Conservation on grouse moors

Understanding grouse moor management – the key topics

Q: What are the primary reasons the GWCT supports grouse moor management?
GairnshielA: There are three main reasons:

  1. The habitat management undertaken on grouse moors preserves and enhances heather-dominated habitats.
  2. The package of management, notably habitat enhancement along with predator control, contributes to the conservation of a suite of upland bird species including upland waders. Preservation of habitat and wildlife thus stems a national loss to land-use change, predation pressure, climate change and wildfire.
  3. This is a land use that delivers high nature conservation value but is funded primarily by private investment and supports local communities economically, socially and culturally.

Q: Why is heather moorland so important?
A: Heather-dominated moorland habitat supports many biological communities that are either only found in the UK, or are better developed here than elsewhere. 13 of these communities are listed under EC Directive 92/43/EEC on the Conservation of Natural Habitats and of Wild Flora and Fauna. This environment also supports a unique collection of bird species (an “assemblage”), which contains 18 species of European or international importance. The 1992 Rio Convention on Biodiversity ratified the global importance of UK heather moorland.

Q: Okay, but don’t other countries have heather too?
A: Yes, but none have extensive heather uplands. Most other heather areas are lowland or coastal, leaving the UK responsible for 75% of the world’s heather moorland. Until the early 2000s heather cover was falling sharply in the UK, generally as a result of overgrazing and/or commercial forestry plantations. Many of the best areas are in our national parks and are protected as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) or are ‘Natura’ sites – Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and Special Protection Areas (SPAs) – in recognition of their importance. This is the highest level of EU habitat protection.

Q: Which bird species thrive on moors managed by gamekeepers?
A: Many birds do better on moors managed for red grouse than on less-managed moorland. These include globally threatened species such as curlew and merlin but also red grouse, black grouse, golden plover, lapwing, snipe, greenshank, buzzard, short-eared owl and black-headed gull. However, there is also evidence that other species including crow, meadow pipit and skylark do less well on grouse moors, in some cases because they prefer a grassier environment.

Q: Isn’t curlew our bird species of highest conservation concern?
CurlewA: Yes. Scientists from the RSPB published a paper in 2015 stating that the curlew should be considered our species of highest conservation concern. Several studies show curlew do better on grouse moors in terms of either abundance or breeding success. This is probably because of a combination of factors that benefit them, including predator control and heather burning.

Q: What about merlin?
A: A recent study of merlin 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, so it is clear that grouse moor management helps provide a suitable nesting environment for these birds.

Q: Okay, but do we really need to manage moors for these species to thrive?
A: Without moorland management, these species would still exist, but at much lower densities, in much less well-connected populations, leaving them at greater risk of local extinction. British moors are the product of thousands of years of management by man. Forests were cleared and vegetation maintained by grazing and burning to produce the heather-dominated heath landscapes that now exist. If management ceased, heather would be lost from all but the highest and wettest areas and replaced with scrub and tree regeneration. Some species would benefit and some would decline, notably those that prefer open landscapes.

Q: What happens when driven grouse shooting stops?
A: Heather moorland would probably be converted to either grazed grassland or forestry; between the 1940s and 1980s moors that lost grouse shooting lost 41% of their heather cover, while moors retaining shooting only lost 24% of their heather cover. However, many areas currently under management for red grouse are now also designated as SSSIs or SPAs for wildlife. Although grouse moor management is acceptable on these sites, the environmental impact of forestry or heavy grazing means that these alternatives would not be permitted. Therefore, banning driven grouse shooting would likely lead to abandonment of these areas and the current management of heather and peatland would cease.

Q: What happens to the wildlife when grouse moors are left unmanaged?
A: Grouse moor management was abandoned in the Berwyn Mountains in north Wales in the 1990s. As a result of management stopping, curlew, lapwing, golden plover, redshank, red grouse and black grouse populations have all declined to the point where several species are extinct in some areas. Many of these are the very species that the area was designated to protect.

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