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

The problem with bracken

Bracken (Pteridium aquilinum)  is a contentious species which is almost universally hated on Dartmoor (except in the handful of places where it harbours the nationally threatened butterfly, the High Brown Fritillary (Argynnis adippe).

Bracken was once harvested as an important crop and used for animal bedding and as a roofing material. These practices dropped out of favour as other more modern materials were used instead and as a result bracken was no longer managed and began to spread.

This spread of bracken can be damaging to the historic environment as its dense network of rhizomes can seriously interfere with any sub-surface archaeology. It is also a species which is very unpopular with hill-farmers as it spread reduces the area of palatable grazing for livestock. Likewise conservationists do not like the species as its spread can reduce areas of inherently interesting vegetation communities e.g. heather stands (Marrs and Watts 2006).

bracken

Bracken tends to grow on deep well drained soils which do not become waterlogged. As a result it is absent on Dartmoor from the blanket bog and wet heathland communities as these are too wet. These deeper better drained soils on the moor support heathland (NVC H8 Calluna vulgaris-Ulex gallii heath) and upland grassland communities (NVC U4 Festuca ovina-Agrostis capillaris-Galium saxatile grassland and U5 Nardus stricta-Galium saxatile grassland). Bracken can encroach into wet heath communities (M15b Trichophorum cespitosus, Erica tetralix wet heath and M15d Trichophorum cespitosus, Erica tetralix wet heath, Vaccinium myrtillus sub-community if these have become drier as a result of hydrological changes, over grazing or burning (Marrs and Watts 2006).

These National Vegetation Classification (NVC) communities can change depending on the management regime they receive. Averis et al (2004) suggest the following changes to National Vegetation Classification communities which can all lead to an increase in bracken communities. The communities described below follow the NVC (Rodwell 1991 & 1992).

  • If H8 Calluna vulgaris-Ulex gallii heath or H12 Calluna vulgaris-Vaccinium myrtillus heath is over grazed or over burnt it can change into M25 Molinia caerulea-Potentilla erecta or U4 Festuca ovina-Agrostis capillaris-Galium saxatile
  • If U4 Festuca ovina-Agrostis capillaris-Galium saxatile grassland or U5 Nardus stricta-Galium saxatile grassland are under grazed then can turn to H8 Calluna vulgaris-Ulex gallii heath or H12 Calluna vulgaris-Vaccinium myrtillus heath
  • However all four of the communities mentioned above (H8, H12, U4 & U5) can be invaded by bracken and turn into U20 Pteridium aquilinum-Gallium saxatile

Bracken can be controlled either by cutting, rolling or the use of herbicides (asulam). However treatments must be repeated yearly if bracken is to be controlled, complete eradication is usually not possible. All these methods are time consuming and expensive. Rolling is often not possible due to the terrain or rocks and asulam can now only be used under an Emergency Authorisation licence as its use was outlawed in 2012 [1], there are also concerns that stocks of asulam are not in short supply as it is no longer being manufactured.

bracken-bruising-003Bracken rolling on Dartmoor by the National Trust

Pakeman et al (1995) showed that bracken had increased significantly over the past few centuries in Britain but they also showed that between 1970 to 1980 there had been a 3.4% decrease on Dartmoor (by 1.9km2 of bracken being gained but 3.8km2 being lost).

Pakeman et al. (2000) ‘concluded that the current abundance of Pteridium was less than, or at worst, equivalent to maximum historical records’. It is clear therefore that the abundance of bracken has fallen and risen depending on its harvesting or clearance by humans.

Werkman et al (1996) carried out experiments where bracken and heather and a mix of the two were grown in open topped tents to mimic climate warming and where different plots were treated with additional nitrogen inputs. They found bracken growing in the tents with additional nitrogen grew more vigorously and for a longer growing season than plants not grown in tents where no nitrogen was added. The bracken under the former conditions also encroached into the heather stands.

Werkman et al (2002) in another experiment found that bracken responded positively to increased temperatures but did not respond to increased nitrogen levels. They concluded that in a warmer climate bracken will continue to replace heather. They added a caveat that if climate change led to drier summers then water could be a limiting factor in the spread of bracken.

The implication of both papers by Werkman et al (1996, 2002) is that bracken will also spread into areas of upland grassland as well as areas dominated by heather.

Hill-farmers and other land managers on Dartmoor such as the National Trust spend considerable time and money attempting to control bracken on the moor, it would appear that in the future more effort will be required if bracken is not to spread further.

So rather like Purple Moor Grass Molinia caerulea, bracken does respond to anthropogenic changes to the atmosphere. In the case of bracken to increased temperatures caused by rising CO2 levels and in the case of Molinia to increased nitrogen levels caused by pollution from vehicles and agriculture (see here).

If a future climate change scenario on Dartmoor led to rising temperatures and reduced rainfall it is not impossible that the current areas of wet heath and those areas dominated by Molinia could become dry enough to allow the encroachment of bracken into these areas too.

