Thursday, 30 September 2010

The Heather Crisis

August and September are the times of year when Scotland's wild uplands turn purple. In spells of brilliant sunshine between the rainbows and showers, the braes glow with the annual heather flowering. It's one of the glories of Scotland, and it occurs in few other places - other upland areas of the UK, Ireland and Norway - but nowhere is it as widespread.

The success of Scotland's main heather varieties, Calluna vulgaris and Erica cinerea (above), is the result of the clearing of the woodland that is the natural cover by Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, starting some 4,000 years ago. It has been maintained by burning and by grazing; areas where this sort of land management has ceased have reverted to forest. It has been estimated that 20 to 24% of our moorland heather has been lost between the 1940s and 1970s, largely due to re-forestation, and that this rate of loss has continued. The Heather Trust reckons the rate in Scotland is now about 0.5% each year.

Heather has also been lost to bracken, now widespread round here. A walk in the hills of Ardnamurchan quickly provides evidence of how bracken shades out heather growth, and some personal land management has proved that, the minute the bracken is cut back, the heather returns.

But there is something else: heather appears to be dying faster than it is regenerating. This picture shows heather plants on the hills behind Ormsaigmore. This particular stand of heather measured approximately 20m by 10m, there was no bracken or other obvious reason, yet approximately a fifth of the plants were dead. And this is not the result of a dry start to this year - we've been noticing the whitening bones of dead heather plants for years.

Heather has little practical use - other than as food for grouse for rich men to shoot - but it is beautiful, and, as such, it stands as a emblem of the wild hills of this country.

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