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.

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.
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.
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.
Goodfellow S., Wolton R. & Baldock N. (1997) The Nature of Dartmoor: a biodiversity profile. English Nature / Dartmoor National Park Authority publication.
Heather Trust (undated) Heather Beetle. Download from Heather Trust Website
Rosenburgh A. & Marrs R. (2010) The Heather Beetle: a review. Report to the Heather Trust.

Some different sheep at the magical Challacombe

I was up at Challacombe Farm yesterday afternoon for a site visit to see and discuss the work of Naomi Oakley and Mark Owen who farm this Duchy Farm. It was a field visit which was part of a 2 day workshop entitled ‘Locally led agri-environment schemes – from a farmer’s perspective.’ I’ll report back on the workshop at a later date – in the meanwhile here are a few photos I took at Challacombe.

Naomi showing the extent of her farm and its large number of associated archaeological features.

Reporting back on the bracken management project

The slopes of the valley showing the Mediaeval lynchets – see here for more details on these.

From the barn up the valley to Hameldown Tor

In the barn Naomi shows of three different breeds of sheep which are being kept for their wool – the little dark one at the front is a Black Wensleydale – a very rare breed – see here. The white sheep at the back are Wensleydales – see here.

The sheep with the black and white faces are Zwartbles – famous for producing  an excellent fleece – really good to see wool coming back into profitability again (assuming you use the correct breeds) – see here for more details.

Here are a few Wensleydales out on an in-bye pasture.And this a hardy Welsh Black Mountain Sheep – small but very efficient at grazing around the Scheduled Ancient Monuments.

We also visited the amazing Rhos pastures at Challacombe –  wet valley mires – in the summer they are buzzing with life – I’ve written about these before – see here and here.


Finally …. can really recommend this book – tells the amazing story of sheep in Britain – from the times when wool created the country’s wealth right through to the dominance of sheep for lamb. The last chapter won’t be to everyone’s taste as Philip Walling is clearly very angry of the recent controversies regarding ‘overgrazing’ and the subsequent reduction in the national sheep flock. The book though does give a wonderful introduction to sheep breeds, where they came from and where they now survive.

A great afternoon at a magical place.

Managing Purple Moor Grass

According to Ian Mercer (in his Dartmoor New Naturalist book pp118-120) around 35% of Dartmoor’s Commons are now dominated by Purple Moor Grass (Molinia caerulea) – now often just referred to as Molinia. It is considered to be a major problem for the Commoners as it shades out the more nutritious grasses and a major problem for conservationists as it dominates habitats and reduces the dwarf shrub communities such as heather.

The reasons behind the increase in Molinia are contested and unclear. Overgrazing and over burning have been blamed as has the increase in sheep grazing as opposed to summer cattle grazing. The conservation agenda as articulated and prescribed by Natural England has been to promote increased spring grazing by cattle and reduced burning (swaling). Mercer telling says the following ‘the system that allows a hill-farmer to maintain a good enough herd of the hardy stock and of the right number all year round to be profitable and to follow current nature conservation thinking about a regime for blanket bog vegetation management has yet to be devised.’

This conundrum is at the heart of the debate on Dartmoor about favourable condition and the extent / decline of heather on the moor.

Last September the National Trust team based at Marsden Moor in Yorkshire organised a three day conference on this very topic (it is a major issue for all upland areas in the UK not just Dartmoor). I unfortunately was unable to attend the conference but fortunately the proceeding have now been published.


You can download this 200+ page document here.

If you are interested in the quality of our habitats in the uplands then this document is essential reading. The report consists of a number of scientific presentations from the country’s leading experts along with a series of case studies describing the actions and outcomes of a number of site managers.

This is a major contribution to understanding the management of our uplands and it shows how complex the problem is.

For example, Rob Marr and his team from Liverpool University replay their research from the early 2000s which told us that grazing and burning regimes in isolation will not solve the problem, they only got reductions in Molinia when they also used herbicides.

Simon Caporn’s team explain the role played by atmospheric pollution and tell us that whilst sulphur dioxide pollution is now a thing of the past, nitrogen deposition is definitely on the increase and that this along with rising carbon dioxide levels (as a result of climate change) and ozone may very well be promoting the growth and spread of Molinia.

