Heather in peril

A voracious insect is eating its way through Britain’s precious heather-clad uplands, conservationists have warned. The heather beetle, Lochmaea suturalis, strips heather plants of their leaves and, although the population is generally stable, it can explode into huge outbreaks, during which millions of grubs decimate moorland.

The Heather Trust is concerned that these are becoming more severe and persistent, thanks to the milder, wetter springs of recent years. The effects of the heather beetle become apparent late in the summer, when patches of seemingly healthy moorland turn a deep orange-red.

The damage isn’t confined to northern England and Scotland, either-it’s estimated that some 50% of the heather on Exmoor has been affected by the beetle. Historically, ruined areas have been burnt off in the autumn and allowed to regenerate, but the extent and duration of infestations is increasingly making this unworkable. ‘There are two types of people: those who haven’t experienced a large-scale heather-beetle attack and so don’t think it’s a problem, and those who have,’ says Heather Trust director Simon Thorp. ‘A lot of time and investment goes into getting the heather into good condition, and in wetter parts of the country, you can simply lose it to another species.’

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The Heather Trust
is anxious to form a comprehensive picture of heather-beetle outbreaks and potential remedies, to strengthen the case for research into ways of managing moorland in the aftermath of an attack. ‘We’re hoping to develop a wide variety of solutions for different habitats,’ explains Dr Anna Griffin, who’s studying vegetation regeneration on behalf of the charity on Langholm Moor in Dumfriesshire, part of the Buccleuch estates.

The Trust is asking people to visit www.heathertrust.co.uk to submit any information about beetle outbreaks in their locality. The survey form can either be filled in online or returned by post.

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