Biodiversity and conservation on grouse moors

Key points

  • Grouse moors help preserve the heather-dominated moorland landscapes that many value in the uplands, slowing heather loss compared to areas not managed for grouse.
  • Grouse moors provide important refuges for many moorland ground-nesting birds such as curlew and golden plover, because of habitat management and predator control.
  • Lapwing, golden plover and curlew were found to fledge more than three times as many young when predator control was carried out, compared to without it.

Grouse moors are found in the UK uplands on heather-dominated moorland, an environment which is valued for both its unusual plant communities and breeding birds. Although sometimes imagined as an open, uniform expanse of moorland, the UK’s uplands actually consist of a variety of environments and habitats, supporting different activities across the landscape. Farming, forestry, grouse moors, deer management, wind farms and nature reserves are all found in the uplands. These different areas support different communities of plant and animal species, but fragmentation of open moorland environments by these other land uses can be detrimental to some species. Although grouse moor management can be controversial, its importance to certain habitats and species means that its role within the mix of land uses is of recognised conservation value.

The two main aspects of grouse moor management that affect biodiversity are heather management and predator control. Heather is managed by cutting, light grazing and prescribed heather burning, to encourage the growth of new shoots. This will also suppress tree and scrub spread and preserve heather moorland by preventing conversion to woodland. Managed heather burning is not just used on grouse moors, it is also carried out to improve livestock grazing on moorland and other types of heathland. However, its use on grouse moors is most often the focus of debates on the environmental impact, including biodiversity and conservation. Predator control is carried out on grouse moors to protect nesting grouse and their chicks from generalist predators such as foxes and crows. It is well established that this reduced predation pressure has benefits for many other ground-nesting birds including threatened waders such as curlew and golden plover.

Importance

Heather-dominated moorland supports groups or ‘communities’ of plants growing together that are either only found in the UK or are found more abundantly here than elsewhere in the world. These communities are different to those found under other land uses such as commercial forestry, so grouse moor management can help increase overall biodiversity in the uplands. They include species of berry, grass, sedge and mosses such as sphagnum, which together define habitats that are listed under the EU’s Conservation of Natural Habitats and of Wild Flora and Fauna Directive. The 1992 Rio Convention on Biodiversity recognised the global importance of UK heather moorland.

Grouse moor management and heather conservation

Grouse moor management can help conserve heather moorland. In the early 2000s, heather cover was falling sharply in the UK, generally as a result of overgrazing and commercial forestry plantations. However, a GWCT study showed that management for driven grouse shooting slows the loss of heather from our landscape. Between the 1940s and 1980s, moors that stopped grouse shooting lost 41% of their heather cover, while moors retaining shooting lost only 24%. Historically, a landowner’s commitment to grouse management may have dissuaded them from converting moors to other land uses such as forestry or agriculture.

Many designations in the uplands were originally made because of the habitats and species on moorland, which can be supported by grouse management. Some of the best examples of heather moorland in the UK are designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) and ‘Natura’ sites – Special Protection Areas (SPA) and Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) – in recognition of their importance. In England, 74% of upland SPAs are managed as grouse moors. However, on some grouse moors inappropriate burning or the lack of agreed heather management plans have led to the classification of the site as being in unfavourable condition.

Invertebrates

Although invertebrate diversity tends to be relatively low when compared with other habitats, rare species are associated with moorland, including moths, bees, butterflies, various money spider species, craneflies, and ground beetles. For example, the bilberry or mountain bumblebee is only found in bilberry-rich moorlands with heather, which provides nectar late in the summer and protection from the weather. Butterflies and moths tend to be more diverse and abundant on moorland areas when heather is older, compared to recently burnt areas. Overall, the number of species of plants or animals found on heather moorland can be fairly low, but those species that thrive are often uncommon, specialist species not found elsewhere, meaning that maintaining heather moorland is important for their conservation.

Birds

The moorland environment also supports a variety of bird species, many of European or international importance. Some birds occur at higher densities and breed more successfully on moors managed for red grouse than on other moorland. These include threatened species such as curlew and merlin but also red grouse and golden plover, with lapwing and black grouse on the fringes of grouse moors. There is strong evidence from several studies that grouse moor management is beneficial for a group of wader species, including curlew, golden plover and lapwing.

  • The GWCT’s Upland Predation Experiment found that lapwing, golden plover, curlew, red grouse and meadow pipit bred on average three times more successfully when predator control was performed, compared to the same moorland when predators were not controlled. As a result, breeding numbers increased in subsequent years, but in the absence of predator control, they declined.
  • Results from the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project showed that restoring grouse management was beneficial for three wader species. Overall, curlew numbers rose by 10% per year on average, golden plover by 16% and snipe by 21%.
  • A recent GWCT analysis of upland bird species trends in southwest Scotland found declines in several upland bird species, including red and black grouse, golden plover, lapwing and curlew, and these are generally attributed to large-scale changes in land use, including afforestation, more intensive farming and reductions in grouse moor management.
  • An analysis of the status of grouse management in the north of England, the Scottish mainland, Wales and southwest of England showed that range contraction for curlew, golden plover, lapwing and dunlin was smallest where grouse shooting was retained and greatest where it had disappeared completely.
  • Another study looking at the change in bird numbers when moorland management stopped also found that some species of moorland bird declined when grouse moor management ended.

Grouse moors also provide important refuges for the black grouse. The last estimate of black grouse numbers in the whole of Britain was 5,078 males in 2005 with the population centred on a few key upland areas of Scotland, northern England and North Wales. In England, black grouse are confined to the North Pennines, where 90% of the remaining population lives on the edges of moors keepered for red grouse. Research in the UK indicates black grouse are vulnerable to predation by foxes, stoats and raptors, whilst high densities of livestock can reduce essential cover and render them more at risk from those predators. For this reason, land management measures associated with upland farms on the fringes of grouse moors, including predator control and grazing restrictions, can benefit black grouse breeding success and overall survival.

In Wales a GWCT study found that black grouse numbers declined in parallel with the loss of driven grouse shooting, with now an estimated 85% of the Welsh black grouse population associated with the only remaining driven moor.

On the other hand, there is evidence for the ongoing illegal killing of birds of prey like golden eagle, hen harrier and peregrine on grouse moors. This is has impacts at the national population level and must stop. However, in the absence of illegal killing, grouse moors have the potential to benefit raptors by supporting large amounts of prey, whilst predation control benefits ground-nesting species.

One study showed that hen harrier breeding success was twice as high when a moor was keepered, likely as a result of reduced predation on hen harrier eggs and chicks, particularly by foxes, which was found to be the main cause of breeding failure. Hen harriers and merlins may also benefit from the vegetation management carried out on grouse moors, as heather is their preferred upland nesting habitat and grouse moors are managed to retain heather; however, some passerine species including meadow pipit and skylark occur at lower densities on grouse moors because they prefer a grassier environment. Merlins are predominantly ground-nesting birds of prey, so are also likely to benefit from the predator management carried out on grouse moors.

This briefing sheet draws on information from the GWCT’s 2020 Peatland Report and the Moorland Balance, which are fully referenced and available here.

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