As part of my work for the Heather Trust, I went down to the Peak District yesterday to look at the damage caused by some extremely serious heather beetle outbreaks. Heather beetle is not something I’ve ever really had to deal with on my own ground, mainly due to a shortage of heather, but it is something that crops up in small patches on the syndicate ground down by the Solway. Infact, until I started working with the Heather Trust, the only beetle damage that I had ever seen was small patches here and there – what I suppose could be described as natural damage. Heather beetles can be found in all areas of heather, and for most of the time the only way that you would notice them is when they chew up the occasional heather plant. It’s all part of the grand circle of life on the moors, but there are times when heather beetle is not such a benign little creature.
Serious outbreaks spell total disaster for hundreds or even thousands of acres of heather moorland. As yet, nobody really knows why heather beetle numbers suddenly spiral into plague proportions, but there’s certainly no doubt that the effects can be devastating. In some cases, gamekeepers driving across a moor during an outbreak have had to turn the windscreen wipers on in their vehicles because the air was so thick with beetles. In the weeks after an outbreak, the damaged heather dies back and can often lose out in competition to other grasses. If it’s burnt in good time, it will usually come back as heather, but if the beetles remain in the soil then all the new growth will be killed off over the following years. In just a few summers, pristine heather moorland can be reduced to rank grass and emptiness, and it really is a serious problem for people who have an interest in moorland management.
The mysterious nature of the problem requires a tremendous amount of unravelling, and that is where the Heather Trust comes in. After several years of research and work on the subject of heather beetle, the Trust is starting a project in the Peak District which aims to examine the best way of restoring moorland after a beetle attack. I went down to see the lie of the land and meet the people who will be involved in the study, but my lasting impression will be the extent of the damage caused on the hills above Buxton. It was a cloudy, miserable day out on the hill, but it wasn’t hard to see just how seriously the heather has been damaged. Acre after acre of moorland had little more to show than moss and cotton grass after consecutive attacks stripped the heather away and left the grouse with a gravely damaged habitat. Here and there, pairs of grouse rose out of the heather and soared away into the sleety wind, but the grim nature of the weather was very much in keeping with the gravity of the damage to the undergrowth.
There will be more info on this project available soon since it is only really beginning, but it certainly was an eye-opening experience to see just how serious beetle damage can be on the moorland that we love.