Hardy and beautiful

A blanket of ling covers Yorkshire's moors in late summer.
A blanket of ling covers Yorkshire's moors in late summer.
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Everyone loves a Yorkshire rose. Well, almost everyone; there are a few folk to the west of the Pennines who may see red at that statement.

But today of all days, everything Yorkshire is worth celebrating – relish, tea, puddings, heather. The latter, of course, doesn’t carry the prefix, ‘Yorkshire’, but it is one of the great glories of this great and glorious county.

Come August and the moors wake up covered in blankets of Calluna vulgaris, aka Ling or ‘Scotch’ heather, a hardy plant worthy of wider recognition.

True, Calluna vulgaris can’t bloom year-round like its cousin, Erica carnea, the darling of many a garden. In its various forms, the latter can produce flowers year-round and there are some gardeners who grow virtually nothing else; to them, the heather is king, and they cultivate numerous named varieties in beds, borders and containers where they can ensure that the growing medium is ideal for each and every plant. It also means that can move the pots to follow the sun, because heather loves to be in the sun

The cultivated forms come in numerous colours, but Calluna vulgaris is nothing if not consistent – masses of tiny pink flowers in mid- to late-August, and it has a vital role in the habitat of areas like the North York Moors. Young heather provides food for sheep and red grouse, and shelter and nest sites for some ground-nesting birds while older heather provides shelter and nest sites for birds and other wildlife.

And to make sure it continues to do so, moors are ‘managed’ by burning the heather when the stems get to a couple of feet in height. Different patches are burnt each year in rotation, so that there are always areas of short heather and tall heather close together.

This burning takes place over the winter and in early spring when there are no birds nesting on the ground and the soil is generally wet. The fires are small and carefully controlled so they don’t spread or damage the peaty soil. The following year new green shoots grow from underground stems and seeds.

The result is moorland that often looks like a patchwork quilt, with some areas of short, young heather for grouse and sheep to eat and some patches of taller, older heather for grouse to shelter.

But it looks good. And it’s an integral part of Yorkshire.