Many take our heather moorland for granted, which is no surprise since it has been in existence for thousands of years, since our ancestors opened up the forests and ling heather began to dominate the landscape. Three-quarters of the world’s heather moorland is in the UK, and the majority of this is in Scotland.
In this country have an almost unique need to value our heather, which currently covers around 50 per cent of Scotland’s uplands, to foster and promote it, and to continue to manage this cultural landscape.
Heather’s ecological and economic importance is recognised at global level. In 1992, the Rio Convention on Biodiversity ratified the global importance of UK heather moorland. Moorland supports 13 biological communities listed under EC Directive 92/43/EEC on the Conservation of Natural Habitats and of Wild Flora and Fauna, and 18 species of European or international importance.
But it is a managed environment. The old saying “use it or lose it” springs to mind as, without use, it would soon vanish. The land uses which promote and conserve our open moors are grazing and game management. Commercial forestry and other alternatives including abandonment, ‘wilding’ or ‘rewilding’, where nature is simply left to take its course typically results in a loss of this national asset.
In benefit terms, managed heather moorland provides a habitat for many upland species, birds, animals and plant life, including curlew, lapwing and other waders, mountain hares and rare bumblebees. Grouse is also an economic driver – the birds need young heather shoots to feed on, and this is achieved by regular burning known as ‘muirburn’, done in early springtime before the ground nesting birds get going.
From an economic perspective heather moorland clearly has tourism value although little of this, except that generated through country sports, finds its way back to source. Surveys have shown that grouse shooting supports more than 1050 jobs, pays £14.5 million per annum in wages, and generates £23.3 million per annum for Scotland’s gross domestic product.
Add to those economic factors the enhanced environmental benefits funded by private investment as a consequence of habitat management and predator control, and it can be seen as a land use delivering high conservation gain at a low cost to the public purse.
Without moorland management, certain species would still exist but at far lower densities, and therefore at far greater risk.
Our moorland also delivers other benefits and ecosystem services. It is a healthy source of food including Scotch lamb, game (such as venison and grouse) and honey as well as other niche products.
Heather moorland and its use are currently at the centre of debate. We need to decide whether we value it, or we don’t, and, if we do, how we intend to protect it. A total of 25 per cent of Scotland’s heathland, of which heather moorland is a valuable component, has been lost since the 1950s to overgrazing by sheep and deer, invasion by bracken, and taken into forestry.
Placing unreasonable stress on the key incentive for management, game conservation, could easily result in our moors disappearing. National Geographic described our heather moorland as “the nation’s signature landscape”. That’s a statement that cannot be taken for granted if we want that landscape, and all the benefits it brings, to remain for the enjoyment of future generations.
Bruce Russell, director Scotland, Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust.