Heather beetle damage on Dartmoor 2019

I have been very surprised how much Heather Beetle damage there is on Dartmoor this year. The Heather Beetle larvae hatch in June and then feed on the young leaves and shoots. As a result the affected parts of the heather plant turn orange brown.

Heather Beetle damage. It is very characteristic and eye catching.

Last week I walked from Rowtor on Okehampton Common up the military road to Observation Post 15 and then down to Ockerton Court. All the way along the track there are signs of extensive damage to the heather plants – I would estimate that over 90% of plants are affected.

Work carried out in the north of England and in Scotland suggest that the larvae are active until the end of August when they drop down into the litter and pupate into adult beetles. Despite three separate searches on Okehampton Common, the Forest of Dartmoor and Headland Warren Common I only managed to find three larvae and one adult beetle.

Here is a Heather Beetle larvae on Okehampton Common eating the few remaining green leaves of the plant.

I suspect that the absence of larvae and adults during my searches in the first week of August means that the larvae have already dropped into the litter and are beginning to pupate – as a result larvae and adults are not visible. However the very extensive areas of damaged heather indicates that they have been very active in June and July.

It is possible for the heather to recover from this attack and I will be monitoring it to see if it does. However parts or all of the heather plant can be killed. When this happens the shoots turn from orange brown to grey.

This is mature heather at Ockerton Court which has been killed by Heather Beetle

In this image the areas of dead heather (darker brown bits) are being over run by Purple Moor Grass (Molinia caerulea) – the bright green shoots of this year’s growth and the light brown leaves from last year. Molinia is unable to replace heather whilst the heather is alive but can and does do so when it is dead.

Heather Beetle is a seriously under-recorded species on Dartmoor – the National Biodiversity Network database has just one record and the is from Fingle Woods and not from the high moor!

There is clearly a need to gather more records ….

There is anecdotal evidence nationally that Heather Beetle attacks are getting worse and it has been suggested (based on research from the Netherlands) that the severity and frequency of Heather Beetle outbreaks is linked to the levels of atmospheric pollution – particularly nitrogen levels.

Dartmoor receives high levels of nitrogen deposition as a result of its high rainfall – Natural England have reported that Dartmoor receives 24kg / ha / annum of nitrogen (as NOx) which is damaging the blanket bog and mires. This high level of nitrogen deposition may also be responsible for the high levels of Heather Beetle damage.

Heather Beetles are a natural part of the moorland wildlife community and historically damage to heather was limited except in the ‘outbreak’ years. Last year when I was walking the Commons in July I also noticed extensive areas of affected heather – at this point in time heavy attacks appear to be frequent – maybe even annual.

There are implications for wildlife, conservation and hill-farming as a result of these serious Heather Beetle attacks.

  1. The heather plants themselves are either killed or remain stunted
  2. The species of wildlife which feed on heather shoots are also impacted – this includes moth species such as the Emperor Moth and the Fox Moth, whose hairy caterpillars are important prey items for one of Dartmoor’s iconic and successful birds – the cuckoo.
  3. Heather has long been a conservation indicator for the condition of Dartmoor’s Commons and historically grazing levels were reduced significantly to reduce overgrazing pressures to conserve heather.
  4. Heather is also a winter food for sheep on the Commons, if the amount of heather generally is significantly reduced as a result of Heather Beetle attacks it put pressure of the remaining plants that have survived.

Ironically it is thought that the severity and frequency of Heather Beetle attacks has increased because the nitrogen has made the young shoots and leaves more nutritious, it is also reported that sheep preferentially graze the new shoots too for the same reason.

There is a dearth of information on Heather Beetle issues on Dartmoor but from my own observations this year and last it is a potentially serious and widespread problem. However it would also appear that the problem is not universal across the moor. I searched for it in the heather stands around the Warren House Inn  and found Heather Beetle attacks to be minor – perhaps this level of damage is the natural level – whereas the levels seen on Okehampton Common, the north part of the Forest and on Headland Warren Common are the outbreak levels.

