Upland heathlands can be found on the tops of the fells in the Yorkshire Dales National Park often in a transition between acid grassland on the slopes and blanket bog on the highest flattest areas where there is deeper peat. Dry heaths are usually dominated by heather. This is particularly the case on the intensively managed grouse moors, where burning to maintain a young vigorous growth and a patchwork of age diversity has enabled heather to become dominant at the expense of the less tolerant species. Occasionally bilberry replaces heather particularly in rocky screes and gritstone edges. On some of the higher altitude moors cowberry and crowberry may be found. Wet heaths are characterised by the abundance of purple moor grass together with cross-leaved heath, other dwarf shrubs and bog-mosses.
This is what most people know simply as ‘heather’. This is the plant that clothes most of our ‘heather moorland’ and sustains other species such as Red Grouse. The tough, woody shrub is not very nutritious, so an adult Red Grouse needs to eat about one fifth of its own body weight of Ling per day.
Common Ling is a foodplant of a range of moth species including the Emperor Moth, Northern Eggar, Fox Moth, Ruby Tiger, Wood Tiger and True Lovers’ Knot and caterpillars of these can be abundant on the moors at certain times of year. However, moth populations rarely cause widespread defoliation, whereas outbreaks of Heather Beetle can be absolutely devastating. Another threat to heather moorland is Phytophthora moulds that can cause extensive die back of heathers and other shrubs like Bilberry.
With stunning shades of pink and purple, bell heather is an evergreen dwarf shrub. Its bell-shaped flowers range from white to a bright reddish-purple.
Bell heather can be found growing in dry heaths alongside heather. This family of plants has a symbiotic relationship with several types of fungi that grow inside and between some of the plant root cells. The bell heather thrives in the presence of the fungi and the fungi benefits from some of the bell heather’s nutrients.
In the Yorkshire Dales National Park, bell heather has a scattered distribution on dry heaths throughout the Park. These tend to be found in dryer areas towards the tops of the fells, particularly in the north eastern and south eastern areas. Where it does occur, it can be plentiful providing a beautiful burst of colour between July and September.
The cross-leaved heath is part of the heather family and creates a distinctive pink patchwork of colours on wet heaths and bogs.
A close relative of the bell heather, cross-leaved heath has been used as a dye in textile production. It’s a dwarf shrub with greyish leaves that appear in whorls of four and it produces pink oval flowers between June and September.
Throughout the British Isles, cross-leaved heaths can be found in suitable heath and bog habitats. In the Yorkshire Dales National Park it can frequently be seen growing alongside Sphagnum mosses on the high ground, particularly in the North and South East of the National Park.
If you’d like the power to see in the dark, you might want to try eating the edible fruits of the bilberry which are rumoured to be good for night vision!
The bilberry, which is sometimes known as the ‘whortleberry’, ‘blaeberry’, ‘whinberry’ or ‘wimberry’ can grow to 50cm tall and has acutely angled stems with pinkish-red flowers and bluish-black fruits. It loses its leaves in the winter.
There are 450 species of Vaccinium worldwide. Many of these are found growing in Malaysia but six species, including the bilberry are native to the UK. Here it is commonly found on heathland and moorland or in woodland habitats with acidic soils. Although it is a common plant, it is absent from much of central and eastern England.
In the Yorkshire Dales National Park, bilberry is commonly seen on the moorland and heathland which occupies the high ground throughout the Park. Good examples of its preferred habitat can be found on Whernside.
North Yorkshire has produced a traditional bilberry dessert, known as the ‘mucky-mouth’ pie, in which bilberries are baked in a Yorkshire pudding batter. Try it and you’ll see why it gets the name ‘mucky-mouth’ as the deep juices of the bilberries leave a tell-tale sign that you’ve been eating it!
Crowberry is a heather-like evergreen dwarf shrub with glossy green leaves and pink flowers which develop into edible black fruits.
Crowberry grows on peaty and rocky moors, bogs and mountain tops. It has two subspecies, the most common of which is Empetrum nigrum ssp. nigrum. This can be found in suitable habitats north west of a line that runs from Devon to north east Yorkshire.
In the Yorkshire Dales National Park, crowberry has a patchy distribution. It can be abundant on the drier parts of acid peaty moorland where sheep grazing hasn’t been too intensive. It also often grows where glacial drift or peat has built up over the carboniferous limestone in the south west of the National Park for example on Moughton Scar near Austwick.