Heather threatened by climate change

View of Long Mynd from Haddon Hill at Carding Mill Valley, Shropshire

The blazing carpet of purple heather that transforms the hills and moorland during late summer is one of nature's most vibrant spectacles. But this celebrated sight is under threat from climate change, which has turned acres of heather a muddy brown colour.

Every August, the hills at Long Mynd in Shropshire and Holnicote on Exmoor are normally awash with a haze of purple heather.These celebrated views are being affected by climate change, which last year brought hot weather and more pests. 

This year, we've found that up to 75 per cent of the heather in each area is in poor health due to last year's drought and damage from the heather beetle. 

" There will be no mass flowering this year"
- Peter Carty, Countryside Parkland and Gardens Manager

Peter Carty, the National Trust's Countryside Parkland and Gardens Manager in Shropshire, said:  'Last year’s high temperatures, and subsequent lack of rain, damaged a large area of heather and it is clear from the orangey-brown colouration this year that the plants are seriously stressed and unlikely to flower. 

'The milder winter also led to an increase in the heather beetle numbers, which are a natural element of the heather ecosystem, as it wasn’t cold enough to kill off their larvae. The beetle affects heather by damaging the outer layers of the leaf, making it more susceptible to drought stress.

'In places where the heather was sheltered from the extreme or where damp conditions were present, the heather has survived. However, there will be no mass flowering this year.' 

The lack of blooming heather is bad news for wildlife, such as the red grouse and Emperor moth [caterpillar], which rely on the plant for food.  

The heather at Long Mynd has turned a muddy brown colour
The heather at Long Mynd has turned a muddy brown colour
The heather at Long Mynd has turned a muddy brown colour

Keith Jones, the National Trust's Climate Change Advisor, said: 'With warming temperatures, other trees and plants are increasingly more susceptible to pests and diseases.  We have seen changes in the tick population with increases of over 400 per cent in the last 10 years and plane tree wilt, particularly in London, is magnified when there are drought conditions.  We are also more susceptible to an increasing number of moorland fires – like the one at Easter earlier this year on Marsden Moor.'

How we're helping the heather recover

Our team at Holnicote is already working to restore the dried-out land by planting more trees to help slow the flow of water further up the valley, allowing the the soil to hold the moisture for longer. The rangers are also restoring wet areas such as blanket bogs and mire, which hold water in high rainfall and release it slowly in times of drought.  

It is also thought that the prolonged warmer weather could have led to an increase in the heather shield bug – a natural predator of the heather beetle. 

Basil Stow, Area Ranger for the National Trust said: 'One of the unfortunate consequences of the heather suffering is that tougher plants such as Molinia have a chance to take hold. Heather is a resilient plant and capable of regenerating from the rootstock or seed – so we will need to watch and wait to see what happens next year but we are hopeful that it will recover with careful management.'

How we're restoring precious landscapes