Botany: surprisingly interesting

Everyone knows that grouse love heather. The image of the grouse cock standing amidst the purple bloom is one of the most iconic symbols of British sport, but it quickly became obvious that the Chayne is decidedly lacking in this valuable plant. It is present, but only in short, springy carpets that are fast receding beneath the overwhelming tide of destructive grasses like molinia and mat rush.

‘Keepers distinguish between white hills and black hills. White hills are those choked in dead grass and black hills support a healthy covering of heather. The Chayne is a white hill. It has not been a black hill for many, many years, and if grouse are to recover their numbers, some significant work was in order. Carrying my “Observer’s Guide to Moutains and Moorlands” out onto the heath, I began to miserably prod and poke about in the undergrowth. Everything looked just the same; a tangled mess of woody shoots and crackling grass.

I found a black, dying plant tucked underneath a huge tussock and I identified it as cross-leaved heather (erica tetralix). Five minutes later, I discovered a big patch of ling (calluna vulgaris). The two species of heather form an important part of grouse diets, and suddenly things began to get interesting. I use latin names in this post not to show off (although it does give me an undeserved air of authority), but because they have started to make sense to me. I many not be a botanist, but knowing what grouse like and what they don’t is going to become an extremely important factor in making something out of the Chayne.

I went on to identify cotton grass (eriophorium angostifolium) and soft rush (juncus effusus), both of which indicate the presence of badly drained, soggy ground. Grouse don’t particularly like wet ground, but chicks thrive on insects that can be found there and cotton grass seeds are an important source of food for adults in the spring. There is just enough food out there to support the red grouse, but what the black grouse are eating is a total mystery. An enormous amount of research is needed in that particular area…

What started off as dull necessity turned into something really very interesting. Being an upland keeper involves an intimate knowledge not only of grouse but also of everything to do with grouse, and botany was the area that I thought I would find least interesting of all. What before was simply a vague mess of shrubbery on the moor has become, with a little research, a complex matrix of different plants that is vital to the survival of my grouse. The heather is in a decline, but at least now I know exactly what it is and where it is. Progress can start here.


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