Bruce Russell: Don’t grouse about sporting moors – they are important for conservation

Globally, heather ­moorland of the sort maintained for grouse shooting is among the rarest habitat types with the ­highest conservation designation. However, many moors were not designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest in spite of being grouse moors, but because they were grouse moors. They are current and future wildlife refuges illustrated by the fact that critically endangered waders still thrive on them.

GLORIOUS 12TH PREVIEW PHOTOCALL , GROUSE SHOOTING Horseupcleugh, Berwickshire. ESTATE OWNED BY Robbie Douglas Miller FORMERLY OF JENNERS. Ian Elliot - Grouse Keeper at Horseupcleugh , pictured with a gun and pointing dogs , on the grouse shoot. posing with a gun. , PICTURED WITH ADAM SMITH - WITH POINTING DOGS , HE IS THE , GWCT Policy Officer PHOTO PHIL WILKINSON / TSPL

Well-conducted management for grouse shooting can be a force for good. Its demise would pose significant ­challenges for landscape, biodiversity and local rural economies. We recognise, however, there is room for improvement. For example, grouse moors might play a greater role in protecting andenhancing peat ­storage, for carbon capture and for water storage, although wetter ground may have consequences for agriculture and nature, so balances may be required.

The correct balance in managing moorland requires new processes and reassessing long-held beliefs. Some traditional features of grouse moor management are being ­challenged, which is understandable. Private investors and policy makers need evidence and research to guide new development. Grouse moors should be part of a suite of land uses, alongside forestry, farming and renewables, in a sustainable future for our uplands. Alternative land uses should be assessed to determine ­public benefits and trade-offs in terms of negative impacts. We all want a productive landscape, rich in game and wildlife.

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Moorland is one of our most ­distinctive landscapes with Britain and Ireland called “the world’s greatest moorland countries”. Moors ­support rare flora and fauna and deliver other public goods and services, drinking water, carbon storage and recreation. They may feel wild, but they aren’t ‘wilderness’, having had millennia of human influence. Deforestation by burning took place from 9000 years ago; man has played a crucial role in creating and maintaining this ‘cultural landscape’.

Our managed moors are a range of semi-natural priority habitats, heaths and blanket bogs. Heather, heaths and berries characterise the dwarf-shrub upland heathlands, ­contributing a blaze of purple late-summer colour. Blanket bogs have abundant sphagnum mosses and sedges and cotton grass.

Moorland habitats represent around half of Scotland, with upland heath covering approximately 778,000 ha, its extent, composition and quality influenced by climate, drainage, pollution, grazing, burning, forestry and increased recreational activity. Between 1990 and 2007 there was little change in area but it was noted that ‘species richness’ was in decline.

Scottish moorland supports various land uses – farming, forestry, renewables, sporting and recreation. It delivers ecosystem services as well as being iconic landscape of high aesthetic value, and consequently is often associated with national parks and nature reserves.

Forestry, supported by government subsidy, increased from the 1940s to late 1980s in the uplands, resulting in significant loss of moorland and mountain habitat. Recently, onshore wind farms have impacted on landscape and biodiversity with an ­estimated 30 per cent of installed wind farms on core moorland, mountain and heath.

Around 55 per cent of agriculture in Scotland is dedicated to upland sheep and cattle, bringing socio-economic benefits and maintaining habitat. However, upland sheep numbers have reduced significantly in ­places and deer populations have held steady for 20 years, a combination of harsh winters, culling and major reduction programmes. Overgrazing, however, still reduces heather cover and damages bog vegetation by trampling.

In 2009, there were just over 300 Scottish grouse moors covering more than 1 million hectares. Heather burning and sheep grazing are used to produce a pattern of older, denser and taller heather habitats mixed with younger, shorter and more nutritious vegetation, both utilised by red grouse. Management protects heather habitat and associated public goods and services, but in certain circumstances has been shown to contribute to changes in the nature of some moors.

The principal motivation for ­managing a moor is to produce a ­surplus of grouse for driven shooting, as opposed to walked up shooting. The income that can be generated from let driven days is markedly higher. The greater the return, then the greater the financial investment in management.

Predator and disease control and habitat management to encourage grouse productivity bring many ­collateral benefits, such as the ­conservation of increasingly rare species, and securing the conservation status of birds of prey. The key to safeguarding the future of sporting moorland is that it is managed ‘sustainably’ – management to meet a full range of demands without the ecosystem becoming depleted or damaged. There is evidence that the trade-offs necessary for best practice grouse moor management still leave Scotland’s moorland with a net gain and, consequently, driven grouse moors have an important role to play in the future of our uplands.

Sustaining Scotland’s Moorland, which provides a summary of the latest GWCT research, is available at

Bruce Russell, director Scotland, Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust.