All about heather
It takes a special kind of plant to thrive in moorland areas, where the weather is often cold, wet and windy.
Heather – an evergreen shrub with twiggy stems – covers our open moorland. Usually lots of heather plants grow together, forming a thick, bushy carpet, sometimes up to half a metre tall. This helps the plant to survive strong winds. Heather also has tiny, narrow leaves shaped like the needles on a Christmas tree, which stop the plant from losing too much water as the winds blow across the moors.
Nectar from heather flowers makes excellent honey, and local beekeepers often bring their hives on to the moors in late-summer when the heather comes into bloom.
Types of heather
Three types of heather grow on the North York Moors.
Bell heather has dark pink or purple bell-shaped flowers.
It generally flowers first, in late-July.
Cross-leaved heath has leaves arranged in crosses of four on its stems.
It has pale pink bell-shaped flowers and can often be found in boggy areas.
Ling is the most common type of heather found on the North York Moors. It has very tiny pink flowers and generally flowers in mid- to late-August. The Latin name for ling is Calluna vulgaris. Calluna means ‘to sweep’, and local people once used heather to make a type of broom called a ‘besom’ to sweep their cottage floors.
The heather covering the moorland is an important habitat. Short (young) heather provides food for sheep and red grouse, and shelter and nest sites for some ground-nesting birds. Taller (older) heather provides shelter and nest sites for birds and other wildlife.
However, if left undisturbed, heather plants will live for over 20 years and the stems eventually become very tough and woody, with few leaves or flowers. Consequently, gamekeepers manage the heather by burning it when the stems get to about wellie-top height. They burn different patches each year in rotation, so that there are always areas of short heather and tall heather close together.
Burning takes place over the winter and in early spring when there are no birds nesting on the ground and the soil is generally wet. The fires are small and carefully controlled so they don’t spread or damage the peaty soil. The following year new green shoots grow from underground stems and seeds.
The result is moorland that often looks like a patchwork quilt, with some areas of short, young heather for grouse and sheep to eat and some patches of taller, older heather for grouse to shelter and nest in. This creates a more diverse habitat, which is better for many other plants and animals too.