Appendix 3: Thriving plants and wildlife


i) Designations reflected the biodiversity importance of managed moorlands in England at the time of designation.

ii) There are four upland SPAs covering an area of c.230,000ha. 74% of the area of upland SPAs is managed as grouse moors.  The four upland SPAs with >90% of their area at or above 200m are (and the qualifying species covered by the designation):

    • North Pennine Moors – Hen harrier, merlin, peregrine falcon and golden plover
    • North York Moors – Merlin and golden plover
    • South Pennine Moors – Short-eared owl, merlin and golden plover
    • Bowland Fells – Hen harrier, merlin, lesser black-backed gull

iii) Between 1994 and 2019 the English moorland bird index has increased by 13%34.  This index tracks the abundance of red grouse, golden plover, curlew, common gull, meadow pipit, whinchat, wheatear, raven, black grouse, hen harrier, golden eagle and merlin.

iv) Best practice legal grouse moor management can support the six SPA bird indicator species listed above:

    • Hen harrier - Clutch survival and productivity was higher on a keepered moor with predation by foxes being the main cause of breeding failure35. Natural England has reported that 2021 was the best breeding year in England since the 1960s, with 84 chicks fledged from nests across uplands in County Durham, Cumbria, Lancashire, Northumberland and Yorkshire36
    • Merlin – The species benefits from predator management carried out on grouse moors37 and shows peak occurrence at intermediate levels of controlled burning38.
    • Lesser black-backed gull (migratory) - Nesting is more common where ground predation risk is low39.
    • Peregrine falcon – Grouse moors provide suitable breeding habitat and an abundant food supply40.
    • Short-eared owl – A mosaic of heather ages is thought to support populations given their diet of small mammals, especially voles41
    • Golden plover – Breeding densities of golden plover are highest where GMM is carried out42,43.

v) GMM is the preferred habitat for the amber-listed red grouse, and also provides refuges for other birds. Lapwings are positively associated with moorland managed for grouse shooting43. Curlew are red-listed and one of the UK’s most pressing bird conservation priorities following habitat loss (to farmland and woodland) and increased predation44. GMM supports curlew breeding populations whose prevalence is related to percentage of controlled burning42 and breeding success and numbers improved where predators were controlled43. Twite45 and lesser redpoll42are associated with hill edge (including nesting on heather moorland) and burning extent respectively. In England black grouse are largely confined to the North Pennines. 90% of the English population is estimated to exist on moorland keepered for red grouse, benefitting from reduced predation pressure and beneficial grazing restrictions46.

vi) The success of the hen harrier brood management trial indicates how GMM can integrate with social-legal objectives when public policy is supportive. See figure in main report.

vii) There is a remnant mountain hare population in the Peak District. Mountain hares benefit from GMM, which enhances habitat quality and reduces predation pressure47.

viii) A unique assemblage of invertebrates, some important to carbon cycling, benefit from GMM’s objective of variable habitat structure. There are important invertebrate assemblages related to heather and blanket bog peatlands. Habitats characterized by a mosaic of vegetation communities and structures are likely to support the greatest invertebrate diversity and abundance48. Rare ground beetles are associated with sites managed by burning and cutting. Some beetle species are found only on unmanaged wet Calluna moor with the highest median site rarity scores found on dry, open, managed Calluna sites49. Invertebrates have been found to be most abundant in the building-phase of cut heather rather than in fresh cut or mature heather50. Drain blocking could slow the predicted damaging effects of warmer, drier summers on craneflies51. Preventing vegetation succession (through management) could also be important in retaining the particular communities associated with moorlands52.

ix) Moths and butterflies are good indicators of environmental change; specialist moorland moths have increased by 80% between 1991 to 201834 though there are fluctuations in the index (range c-40 to +80) with 1996, 2003, 2006, 2010 and 2018 being good years.

x) The four upland SACs (Special Areas of Conservation) related to areas managed for GMM cover an area of c.224,000ha.

Table 1: The conservation status of key habitats on 4 UK Special Areas of Conservation

  North Atlantic wet
heath with Erica tetralix
European dry heath Blanket bog
North Pennines (1998-2015) Good Good Good
North York Moors (2001-2015) Good Good Good
South Pennines (2001-2015) Average Average Average
Border Mires (1996-2015) Good Good Excellent

xi) Managed (or controlled) burning can aid Sphagnum moss establishment by removing the heather, grass or sedge canopy resulting in increased light and reduced competition53 and that the highest levels of Sphagnum moss and cotton grass were on areas burnt between three and ten years previously54.


xii) The numbers and distribution of hen harriers and peregrine falcons on many upland areas managed under GMM remains worse than would be expected from the available habitat and prey resource, suggesting direct (illegal killing) and indirect (habitat management) actions could be restricting their range and populations, although there has been a rapid change for the better in recent years55. The illegal killing of protected birds of prey, including those which have attained favourable conservation status, may be related to evidence that in some circumstances raptor predation has been shown to prevent the economic sustainability of a grouse moor, and consequently the conservation of endangered upland waders56. The GWCT condemns illegal crimes against wildlife and is committed to finding an effective and practical resolution to the conflict between red grouse and raptors. Our involvement in the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project was testament to this intent. The outcome of this project reinforces our belief that the best of traditional moorland management can and should be married to new approaches and techniques in order to support more birds of prey, with a sustainable distribution across suitable moorland habitat.