These presentations (and all the others) are well worth reading and mulling over as they explain why the quest for ‘favourable condition’ in the uplands is currently so elusive.

A day with the Uplands Alliance

Yesterday I spent the day in London at an Uplands  Alliance meeting which was hosted by DEFRA at their Smith Square headquarters. The Uplands Alliance is a loose coalition of all those organisations, individuals and academics with an interest in the uplands of the UK. It is a forum which facilitates discussion and communication rather than a body which produces position statements – see here.

Noble House, Smith Square, Westminster – DEFRA’s home

Following the vote to leave the European Union a huge cloud of uncertainty now hangs over the Uplands – the Uplands Alliance suggest that 31% of upland farm incomes are derived from the Basic Payment Scheme and Countryside Stewardship – without these subsidies many if not most upland farmers would not be able to survive. Following Brexit the Basic Payment Scheme is only guaranteed until 2020 and there is currently a hiatus around new Countryside Stewardship schemes.

The Uplands Alliance’s draft poster detailing the public benefits and issues in the uplands

Prior to the EU referendum two ministers now in DEFRA (Andrea Leadsom and George Eustice) set out their views on agricultural subsidies via their thinktank ‘Fresh Start Project’ (see here). They alluded to the end of Pillar 1 payments (the Basic Payment Scheme) and Pillar 2 monies (Countryside Stewardship) should be focused more on the marginal land to deliver environmental benefits.

I suspect it will be many months before public announcements are made to even indicate options but I think a direction of travel is becoming clearer. At the State of Nature report launch (see here) Andrea Leadsom stated that the current Government wanted to leave the environment and nature in a better state than the ones they inherited. In addition Dieter Helm, the Chair of the Natural Capital Committee has produced a paper on where he thinks agricultural policy should go (see here) – “A third option is to do away with all the subsidies, and instead concentrate any spending on directly purchasing the public goods that public money is paying for. This approach would sort out what the public goods from the land are, and how the natural capital embedded in the landscape could be enhanced.

Agricultural subsidies are going to change maybe radically and it is therefore against this backdrop that the Uplands Alliance met yesterday. There is  real fear in the uplands about the future due to the changes and the uncertainty but there are also real opportunities and if you like reading smoke signals or listening to the jungle drums the wind might be blowing favourably towards the uplands.

londonA room with a view

The meeting was oversubscribed and many who wanted to attend were unable to. We received a short briefing from Professor Mark Reed of Newcastle University who suggested that the uplands needed to take a precautionary approach, that is using the ‘strong evidence that paying for restoration and active management for conservation could provide benefits for wildlife, water quality, reduced flooding and climate. Meanwhile we know little about the effects of large-scale withdrawal of management from peatlands.’

He later tweeted this and note the phrase public money for public goods appearing again.

Minette Batters, the NFU’s Deputy President very articulately made the case for maintaining and supporting farmers in the uplands but didn’t use the phrase public money for public goods.

After lunch Sonia Phippard, the Director General of the Environment and Rural Group at DEFRA spoke, she suggested ‘it will take some time‘ to present new policy and that it was ‘too early to speculate what comes next‘ but nevertheless ‘we need to be radical in our thinking but realistic in our delivery’. She also did say that the hiatus around Countryside Stewardship needed to be sorted out in discussion with the Treasury.

The remainder of the day was spend in 8 breakout groups looking at four different scenarios.

  1. Resilient Land-based Businesses
  2. Vibrant Cultural Landscapes
  3. Local Schemes for Local Outcomes
  4. Outcomes rather than Actions

Each group  considered the impact of their scenario on upland outcomes over the next 25 years from the perspective of scale of both a farm and the landscape. Then each group identified:

  • What are the three most significant human Responses to the scenario and three most significant environmental Results of the scenario?
  • What are the three biggest Risks resulting from the scenario?
  • What are the three most important evidence gaps emerging from the scenario that need to be filled by Research?

It is important to note that these scenarios were not consultation options they were more ‘straw men’ to elicit debate and discussion. I am not going to attempt to summarise these workshop as I only attended one of the 8 but a couple of key messages came out.

The amount of money required in the uplands to keep farming in the hills to farm and deliver with others the public goods is actually much less than many would have thought. Of the £3bn of current CAP money paid to farmers in the UK (via Pillar 1 and Pillar 2) £231m goes to the uplands (around 7.7%). More will be needed to deliver many of the environmental improvements but £231m will keep the hills in active management and therefore support upland farmers and rural communities.

