19 November 1999

Heather harvest is not to be sniffed at

YORKSHIRE heather is helping to make the world smell sweeter. Every year, farmer David Cussons cuts 160ha (400 acres) of heather from the North Yorkshire Moors.

Baled and loose, it is packed into containers and exported to several countries, including Holland, Germany and Saudi Arabia, where it is used as air and water filters. It kills smells in places ranging from fish and chip shops to large chemical factories.

Mr Cussons, who has a mixed arable and sheep enterprise on three farms covering 243ha(600 acres) at Kirbymoorside, says his heather harvesting is a good method of moorland management.

"Traditionally, old heather is burned to allow new shoots to come to provide food for wildlife, grouse and sheep," he says. "But it can take several years to regenerate, especially if the peat catches fire. After cropping, the young heather is there next year."

&#42 Patchwork quilt

Tractors and cutters are used to take the heather out in 20-metre wide strips from October to April on a rotation basis. The aim is to leave a patchwork quilt of plants at varying stages of development.

"Old heather up to three feet high hasnt much to offer wildlife, especially fledglings who find it difficult to cope with," says Mr Cussons. "But once it has been cut and it starts growing again, it is interesting to see all the insects, small mammals and moorland birds returning."

It is not the beautiful purple flower that carpets North Yorkshire in late summer that is used in the filters, but the tough, wiry stalks. Kept moist, they grow a bacterium which aids the process of removing odour. With water, the heather takes out solids.

"For a fish and chip shop, youd have a small wooden box of stalks to clean the air," says Mr Cussons. "But a factory would need a filter the size of a swimming pool."

Cropping heather fits in with another of Mr Cussons enterprises – reinstating moorland that has been destroyed by fire.

Tom Montgomery