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Gorse

Dartford warbler singing from flowering gorse bush

Image: Chris Gomersall

Gorse scrub occurs wherever soils are light and free draining, in areas that are relatively free from severe frosts. Gorse is very important for birds and for invertebrates. However, it does have the potential to encroach onto otherwise valuable land.

Gorse is relatively short lived (up to 25 years), but with careful management, its vigour and value for wildlife can be maintained.

There are three species of gorse in Britain. Common gorse Ulex europaeus is the most familiar and widespread, and has the most robust growth character. Western gorse Ulex gallii is frequent in the western half of Britain and occurs along the East Anglian coast; it is relatively low growing yet robust. 

Dwarf gorse Ulex minor is a low growing, sprawling shrub that is a relatively uncommon component of the heathland shrub layer in central southern and eastern Britain. 

These pages discuss the first two species together, whereas dwarf gorse is best treated as part of the heathland dwarf shrub community.

Benefits for wildlife

Compact gorse is ideal for a range of nesting heathland, downland and farmland birds, including the Dartford warbler, stonechat, linnet and yellowhammer. The dense structure also provides important refuge for these birds in harsh weather, and is essential for the survival of Dartford warblers 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 dependent on it.

What conditions does gorse need?

Gorse thrives on free draining soils with low fertility and indeed it can be out-competed in nutrient rich conditions. As it seeds freely and can readily colonise disturbed ground, it can be highly invasive in heavily disturbed areas. This also means that, in appropriate areas, it can also be easily cultivated. Common gorse is not restricted to acidic soils; it also grows well on free draining limestone and chalk soils. It is, however, not tolerant of frequent frosts so is not found at altitude in the north.

How much gorse is appropriate and where should it be?

  • Gorse is valuable as scattered bushes or as discrete clumps of up to about a quarter of a hectare.
  • No more than 10% cover of gorse is likely to be appropriate on priority habitats or farmed land.
  • 5% cover of common gorse on mature dry heath is thought to be ideal for Dartford warblers.
  • Large continuous patches colonising open habitats could shade out herbaceous interest, and might
    not be appropriate.
  • Gorse hedges provide nest sites and stock proofing.
  • Gorse is best located, for wildlife, in sheltered areas, especially on valley sides, away from frost hollows and exposed areas.
  • Although it will grow in partially water-logged ground, the growth will usually be straggly and of little value to nesting birds.