By Lesley Haskins
We all think of heathland as being either glorious (when the sun is shining on it) or wonderfully bleak (when lashed by wind and rain). But whatever the weather, we invariably think of heathland as being tough – a sort of resilient and indestructible place. But in actual fact heathland is fragile. This is because heathland is largely occupied by heathers, and heathers are unusual and fussy plants.
To start with heathers are ‘dwarf shrubs’. This means that like all shrubs they are woody and brittle and so can be easily snapped. But unlike other shrubs they are low growing and thus very liable to be stepped on, when, unsurprisingly, they do not bend, but snap off. This is why heathers readily die when walked over, and new bare paths are so readily formed where they were not present before.
And then heathers are ‘oligotrophic’. This means that they only do well where the ground is poor in nutrients. When the ground is poor they hold their own against plants that like it rich, but when the ground becomes rich, those other plants win the day. Dog poo, left to decompose naturally, makes the ground nutrient rich. This is why heathers are so easily ousted by lush green grasses and herbs alongside paths where dog poo is left.
When we go out on our seemingly tough old heathlands we should remember that appearances can be deceptive and that actually, like other old things, they are rather on the fragile side. So keeping to existing main paths, even when a tad muddy, stops the heath becoming criss-crossed by many new ones (and makes it less likely that we will disturb those rare ground nesting birds in summer). And always picking up and removing dog poo helps to prevent those main paths becoming lined by widening bands of non heathland (and avoids the health hazard which is just as relevant here as in formal open spaces). If we want our heaths to continue to provide for our needs, we do need to be aware of theirs.