour is the short but scrubby western gorse which is found mostly in south-western Britain, particularly around the coasts but is found in other areas too. Unlike its commoner cousin, European gorse which flowers in early spring, western gorse flowers in summer to coincide with the heathers.
Look closely at gorse and you might see common dodder, a parasitic plant which creates a net-like form smothering the gorse from which it steals its nutrients.
The most common orchid of heathland is the aptly-named heath-spotted orchid. Incredibly variable, this species can be white but is usually pale pink. Closely related to the common spotted orchid, which is found in meadows, the heath-spotted can be distinguished by the smaller central lobe on each flower. This species is usually seen in flower around mid to late June.
Read more: How to Photograph Orchids
Specific to The Lizard Peninsula in Cornwall, we have the endemic Cornish heath: a heather which is variable in colour from white to deep pink, with each flower having a ring of protruding, deep red anthers. It is a robust plant, growing quite tall and can flower all the way through to mid-September.
Dorset heath is a colourful, if slightly scruffy, species of heather. It is found most commonly on heathland around The Isle of Purbeck in Dorset, but can be found in Hampshire, Devon, and Cornwall. It favours wet heathland where it grows quite tall and peaks in August.
If you find yourself on wet heath or moorland, look very closely at damp peaty spots on the ground to see if you can spot the insectivorous plants called sundew and butterwort.
Butterwort has sticky leaves which trap insects but the sundew, of which we have species with different shaped leaves, is the more spectacular. It has sticky dew drops on the end of tentacles which cover its leaf-surface. These drops attract insects and then trap them when they land. Over time, the leaf will turn in on a trapped insect and the dew drops help to digest the insect to provide the plant with nutrients.
Seeing the light
As I began to gather together my photographs for this article, I realised that my close-up photos of the individual flower species were not as good as I might have expected. This reinforces one very simple, and rather obvious, fact in my mind. Heathland and moorland are known for their spectacle of colour, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Put simply, each individual flower is quite small and insignificant – but when we put them all together we get an effect which can be astonishing. Or maybe I am just making excuses and I need to renew my efforts to get better close-up shots of heathers!
When it comes to close-up photography, it can be useful to have heathland flowers as a backdrop to another subject. So, for example, a photograph of a wasp spider can be enhanced by having colourful heathers behind, or in front of it.
These flowers also help to inform the viewer about the habitat in which this species is found. I must be honest and say I have quite often pushed and pulled at a few sprigs of heather to get them in the right position to form a suitable backdrop to wasp spiders and insect species, where the creature is obliging enough to allow.
Late summer colours
The main event for heathland and moorland photographers is the massed spectacle of colour in late summer. To capture this we need a wide-angle lens, a small aperture for a large depth of field, and critically we need the warmth of a low sun, whether morning or evening.
Getting the height of view for the camera is critical. Too low and you lose the vista, too high and you lose the impact of the foreground flowers. So experiment with height; remember that the lower you go, the closer you are to the foreground flowers s(o the smaller the aperture you will need to get everything sharp). If you are very close, then you will need to use hyper-focusing to get everything in focus, this involves focusing about one-third of the way into the scene.
Heathland isn’t completely covered in heathers, and often grasses will cover large areas and there might be large, bare patches of ground. In fact, I am often frustrated by the fact that the best patch of heather doesn’t always correspond with the best focal point.
It’s quite inconsiderate of nature not to think about the needs of us photographers, but when this happens it is sometimes possible to get really close to a small clump of heather and use a very wide-angle lens to make this foreground more dominant in the photo. In this way, we can fool the viewer into thinking the expanse of heather was much greater than it actually was.
A neutral density graduated filter is quite important because the foreground heathers are quite dark when compared to the bright sky. In many locations, I will use a hard-graduated filter because the expansive horizon of a heathland is often unbroken – but I always have a soft-grad in the bag just in case.
Out of season heathland can seem a barren, inhospitable habitat, but in summer it literally comes alive with a wonderful selection of plants and animals. For many of these little critters, you might have to get down on your hands and knees to find them – but the saving grace for us photographers is the amazing spectacle of colour which many heaths offer.
Make the most of it though, as once the heathland flowers have finished the summer is over and it’ll be winter before you know it!