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The Powerful Purpose of Purple

During August and September, our moorlands and heaths are transformed into a vivid shade of purple as the heather bursts into its annual bloom. But aside from being a beautiful spectacle for walkers, the heather has an important purpose. It supports lots of wildlife by providing food and habitat and it has also played an important role in human history too. Discover why bees love purple and find the best heather walks...

heathercloseHeather, also known as Ling, is an abundant plant on heathland, moors, bogs and even in woodland with acidic or peat soils. Its delicate purple flowers appear from July to October and are a contrast to the tough, wiry, sprawling stems they grow upon.

Purple-carpeted heaths are an iconic feature of the UK's landscape and are the result of hundreds of years of low-impact human activities such as livestock-grazing and scrub clearance. Yet development and the decline of traditional farming methods have caused many of these precious habitats to be lost – more than 80% of lowland heath in the UK has disappeared in the last 200 years. The UK has a special obligation to conserve this habitat, given that it is home to about 20% of the lowland heath in Europe. 



Heathland is home to hundreds of highly specialised plants and animals...  

heathermoorAbout 5,000 species of invertebrates occur on heathlands including grasshoppers, bush crickets, beetles, dragonflies, moths, ants, wasps, bees and spiders, many of them rarities. Heathlands also support all six of Britain's native reptiles with the open sandy areas being perfect for basking in the sun. Remember though, only the adder is poisonous and all reptiles are shy, so leave them alone and they will do the same with you. Our rarest two reptiles, smooth snakes and sand lizards, are now restricted to heaths in southern England.

Several species of birds are particularly associated with heathland. Three of these, nightjars, woodlarks and Dartford warblers, are on the red list as their populations are endangered. Nightjars are summer visitors to England, whose characteristic churring noise can be heard on heathlands on warm, summer evenings. Heather is also important as a food source for a variety of bird species, including the red grouse which feeds on the shoots, flowers and seeds.

The heather is pollinated by insects, mainly bees. Scientific findings show that bumblebees favour purple flowers and for good reason, as these are often the most nectar-rich flowers. The light spectrum bees see is from 600 to 300nm; blue-green, blue, violet, and ultraviolet, with research showing that their favourite colour is what we see as purple. And honeybees are also lovers of heather, with the resulting honey taking on a delicious heathery tang.

Best iFootpath Walks for Heather...

heatherbobbie2As a place to visit for walkers, heathland has high intrinsic appeal and provides a special sense of wilderness. So many classic romantic novels seem to use moorland and heathland as a dramatic backdrop and there is no wonder. It really is worth experiencing, especially at this time of year. There are lots of iFootpath walks that take you through heathland, too many to mention them all here, but these are a few of our favourites that will give you your annual fill of purple…

Cannock’s Boulder and Memorials, Staffordshire 

Explore Surrey: Haslemere Hills and Heather, Surrey 

The Legends of Stiperstones Ridge, Shropshire 

Keys and Crown: The Snape Heath and River Pub Trail, Suffolk 

Win Hill from Heatherdene, Derbyshire

Ros Castle and Hepburn Wood, Northumberland 

Bronte Country: Haworth Moor and Top Withins, West Yorkshire 

May Beck and Sneaton High Moor, North Yorkshire 

20 August 2016 

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