xiii) Native ‘clough’ woodland is relatively scarce (c.3300ha) and upland semi-natural woods have declined by 30 to 40% over the last 50 to 60 years. Native clough woodlands are typically made up of a mix of species such as sessile oak, birch, rowan, aspen, alder, willow, hawthorn and holly. They are open in nature and have varied structures. Their decline is primarily associated with commercial replanting and grazing preventing regeneration57.


xiv) Heather moorland, a globally important habitat , has declined in extent by more than 27% since 194558, with c.210,000ha remaining in England (CEH Land Cover data 2019 (see Table 3.1, page 12 in main report)). Our research for this report suggests that it continues to decline being replaced by heather grassland (less than 25% heather cover) – see Table 3.1, page 12 of main report) although there is a lack of detailed long-term data on the extent of heather habitats present in the English uplands.

xv) ‘Net zero’ public policy plays a role in this loss:

    • It emphasises reducing heather as part of peatland restoration.
    • SSSI condition assessments result in controlled burning being suppressed by explicitly assuming that fire only has damaging effects on peatlands. SSSI condition assessments are based on JNCC guidance or Common Standards Monitoring. For the uplands this guidance was produced in 2009 and states that to be in ‘good condition’ blanket bog and wet heath habitats should have “ observable signs of burning into the moss, liverwort or lichen layer or exposure of peat surface due to burning” and for Alpine dwarf shrub heath “There should be no signs of burning inside the feature boundaries.”59. This inflates estimates of the impact of fire by assuming the whole site is affected and also ignores any beneficial effects of fire60.
    • The Heather & Grass etc. Burning (England) Regulations 2021 prevent controlled burning on around 142,000 ha of blanket bog, much of which was designated whilst being managed, including burning, as grouse moor.
    • Woodland cover, favouring broadleaved/mixed woodland (National Forest Inventory) has increased in the uplands from 9.9% to 11.6% between 1990 and 2015 according to UK CEH Land Cover Map data. Public policy, private green finance and alternative land use likely to result in further tree stocking on formerly open moorland.

xvi) Warmer temperatures (assuming sufficient soil moisture)61 are likely to increase biomass production, particularly on heathlands, resulting in a need to maintain open habitats through active management17. These effects will be multiplied where livestock numbers decline following changes in agricultural support regimes and rewilding management – with consequent impacts on biodiversity and favourable condition.

xvii) The damaging loss of GMM for upland birds species has been documented in SW Scotland62. In the Berwyn Mountains in Wales, where grouse shooting has ceased, lapwing are extinct, golden plover are down to one pair, and curlew have declined by 90%63.

xviii) GMM can mitigate but not fully compensate for biodiversity losses across the whole of England – nationally, numbers of whinchat and merlin have halved (1994-2017), and curlew numbers across all suitable habitats have been in decline since around 1970, falling 14% between 2005 and 2015 alone64. It has not been possible to identify trends for these species on just GMM areas but for merlin regional population declines were not limited to areas dominated by grouse moors65.


xix) GMM should seek to support clough woodlands. Natural England should assist with this by supporting grouse moors in their use of controlled burning, grazing and predator control to protect the woodland and ground nesting moorland species.

xx) Legally controllable predators, such as foxes and crows, are taken on grouse moors to protect nesting grouse and their chicks. This reduced predation pressure has benefits for many other ground-nesting birds including threatened waders such as curlew and golden plover43. Predator control techniques are now well regulated and have become more target specific, effective and humane. In some habitats it appears that there is little impact of predator removal on predator populations due to replacement/immigration66.

xxi) Drier summers mean rewetting some peatland (balanced against methane emissions and the need to allow some buffer for water storage) could benefit invertebrate abundance and consequently bird populations such as golden plover51.

xxii) As elsewhere, data inconsistencies (definitions, monitoring protocols) and lack of ground-truthing make it difficult to determine precise details of habitat change and species diversity. Grouse moor managers should take more responsibility for collecting and sharing field data that provides evidence of their best practice (see section 6 of main report)67.

xxiii) The definition of favourable condition may need to be different in the future if soil, habitat and species capabilities in relation to climatic conditions have been irretrievably affected by anthropogenic action including climate change68. The determination of favourable condition focuses on the presence of key indicator plant species as these are a factor in ecosystem functioning. However, research in France69 showed that the forecast increased frequency of droughts and consequent lowering of water tables could affect Sphagnum function. That said, it appears that peatlands can adapt to climate change with different plant communities that maintain peat bog function because the new species are functionally identical70.

xxiv) GMM provides an economic incentive for the conservation of upland ecosystems. Policy should capitalise on this to encourage the creation of ‘Moorland Clusters’ such as the Peak District Nature Improvement Area (NIA).