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Understanding the UK’s moorland and the role of fieldsports

Home » Understanding the UK’s moorland and the role of fieldsports

Moorland in the UK is an iconic image of the British isles. One often used as the backdrop to films, tv and brands marketing as a symbol of truly wild terrain. The UK is home to a substantial amount of the world’s heather moorland alongside several spots in Europe. Our climate is perfect for maintaining these structures and supporting the wildlife within them. Often found in Scotland and Northern England, the moorland spreads for miles only interrupted by small towns and villages. This creates a diverse ecosystem where species can live uninterrupted by busy 21st century life.

What is Heather Moorland

The definition of Heather Moorland as defined by the GWCT as…

“Areas that are dominated by heather, a vegetation community described in Thompson’s paper as being “found throughout the UK and Irish uplands, mainly above the upper reaches of enclosed farmland, in the extreme western and southern parts of Norway and in limited areas elsewhere”.

Of the 19 examples of vegetation making up Heather Moorland, 11 of them are most abundant in the UK. A 1995 study of UK moorland concludes that protection of the habitat and its inhabitants is vital. The land is most at risk of afforestation, overgrazing and persecution. It’s prudent to add that since this study, persecution of many of these are now illegal. Moorland may also be referred to as Upland Heather Moorland, or Heather Moorland. The distinction between the vegetation is minimal but often refers to the altitude in which it’s found. Moorland can be found from sea level to just above 600m above sea level.

peak district sea level

History of the UK’s moorland

10,000 years ago the land we now associate with Moorland was forests. Clearing this space for agriculture and towns meant much of this woodland came down creating subsequent space for heather moorland. Luck or a wise decision we will never know but we are grateful either way. These moorlands became perfect habitats for all creatures. Thick heather was both a source of food and shelter for nesting birds and small mammals.

This landscape became the larder of rural communities with large populations of wildlife. Due to the rugged nature of the landscape, the land was never prime for crop farming. Grazing cattle and other livestock were much preferred, this created rural hotspots that still exist today. With the advent of walked up, then driven shooting, these natural larders were perfect for shooting. While the Moors of Scotland and Northern England seemed a long way from London, transport routes popped up easing up the travel. By the 19th century, wealthy families and individuals were buying estates as retreats and sporting venues. By the time Prince Alberts bought Balmoral Castle in 1852, Scotland was becoming a trendy venue for the UK’s wealthy individuals.

peak district habitats

Who owns the UK’s moorland?

Much of UK Moorland is under private ownership and has been for a substantial amount of time. The ownership is quite split between those who do and don’t shoot over the land. While shooting alone won’t make a difference, those with a vested interest in the land need to ensure that it’s in the best condition. This has proven to be a very costly endeavour. Conversely, those who own the land with no intention of shooting over it have found the costs of just maintaining moorland incredibly difficult.

Collectives like the Moorland Association help privately owned estates manage their moorland effectively and sustainably. Between them and their members, they own 860,000 acres of Moorland which in the 25 years have renewed 217,000 acres of previously lost moorland. Maintaining moorland is expensive but is comparatively cheap versus restoring it. Protecting the peatland underneath has vital implications on carbon storage too. Mismanagement of this land could prove detrimental to the country as a whole.

Charities like the RSPB also manage moorland, roughly 320,000 acres but have no interest in using the land for shooting. This wouldn’t be an issue if moorland wasn’t being lost to rewilding and impacting the success of rare birds. Rewilding allows the land to return to its less pleasant state. This state is a combination of ferns and trees and offers only a fraction of the biodiversity that moorland does. These habitats tend to favour more rugged and predatory species as opposed to smaller ones like curlew and plover.

UK Shooting estate

The problem with the RSPB

This isn’t aimed to bash all the work of the RSPB as previously they’ve done some fantastic work. However, in more recent years, their efforts have moved from conservation to anti shooting. This anti shooting stance has proven to be more costly to the species they promised to protect than any other party. Rather than pick through individual errors we will just focus on their efforts at Lake Vyrnwy. Previously operated as a grouse moor the land was completely taken over by the RSPB in the 90’s after being a partner alongside the owners since the 70’s. In 1996, all grouse shooting ended and the RSPB had total control over land management. At this point, they had already established that Red Grouse, Merlin, Golden Plover and Hen Harriers numbers were of vital importance.

