A hard shift on the fell

Steve Gater DWT Botany Group, News

Hedleyhope Fell is a wonderful place to be when the sun is shining, the wind is still and spring is in the air – just as it was on Tuesday 4th April when 11 members of the DWT Botany Group visited.

This was not the normal day of botanising but a work day – using our skills to help the Trust’s conservation work. The fell is the largest of DWT’s reserves, largely covered with heath plant communities that attract butterflies, bees, other pollinators and their predators. You might spot any of 5 species of owl over the year and a fleeting glimpse of adder or lizard when the weather is warm.

Hedleyhope Fell Nature Reserve

Heather, Calluna vulgaris, in various stages of its life cycle, is dominant across much of the fell. Good management means that degenerate and dying heather plants are naturally replaced by new growth, supporting the overall biodiversity of this wonderful site.

But Nature is complex and has not evolved simply to meet the wishes of mankind, and so when the heather beetle, Lochmaea suturalis, starts to devour heather plants it can quickly put things out of balance – with a devastating impact on heather plants and associated species. Please refer to The Heather Trust website for more information on the heather beetle.

The pictures below show the difference between healthy heather and heather which has been subject to heather beetle.

Healthy heather

Dead heather


By comparison, crowberry, Empetrum nigrum, is unaffected and in good condition here. Dead heather is on the right.

The job of the Trust is to conserve, as best as possible, the habitats and species on the fell. While a few heather beetles add to the biodiversity of the site, the short-term impact of huge numbers that cause damage like this, is catastrophic. The solution? Hmmm, that’s the tricky bit, and the reason for our visit.

Essentially, there isn’t a quick or obvious solution to hand. Once the heather has been eaten the beetle has to move off to forage elsewhere, leaving dead heather that smothers the ground and lessens the chance of new sprigs emerging. So how do you effectively and efficiently remove the deadwood? The fell is grazed, under common land licence, so any management strategy has to take account of stock – no chemical treatment. Sheep won’t eat heather unless food is short and they tend to take the young, emerging sprigs, so they cannot help. Being next to a fairly busy road rules out burning. So, how about cutting? Well, that is a possibility and in order to discover the most effective way to do this there is a trial in process.

The job for the day was to cover selected areas to see how management might help new heather sprigs to emerge. Four options are being studied;

  • Cut and remove dead heather
  • Cut and leave dead heather
  • Part cut and remove
  • Leave as is

The survey method means cordoning off areas to mark out 2 m x 2 m squares (quadrats) and to count the number of heather sprigs within each – eyes down, on knees, fingers to push aside vegetation to find the heather. Not an easy or speedy job!

DWT Botany Group members carrying out a heather survey for Durham Wildlife Trust.

After 5 hours we almost finished, well we gave up anyway! It’s work like this that makes a difference to the impact of DWT, which is why volunteers are so well appreciated. Thank you to all.

In due course the findings will be evaluated and, hopefully, the most effective management method will emerge. Until then, sadly, there is a blot on the fell – big patches of dead heather.

Thank you to Keith Robson for the photography and to Keith Atkinson for providing the kit.

Steve Gater
Chair at Durham Wildlife Trust

Steve has a life-long interest in wildlife and a passion for flora. As an active member of the Durham Wildlife Trust Botany Group Steve enjoys exploring Vice County 66, the area covered by Durham Wildlife Trust, with its many specialities and wide range of common species. Inspired by Albrecht Dürer, Steve is a strong advocate for enjoying, protecting and conserving habitats and the wildlife they support - a fundamental priority for us all!