Conservation on grouse moors

Understanding grouse moor management – the key topics

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.

Grouse moor management is felt by some to be controversial, but its importance to certain habitats and species means that its role within the mix of land uses is of recognised conservation value.

GairnshielQ: Where are grouse moors found?
A: On heather moorland in the UK uplands, mainly concentrated in the hills of central and eastern Scotland, the Pennines and North York Moors. Grouse moors often occur on peat soils; either deep peat, which can be blanket bog, or shallow peat and mineral soils, which are on heathland areas. Grouse eat the young shoots of heather plants, so heather management, usually by controlled burning, is undertaken to encourage new growth. A mix of young and older heather provides both good food quality and cover for nesting.

Q: Why is our heather moorland so important?
A: No other country has extensive heather uplands equivalent to those in the UK. Most other heather areas are lowland or coastal, leaving the UK responsible for 75% of the world’s heather moorland. For this reason, the 1992 Rio Convention on Biodiversity recognised the global importance of UK heather moorland.

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.

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.

The moorland environment also supports a collection of birds (an “assemblage”), which contains many species of European or international importance, for example red grouse, golden plover, curlew, lapwing and short eared owl. Although not their sole habitat, many of these species are found in greater numbers and may breed more successfully on managed grouse moors.

Overall, the number of species of plants or animals found on heather moorland can be fairly low, but those species which thrive are often uncommon, specialist species not found elsewhere, meaning that maintaining heather moorland is important for their conservation.

Q: Does grouse moor management help conserve heather moorland?
A: Yes. Until 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 that 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.

Q: Can preserving heather moorland contribute to carbon storage?
A: Yes. Peatlands store around 30% of the world’s soil carbon and some areas of moorland have layers of deep peat under the surface, which help lock up carbon. Experiments studying global warming show that moorland where heather is the dominant plant species has the potential to store more carbon than moorland with grass cover. The role of grouse moor management techniques and how they may affect carbon storage is an important ongoing area of research.

Q: Can lost heather be recovered?
A: Yes, with a long-term commitment to restoration. There have been a number of heather recovery projects in the Peak District, and the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project used a combination of reduced sheep grazing with a heather management strategy that included burning, cutting and reseeding. These approaches improved both overall heather cover by 10%, and the area of heather-dominated vegetation by 30%.

Q: Which bird species thrive on moors keepered for grouse?
A: Some birds occur at higher densities and breed more successfully on moors managed for red grouse than on other moorland. These include globally 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. More than half of English uplands are managed as grouse moors, mostly concentrated in the North Pennines, the South Pennines and the North York Moors. These three areas have all been designated as Special Protection Areas (SPA) mostly on the basis of their substantial numbers of breeding waders, merlin or hen harrier.

Q: What is the evidence for this?
A: As well as red grouse, there is strong evidence that grouse moor management is beneficial for a group of wader species, including curlew, golden plover and lapwing. Several studies have found this:

  • The GWCT’s Upland Predation Experiment looked at the effect of predator control, which is one aspect of grouse moor management, and 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 after eight years was beneficial for three wader species. Overall, curlew numbers rose by 10% per year on average, golden plover by 16% and snipe by 21%. However, lapwing numbers remained low.
  • A recent GWCT analysis of upland bird species trends in south-west 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 south-west 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 which looked at the change in bird numbers when moorland management stopped also found that some species of moorland bird declined when grouse moor management ended.

On the other hand, there is also evidence that some species including meadow pipit and skylark occur at lower densities on grouse moors because they prefer a grassier environment. The story for meadow pipits is unclear, as certain studies find benefits from aspects of keepering. There are also lower than expected densities of birds of prey (raptors), including golden eagle, hen harrier and peregrine on grouse moors, due their illegal killing by gamekeepers.

Q: Can grouse moor management be good for birds of prey?
A: In the absence of illegal killing, it has long been felt that grouse moors could provide good habitat for raptors. Studies of raptors identify that grouse moors have the potential to benefit their conservation by supporting large amounts of prey. One study showed that hen harrier breeding success was higher 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. Analysis of grouse moor management in the absence of illegal killing at Langholm moor showed that hen harrier numbers were higher during periods of keepering.

