The problem with Heather Beetles

The Heather Beetle (Lochmaea suturalis) is a native Chrysomelid leaf beetle which feeds almost exclusively on heather (Calluna vulgaris). It is common in areas whether heather grows from the south of England to Orkney in the north (Duff 2016).

Heather beetle populations are well known to fluctuate greatly from low numbers which have little over impact on heather plants to very high numbers which can lead to the widespread defoliation of heather and can cause its death.


Heather Beetle damage on Ryders Hill March 2016

Heather beetle outbreaks have historically been problematic for grouse moor owners and the issue of heather beetle and its control has been championed by the Heather Trust who have produced a short document on the species (Heather Trust undated).

In addition the Heather Trust commissioned a literature review of the species (Rosenburgh & Marrs 2010) which summarises the ecology of the beetle, its impact as a pest and strategies for control. This work has been updated (Gillingham et al 2015a and 2015b) and published as Natural England Evidence Reviews on its ecology and its management.

These reviews state the following regarding heather beetle outbreaks:-

  • ‘Considerable damage to heather can occur with complete death in the worst cases’.
  • ‘Large scale vegetation change can follow’ (heather outcompeted by invasive grass species).
  • ‘The occurrence and severity of heather beetle attacks appears to be made worse by increased levels of nitrogen in the soil and plant tissues, which has been blamed on high nitrogen pollutant inputs from the atmosphere in recent years’.
  • ‘The high nitrogen in the leaves provides the beetles with more high quality food to consume’
  • ‘Climate change is expected to lead to increased winter survival of heather beetles’

On Exmoor heather beetle is considered a major problem, and the National Park Authority report that outbreaks are common and are spreading from the south to the north of Park. They also suggest that in areas where Purple Moor Grass (Molinia caerulea) is absent the heather plants recover fully and rapidly but where Molinia is present this quickly swamps the heather and replaces it (ENPA 2015).

I have written before about the loss of heather that had occurred on the National Trust’s land in the Upper Plym valley on Dartmoor (see here). In 1995 there was a serious outbreak of heather beetle which killed off the heather in the area known as Hen Tor Fields. At the time it was assumed that overgrazing was the cause although no increase in stocking levels had taken place for a number of years.  In this specific instance the heathland communities (H12 Calluna vulgaris-Vaccinium myrtillus) were replaced by upland grass communities (U4 Festuca ovina-Agrostis capillaris-Galium saxatile) which do not naturally contain Molinia. On the wet heaths of the Upper Plym Estate there were numerous other outbreaks on heather beetle during the 1990s and 2000s (Helen Radmore NT tenant pers comm) and in these habitats Molinia now dominates (my observations).

There has been no systematic survey of heather beetle on Dartmoor and Goodfellow et al (1997) only briefly mention it “Outbreaks of heather beetle cause local declines in heather”, however my recent observations on the moor suggest that heather beetle damage is very widespread and extensive.


Heather Beetle damage on Ryders Hill – March 2016

I would be very interested to hear from anyone with information about heather beetles on Dartmoor in recent years – it is an issue which is begging for more research.

References
Duff A.G. (2016) Beetles of Britain and Ireland. Volume 4 Cerambycidae to Curculionidae. A.G. Duff (Publishing) West Runton.
ENPA (2015) Exmoor Swaling Review 2014/15. Seminar Notes ENPA. Dulverton. http://www.exmoor-nationalpark.gov.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0011/583454/Exmoor-Swaling-Review-2014-15.pdf
Gillingham P., Diaz A., Stillman R. & Pinder A.C. (2015a) A desk review of the ecology of the heather beetle. Natural England Evidence Review, Number 008. http://publications.naturalengland.org.uk/publication/6386866406293504
Gillingham P., Diaz A., Stillman R. & Pinder A.C. (2015b) Desk review of burning and other management options for the control for heather beetle. Natural England Evidence Review, Number 009. http://publications.naturalengland.org.uk/publication/4817807814426624
Goodfellow S., Wolton R. & Baldock N. (1997) The Nature of Dartmoor: a biodiversity profile. English Nature / Dartmoor National Park Authority publication. http://www.dartmoor.gov.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0014/42701/au-natureodp2.pdf
Heather Trust (undated) Heather Beetle. Download from Heather Trust Website http://media.wix.com/ugd/fdc287_2b9ec8fa073d4ca38baf4a754d7a77f4.pdf
Rosenburgh A. & Marrs R. (2010) The Heather Beetle: a review. Report to the Heather Trust. http://media.wix.com/ugd/111722_4370d9fb976442b2af6e678aa83c3663.pdf

We need to talk about nitrogen

Plantlife in association with a number of botanical and conservation organisations including the National Trust, RSPB and the Woodland Trust have today published an important report ‘We need to talk about nitrogen’. You can download it here. This is a quote from the report.

Amid the clamour about climate change and carbon emissions, another alarm bell, largely unheard, has been sounding for some time. Global pools of reactive nitrogen have been building in the atmosphere, soils and waters from the burning of fossil fuels and intensive farming. This excess of reactive nitrogen is now being deposited throughout the biosphere, significantly impacting our most precious semi-natural habitats, changing their plant communities and the very functions these ecosystems provide.

We need to talk about nitrogen deposition, to raise awareness of its causes and consequences, to agree on solutions, and to work together to integrate these solutions into policy and practice now.

It is a topic that I have written about before – see here. I have been surprised by how few people are aware of this issue. In my view nitrogen deposition especially in the uplands is one of the main factors involved with the changes in vegetation that have occurred over the past few decades. I am certain that nitrogen deposition is highly implicated in the rise of Purple Moor Grass (Molinia caerulea) in the uplands of the UK, including Dartmoor.

This map produced by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology shows the extend of the problem in the UK. Nitrogen deposition is acidifying your soils and saturating them with fertiliser.

Some species of plant respond well to high nitrogen levels and grow vigorously e.g. Molinia, however the majority of plant species respond poorly, in some cases they die out and in others they are outcompeted.

I recommend you read the Plantlife report.