An update on those species today is rather bleak. Golden Plover are no longer present, Curlew pairs are down from 30 to 2 and Red Grouse reduced to 60 pairs. These species are beyond natural recovery and will need other birds to be brought in externally to be replaced. The landowners who had put the RSPB in control conducted a study in 2000 to find out what was going on. In almost every case of a successful nest, eggs were predated by foxes and other pests. The response was a 180 from previous statements that having lots of moorland birds “wasn’t a management objective”.

Yet still, under their watchful eye, Lake Vyrnwy has declined immeasurably. For you football fans out there, this wasn’t a case of Sam Allardyce desperately trying to save a club from relegation. This was taking over Barcelona and watching the team crumble before their eyes. A cataclysmic failure of this magnitude over the course of 30+ years, while the RSPB sat and watched, is a travesty.

Financial costs

There’s no question that maintaining areas like this are expensive so could this be why the RSPB have failed at Lake Vyrwn? Money isn’t a problem for the RSPB, Welsh parliament donated over 1.1 million pounds between 2014/19 while receiving funding from members and the lottery. This was to bolster their already sizable reserves ready at their disposal. 2018-2019 net income for the RSPB was 112.4 million pounds with historic reports suggesting that there were already considerable saving pots already. There is also a fund totaling 10.6 million to eradicate stoats from Orkney and to maintain (not improve) curlew numbers.

That’s not to say that private individuals don’t receive funding. Estates receive subsidies to maintain the land and protect endangered species. Gamekeepers are employed to carry out pest control and land management to improve ecosystems. Taking this extract from “Who owns England” as well as their article on private moorland ownership, we can do some maths. The money available per acre for the RSPB is 350£ vs the Subsidies available from grants for private owners average out at 17.49£. For 20x the funding, you’d expect at least a serviceable return on investment but unfortunately, you don’t.

Private Individuals are buying into the land, history and culture that surrounds these stately homes. Without the wildlife, the value of these properties diminish. There’s a vested interest in improving the land they own because they’re investments. The grouse season is only 4 months long so there has to be a value for the remaining 8 months of the year. This means more wildlife, improved heather coverage and the more the better. This often comes at a huge financial cost. The average subsidy of 17.49£ an acre really won’t get you very far.

UK upland heathlands, rough grasslands

The Data on endangered species: Shooting land VS non Shooting land

None of the above matters if the species that need the most help are thriving and are trending upwards. With the amount of funding available, the RSPB should be streaks ahead. With their anti shooting narrative, you’d expect this to be based in fact and that the land with no shooting activities would be a hotbed for rare birds. Hopefully, we can break down as many species as possible and their success in certain areas.

These birds at one point or another will live on heather moorland over the course of the year. Without this moorland and the habitat, these birds will cease to exist. The argument has and forever will be whether these birds are more or less successful on land managed for shooting or not. The success of these birds reflects the balance of their ecosystem they’re in.

Hen Harriers

Hen Harriers live almost exclusively in Heather Moorland. They have a diet of small mammals like voles and mice while also eating grouse. Since 1952 they’ve been a protected species but in history have been a target species for some. The first year of a Hen Harrier’s life is the toughest. Too wet a year can stop their prey species from developing strong numbers, while an abundance of predators can eliminate a nest in one go. Gamekeepers unfairly receive the majority of the blame should a Hen Harrier be unsuccessful. In reality, the issue is far more complicated, Nest predation, Suitable habitats and Pest density all play a larger part than illegal killings.

Hen Harrier landing in Moorland

Curlew

The Curlew is the largest wading bird in the British Isles. Their habitats consist of rough grasslands, moorlands and bogs with the majority found in Scotland and Northern England. The biggest risk to these birds is afforestation efforts on previous moors and rural expansion and the resulting effects on the land. Pest control has proven to be incredibly important when it comes to protecting Curlew. Curlew have proven to be naturally at risk due to their propensity to build nests on lowland and open ground. The threat to Curlew is very real and as an amber listed species require significant help in restoring their numbers.

Final 24 hours in a successful Curlew nest

Merlin

The Merlin is the smallest bird of prey with a diet of smaller birds than itself. Currently on the red list, the number of breeding pairs might be as low as 900. Their habitat of choice is moorland and coastal areas often sharing habitats with Hen Harriers. Being as small as they are, they rely on healthy populations of smaller birds and consistent weather conditions. They often migrate from Iceland for our “warmer” climate meaning a bad year can seriously disrupt their population.

Merlin sat in Heather Moorland

Golden Plover

The Golden Plover is a species that live in large flocks or groups. Flying rarely, preferring to run and move at ground level. Their diet consists of small insects like beetles and worms which thrive on moorland. The Golden Plover isn’t endangered but its population is declining rapidly and it’s important to stop this trend. Golden Plover spend the spring and the summer in moorland and the winter closer to the coast on short rough grasslands. They nest in the heather and prefer shorter vegetation to stay aware of predators.