Hen harriers 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, we must recognise that these findings are largely from Langholm Moor, where raptors were not illegally controlled by gamekeepers. Elsewhere, illegal killing of raptors still occurs and grouse moor management impacts on the numbers and breeding success of several species.

Merlin are predominantly ground-nesting birds of prey, so are also likely to benefit from the predator management carried out on grouse moors, especially fox control. Higher breeding success of meadow pipits when predators are controlled may also help increase food supplies for merlin. A recent unpublished report divided England into 1km squares and looked for evidence of breeding merlin. These squares were then correlated with a map of known grouse moors to see where merlin are breeding. 80% of squares containing merlin were found to be on grouse moors, with only 20% on non-grouse moors.

Associations such as this are not proof of a benefit, but this work adds to the other evidence suggesting that grouse moor management may help provide a suitable nesting environment for these raptors. Some moorland keepers in northern England work co-operatively with local raptor study groups, helping to find nests and ensure that merlin broods are ringed. Many keepers are proud of the merlins their moors support and acknowledge that merlin pose little threat to their grouse.

Q: Do curlew benefit from grouse moor management?
A: Studies suggest curlew thrive on grouse moors. This is important because a paper published in 2015 stated that the curlew should be considered the UK’s species of highest conservation concern, having declined rapidly both nationally (50% in the past 25 years) and internationally (up to 30% in the past 25 years).

Several studies have found an association between areas managed for grouse and a higher density of curlew, suggesting that the techniques used there may benefit them. The Upland Predation Experiment, carried out in Northumberland, showed that predator control can increase curlew breeding success threefold. The importance of upland breeding areas for the survival of curlew is likely to increase, as other traditional breeding areas such as lowland wetlands can no longer sustain wader populations. Between 1982 and 2002 the number of curlew breeding on lowland grassland in England and Wales dropped by 39%.

Q: Why is grouse moor management important for black grouse?
A: 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. Black grouse are birds of the upland fringe rather than the moor exclusively. They use a range of different habitats and depend on these being present near each other across a landscape. These including rough pasture, upland grasses and broad-leaved copses.

Research in the UK indicates black grouse are vulnerable to predation by foxes, stoats and raptors, while 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. A GWCT study in Wales found that black grouse declined in parallel with the loss of driven grouse shooting. Since this report was published, the authors have predicted black grouse may become restricted to the only driven grouse moor in North Wales within the next 10 years. It is estimated that this moor already supports more than 85% of the Welsh black grouse population.

Q: How are black grouse populations faring in the UK?
A: Black grouse were once widespread throughout the UK, with their range extending even to Hampshire as late as the 1930s. Since then the red-listed species has undergone a dramatic decline. In 1998 there were only 773 displaying males left in England. This figure temporarily recovered to 1,437 in 2014. The species remains severely threatened in England due to its small population and limited range. Numbers fluctuate around 1,000 males, and are affected by weather including rainfall in June, which influences breeding success and snow depth and duration which affects winter survival.

Black grouse are more abundant in northern Scotland, benefiting from an array of suitable semi-natural habitats including moorland and native woodland connected to each other across the landscape. Numbers are now very low south of the Glasgow-Edinburgh central belt and birds are often restricted to the margins of remaining large moorland patches, several of which continue to be managed for red grouse shooting.

Q: Are heather moorlands good for mountain hares?
A: Mountain hares occur at some of their highest densities in Europe on the driven grouse moors of north-east Scotland, where benefits from habitat management and predator control appear to outweigh all but the most intensive culls. Mountain hares eat heather and other moorland plants, so the managed burning carried out by gamekeepers to ensure a supply of young heather shoots for grouse is also likely to improve the food supply for mountain hares.

As foxes can account for up to 90% of mountain hare mortality, the predator control carried out on grouse moors may also help mountain hare survival. However, some evidence suggests that mountain hare numbers have been falling since 1999, and attributes this largely to shooting on grouse moors.

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