Understanding Yorkshire’s stunning heather moorland…
Updated: Mar 30
From the middle of August large swathes of Yorkshire turn into a carpet of purple and lilac as the heather moorlands starts to bloom. I am lucky enough to live 5 minutes away from Ilkley Moor and once this transition happens I love spending hours up on the wild moors with my dog, walking for miles across this vibrant, colourful landscape.
You can be excused for taking this for granted, but the landscape is globally important. 75% of the world's contiguous patches of heather dominated moorland (managed for grouse shooting) is in the British Isles but of that 60% is in Yorkshire. So, we have almost half of it here in God’s own county.
Upland heathlands are often found on the tops of the fells in a transition between acid grassland on the slopes and blanket bog on the highest flattest areas where there is deeper peat.
The North York Moors National Park contains the largest area of Moorland but the Yorkshire Dales and the South Pennine Moors, especially around Ilkley on both sides of Wharfedale have huge areas of heather too. In the North York Moors much of the moorland is Open Access land allowing visitors to explore for miles on foot.
Over 30% of the North York Moors is heather moorland and it is often quoted that a sheep could wander from Bilsdale in the East to Egton in the West without ever leaving it! Interestingly what looks to be a wild moorland is not natural but man made. Years of clearing the woodland and over grazing has left the area with no trees and poor pasture, which is now carefully managed by farmers for their upland sheep and for wealthy landowners for grouse shooting.
Red Grouse are not found anywhere else in the world and cannot be bred in captivity like pheasants. Being fast low flying birds where there is a real skill in shooting one (as opposed to the stupid, slow flying pheasant!) – landowners can charge in excess of £3000 per person for a days grouse shooting.
This unique habitat is nationally and internationally recognised, so much so that an area of 44,000 hectares of heather moorland on the North York Moors has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and for the bird life, especially the ground nesting birds like red grouse, lapwings, golden plover, hen harrier and curlew, the area has also been made a Special Area of Conservation.
Up on the tops of the Moors, the weather is often harsh with it being cold, wet and windy. Heather is well suited to survive in this environment being an evergreen shrub with twiggy stems. It also has tiny narrow leaves shaped like needles which help reduce the loss of water from the wind as it blows across the uplands.
Interestingly many beekeepers bring their hives up onto the moors for a couple of months when the heather starts to bloom. The bees harvest the ready supply of nectar and it creates a really distinctive tasting honey.
If you look carefully at the heather you can identify three main types. Firstly Bell heather which starts to bloom first as early as July. Its flower heads are rounder and more bell shaped than the other species and the colour tends to be a darker purple.
Ling is the most common type of heather which blooms later and has smaller, more pink flowers. As the heather blooms die the pinks turn to brown. Finally Cross leaved heath is perhaps the rarest type and is found more in boggy areas. More pink than purple the leaves are arranged in crosses of four on its stems.
Heather is often burnt at 10 -12 years of age by land owners as part of their moorland management campaigns – we will discuss this in more detail in a future blog as whilst a traditional heather land management technique there is growing evidence for reviewing the merits of this approach.