Heathland area in the northwestern part of Belgium has been strongly reduced during the past 200 years, and the remaining heathland is forced back into several small and isolated relics. In this study, we investigated how the fragmentation of these heathlands affects the distribution patterns of heathland plant species. Furthermore, we tested whether differences in patch occupancy patterns could be explained in terms of life history traits related to dispersal capacity and persistence. Multivariate logistic regression models showed that the incidence of almost three quarters of the species was influenced by fragmentation. For the majority of these species, isolation was the most important factor determining their presence or absence in a heathland patch. Differences between the species in isolation-sensitivity could be attributed mainly to differences in seed bank characteristics, with species having a long living seed bank being less affected by isolation. In contrast, species having mechanisms facilitating long distance dispersal were as much affected by isolation as species lacking these mechanisms. Our results suggest that for the majority of the species extinction in a patch can be prevented by dispersal from neighbouring patches. Further isolation of the patches should therefore be prevented and connectivity between the patches needs to be assured. As almost none of the species is affected by a declining patch area, for most even small patches are important for their survival. Hence, conservation efforts should focus not only on large heathlands. (C) 2004 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.