28. In praise of gorse by Kevin O'Hara

Thursday 19th May 2011

© NWT

Gorse, furze, furse or whin (Ulex spp.) is a genus of about 20 plant species of spiny evergreen shrubs, so Wikipedia tells us. To me, this much-maligned shrub will always be ‘whin’ or ‘whiney bush’; it is a perennial survivor too, so maybe that’s another reason why I view it more favorably than others.

Mainly, I think it is a very underrated plant that brings massive benefits to the countryside, if not just from the brilliant splash of colour its vivid yellow flowers give on late spring days.

It is an ancient plant too; its name gives rise to many common names associated with place-names, geological features and species such as the self-explanatory Whiney Hill, whinchat, and of course the great whin sill. It is a native shrub, with three species commonly found in the UK, and has dense, dark green shoots and vicious spines. From March to May and often in late summer, a dazzling feast of colour is given by the fragrant pea-like yellow flowers. It thrives in poor, dry acid soils, but it will grow in many suitable well- drained places in a sunny position.

I remember it well from my youth, as I would be covered in scratches from those thorns as I drove my way through thick gorse to reach the nests of yellowhammer and linnet, or to recover an errant ferret from the many rabbit holes that lay beneath. On hot days we would sit and listen to the yellowhammer’s ‘little bit of bread but no cheese’ song and the snap, crackle and pop of the seed heads bursting in the sun’s heat.

Gorse is a fire-climax plant, well adapted to encourage and withstand fires, being highly flammable, and having seed pods that are to a large extent opened by fire or heat, which allows rapid regeneration. Typical fire recurrence periods in gorse stands are 5–20 years and this allows other habitats to take their turn in succession, such as acidic or calcareous grasslands.

During the seventies and eighties large areas of gorse-strewn hillsides were cleared under agricultural improvement grants, when at the same time we were removing miles of hedgerows and undertaking other countryside ‘improvements’. Yes, we are now replanting many, but will it ever repair the damage that was done back then, especially as we maintain the resulting hedges too neatly and tidily? I still see linnet and yellowhammer on my local gorse patches but in nowhere near the abundance of those years past.

Gorse still gets bashed by all and sundry; even we in conservation manage it, but where there are still places available to see and hear the sound of gorse; you should take the opportunity to sit and listen a while. Gorse is ideal for a range of nesting heathland, downland and farmland birds, including the rare Dartford warbler, stonechat, linnet and yellowhammer. Rabbits dig in the dry soils beneath and stoats hunt their prey via the labyrinth of warrens beneath.

The dense structure also provides important refuge for birds in harsh weather, and is essential for the survival of many in winter. Gorse is important for invertebrates; it is in flower for long periods, so is an important nectar source in early spring and early winter, when little else is in flower. A number of scarce invertebrates are reliant on it (with several specific shield bugs permanently dependent), although it is intolerably hard to spot inhabitants of the whin.

Gorse is part of our history, our culture and our heritage, and I for one stand up in praise of gorse.