Heather flowering at Hothfield Heathlands Nature Reserve

This is the month that the heather bursts into flower, covering our reserve with a carpet of purple flowers. Shading from bracken and birch scrub, has restricted the development of heather, but the recent work to create a more open habitat has allowed new heather seedlings to pop up all over the place.

Heather is probably the species most associated with heathland (the name derived from heather, as indeed was Hothfield (Heathfield) itself). It can only tolerate living in specific conditions, needing nutrient poor, well drained, acidic soil, but when these conditions are met it can spread to produce a carpet across large areas.

There are a number of heather species, the most common being Calluna vulgaris or Ling, but we also have plenty of Erica tetralyx, Cross-leaved Heath. The latter is a lot less sturdy than Ling, and prefers the wetter areas, the paler pink flowers flowering around the middle of July. There is also Erica cinerea, or Bell Heather, which does not occur at Hothfield.

Top facts about heather

  • The idea that white heather is lucky reached England as part of a Victorian enthusiasm for Scottish traditions, and is now known everywhere.
  • Each Heather flower has 30 Heather seeds, so a Heather plant produces up to 150,000 seeds per season
  • The scientific name, Calluna, came from the Greek Kallune - to clean or brush, as the twigs were used for making brooms.
  • The Heather plant is sometimes also referred to as Ling derived from the old Norse Lyng meaning fire and referring to use as a fuel.

Heather and wildlife

There are a number of bird species that will nest on the ground within the heather. The thick vegetation provides excellent cover for birds like tree pipit and wood lark. Their strategies tend to involve staying very still until the last possible moment when they burst out, trying to draw predators away from their nests.

Others will nest and feed in taller heather, like the Dartford warbler and stonechat.

The heather also provides an excellent habitat for reptiles and amphibians. Enough vegetation to hide in, it still provides plenty of opportunities for basking, and warming in the sunshine.

Acres of purple flowers are a bountiful source of nectar attracting insects from all over. Honeybees and bumblebees will be working hard to take nectar back to their nests. While predators such as hornets, spiders and dragonflies will take advantage of the host of busy insects.

The heather should be in flower for most of August and into September, following the marked trails from the entrance behind the village play area or from the reserve car park will take you past some great areas.