It seems to me that there is a clear need to better understand the Heather Beetle situation on Dartmoor, this would be in the interests of Natural England, the Dartmoor National Park Authority and the Dartmoor Commoners Council. The time to survey for the impacts of Heather Beetle is July and August. Maybe a bit of ‘Citizen Science’ could come to the rescue?

I would also be interested to hear from people who have found the characteristic orange brown stands of heather this year on Dartmoor.

I’ve written before about Heather Beetles and this link takes you to my blog which contains further information and some references you can download.

3 thoughts on “Heather beetle damage on Dartmoor 2019

  1. Dear Adrian, I too have been shocked at the extent of damage to the heather above Headland Warren – unscientific assessment that 80% to 90% has gone rusty brown with very little flowering heather. I’ve never seen anything like it in this area in 20 years. As a commoner I recall NE advisers being very concerned about heather in this area and putting any signs of ill health down to overgrazing by sheep. Whether that was correct or not, what we now have is on a totally different scale.
    Someone has suggested that it might not be all down to the beetle, and raised the question of a disease, Phytophthora ramoram, which apparently attacks a range of trees and shrubs including bilberry and heather. Do you put any credence in this? I absolutely agree with you that effort/resources needs to be put into finding answers and I would hope the DPA which I chair would be able to play a part along with all the other obvious stakeholders.

    • Thank you Norman for your comments. I agree it is a very bad year for heather beetle damage and I supposed I am very surprised at the lack of formal comment on it ….. maybe the ‘Authorities’ haven’t noticed – maybe nobody has noticed … I have emailed Naomi Oakely and David Graves from NE to gauge their opinion but no reply yet. Tracey May brought the Phytophthera issue to my attention but to be fair I have seen / read nothing about it in heather except that the FC have said it can infect cultivated heather. Tracey said that the NT Ranger in the Long Mind in Shropshire said it was a problem there and was killing heather. I have emailed the Countryside Manager there (who I know) Pete Carty and asked for clarification. There are lots of NT /NE emails flying around at present and lots of question being asked as a result of my blog – my feeling for what its worth is that the problem on Dartmoor is heather beetle related. My other hunch is that overwintering of cattle and the damage that was caused co-incided with the rise of heather beetle attacks associated with atmospheric pollution. Cattle got some of the heather and heather beetle got the rest. Now, despite the stock reductions heather can’t recover as heather beetle keeps holding it back…… This needs looking into properly …. Regards A

  2. Adrian, A very good article and thank you for highlighting again the issue of Heather Beetle.

    At The Heather Trust we have – just today – published a revised Briefing Note on Heather Beetle. It updates our management advice post beetle attack to reflect the findings of a six year study we commissioned in The Peak District studying the heather and other vegetation’s response to different treatments, i.e. cut, burn or leave alone. This found that after 6 year, and despite further beetling during the study, the heather did recover equally well in all plots regardless of treatment. The heather has not recovered yet to pre-beetle levels, but it has not been lost either and is recovering. This finding supports work we did on Langholm Moor in southern Scotland. While the Langholm study was not as comprehensive as the Peak District one, it again did not lead to one favoured treatment and heather was coming back in all plots. This perhaps provides hope. Our briefing can be found here – https://www.heathertrust.co.uk/heather-beetle

    Having said that, at The Heather Trust we had a large number of reports of heather beetle attacks last year, and the same again this year. Two very different years weather-wise, but considerable problems across the country in both years. Heather is definitely weakened by heavy beetle infestation, and if this occurs year or year it is much less likely to recover. Now that we are clearer about post-attack management, we would be keen to take forward some research looking at what might cause “bad beetle years”. There are a number of theories which would bear investigation. As always the restriction is funding such work, but we would be keen to work with anyone interested in taking things forward.

    Anne Gray
    The Heather Trust

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