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August on Hothfield Heathlands

Posted: Tuesday 1st August 2017 by Victoria Hill

Hothfield Heathland - Margery ThomasHothfield Heathland - Margery Thomas

Kent Wildlife Trust volunteer Margery Thomas talks about the stunning Hothfield Heathlands Nature Reserve and what kind of species we can expect to find there in August.

The glory of Hothfield in August is the purple heather or ling, Calluna vulgaris. This year there were sprigs in flower already in June, and the pink cross-leaved heath, Erica tetralix, had as usual started even earlier. Calluna and Erica grow together on the dry heath, only Erica tolerates wet bog.

Richard Mabey writes of these low-growing evergreen shrubs as the raw material of frugal domestic life, along with companions bracken and gorse. So heather here could have been used for fuel (ling comes from the Anglo Saxon work lig for fire), fodder, wattle in daub, thatch, brooms (calluna is from the Greek for brush), baskets, fencing, twisted into ropes, packing material or mattress filling, the roots carved into small useful items, although tobacco pipes were made from roots of the continental tree heather, hence briar from the French for heather, bruyere. The flowers might have yielded orange dye and honey from wild bees. A local volunteer now keeps an apiary nearby. Flowering tips might have been used for tisane or to flavour and filter beer, leann froach in Scotland.

Wildlife was in amongst the heather before humans found it useful. In the same family as bilberries, rhododendrons and blueberries, it provides shelter all year for basking reptiles and birds, hopefully for nesting tree pipits one day; thousands of seeds for feeding birds, foliage food for caterpillars and grazing sheep, nectar and pollen for insects and butterflies and moths, which are food for patrolling dragonflies and birds. Heather needs nutrient poor soil and grows slowly; the progress from fresh green pioneering seedlings through maturity to the eventual collapse of gaunt woody plants is monitored and managed across the reserve.

Gardeners have a wide choice of cultivars of several species including tree and winter heathers to provide flowers almost all year round, a feast for the eye and a wonderful larder for garden wildlife.

Heather at HothfieldThe name Hothfield for this area, meaning heathy open land, can be traced back to around 1100 AD; also in Kent, Hoath from La hathe was used from the 13thC , in Sussex Hoathly from 1287 and Hadlegh from 1121. The names all derive from the Old English word hath meaning heather. Heathrow in around 1410 was La Hetherewe, middle English for a row of houses on or near the heath. Heath results from centuries of low-impact grazing and felling and these names indicate how widespread heathland was and how great the losses in the southeast. Now rarer than rainforest, heathland is one of our most threatened habitats, hence Hothfield’s designation as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, the grazing animals and the team of volunteers who work to clear encroaching scrub on a regular basis. There is no white heather here but we are very lucky to have this remnant of rich diversity so close by and need to keep it connected to the living landscape around.

The heathland is open to all, including dogs kept in check; a human toddler can become terrified of dogs, not knowing that an unleashed bounding dog larger than her just wants to play. Various trails are signposted and indicated on the maps at entrances, which also give the location of the livestock. The notice-board down the main slope from the Cade Road car park gives recent wildlife sightings. For email alerts on the location of the livestock, or to join the volunteers who help maintain the reserve, check the cattle and carry out summer surveys contact the Warden on 01622 662012 or at ian.rickards@kentwildlife.org.uk.  

~ By Margery Thomas, Kent Wildlife Trust volunteer

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