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The wild Scottish Heather

I feel like heather must run in my blood. Whenever amongst it, my whole body comes alive. I am in my Scottish wilderness. I am free.

Swathes of heather moorland are the epitome of Scotland. They lend dashes of colour to this rugged landscape. Shades of pink and red that vary in vibrancy. If you listen closely, you can hear the bees bobbing between one plant and the next. Sharing my delight in this floral feast.

Heather is a hardy plant. It thrives in the harsh Scottish climate. Surviving the challenging elements and flourishing even within infertile soils. Their woody roots are surprisingly strong. I have often clung to these as I have traversed many a steep hillside. My fingers tangle within these rough and scratchy roots as I heave myself forwards. They never let me fall.

When I'm out on these wild open moors, I feel like I am challenging my inner Catherine Earnshaw. The feral heroine from my treasured Wuthering Heights novel. I can relate to the wilderness that captured her heart and twisted her soul. It is an often unforgiving yet powerfully beautiful landscape.

We have three different species of heather colonising Scotland. As its name suggests, the most widespread of these is the common, or ling, heather. This dominates Scottish landscapes and is intertwined with our folklore. Although when seen up close, its colours are fairly muted, with soft shades of pink and purple, the sheer extent of this plant can transform the colour of entire hillsides.

The other, less common, heather species are bell heather and cross leaved heath. Bell heather is often the most vibrant of the three, with its flowers being a deep purple, its bell-shaped petals bobbing in the wind. The rarer cross leaved heath is similar to bell heather but with larger petals that are coloured in softer shades of pink.

There is a tragedy to heather. We have become used to this plant dominating much of Scotland. Even celebrated it. However, in much of these landscapes, there is a hidden destruction. This is not how it should be.

Scotland was once a swathed in forest. This was the dominant habitat, much like Scandinavian countries with similar climates. However, over the years, this forest has been methodically removed. As land use changed, our landscape was transformed to what it is today, with forests being restricted to small, isolated patches, making life almost impossible for those species that relied on these large areas of native trees.

Although in some areas, work is underway to try and restore these forests, these efforts are stunted with continued conflict over land use. Much of the heathered landscape we see today is actually heavily managed grouse moors, where any chance of trees returning is eliminated with intensive burning, all so non-native birds can be released, some of which will be cruelly shot, the rest will feed those generalist predators (like foxes), inflate their populations, and put other native species at risk. It is a cycle of destruction.

This knowledge can tarnish the enjoyment I take in admiring the heather, which has just started to bloom in earnest, now we are into July. But it doesn't remove it completely. In some wilder pockets of Scotland, being immersed in heather is perfectly natural and I am delighted to be amongst these precious plants.

Nature doesn't know how it is twisted by humanity. I will continue to respect what's here, whilst gently hoping that, over time, we will release our hold over nature. Only then, will we truly experience a wild world. Just as it should be.


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