Golden Plover living on Moorland bogs

Moorland used for shooting

Moorland used for shooting requires the moors to be in the best conditions possible. The aim is to have the healthiest grouse population possible to yield financial rewards during the shooting season. Unlike other gamebirds, grouse aren’t reared or farmed but naturally bred on the moors. This requires making the land as grouse friendly as possible, easier said than done. Two main factors contribute to the success of these endeavours, Pest control and health of the heather.

To protect and look after the moorland gamekeepers are employed to fulfill daily tasks and manage population numbers. Living on the moors gives these individuals fantastic insights into what’s going on and know their areas like the back of their hand. The costs of having a gamekeeper aren’t cheap; the Financial Times estimates that each gamekeeper costs between 50 to 70 thousand pounds per year. This gives the keepers the accommodation, transport, tools and materials required to maintain the moors. In many cases, estates will need multiple keepers to manage these huge plots of land.

Pest control is a huge part of a gamekeeper’s work. Ground nesting birds leave their nest vulnerable to predators of all sizes namely, foxes. There’s evidence to suggest that in the last 20 to 30 years fox populations have increased significantly in Moorland areas. This isn’t only an issue for grouse and other moorland species but livestock too.

Heather burning Moorland bogs
Controlled Heather Burning/ Muirburn

Moorland not used for shooting

Moorland without shooting is suffering an identity crisis. Without shooting, heather moorland becomes a very expensive area of land. Just to maintain the moorland requires heather burning and the control of juvenile ferns and trees. This requires constant monitoring as, like a weed in a garden, these invasive plants can take over swathes of land incredibly quickly. Some will look to change the land to forests, this endeavour offers a bleak outlook for all parties including the environment.

Charities and volunteers are usually those in charge of looking after non shooting moorland. Unfortunately, these individuals don’t have the knowledge or the equipment to carry out the job. A misguided belief that all animals and plants will live in perfect unison without pest control and land management bears few fruits. The RSPB does carry out pest control however, they follow a non lethal and then lethal approach. Non lethal pest control on this scale will not work and referring to lethal control as a last resort is too little too late.

This ambiguity between not killing predators but wishing to restore endangered species creates confusion. These cannot be mutually exclusive and it shows. Heather moorland is being diminished on two fronts as charities refusing to burn heather and only control predators as a final resort. If the objective is the overall health of both the habitat and its creatures then these need to be priorities. Overgrown, predator dense land does not enable endangered birds to thrive.

The evidence

Much of what we read is anecdotal, opinion vs opinion rather than clear cut facts. The objective for both parties is to improve the biodiversity and numbers of endangered birds on heather moorland. The sticking point always comes back to pest control and its effectiveness, non shooting parties will call it blood lust while estate owners will call it essential. While the morality of taking one life to protect another could be argued for an eternity, helping those listed above deems it necessary.

Hen Harrier

While not our favourite news outlet the Daily Mail posted an article last year on the success of Hen Harriers. The Moorland Group followed up with a report in September of 2020 reporting the success of Hen Harriers for the year. The data from Natural England stated there were 19 nests producing 60 chicks, 12 of these nest were on moorland with grouse shooting. A more in depth look at the work of the gamekeepers at Bowland gives an insight into the work required for successful Hen Harrier nests. As of this year, half of grouse moors now have a Hen Harrier presence.

Hen Harrier on Moorland

Curlew

While exact numbers are unknown, there are estimated to be 66,000 breeding pairs with less than 300 of them in Southern England. As we mentioned before, Curlew numbers are incredibly reliant on pest control in their environments. The Langholm Project demonstrates the benefits of land management on Curlew numbers. This 10 year study contrasts the effects of managing land for grouse and not. Page 21 of this document shows that Curlew (10%), Golden Plover(16%) and Snipe (21%) grew year on year in contrast to the national decline. Predator control is the primary reason for this success. The RSPB reiterates the importance of land management on their page on Curlew recovery.

Curlew on Moorland

Merlin

The Merlin is another bird that relies on a healthy moor to hunt and nest their young. Their nests are often found in heather which is a unique trait to UK wildlife. A study finalised in 2014 shows the trends of Merlin populations on Keepered vs non Keepered grouse moors. Using historical data, they were able to show population trends starting in 1968. The data concludes that Merlin density is increasing on keepered moors and decreasing outside of them.

