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In Praise of Heather

Posted on August 27, 2013 @ 11:38 AM in Walking

Mountaineering Ireland's Hillwalking, Access & Conservation Officer, Helen Lawless tells us all about heather and why we should be protecting it in the hills...

Walking in the Sperrins last week, on a day when mist cheated us out of the views, the varied shades of heather splashed across the hills gave the day a lift. Heather seems to have been prolific this summer with colourful displays on most hill and coastal walks, perhaps as a result of the prolonged cold period in the spring. While there is one dominant species, ling, there are three heather species that commonly occur in Northern Ireland. This blog describes the key characteristics of ling, bell heather and cross-leaved heath, and provides some background information on each.

Bell heather and cross-leaved heath flower from June to September, with the more plentiful ling flowering later, normally July to October.  They are all woody, evergreen shrubs, growing from 20cm up to 1m tall. As all gardeners know, they are particularly suited to acidic, peaty soils and therefore are principally found on blanket bog, wet heath and dry heath; habitats which are common on the hills.

Ling Heather

Ling (Calluna vulgaris)

Ling is by far the most widespread and abundant of our heathers, and perhaps because of this, some people and books refer to it simply as ‘heather’. It can be distinguished from the other common heathers by its leaves which are overlapping and appear to cling to the stem. Ling’s pale purple flowers grow in a loose spike on the upper part of the plant’s woody stems. Its flowers are not bell-shaped, they are smaller and prettier than those of bell heather and cross-leaved heath, so worth the effort of looking closely. Occasionally you will come across ling with white flowers; this is believed to bring good luck.

If left to mature, ling heather can live for around 30 years. The name ling is derived from the Anglo-Saxon lig, meaning ‘fire’, and recalls the importance of heather in early times as fuel. It’s not surprising then that mountain wildfires can burn so vigorously, as seen in the Mournes in May 2011.

Ling Heather

Bell heather (Erica cinerea)

Bell heather is the classic heather species, which brings magnificent purple patches to drier hillsides. It is particularly characteristic of the Mournes, but will be easily found among the ling heather and whins (also known as gorse) on most hills. The vivid purple bell-shaped flowers grow in groups along the plant’s wiry stems.

On bell heather, the individual leaves are easy to see and grow in sets of three, with tufts of shorter leaves where the three longer leaves join the stem. The leaves are dark green, and narrow to cope with extended dry periods, from winter frosts and summer drought. This is a feature heathers share with other plants such as whins. As bell heather prefers drier soils it is often found on steeper slopes, dry banks, tussocks, rocks and other well-drained areas.

Bell Heather

Cross-leaved heath (Erica tetralix)

The plump bell-shaped pink flowers of cross-leaved heath hang in a bunch at the top of the stem. Its leaves are also easy to distinguish. In contrast to bell heather they grow in sets of four, hence the name. The leaves are narrow and grey-green in colour.

Cross-leaved heath plants tend to be smaller than bell heather and are often scattered rather than growing in profusion. Cross-leaved heath favours wetter ground, it is typically found at the edge of bogs, and in damp hollows between tussocks.

Bell heather and cross-leaved heath are closely related and easily confused; bell heather’s preference for drier ground is a useful distinguishing factor. On cross-leaved heath, the flowers are only at the top of the stem and they are usually larger and paler than those of bell heather.  Closer examination will reveal tiny hairs on the stems and leaves of cross-leaved heath; bell heather is hairless.

cross leaved heather

Important for biodiversity

In the exposed environment of Northern Ireland’s mountains, heather plays a major role in maintaining biodiversity. Heather stabilises peat soils, as well as providing shelter and food for many species. For instance, red grouse are heavily reliant on heather, requiring a patchwork of old heather for nesting and nutritious young heather shoots for food. A 2004 survey of red grouse in Northern Ireland showed a marked decline in numbers and a contraction in the range of this species. While many factors underlie the fall in numbers, most are to do with land management changes that have resulted in loss of heather habitat. Red grouse numbers were found to be strongest in the Antrim Hills and the Sperrins, with hardly any birds remaining in the Mournes.

Heather is also an important source of food for bees, moths and other insects. Bees gather nectar from ling and bell heather, which in turn makes tasty and much sought-after honey, most notably the Mourne Heather Honey. You may notice tiny holes in bell heather flowers; these have been drilled by bees to extract the nectar.

As it is a woody plant, heather is easily broken and damaged by trampling.  The absence of heather near the Mourne Wall is attributed in part to the intense pressure of huge numbers taking part in the annual Mourne Wall Walk in the late 1970s and early 1980s. By keeping to existing paths and tracks when we walk heathery hills, we will be doing our bit to reduce pressure on these beautiful and valuable plants. 

 

Helen Lawless
Helen Lawless  Hillwalking, Access & Conservation Officer - Mountaineering Ireland

Helen is an experienced hillwalker, with a passion for the mountain environment. Helen works with Mountaineering Ireland, the representative body for hillwalkers and climbers, as Hilwalking, Access & Conservation Officer. Helen’s role is focused on two core objectives: securing continued access to Ireland’s upland areas and crags, and promoting the conservation and responsible use of the mountain environment. Visit www.mountaineering.ie for more information

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