The Importance of Grouse Moors for Ecology

Despite being one of the major upland land-use, knowledge gaps make it difficult to fully assess the costs and benefits of grouse moor management to biodiversity and the wider environment. With so much change ecologically in the past fifty years due to farming practices and layout of fields, there has been a reduction in certain animals and plants. Wildlife is continually trying to adapt, but with the careful management of grouse moors and encouraging certain build, performance and layout, they must be seen as incredibly important to the ecosystem that exists today.

Clever grouse moor management has benefits for biodiversity and for communities as well as supporting the various wildlife that inhabit the upland environment. The grouse has a staple nutrition of heather, bilberry, buds, leaves, young grasses and spore capsules all of which is also relevant for ground nesting birds such as lapwing, curlew and golden plover. Protection from predators on well managed grouse moors and boosting natural moorland food supply, ensures hen harrier productivity as well as maintaining good numbers of grouse. Other potential conflicts are the culling of mountain hares due to tick disease control and the fact that it will protect the heather cover as the hares eat it down. Statistics are not everything but it does seem the hare population is steady with 80% of UK’s mountain hare population in Scotland thriving and often being sighted on grouse moors. Managing landscapes to benefit biodiveristy either directly or as a by-product of other activity is complex.

Looking at constant enhancement of heather moorland for grouse, both protecting the bird species and their diversity in ways that are ecologically viable is paramount. Forestry plantations should have feathered edges where they meet the moorland, with berried shrubs and trees such as willow, birch and rowan encouraged to provide both nutrition and shelter/protection from predators. Bogs are ecological assets on moorland and should be retained both for drainage and as important stores of carbon while old fashioned meadows are important for grasses which house caterpillars that grouse chicks need. The loss of this habitat mosaic, the patchwork quilt of farmland has been seen to be broken up by block forestry and intensive farming and overgrazing by sheep and red deer eat out the ground cover, removing nutrition.

Ecology can resolve wildlife conflicts. UK moorlands both in England and Scotland are very important stores of soil carbon. Grouse moors are also a major source of drinking water and slow ‘water flows’ thereby determining assessment of flood risks as well as watering the birds and wildlife. Ling heather ‘Calluna Vulgaris’, the main food plant for the red grouse is a major vegetation component and is important to invertebrate groups such as ground beetles, butterflies and caterpillars. Grouse moor management has helped to limit losses of dwarf shrub habitats to afforestation and grassland.

In the long term, the very fact that so much discussion and attention is being paid to the best possible management of grouse moors can only benefit bird species, invertebrates, moorland vegetation, carbon balance, water quality and flows all of which are key to the ecosystem and how it can operate to its optimum.

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