Yorkshire’s heather moors are home to many unique and fascinating plants and animals. Professor Chris Baines explains what to look out for
There are few more glorious sights on a sunny summer’s day than the deep purple haze of heather stretching across the hills as far as the eye can see. One of my earliest memories is of being carried on my father’s shoulders across Yorkshire moorland, with one eye always looking out for gamekeepers. My dad was a dyed-in-the-wool Sheffield rambler, and the class conflict of the mass trespass was still a recent memory.
The dominant purple heather on our moors is Calluna vulgaris. It is generally known by the old Norse name of ‘ling’, and it is Norway’s national wildflower. Bell heather, Erica cinerea, is a more modest plant with larger, bell-shaped flowers, and cross-leaved heath, Erica tetralix, is a close relative that thrives in wetter ground. Look carefully and it won’t take long to find all three.
Bilberries tend to grow best on thinner moorland soils, and their shiny leaves create a striking contrast to the heather. Their purple berries are irresistible, despite the telltale staining of tongues, fingers, knees and anything else they touch. As a family outing, a day’s wild harvesting would result in jars of jam and mum’s wonderful bilberry pie. Sixty years later a slice of tarte aux myrtilles is still a memory-jogging must on every French skiing holiday. Numerous other wildflowers thrive in the tough, exposed environment of our heather moorland. Crowberry and cloudberry can be found creeping close to the ground, and occasional spikes of yellow bog asphodel can sometimes be seen poking up above the heather. Where the ground is really wet there will often be drifts of cotton grass, providing a splash of ‘snow in summer’ that serves to intensify the purple of the heather.
The growing medium for all these acid-tolerant wildflowers is the sphagnum peat that lies below – a black soil that has accumulated slowly over centuries in the waterlogged conditions that support the carpets of sphagnum moss. Where the ground is still saturated, and the sphagnum thrives, you can find other very special moorland plants, including insect-trapping butterworts and sundews. Where the peat dries out, however, the moss dies and the wind and weather quickly blow the peat away. Much of our heather moorland has been drained in recent times to improve the land for sheep, but now there is a move to block the drains, re-wet the peat, restore the sphagnum bog and revive the whole waterlogged landscape.
“ there is a move to block the drains, re-wet the peat, restore the sphagnum bog and revive the whole waterlogged landscape”
THE STANZA STONES TRAIL
One very pleasant way to experience the grandeur and beauty of the moors is to follow some or all of the 47-mile-long Stanza Stones Trail. The trail stretches from Marsden in the south to Ilkley in the north. The path is easy to follow and not too demanding; it took me four days to complete. It passes across miles of magnificent heather moorland, dropping down into small valley towns for convenient overnight stops. Most memorably, the trail is punctuated by poems, specially commissioned from poet Simon Armitage and carved into slabs of rock along the way. You can find out more about the Stanza Stones Trail at www.stanzastones.co.uk
This change of heart is being driven in part by the need to increase natural water storage, reduce the risk of downstream flooding, and conserve the embedded carbon, but re-wetting also benefits the very special wild creatures that call the heather moorland home.
Black grouse are probably the most dramatic of our moorland birds. The males are famous for the courtship display that sees them gathering on their ancestral parade ground, known as a ‘lek’, to battle with one another like medieval jousters, trying to impress the much more modest females that make up their audience. A black grouse lek is a rare sight, and the display is all done and dusted soon after sunrise, but this is a wildlife experience never to be forgotten. There are other moorland birds that can be enjoyed with less effort, and the golden plover is one of the handsomest. During the winter these wading birds gather in flocks in coastal estuaries and put on some of our most breathtaking mass flypasts, but in spring they disperse to the uplands to stake out individual territories and breed. Their simple, high-pitched call is distinctive, and the male birds tend to stand guard on a prominent rock close to the nest, which makes them easy to spot. There are three birds of prey that are heather moorland specialists, and the rarest of these is the hen harrier. Hen harriers have been persecuted to the brink of extinction because they catch the commercially valuable red grouse, but undoubtedly this is one of the most spectacular of Britain’s wild birds.
The merlin is much smaller, extremely fast in flight, and easy to miss as it skims low over the heather in search of small songbirds. I must confess I’ve never seen one. However, I have seen the third specialist moorland hunter, the short-eared owl. A couple of years ago I enjoyed a magical half-hour on Ilkley moor, watching one of these beautiful birds methodically quartering the landscape in search of its prey. The management of heather moorland is challenging. Over-graze with too many sheep, or let the seasonal burning get out of hand, and the loss of protective vegetation will lead to soil erosion and stormwater runoff. Leave the moor ungrazed and the heather will become a far greater fire risk, and gradually be invaded by birch woodland. Striking the right balance is tricky, but where farmers, gamekeepers and conservationists work in harmony the results can be world class. Well-managed heather moorland really is spectacular, and never more so than on a sun-baked day at the height of summer.