Heathlands and shrubs are dominated by small woody plants often in combination with herbs, and sometimes with a large contingent of mosses, liverworts and lichens. They are distributed across all the biogeographic regions of Europe from Mediterranean to boreal regions and lowlands to high altitudes.

Most of these habitats are strongly dependent on human interventions, particularly grazing, fire and mowing. Due to an historical relation with traditional pastoral systems, they mainly occupy an intermediate position between more intensively managed grassland types and mature woodlands (Janssen et al., 2016). They also include bushy sclerophyllous vegetation. According to the habitat types of heathlands and shrubs, they can provide diverse environmental, social and cultural ecosystem services as carbon storage, biodiversity, water provision, flood protection, aesthetic/recreational value, and economic value from tourism, and grazing (Hampton, 2008, Olmeda et al., forthcoming).

Sparsely vegetated lands include bare or sparsely vegetated rock, lava, ice and snow of cliffs, screes, caves, volcanoes, glaciers and snow-fields, dunes, beaches and sand plains. They occur throughout Europe and they are shaped by geological or climatological processes (Janssen et al., 2016). These two types of ecosystems can be associated or interlinked in some mountain or coastal areas (Zaghi, 2008, Hampton, 2008). All these landscapes and habitats are very important for biodiversity and provide many services, also appreciated for leisure and tourism, which can be also a risk if this is not regulated.

Extent and change:

Heathlands and shrubs cover about 4% and sparsely vegetated lands 1.5% of the EU land area. Between 2000 and 2018, the extent of heathlands and shrubs decreased by 1.2% which is the highest relative decrease among all ecosystems in relation to its overall area. This reduction is mainly due to afforestation (35%), fires (22%) and urban sprawl (15%) (LEAC, 2019) Sparsely vegetated lands extent increased by 1.5% which is due to the increase of burnt areas.

Drivers and pressures

The most important pressures influencing the condition of heathlands and shrubs are the reduction of their surface extent due to conversion, fires (mainly in the Mediterranean region) and eutrophication. Abandonment or decrease of traditional management is also a pressure leading to scrub encroachment (Olmeda et al., forthcoming). Due to their characteristics, sparsely vegetated lands can suffer from reduction of area due to land take, or to climate change in the case of glaciers and snow-fields, and related sea level rise and storms affecting dunes and beaches (EEA, 2017). Leisure and tourism have also an impact on screes, cliffs and coastal dunes and beaches.

Policy options

Since 2000, important pressures such as habitat conversion, fires and eutrophication affecting the condition of heathlands and shrubs have been significantly reduced. But a more detailed interpretation of the current results is limited due to weak availability of data related to abandonment or decrease of traditional management practices, which are some of the most impacting pressures. Likewise, missing data on tourism and leisure related to sparsely vegetated lands also limit the condition assessment. These two ecosystem types with their associated habitats benefit from a certain level of protection due to the implementation of the Habitats Directive, the Natura 2000 network and national network of designated areas. But it is also essential to concentrate efforts on restoration by improving the condition of these degraded ecosystems. The development and support of extensive agro-ecological farming systems should further increase the positive effect of the protection schemes on habitat and species condition in the respective ecosystems as suggested in the action plans described below. Conservation and management of heathlands and shrubs are implemented through EU action plans already in place for two heathland habitats (Northern Atlantic wet heaths with Erica tetralix, and Alpine and Boreal heaths), a third one (European dry heaths) being in preparation (Hampton, 2008, Zaggi, 2008, Olmeda et al., forthcoming). Several of suggested measures can be supported by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development, as agri-environment measures. Training for implementation of measures, and investments in restoration are supported by the LIFE programme. Beyond these specific action plans for conservation, an extensive farming system integrating necessary measures must be supported by the Common Agricultural Policy in order to proceed with an integrated management approach considering the relations between habitat condition and the socio-ecological system which allows for their sustainable management (Hampton, 2008, Olmeda et al., forthcoming). For sparsely vegetated lands, pressures induced by tourism and leisure management should be considered at regional and local scales for sustainable use and management