The next key task therefore is engaging with the public to ensure they are aware of the ‘public goods and benefits’ in the uplands i.e. wildlife, water, carbon storage, access, landscape, historic environment etc etc so that when the crunch comes the public are prepared to allow their money to be used to deliver them.

The other noticeable feature of the day was the large amount of consensus between all the participants. This is perhaps not unprecedented but it is unusual as stakeholders in the Uplands have plenty of history when it comes to disagreement and conflict on a number of topics! But at this high level strategic approach there was much agreement, of course the devil will be in the detail and inevitably there will be difficult days ahead.

The meeting was chaired by Michael Winter (from Exeter University) and Julia Aglionby (Foundation for Common Land). At the beginning of the meeting Michael paid tribute to Ian Mercer who died a couple of days ago (see here) and dedicated the meeting to him – most appropriate and I am sure Ian would have been delighted with the outcome.

Parliament where ultimately the fate of the Uplands will be decided




The Cabinet re-shuffle and the environment

Yesterday saw a ruthless day of high politics in Westminster as Theresa May appointed her new Cabinet. David Cameron’s Cabinet has been routed and replaced. The new Cabinet consists of 13 ‘Remainers’ and 7 ‘Brexiters’. May has astutely appointed the Brexiters to Departments which will play the key role in negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU.

Screen Shot 2016-07-14 at 15.45.39This tweet effectively sums up the strategy.

The key Brexit appointments are David Davies who becomes the new Secretary of State (SoS) for Brexit; Liam Fox, SoS for Overseas Trade; Boris Johnson, The Foreign Secretary; Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary; Priti Patel, International Development Secretary; Baroness Evans, Leader of the Lords and Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary at DEFRA

There are some very tough jobs in this list, Davies, Fox and Johnson have entered entirely new territory and will have to all work closely together and work out who is doing what – this will be the area where Britain’s relationships and trade agreements with the EU and the world are negotiated. Grayling as Transport Secretary will have to sort out ‘Heathrow’ and HS2, two hugely controversial infrastructure / environmental battlegrounds. Priti Patel has already stated her desire to scale back international aid and abolish the Department she has now been appointed Secretary of State at! Baroness Evans is the new Leader in the Lords – a chamber where there is not a Brexit majority. Finally Andrea Leadsom’s role is to phase out the Birds and Habitat’s Directives as well as working out what is to replace the current agricultural subsidy system.

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This was fellow Tory MP Nicholas Soames’ tweet regarding Leadsom’s appointment!

The Leadsom appointment was correctly predicted by John Rentoul, the Independent’s Chief Political Correspondent, he suggested that Leadsom would be offered a ‘humiliating junior post’ as a result of her Brexit views and her ‘motherhood’ comments – see here. The DEFRA posting has always been seen as a lesser role (look how little the environment featured in the Brexit campaign for example), but nevertheless it is a Department which will be massively affected by leaving the EU and will in the future be the subject of a great deal of lobbying from  environmental and agricultural interests. Add on top of that the fact that Leadsom has publicly stated that she would go about repealing the ban on fox hunting and that DEFRA is about to roll out a full blown badger cull campaign (of which she is a supporter) the Department will become a lightning conductor of protest and anxiety.

If it is true that she pulled out of the Tory Leadership campaign because of the criticism and ‘black ops’ surrounding her ill-judged and politically naive ‘motherhood’ comments, then that does not bode well for the future, that was a walk in the park compared to what is to come.

To be honest I know very little about Andrea Leadsom, I had never heard of her until she emerged during the Brexit campaign and the Tory Leadership battle but we all know a bit more about her now as a result of the debate around her CV. The only other thing I could find about her environmental views is this, which she said during the Brexit campaign.

Screen Shot 2016-07-14 at 15.41.42
It is worth reading this several times, it contains a lot.

A lot of what though is difficult to understand.

