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The Heather in Lore, Lyric and Lay
Economics of the Heather - As a Forage Plant


The tops of the Heather afford a considerable part of the winter foods of the hill flocks, and are popularly supposed to communicate the line flavor to the Highland mutton; but sheep seldom crop Heather while the mountain grasses and rushes are sweet and accessible. It has been said that cows not accustomed to browse on the Heath give bloody milk, but are soon cured by drinking plentifully of water. Pennant, writing of Iona, tells us: "There is no heath in the island; cattle unused to that plant give bloody milk, which is the case with the cattle of Iona transported to Mull where that vegetable abounds, but the cure is soon effected by giving them plenty of water." A writer in the "London Magazine" in 1826, speaking of a tour of the Western Highlands, remarks as follows: "In the articles of milk, cream and butter, they (the Highlanders) surpass the choicest productions of English dairies; the reason of which was once given me by a Highlander: 'O, it's a' the Heather flowers and the natural grass.'"

How the plants save themselves, so to speak, from total destruction at the hands or rather the appetites of grazing animals, is thus interestingly described in the Natural History of Plants (Koerner and Oliver): "if the young bushes of ling (Calluna vulgaris) are accessible to goats, sheep and oxen, these bite off the ends of the fresh shoots, together with the leaves attached to them. The remaining portion of the mutilated shoot in the neighborhood of the wound dries up, but the part behind keeps alive, and the buds on it develop even more vigorously than would have been the case if the mutilation had not occurred. The shoots which in the following year arise from these buds may suffer the same misfortune. . . . The branches of the small mutilated bushes become so thick and the dry hard periphery of the crown are so crowded together that even the greedy goats are prevented from breaking through the armour, and abstain from pulling out the green shoots from behind the dry stumps. Then at length the unprotected plants obtain a defensive armour which is capable of saving them entirely from the further attacks of grazing animals."


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