Alternative moorland use

Moorlands are cultural landscapes extending back thousands of years and it is our management that creates and maintains them as moors. Like most land in the UK, management activity is driven by individuals or groups who own and use it for social and economic purposes. In the uplands, game management, livestock grazing, forestry and renewable energy generation support unique landscapes, habitats and wildlife to a greater or lesser extent. This chapter considers these land uses and their various merits.

Q: What are the economically viable uses for moorland?
A: Historically, moorland has been less productive than other land and most grouse moors sit on land classified as Less Favoured Areas (LFAs), where agricultural production is more difficult. Its use is mainly limited to livestock grazing, commercial forestry, game management and renewable energy generation. Though able to provide some income, none of these activities are sustainable without substantial public or private subsidy. Commercial or state support is also needed for other uses such as nature reserves, carbon storage, or water management. The tourism sector benefits from these open upland landscapes but makes little or no direct contribution to their maintenance costs, with most tourism income going into local businesses.

Q: Why is a mix of land uses best?
A: All land use has an impact on the environment and the consequences of the various economic models for moorland management will be discussed in more detail below. Different species thrive in different environments and our internationally recognised upland habitats are best supported with a mix of management across the landscape, including grouse moors.

It is important to understand that the known benefits, including internationally important habitats and species, would probably be lost if grouse shooting ended. At the same time, it is also important that moorland and heathland management is sufficiently flexible to adapt to changing conditions.


Q: How much of Britain has been forested?Woodmen working
Commercial forestry blocks typically consist of fast-growing, often non-native coniferous species. Extensive upland planting started in the UK after the first world war and rapidly accelerated after the Second World War, largely in response to government initiatives. UK forest cover has more than doubled over the last 100 years. By 2019, 18% of Scotland was wooded and the government plans to increase this to 21% by 2032. Forestry has been one of the main causes of moorland habitat loss, with around 20% of former UK moorland now afforested with coniferous plantations.

Q: What effect does forestry have moorland habitats and wildlife?
A: Afforestation causes an ecological transformation, in which open ground habitats and their wildlife largely disappear and are replaced by a woodland ecosystem. Afforestation of the Southern Cheviots in southern Scotland is a good example of the impact of forestry on moorland birds. After 15 years, the forest canopy closed, and many 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. Declines in the numbers of ravens have been reported and a review documents the loss of at least 5,000 breeding pairs of curlew from south-west Scotland largely because of forestry.

GWCT research into impacts of land use change in south-west Scotland also indicate that large-scale changes in land-use, including afforestation, more intensive farming and reductions in grouse moor management, are responsible for declines in several bird species, including oystercatcher, golden plover, lapwing and curlew. One study of a 700km2 area in Scotland suggested that afforestation accounted for 58-78% of the decline in black grouse numbers in the region.

Changes in grazing patterns of deer, voles and rabbits because of afforestation can affect the suitability of moorland near forestry for birds, by changing vegetation density, reducing invertebrate food for chicks and potentially increasing the tick burden.

Q: What are the effects of forestry on predation in the surrounding areas?
A: Both mammal and bird predators benefit from the cover of forestry blocks but do not restrict their hunting to within the forestry. Bird communities in the surrounding moorland can be affected up to a kilometre from the forest edge, with reductions in golden plover and dunlin numbers, and reduced curlew breeding success.

Q: Can upland forestry benefit some bird species?
A: There are 68 bird species breeding regularly in Scottish woodlands though they are not all found in every woodland. The mix of bird species is largely dependent on which trees are dominant and bird densities are lower in uniform woodland. The age of the plantation is also important. The early stages of tree growth can create suitable habitat for black grouse and hen harriers, but when the trees grow and the canopy closes over the environment becomes unsuitable.

Q: Are there other environmental effects?
A: Beyond impacts on biodiversity the most important effect of forestry is on soils and water. Before trees are planted, drains are often dug and fertiliser applied, which affects the nutrient composition of the soil and increases the release of carbon. Drainage lowers the water table, causing peat to shrink as it dries out. This process accelerates once the tree canopy closes and can lead to large-scale cracking of the peat, which can occur some distance away from the forestry block itself.

Q: Are there effects on water quality and flow?
A: Yes. There can be negative effects on the water quality and the amount and timing of run-off. Streams that drain afforested areas tend to be more acidic and have higher levels of nitrogen. Water flow is also affected, with total peak flow increasing initially where land has been drained then reducing once the trees mature, after perhaps 20 years.

Q: Does forestry store more carbon?
A: The effect on overall carbon uptake and release when moorland is converted to forestry is not clear. There is an initial release of carbon during preparation and planting because of peat drainage and disturbance, but when the trees are growing rapidly in the early stages, they take up carbon. During this period forestry may absorb and store carbon faster than moorland. However, mature forests have low carbon uptake and after a period of several decades the carbon balance is thought to be fairly even between moorland and forestry.

There are many uncertainties in carbon budgets, which typically do not take into account the carbon that is found in streams draining moorland or young forestry or rates of erosion from forest drainage. A review found that not all modified peatlands are carbon or greenhouse gas sources, just as not all 'pristine' peatlands are net sinks. Equally, peatland restoration may not necessarily lead to a peatland being able to absorb carbon or greenhouse gas.

