Small copper Sept 21

Why upon this blasted heath you stop our way with such prophetic greeting? – William Shakespeare

Heather: the plant of spaciousness. Lonely moors, winding roads and harsh weather bind to it. It crept into our place names (Heathfield, Hothfield) and leapt into our ancestors’ lives, serving as brooms, bedding or roofing thatch. It is oddly ambiguous to us: considered good luck in Scotland, at least in its rare white morph, and a reminder of bloodstains in Germany. 

It needs us – like Eurasian grasslands, it is a habitat made by people interacting with the land over thousands of years, and the collapse of traditional industries like turf cutting imperilled it to invasions of birch. But it also needs us not to build upon it, overstock sheep, or set fire to it with BBQs. Conservation of heathland is basically replicating what the ancients inadvertently did to it while scratching a living.

Heather is not everywhere, but in parts of the North, you could be forgiven for wondering if it is.

Northumberland Sept 21

Northumberland National Park – northern moor, wild and free. Or not; sadly, that’s another thread in heather’s paradox. These beautiful hillsides are an industrial-scale red grouse production factory, the source of so much friction between conservationists, gamekeepers and rewilding advocates. 

I’m more familiar with southern heath. Its fragmented lowland remnants look unforgiving, but are abuzz with tough, magical wildlife. Surrey and Dorset have smooth snakes and sand lizards; the East Anglian Brecks have their stone curlews and military orchids. And there’s a bit of it on the north Norfolk coast, too, in the unusual condition – for East Anglia – of being on a hill.

Beeston Regis2 Sept 21

But when is a hill not a hill? The chalk dome that became the North Downs was made the conventional way; it was forced upwards by the same collision of the Eurasian and African plates that raised the Alps. But the ridge under this north Norfolk heathland – here dominated by bracken – is a present from the Pleistocene ice. It’s old glacial moraine, stacked up to hundreds of feet. 

Beeston Regis1 Sept 21

Poor, sandy soils: rich for heather and gorse, its frequent companion. Of course, if they really were rich in an agricultural sense, they would be far poorer in heathland wildlife.

Let’s just call heather the topsy-turvy type.



12 thoughts on “Heather-Heathland

  1. Lovely photos Adele

    Delightful descriptions

    I have just come from Germany where heathers are on display for gardens

    I have been to the North of UK and seen the heaths and heathers and appreciate the tartans worn

    I have yet to see them in the USA where I am about to return.

    Thanks Adele, you are a treasure to all things wild and wonderful

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Over here in America, we have prairie habitats which are somewhat analogous. They are early successional habitats. If we want to keep them as prairies, we have to actively manage them to arrest that succession. Most commonly, we use controlled burning, but also sometimes restocking them with native grazers like bison, or manually removing trees. How are heath lands where you are managed?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love the prairies – been to Grasslands NP in Canada quite a bit.

      Over here, grazing is also important in lowland heaths, typically with cattle. In a few places, like the New Forest, there are still groups of people who exercise commoner rights to graze their animals, but in nature reserves it is often herds owned by conservation groups. Machinery is used to create patches of bare ground (basically replicating the turf-stripping that was done in old times). In the Norfolk Brecks, management also involves supporting the rabbit population – their grazing and digging make them a keystone species.

      The vast moorlands of the northern uplands are different because they are managed intensively for red grouse shooting, and there’s pretty severe conflict between that and conservation unfortunately.


    1. Indeed we do. Unfortunately, in recent years we’ve seen some well-meaning but destructive ideas, e.g. planting trees in valuable open habitats, or introducing colourful wildflower mixes to road verges and smothering the native plants there. A “first, do no harm” principle would be very welcome!

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s