For the Love of Heather
As the hills continue to turn shades of purple, we've compiled a few lesser known facts about our favourite shrub in celebration of the season.
- All true heathers are cultivars of just one species, Calluna vulgaris and there are easily more than 500 varieties in the UK.
- Usually lots of heather plants grow together, forming a thick, bushy carpet, helping the plant survive strong winds. Heather also has tiny, narrow leaves which stop the plant from losing too much water as the winds blow across the moors.
- Nectar from heather flowers makes excellent honey, and local beekeepers often bring their hives on to the moors in late-summer when the heather comes into bloom.
- The heather covering the moorland is an important habitat. Short (young) heather provides food for sheep and red grouse, and shelter and nest sites for some ground-nesting birds. Taller (older) heather provides shelter and nest sites for birds and other wildlife.
- If left undisturbed, heather plants will live for over 20 years and the stems eventually become very tough and woody, with few leaves or flowers. Consequently, gamekeepers manage the heather by burning it when the stems get to about welly-top height.
- Burning happens in different patches each year in rotation, so that there are always areas of short heather and tall heather close together. It takes place over the winter and in early spring when there are no birds nesting on the ground and the soil is generally wet. The following year new green shoots grow from underground stems and seeds.
- The result is moorland that has some areas of short, young heather for grouse and sheep to eat and some patches of taller, older heather for grouse to shelter and nest in. This creates a more diverse habitat, which is better for many other plants and animals too.