Q: What happened when trees were planted in the Flow Country?
A: This large, rolling expanse of peatland in the North of Scotland is dotted with bog pools and is an important habitat for wildlife, as well as climate change mitigation. Successive government policies to plant trees and cut drains, mostly in the 1980s, resulted in 17% of this area being covered by coniferous forest. This dried out the peat, changing the habitat and reducing its value for birds and other wildlife. The trees are now being removed.

Q: What about natural regeneration, wilding or rewilding?
A: These terms are often synonymous with scrub or woodland expansion onto moorland. Wilding usually requires the decision to reduce or stop grazing and/or heather burning. As well as losing grazing on the area itself, this could cause neighbouring land to be more intensively grazed as well as increasing the risk of wildfire from increased fuel load (see this page for more information on wildfires). There is as yet little evidence for the effect of wilding/rewilding on wildlife, carbon storage, effects on water or other important consideration, which must be provided if such a change is to be made on a large scale.

Renewable energy

Q: What kinds of renewable energy can be generated in the uplands?
A: By 2015 there were over 200 windfarm developments underway in Scotland, making onshore wind power the main source of renewable energy. By 2017, renewable power output made up over 70% of Scotland’s electricity consumption. There are also small-scale hydro schemes, which, though usually less visually intrusive, can have impacts on the ground.

Q: What effects can wind farms have?
A: They can affect habitat, soil and the wider landscape. The main impacts on moorland habitats are from the loss of land for tracks, crane hard standings, turbine bases, control buildings, borrow pits and changes in drainage. Additional impacts can arise through the improved access provided by these developments, enabling recreational activities in areas which were previously inaccessible. One study found the density of some moorland bird species near wind farms was reduced by between 15% and 48%. Another found that the impact on moorland birds may be higher during the construction than the operation phase of wind farms, with lower numbers of red grouse and curlew during construction.

Q: Are all the impacts negative?
A: Where forested areas are felled to return an area to moorland (albeit with turbines) over time this could be beneficial in enhancing overall biodiversity. One study suggests some species such as skylark and stonechat may benefit from the habitat change during construction. Where income from the windfarm is reinvested in surrounding moorland the increased management and small-scale scrub planting could benefit some species. Furthermore, providing renewable energy is a main priority for the country with clear benefits that must be weighed up.


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. About 15% of the UK land area is upland farming. 85% of agricultural land in Scotland is classified as LFA and this is predominantly in the uplands. Sheep grazing has determined the appearance and habitat composition of UK uplands more than any other land use.

Silaging at Auchnerran

Q: How does livestock grazing affect moorland?
A: Comprehensive reports show that light, seasonal grazing by sheep is good for heather moorland and consequently for grouse. However, European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) subsidies for livestock farming based upon livestock numbers resulted in a 30% increase in sheep on UK moorlands between the 1970s and 1990s. These large increases too often led to overgrazing on moorland. In recent years, with farming support moving from livestock number to area-based payments, grazing pressure has considerably reduced, and this can improve heather cover and condition. Observation suggests that heather regeneration following restocking has been considerable, but there is as yet little evidence for large-scale habitat improvements in response to this.

Q: What sort of detrimental effects can overgrazing have?
A: Studies suggest that in England loss of heather moorland has mostly been due to overgrazing whereas in Scotland moorland has been lost because of grazing and forestry. The most well-established effect is the reduced condition or extent of heather cover, and replacement with grass-dominated vegetation. Species that require a diverse moorland habitat and those that have a strong link to heather for food and cover, such as red grouse, hen harrier, merlin, mountain hare and red deer, tend to decline in abundance and productivity with these changes. However, other species such as skylark and meadow pipit, may benefit from a change to grassland provided this is not too heavily grazed.

Q: Are there any other impacts?
A: Studies have found that overgrazing can cause soil erosion and may increase flood risk. A review from 2007 suggested that grazing may impact water flow across moorland to the extent that stopping grazing may reduce flood risk. Its effect on carbon capture and storage is variable and there is little impact on water quality.

Q: Does all grazing cause these problems?
A: A light, preferably mixed grazing regime seems to provide benefits in terms of environmental services and biodiversity. However, such a regime is not economically viable without extra funding, so is often supported by private investment in the form of grouse management or public subsidy through agri-environment grants. The management techniques that are employed to improve grazing, 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 and, in some places, to help control tick numbers. Sheep graziers need moorlands to summer graze their flock, preserving their improved grass for winter, and they can benefit from nearby gamekeeping which reduces the impacts of foxes and crows. Management arrangements between grouse moors and sheep graziers provide an incentive to manage heather moorland sustainably, maximising positive outcomes such as high nature value and rural employment, while minimising habitat damage. Heather moorland is important both as an EU priority habitat and as a globally rare habitat. With much of our moorland protected by designations like Sites of Special Scientific Interest, Special Areas of Conservation or Special Protection Areas, owners will have both their own commitments to upland investment, as well as public requirements to consider. Moorland is often considered a ‘Less Favoured Area’ (LFA) for farming, being challenging for agricultural production or forestry because of natural constraints or conservation considerations, but it can be of high value for nature. These restrictions mean that land management options are limited, but driven grouse shooting can provide a means to generate income, which can recover the costs of managing and maintaining the moorland and its wildlife.


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