Heather and its part in the Heath.


FineGolf, as part of its ‘conservation greenkeeping series‘ is honoured to work with two of Britain’s experts in developing this article.

John Nicholson is Britain’s leading independent habitat and golf landscape consultant, while Michael Edwards is one of the country’s leading experts on entomology (the study of insects). Michael is also one of the leading experts on bees as well as heathland management and was very involved with Operation Pollinator.

What is heathland and how did it occur in the landscape?

Heathland is infertile, acid land. Historically the more fertile agricultural sites were owned by the landed gentry who allowed the commoners to graze their livestock on the less fertile ‘Common land’ and the name heathland originated from the fact that the nobles referred to such areas as Heathen’s Land, from which the word heathland was derived.

John Nicholson

Heathland can support many different plants and, in some cases, heather can be absent altogether. A good example of this being at Farnham Golf Club where the opening lower holes are laid out on acid grassland with no heather present at all, whereas the geology and PH on Farnham’s higher ground favours heather. To the untrained eye it would appear that the holes near the clubhouse are parkland and the holes on the higher ground are heathland, whereas, in fact, the entire course is heathland – albeit of a different appearance.

Michael Edwards

Heather is a dwarf shrub that lives for approximately thirty years, by which point it will become brittle and lose its ability to transfer water and nutrient. The brittle nature of the stem also makes it susceptible to damage through trampling as it is easily broken. It is therefore advisable to renew a significant area every few years if sustainability is to be achieved.

There are various methods of management. However, it is always wise to have a professional management plan in place to ensure the continuity of the landscape, i.e. no dramatic changes or short-term visual loss.

Heathland is a transitory ecosystem that inherently wants to revert back to woodland at the earliest opportunity. It is therefore necessary to manage heath if it is to remain healthy. Heather is actually a woodland plant that appears in clearings created by either wind-blow, felling or fire. In temperate Britain it is actually one of the few plants of fire-system ecology – unlike in Mediterranean areas which are often dominated by such plants.

Many heathland perennial plants have a symbiotic relationship with the mycorrhizal fungi in the soil.


Mycorrhizae, Mycorrhizal

Magnified mycorrhizae around grass roots

Mycorrhizae are fungi growing in association with perennial plant roots, and exist by taking sugars from plants ‘in exchange’ for moisture and nutrients gathered from the soil by the fungal strands. The mycorrhizae greatly increase the absorptive area of a perennial plant, acting as extensions to their root system. Both perennial fine grasses and heathers are very strongly associated with these mycorrhizae which help them to live naturally in infertile and otherwise inhospitable habitats, unlike annual meadow grass (Poa annua) that struggles if it is not artificially fertilised. Unfortunately for the heathers, other larger plants are also able to take advantage of this symbiotic association, especially trees.

leaves dropped from trees into heather.

A tree uses its food to develop leaves and capture carbon dioxide to make sugars. At the end of the growing season it then drops its leaves, adding nutrient to the soil and increasing fertility – thus creating an environment that does not suit the heathland community but encourages the broadleaf weed grasses that are undesirable for golf. Deciduous leaves in the autumn can blow under the heather, mulch-down and fertilise and so create an environment less suited to healthy heather.

There is therefore no conflict between good heathland management and the removal of trees and the requirements of a fine golf course. The fine grasses demand abundant light and infertility – the same as heath.

How do you manage heather and fine acidic grassland?

Firstly, a cut-and-collect mowing regime is required to maintain the heather and fescue roughs in healthy condition and to avoid returning nutrient to the soil.

The fire-system or burning is the traditional method of heather management and a quote from the National Trust website is enlightening:

Heather management on Long Mynd.

“Burning is the most traditional and effective way to manage the heather. Underneath the older heather a moss layer starts to develop that actually limits the re-generation of the heather seed. Burning gets rid of the moss very effectively.
The team have a small window of opportunity to manage the heather that they have to try to burn. It has to be done between mid-October and mid-April, although we stop burning by mid-March so that we don’t encroach on the nesting season for the grouse.
The burning requires some specific weather conditions as well, we need a few dry days before burning so that the heather isn’t damp, and on the day of burning we need ideally a wind, no more than 12 miles per hour”.

Question: Is burning worse than running a diesel tractor cutting for hours?
Answer: Politically you don’t see smoke!

To avoid climate alarmist controversy golf courses these days usually avoid burning, though Royal St George’s, in conjunction with local environmental groups, has successfully regenerated parts of their rough by burning.

Old heather

In the case of heathers it is essential to cut the old stem at the base so that new growth occurs from low down – even from the root stock. A worrying trend is the use of rotary type mowers that simply cut the top off the heather and do not cut at the base. This leaves an old stem with a new top but the plant is still old!

An Amazone or Wiedenmann 500 are appropriate machines for the purpose, as they pull the old stem up from the ground and then cut it at the base, encouraging new growth to shoot from here. One practical disadvantage of these machines is that they quickly fill the hopper and cutting can be a lengthy task.

Regeneration and germination.

Tip cuttings can be spread to cast the heather seed to new areas or to enhance existing stands. Old woody cuttings below the seed pods are best burnt or composted.

Care must be taken to avoid spreading unwanted seed from other less desirable plants such as gorse. It is not recommended to use cuttings from areas where European (Ulexeuropaeus) or Western Gorse (Ulexgalli) are present. Dwarf Gorse (Ulex minor) is an acceptable component of the heath and is not as invasive or problematic as its larger, more aggressive brothers.

Bracken (Pteridium aquilinum) is also a threat to heather stands as it returns nutrient to the soil in a similar way to trees.

Heather one year after hard cut.

Heathland soils are generally sandy and the outflow of nutrients is greater than the input. This is either through the nutrient leaching down through the sand to the podsol (approximately a metre down) or through grazing animals. Once the balance changes to a larger input than outflow the ecosystem changes to one more suited to the less desirable plants and the heathland community becomes out-competed and will be ultimately lost.

Heather four years after hard cut.

Heather germination can be achieved through seeds, this process requires patience as it is dependent on weather patterns being suitable (namely, warmth and rain). Germination can occur during March-April or August to September, again being reliant on the correct weather conditions.

If seeding is undertaken with tip cuttings collected on site, these are better taken after the first frosts in the Autumn and the seed should be spread immediately after collection to get best results. The area for seeding should, of course, be prepared prior to the cutting being spread. Care must be taken not to create a thick mat of cuttings as this will smother the ground, reducing successful germination.

Renovation of Mackenzie bunker at Moortown.

Heather turf is a very labour intensive and expensive way of colonizing new areas of heath and is not particularly good method of establishing heather. Heather turf requires heavy watering in the establishment stage and if the water supply is from mains water it will often be calcareous and detrimental to the turf. This activity has nevertheless become quite fashionable recently with clubs creating heather topped bunkers.

Heather topped renovated bunkers at West Hill.

Another activity that has become quite fashionable is scraping off the top soil where heather has been, even 80 years previously, in order to expose the heather bed which can help regenerate new heather areas within a three/four year period. Nevertheless, this approach is quite risky if done by an inexperienced operator as you can remove the seed bed by going too deep with the scrape; also you can risk the danger of agitating the soil, thereby creating a situation that is more attractive to broadleaf weeds than heather. We used to scrape only, but now often try and leave the profile untouched by mowing really tight and re-seeding with light bashing’s. It all depends on the conditions of individual situations.

These are the general principles that apply to heathland management, however every site is different and it may be necessary to experiment with different prescriptions.

John Nicholson and Mike Edwards
FineGolf takes responsibility for editorial comment while please contact John Nicholson Associates for more detailed information.

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