 References
Marrs R.H. & Watts A.S. (2006) Biological Flora of the British Isles: Pteridium aquilinum (L.) Kuhn. Journal of Ecology 94, 1272–1321
Pakeman, R.J., Le Duc, M.G. & Marrs, R.H. (2000) Bracken distribution in Great Britain: strategies for its control and the sustainable management of land. Annals of Botany, 85B, 37–46.
Pakeman, R.J., Marrs, R.H., Howard, D.C., Barr, C.J. & Fuller, R.M. (1995) The bracken problem in Great Britain; its present extent and future changes. Applied Geography, 16, 65–86.
Rodwell J.S. (ed) (1991) British Plant Communities. Volume 2. Mires and heaths. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.
Rodwell J.S. (ed) (1992) British Plant Communities. Volume 3. Grasslands and montane communities. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.
Werkman B.R. & Callaghan T.V. (2002) Responses of bracken and heather to increased temperature and nitrogen addition, alone and in competition. Basic and Applied Ecology 3: 267-276.
Werkman B.R., Callaghan T.V. & Welker J.M. (1996) Responses of bracken to increased temperature and nitrogen availability. Global Change Biology 2: 59-66.

[1] http://www.brackencontrol.co.uk/asulam

Weather warning: Britain’s Special Places under Threat

A new report was launched yesterday written by The Climate Coalition with support, analysis and weather attribution by the Priestley International Centre for Climate. It shows how recent extreme weather events are damaging some of Britain’s most iconic places – you can download and read the report here.

screen-shot-2017-02-08-at-11-19-22

There is a video which accompanies this campaign by showthelove which would can watch here – amongst others it features Charles Dance and Miranda Richardson.

 

Dawlish Warren Beach Management Scheme

There are some big plans ahead for Dawlish Warren. The fear is that a strong southerly storm could cut through the Neck of the Warren and split the sand dunes into two. This will then increase storminess in the estuary and create a heightened flood risk in the village of Dawlish Warren.

dw1
This information board at the Warren explains the detail.

dw2Looking across to Exmouth

dw3One of the groynes that needs to be replaced.

dw4This is part of the first phase of the project that was completed a couple of years ago – an internal bund that will hold back the sea during storm surges.

Later in the year a new bund will be built near the Neck made of geotextile bags.

Coastal erosion at Leasfoot Beach

Apart from seeing the Desert Wheatear on Leasfoot Beach near Thurlestone last weekend I also came across the aftermath of the 2014 storms which hit the south coast of Devon.

leasfoot-beach-2
The small road which runs down from the cliff top car park towards the golf course has been swept away

leasfoot-beach-1Looking back from the other direction you get a good impression of how much land the sea gouged out

south-milton-sandsFrom the top car park you look down onto South Milton Sands – the same storm removed a lot of the sand dunes and also took away the road at the far end of the beach where the buildings are.

Sea level rise and increased storminess resulting from climate change will make these kind of episodes more common in the future.

UK Climate Change Risk Assessment 2017

Yesterday the Committee on Climate Change published a 2000 page report setting out the threats faced by the UK from Climate Change. The report consists of a ‘Synthesis’ summary document along with 8 technical chapters. You can download the summary report here and the technical chapters can be accessed from here.

The report highlights six area of threat and these are summarised in the table below.

Screen Shot 2016-07-13 at 10.15.52

Lord Krebs who chairs the Adaptation sub-committee summarises the report in this video

There is a great deal in these reports and I can’t claim to have done more than skim the surface but it is clear that we face huge threats from flooding, we are not properly prepared for the rising temperatures and much of our agriculture is entirely unsustainable as it is degrading the soil that it depends upon.

Whilst the publication of this important report passed under the radar for most yesterday due to the shenanigans of the two main political parties it is important to see what our new Prime Minister had to say in 2008 about climate change.

“I am thrilled to see that after years of Conservative pressure, we have finally passed a necessary and ambitious piece of legislation on Climate Change. Britain is the first country in the world to formally bind itself to cut greenhouse emissions and I strongly believe this will improve our national and economic security. To stay reliant on fossil fuels would mean tying ourselves to increasingly unstable supplies which could endanger our energy security and the Climate Change and Energy Bills mark an important step for both the health of our economy and the health of our nation. It is now vital that we stick to these targets. I will continue to put pressure on the Government over the third runway at Heathrow as an extra 222,000 flights a year would undermine our national targets and seriously damage the health of the local community.”

The worry of course now is that with everything else that is going on this essential work won’t receive the time and attention that it needs.

Oak trees slowly coming into leaf – we’re in for a splash

Ash before oak – we are in for a soak

Oak before ash we are in for a splash

In reality oak pretty much always  comes into leaf before ash. In the last fifty years oak has always leafed before ash. It has not always been this way – in the 18th century when it was less mild ash did often flower before oak – thus the quote.

Climate change has changed all of this – usually oak leafs in late March-May which is about two weeks earlier than 30 years ago. Ash usually leafs during April and May, about 7-10 days earlier than 30 years ago.

In my garden I have 5 large oak trees and a couple of ash trees. 3 of the 5 five oaks are now in leaf  but none of the ashes are.

Oak trees
Green splashes on the oak trees.

Oak leavesPedunculate (or English oak) in leaf and in flower

Oak flowersNot often seen – the flowers of the Pedunculate oak

The two oaks in my garden which haven’t come into leaf yet are clearly a different genetic stain from those which have.

Fingle_

Here are the Sessile Oaks of the Teign Valley at Fingle Bridge – a few hundred metres higher in altitude and not yet anywhere near leafing – spring is a long drawn out process …..