Grouse moors and their associated management have been responsible for producing a treasured landscape that is unique to this Country. Although the majority will have heard of the red grouse, there are some who may not realise that this is a bird that can only be found in those upland areas of Britain that are dominated by heather moorland, and that it is one that is found nowhere else in the world. Unlike pheasant and partridge, it is also completely wild, it not being possible to maintain or increase its population by the release of birds that have been hatched or reared in captivity. The management of its habitat is therefore crucial to its survival, and it is because of this management that more than 60% of all grouse moors are designated as EU Special Protection Areas for the rare birds that they support, and as Special Areas of Conservation due to the variety of plant species. Nationally, 66% of grouse moors are protected Sites of Special Scientific Interest, and 45% carry all three designations. What many people also may not know is that there are only 149 estates in England and Wales where grouse shooting takes place.
Heather moorland is an extremely rare habitat that is of international importance, and 75% of that remaining is found in Britain, with that managed for grouse shooting accounting for over a fifth of the uplands in England and Wales. Where it has not been managed, considerable areas have been lost, mainly through over-grazing, afforestation, and encroachment by bracken. The latter has been successfully and safely controlled over the last 35 years with Asulam, the only herbicide that has been found to be effective, and without this over 50% of our remaining heather would by now have been lost. Despite this, the EU recently decided to impose a ban on its use following safety concerns over aerial spraying by spinach growers on the Continent; a ruling that could change the face of Britainâ€™s countryside. This is one of a number of issues with which the owners of our grouse moors have to contend, and one that the Government has thankfully assured it will give its support in trying to overturn.
Grouse moors are part of our natural heritage, and the responsibility for looking after them is a serious one. Between them, the grouse moor owners of England and Wales spend an enormous amount of money each year in managing their moors – Â£52.5 million to be exact, of which 90% is privately invested, making it the most cost effective model of upland management to the tax payer. Thanks to that management, 339 sq miles of heather has been regenerated and recovered in the last 25 years, 89 sq miles of which have been in the last 10 years; an achievement that smashed the Governmentâ€™s 2010 conservation target by 170%. Planting 1.1 million native trees in the ghylls of moorland fringes has also helped provide a source of food and protection for black grouse, with 95% of the surviving 800 or so breeding males in the North of England now occurring adjacent to moorland actively managed for red grouse. And black grouse are not alone in benefiting from this management.
A survey of upland breeding birds has found that the densities of golden plover, curlew, redshank and lapwing were up to five times greater on managed grouse moors compared to unmanaged grouse moors, with another piece of peer reviewed scientific research revealing that where moors were managed by gamekeepers, ground nesting birds such as curlew and lapwing are 3Â½ times more likely to raise a chick to fledging.Â The legal control of predators such as foxes, weasels, stoats and carrion crow is therefore an essential part of that management, as too is habitat management. When left, heather grows into a dense mass of long woody stems that supports very little wildlife, has no grazing or economic value, and is a serious fire risk. It is the carefully controlled rotational burning that takes place on grouse moors that has shaped our heather moorlands as we know them today, producing as it does a mosaic of different aged heather, with the oldest providing cover from predators and the new shoots providing food both for birds and sheep.
It is this year round management that has been responsible for making grouse moors one of our largest protected, and special, kinds of habitat. Paradoxically, it is due to shooting that the red grouse is not on the endangered species list, and that the numbers of many of the birds which share its habitat during the breeding season remain at the high levels that they do, as it is the income from shooting that is used by owners to help offset the considerable costs of their management; management that has helped conserve this unique landscape where elsewhere it has been totally lost. This is a conservation success story to be celebrated, and one for which we must thank our grouse moor owners and their managers.
By Adrian Blackmore