Q: Why do our moors need to be ‘used’?
A: Moorlands would not exist without being ‘used’, i.e. having an economic purpose; they are cultural landscapes extending back thousands of years. In the uplands, grouse and deer shooting, livestock grazing and forestry can provide an economic return while also supporting a uniquely important landscape, range of habitats, and wildlife. Our lowlands have been much more affected by land use than our uplands.
Q: What else can these moors be used for?
A: Many of the areas where moorland is used for grouse shooting are classified as Less Favoured Areas (LFAs), indicating that agricultural production or activity is more difficult because of natural handicaps. The historical options for profitable use of the land are few, being mainly limited to grazing by livestock, commercial forestry or game management. Tourism benefits from the maintenance of these open upland landscapes but rarely makes a contribution to the maintenance costs. Commercial or state incentives would be needed to drive other upland land uses such as carbon storage, renewables or water management.
Q: Which land use is ‘better’?
A: All land usage has an impact on the environment. Specific consequences of these land uses have been identified but it is our belief that a direct comparison of “which is better?” is not possible or appropriate. Different species thrive in different environments, therefore sustainable biodiversity on our moorlands is best supported with a varied mix of management across the wider landscape. A similar position is true for other ecosystem services such as carbon storage, flood protection, cultural value or economic activity. The UK National Ecosystem Assessment report did not attempt to describe better or worse ecosystems for this reason, noting that: “For mountains, moorlands and heathlands to continue providing high levels of ecosystem service flows long into the future, the management of these habitats must be sufficiently flexible to allow adaptation to a range of currently uncertain future conditions.”
Q: How much commercial forestry is there in the UK?
A: Commercial forestry blocks consist of fast-growing, non-native tree species. Many of these have been planted in the UK in the second half of the 20th century, often in response to government initiatives. One reference states that around 20% of UK moorland is now afforested with coniferous plantations.
Q: What effect does forestry have on the moorland environment?
A: The most obvious effect is that of habitat replacement. The community of species that thrive on heather moorland is not the same as that which inhabits commercial forestry. When these forestry blocks mature, they become dense, dark, and relatively biodiversity poor.
Q: So are the moorland bird communities impacted?
A: Yes. As an example, 15 years after afforestation of the Southern Cheviots, the forest canopy closed, and as a result all the upland bird species disappeared. The losses for that area were estimated to be 1,750 pairs of curlew, 1,200 pairs of golden plover, 200 pairs of dunlin, 25 pairs of merlin, and all the red grouse, snipe, redshank, wheatears, ring ouzels and hen harriers.
Q: Are there other effects?
A: Yes. Prior to planting, drainage ditches are often dug and fertiliser may be applied, which affects the nutrient composition of the soil. The drains lower the water table, with resulting compression and shrinkage of peat as it dries out, a process that accelerates once the tree canopy closes. Large-scale cracking of the peat can result.
Q: Are these effects limited to the area containing the trees?
A: No. Drying and shrinkage can occur some distance away from the forestry block itself. Bird communities in the surrounding moorland can be affected up to a kilometre from the forest edge, with reductions in golden plover and dunlin, and reduced curlew breeding success.
Q: Why are these effects on moorland birds seen so far from the trees?
A: Research indicates that it is likely to be due to increased predation, with more predators living in the forestry block, or taking advantage of it to provide cover when hunting.
Q: Are there effects on water quality and flow?
A: Yes. Streams that drain afforested areas tend to be more acidic. Water flow is also affected, with both total flow and stream peak flow increasing following drainage, and reducing once the block matures (after perhaps 20 years).
Q: Are there effects on carbon cycles?
A: Yes. Although carbon is taken up as the forest matures, there may be severe depletion of the soil carbon store through increased decomposition of the soil. Some research shows that there can be a net release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, although the overall effects on greenhouse gases are not yet clear.
Q: How important is farming in the uplands?
A: The UK National Ecosystem Assessment says that livestock farming over many generations has contributed to the cultural and environmental heritage of today’s countryside, and many things our society values beyond food may depend on upland farming in the future. Probably 15% of the UK land area is upland farming.
Q: How does livestock grazing affect moorland?
A: Comprehensive reports from Natural England and Scottish Natural Heritage examine this area in great detail. Light, seasonal grazing is good for sheep, heather and consequently grouse. However, it is generally accepted that large increases in the number of sheep during the second half of the 20th century led to overgrazing, and that this grazing pressure had detrimental effects on moorland. Stocking densities have generally reduced recently and this can improve heather cover and condition, but there is as yet little evidence for large-scale improvements in habitat in response to this.
Q: What sort of detrimental effects can overgrazing have?
A: The most well-established effect is the reduced condition or extent of heather cover, and replacement with grass-dominated vegetation. This carries with it effects on the species that are associated with the heather habitats described earlier. However, other species, for example skylark and meadow pipit, may benefit from a change from heather to grassland. Once more, a balance of habitats is likely to provide the highest biodiversity.
Q: Are there any other effects?
A: There may also be effects on the ecosystem services such as water and carbon (discussed for other forms of moorland management). Once again, these are difficult to establish with certainty. Studies conclude that there can be a link between grazing and soil erosion and loss, but that the effect on carbon capture and storage is variable and there is little effect on water quality. However, another review from 2007 suggests that grazing may affect water flow across moorland so much that stopping grazing may reduce flood risk.
Q: Does all grazing cause these problems?
A: No. A light, preferably mixed regime of grazing seems to provide benefits in terms of environmental services and biodiversity, however this may not be compatible with profitable livestock farming. Unfortunately, a sheep density low enough to prevent damage to the habitat is generally below the level at which it is economically viable. The measures that are required to improve profitability, such as drainage and liming, can be damaging to the heather moorland and its ecosystem.
Q: Can there be a balance?
A: Grouse moors need sheep grazing to provide habitat management, and in some places to help control tick numbers. Sheep graziers need moorlands to summer graze their flock, preserving their improved grass for winter forage and grazing, and benefit from low numbers of foxes and crows. Management arrangements between grouse moors and sheep graziers provide for an incentive to manage heather moorland sustainably, maximising outcomes such as high nature value and rural employment, while minimising habitat damage.