As the heather buds start to crack and the first flowers begin to show, it’s a good moment to assess the condition of the hill. I was surprised to find these heather plants on the Chayne which have been almost killed out by cold weather. On an area of almost half an acre, the heather plants are blasted and dead on the same side, where in March the driving snow and blizzard came swarming up from the south east. These tussocks are now healthy and happy on the north western side, but dry and brittle where they bore the brunt of the storm. Here and there I found shoots and stems which indicate that there is still green in the stick, but on the whole much of this heather looks very hard hit.
There is often cross-over between the appearance of heather that has been damaged by beetle as opposed to heather which has been damaged by cold weather (“frosted”). When heather is stressed and dehydrated, it turns a foxy red colour, regardless of whether it has been frosted or beetled. The key is to note the timing of the discolouration. Frosted heather often turns red in the spring and is usually dead or recovered by the late summer. By comparison, beetled heather turns red in the autum and will either return in the spring or turn silvery grey during the winter.
Beetled heather is also not restricted to one side or another of a heather plant. Weather conditions give a tell-tale uniformity of damage which is easy to attribute to a wind direction or hollow where snow gathers (i.e. an area of plants which are all dead on one side facing the wind), and while beetle damage has been known to drift according to the wind in some situations, the damage tends to be more consistent, irrespective of terrain and topography. A close examination also shows that frosted heather is simply red, whereas beetled heather can look raw, bare and conspicuously frayed, with a great deal of red stick visible.
As with the red heather (below) at Howden Moor in the Peak District, the majority of frosting will usually sort itself out as the spring comes in. Some areas will die, like the plants on the Chayne, but heather is made of tough stuff and can usually overcome all but the most extreme conditions. This heather at Howden is now turning purple, showing that this discolouration in April was more of a “chill” than a true “frost”. If you were to see this discolouration in September or October, you’d have serious cause for concern, as it would mean that you had received a visit from the heather beetles.