The familiar purple heather over Yorkshire’s moors is likely to take on an unseasonal brown hue as summer turns to autumn this year, experts have warned.
As the countryside community prepares for the Glorious Twelfth, the traditional start of the grouse shooting season, on Monday, hunters were being cautioned to temper their expectations.
Many had been hoping for a bumper season after last year’s washout, the worst in more than a decade, when a shortage of grouse caused the wholesale cancellation of shoots across the region.
But a new threat is hanging over this year’s hunt – widespread infestations of heather beetle across the Yorkshire Dales, Nidderdale and North York Moors. The insect larvae eats its way around the outside of stems, killing off the plants on which Britain’s distinctive red grouse depend.
Their presence has already caused the cancellation of at least half of the planned shoots in the Dales, the Moorland Association said, with the blight also making the heather change colour.
“It’s going to look a bit grim for people who are used to that beautiful purple vista you get in August,” said the association’s director, Amanda Anderson.
“Quite often it will go quite an alarming orange-red colour, or just look dark and dead. It’s not going to look beautiful.”
But the bigger problem was to the grouse that feed on the heather, she said.
“There are swarms of these larvae, and they can munch acres and acres and acres – so for that whole patch there’s nothing for the grouse to eat, and they’ll either move off or starve.
“They won’t have the energy to lay eggs – that requires a huge amount of protein which simply isn’t available to them this year.”
The insects, known scientifically as lochmaea suturalis, are thought to have thrived following the storm early last year known as the Beast from the East, which weakened resilience in the plants.
The blast, followed by the long, dry summer, devastated the grouse population last season, with the result that around half of the shooting programmes planned for England and Wales were abandoned and the rest curtailed, in the hope that stocks would recover.
But the infestation has put back efforts to repopulate the moors, Ms Anderson said.
“The red grouse is unique to Britain, and it’s very much wild. So all you can do is manage the habitat, give them a helping hand with managing predators and make sure that any babies they do have survive. But if they’re not even having the babies, it’s a bit disappointing.”
Not only sightseers but also other insects would be affected by the infestation, she added.
“Bees rely on the purple bloom of the heather – it’s one of the latest vast expanses of nectar before the winter, and it’s a big resource that won’t be there for those that are foraging.”
A report on the ecology of the heather beetle, commissioned by Natural England three years ago, concluded that there was a “knowledge gap” on what caused natural populations of the insects to rapidly increase to outbreak proportions, and on what caused outbreaks to end – although wet weather from May to July could be linked to them.
Experts are also not sure whether the burning of heather outside the usual season might help to regenerate the plants after damage caused by beetles.