Wildlife Column: When the moors burst into colour…

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As we move seamlessly through the summer and July slips away into August the Peak District moors burst into an amazing show of colour, thanks almost entirely to one plant, the ling or heather, Calluna vulgaris.

This is the wild flower that dominates extensive tracts of dry moor and heath and which in times past was even more common and abundant. In August the common ling turns much of the Dark Peak into a blaze of purple and with a heady, sweet aroma of the heather blossom. This is the stuff of heather-based honey-mead in the days before modern sugars were widely available; a brew of remarkable potency and famed throughout the early world.

Today, heather is one of the keystone species of moors and heaths; habitats that sadly have declined dramatically in the last two hundred years.

Whilst most Sheffielders will think of heather being up on the high moors to the west of the city, in times past it was abundant all the way from the Peak District fringe and down into the lowlands beyond Doncaster.

Thorne and Hatfield Moors bear testimony to this former distribution as do place–names like ‘The Moor’ and ‘Crookesmoor’ for example; all hangers-on from once-extensive heathy commons. Surprisingly perhaps, there are still ‘heaths’ to be found in the lowland parts of the city, with Wickfield Heath in the Shire Brook Valley for example, a remnant of the once extensive Birley Moor and Mosborough Moor. There are also newly-created heaths which are worth a look and these include a very nice new area at Deep Pits near the Manor.

Some of the relict sites still hold typical moorland plants and animals, in some cases including adders and common lizards, and insects like emperor moth, ling pug, and oak eggar moths.

If you have one of these sites near you it is worth looking out for the special wildlife of heath and moor. Wharncliffe Heath for instance has the stunning little predator, the green tiger beetle; one to look out for!

Professor Ian D. Rotherham, of Sheffield Hallam University, researcher, writer and broadcaster on wildlife and environmental issues.