Merlin on moorland

Golden Plover

Golden Plover numbers are much higher than the others on this list with roughly 429,000 birds arriving in the UK during the winter. However, the number of areas they are spotted in is down 31% between the years 1989 to 2015 on average across Scotland. A 2015 study states the total number of Golven Plover is down 84% in the same time period. A study conducted by Newcastle and Durham University concluded that Golden Plover are incredibly reliant on predator control. If predator control ended completely, the predicted loss in Golden Plover populations would be 79%. Their success is dependant on appropriate land for nesting with a low density of predators.

Golden Plover on Moorland

Heather Moorland

The overriding similarity between all species on this list is their reliance on healthy moorland. If moorland recedes and trees and ferns take over then the moorland will cease to exist. Without the Moorland there is no hope for any of the species that are in danger of extinction Blocking drainage ditches, Heather burning, tree clearing all play a part in maintaining moorland. Like we mentioned earlier, the Moorland Association and its members have used these techniques amongst others to restore 217,000 acres of moorland in the last 25 years. The target is aiming to restore an additional 400,000 acres of blanket bog to support these ecosystems.

Heather Burning or Muirburn plays a controversial role in maintaining healthy moors. Dry vegetation is cleared using controlled burns to make way for young saplings, assuring the heather is at its best. This stops the ingress of fern and tree saplings from taking root in the land. On the contrary to common belief, this doesn’t scald the earth beneath and leaves the ground ripe for fresh heather.

The video below shows how little heat is transferred to the ground, if it won’t melt a mars bar then it won’t dry the moss either. This moss is of significant importance to both moorland and environmental health. If burning doesn’t take place then the aged heather on top becomes a tinder box for future problems. We’ve written on heather burning previously and its fundamental requirement for healthy moorland. The wildlife trust estimates that 85% of Heathland (where they’ve included Moorland) in the UK has been lost in the last 150 years.

Can you have successful moorland without shooting?

In theory, this is entirely possible but the reality is more complicated. Driven grouse shooting provides funding for these areas to continue their conservation efforts. Thinking that these businesses are profitable is a gross miss understanding of the profitability. A government study found 1 in 16 grouse shoots were profitable. The rest of the money came from private investment averaging at 183£ a Hectare or 76.25£ an acre. Without grouse shooting, the net cost of maintaining the land is considerably higher.

More profitable uses for the land include wind farms or forestry. However, doing so would put more pressure on endangered birds and their habitats. This is contentious as windfarms disrupt ground nesting birds and forestry houses more predators for those species. The loss of moorland in these instances will reduce the land available to endangered birds and compound the issue further.

Would you be able to save the birds most at risk without shooting and the associated land management? Unlikely, all the evidence suggests land management has a positive effect on endangered birds. Private individuals are currently funding the majority of the work. Passing these costs on to charities and governments is possible but it’s likely these bodies will look to improve these habitats or plant trees instead.

We will say, those gamekeepers who continue to persecute birds of prey shouldn’t continue working on any moorland. The efforts of both charities and private estates are completely redundant when these individuals attack these birds. These bad apples undermine the efforts of the community as a whole.

Heather Moorland Bogs

Conclusion

The catalyst to this blog was an article from National Geographic that questioned what will become of Scottish Moorland. The article starts with an interview with a landowner who’s selling up his family’s sporting estate to a family who had no interest in continuing shooting over the land. This marked the end of an era for the landowner but also reflects what’s happening across the UK to other moors.

The quote from estate owner Robbie Miller. “I wish that people paid more attention to how the land is managed rather than who owns it.” sums up the battle lines. The current trend is to associate anything related to shooting negatively. Just one comment in one chapter of Mary Colwell’s book, Beak, tooth and Claw, drew a tantrum from ex RSPB conservation director Mark Avery. Colwell isn’t pro shooting, but pro wildlife and reporting that land managed for grouse benefits more than game birds is a step too far… apparently.

Moorland Hares

The data is there for everyone to see, if we wish to stop the decline of rare birds and rare habitats, land management is essential. The Morland Association invests a collective 1 million pounds a week into conservation. While that supports grouse shooting, this also supports every other species dependent on Heather Moorland. Whether you like it or not, land managed for grouse shooting is continuing to outperform the land that isn’t. Remove the gamekeepers and private investment in these areas and you’ll lose the moors and the wildlife that comes with it. The RSPB and other charities should have enough capital and expertise to do the same but the evidence doesn’t suggest they can.

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