Are there many more beautiful sights in mid to late summer than that of a hillside covered in flowering heather? Against the backdrop of a blue sky and glorious sunshine, a sea of purples, pinks, and occasional whites, shimmering in the heat, there can be few more perfect sights. The hum of insect activity too can be heard, almost felt, from a distance amid the call of foraging birds.
Heather, whether it be Calluna vulgaris (ling) or Erica cinerea (bell heather), has long played a part in the landscape of Jersey, predominantly of the northern, rockier coastlines, but it can occur in any open landscape, wet and dry. In Jèrriais it is called d’la bruëthe, and has been used as many things through the ages: firelighters; bedding for farmers and their livestock; an orange dye (from the flowers); knife handles (from the roots), and, my personal favourite, it has been used to make beer.
It is also a favourite amongst much of our wildlife. Bees adore it, heather honey is a delicacy; some butterflies rely on it as a food source for their caterpillars; some birds, such as the choughs, like to line their nests with the newer, softer, shoots in spring; grazing livestock and rabbits like to eat those same soft, new shoots.
Heathers are a staple of the heathland flora, much preferring the acidic soils that most plants would struggle in. They flourish in areas where trees have been removed and the grazing of livestock has prevented their regrowth.
One component of the restoration project at Don Paton, Sorel Point, Mourier Valley and Devil’s Hole is the increase of heather in the existing heathland. The overall site had lacked any management for many years, before it was given to The National Trust for Jersey; the soil is too poor for arable farming to be successful, and the area had become overgrown with bracken, gorse, bramble and thick grasses. All of these other plants, of course, play their part in the habitat, but, left to their own devices, they will dominate and swamp any smaller more wildlife-friendly species. The National Trust rangers have worked hard to bring these other plants under control, and encourage those such as heather to gain a foothold.
Once areas had been cleared and more open spaces were created, with grasses growing, ably controlled, munched and fertilised, by the Manx loaghtan sheep, we could pinpoint areas where heather could be re-established.
Seed was collected from Les Landes by the States of Jersey rangers, as there is an abundance of well-established heather there. Les Landes is what we hope Don Paton will look like in a few years’ time, minus the castle and racecourse. After an application of sulphur had been applied to acidify the soils, the seed was scattered at Don Paton.
Once the heather had started to grow, we realised just how popular it was as a food source for sheep and rabbits alike, and decided that we needed to protect it before it was lost again. When it is well established, gentle nibbling will not be too much of a problem, in fact it will be of benefit, but until that time, a sheep and rabbit-proof shield was required.
A post and wire fence was put up one winter, on a cold, wet, wild grey day (are there any other type of day in a Jersey winter?!), much to the amusement of the sheep, who watched us struggling to bury the wire in the rocky soil. They then thought it was hilarious to jump over the wire just as we packed up for the day. We were not amused.
A second, taller layer of wire was put up, in an attempt to remedy the sheep jumping. They they decided to tangle their horns in it instead, which caused holes to appear. Rabbit sized holes.
A third attempt at protecting the heather, using stronger, taller wire (put up on a much sunnier day!) and at two much smaller sites than the first, has now been put up and, so far, seems to be keeping the animals out. We will be monitoring the areas regularly to ensure that the heather is not being eaten by the woolly jumpers or their bunny mates, at least until it is really well-established (or there is enough for the staff to start making beer!).