Firstly, the ‘50% back of the money that they paid in the first place‘ implies that farmers are getting back their money – it is in fact tax payers money.
Secondly ‘will absolutely continue in the short term to provide these subsidies‘ will send a shock wave through many farming communities especially those in the uplands who need long term support.
Thirdly ‘those with the big fields do the sheep and those with the hill farms do the butterflies‘ – is this a rewilding agenda or does it mean a better environmental farmed future for the uplands? No doubt the NFU and the Upland Alliance are now in overdrive!

On the positive side the Brexit campaign also said this  ‘in the event of a Brexit vote, £2bn would be earmarked for conservation spending out of the money it expects to recoup from payments to Brussels“. Will this promise be kept or will it go the way of all the other ones?

Today and tomorrow will see the appointment of the Junior Ministers. What will happen to George Eustice, the Farming Minister and vocal Brexiter?  Eustice  said the following during the Brexit campaign “The birds and habitats directives would go….”   and “a lot of the national directives they instructed us to put in place would stay. But the directives’ framework is so rigid that it is spirit-crushing….” and “if we had more flexibility, we could focus our scientists’ energies on coming up with new, interesting ways to protect the environment, rather than just producing voluminous documents from Brussels.”

If we follow the motto ‘You Brexit, you own it’ I would put my money on Eustice staying on in DEFRA and joining Leadsom.

And what of Rory Stewart, the DEFRA minister who dealt with the floods? His fate is perhaps more complicated (he was a low profile ‘Remainer’) because of what has happened to Oliver Letwin who was the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and was leading the government National Flood Resilience Review: Government action to tackle floods see here. He has now been sacked by May and has been replaced by Patrick McLoughlin. With Liz Truss having left DEFRA and with Letwin sacked it only leaves Rory Stewart standing re. the floods. He has done well regarding his brief around flooding so it would make sense if he stayed within DEFRA.

And finally we get to climate change …… The Department for Energy and Climate Change was disbanded yesterday.

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This is what former Liberal Democrat MP and DECC Minister Ed Davey had to say about that

On the surface this looks very depressing – no Government Department dealing with the most pressing issue of our age. However the 2008 Climate Change Act set the plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in place and also set up the Committee on Climate Change which is chaired by Lord Deben (John Selwyn Gummer, the former Tory Secretary of State for the Environment). Lord Deben has yet to comment publicly on the demise of DECC but the legislation to take action remains.

Finally we should remind ourselves of Theresa May’s comments on climate change as they should give us some comfort perhaps? Perhaps also something Chris Grayling should note too regarding Heathrow (a project he supports).

“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 curious case of the Dartmoor Forest Plan has just become more curious

On the 17th June I wrote a piece about the Forestry Commission’s plans for their Estate on Dartmoor entitled ‘The curious case of the Dartmoor Forest Plan’ – see here. In essence their plans set out the FC’s actions up to 2046. Greater thought will be given to wildlife and archaeology, access will be encouraged  but the primary plans centre on the Forests as places where commercial timber will be grown predominantly from conifer crops. There is a small increase of broadleaved species especially around the edges and there is a diversification of the species of conifer that will be planted.

Under conifers

According to the FC website a consultation had been held on their proposals and this had ended on the 1st April this year. Most of the comments received appeared to be minor comments about the detail of what was proposed and there seemed to be no comments actually challenging the principle of re-planting conifers at all. A number of key organisations such as the Dartmoor Preservation Association or the Dartmoor Society appeared not to have commented at all.

The consultation had been a very low profile affair, belatedly the media picked up the story following the publication of my blog and Kate Ashbrook General Secretary of the Open Spaces Society gave an interview on BBC Radio Devon – listen here 1 hour 59 minutes in calling for a debate on a wider options for the future.

Now here comes the even more curious bit, a lady called Jan Corlett had read my blog and heard Kate on the radio and wanted to comment on the plans, she contacted the Forestry Commission and was told that the consultation was still on-going although the FC website is showing that it has closed – see here. Good work Jan and thanks for letting me know.

The consultation on the Dartmoor Forest Plan runs until the 25th July (according to the FC email to Jan) but on another page of the FC website it says the 19th July so if you want to comment on the plan let the FC know what you think by the 19th July. You can no longer comment via their website (the hyperlink you press just brings up a map) so instead send comments by email to or write to them at Forestry Commission, West England Forest District, Haldon Forest Park, Bullers Hill, Kennford, Exeter, Devon, EX6 7XR.

I can smell a small furry rodent!