There is so much more to management of our uplands than simply burning heather — they are ecological marvels, reveals Mike Swan
Coming from the soft south, I didn’t see a live grouse until I was 19. That was in the summer of 1974, when I took off to the Cairngorms for a couple of weeks to go youth hostelling with a friend. There were new sights around every corner, with dotterel, snow buntings and ptarmigan on the high tops; golden eagles and ospreys flying, ring ouzels and whinchats in the scrubby hillsides, and dippers in the streams.
That holiday also brought my first view of a mountain hare, bouncing up out of its form almost under my feet. More memorable, however, was seeing them in February 1982 when I was a newly recruited trainee adviser with GWCT, sent north to Speyside to learn a bit about grouse with the late James Duncan, then our adviser for Northern Scotland.
With next to no snow on the hills, the white blobs of hares hiding in the heather and pretending not to be there seemed almost comical. In those days I took it for granted that mountain hares were there, just as brown hares were a part of the arable farmland at home.
Now, I realise that both species owe much to gamekeepers. If you want to see one of our wonderful native mountain hares, go to a grouse moor in Scotland, or in the area of the Peak Distict where they were reintroduced more than a century ago.
Everyone agrees that heather burning for grouse provides optimal habitat, but what some find harder to swallow is that foxes are a major driver of populations, and fox control by gamekeepers makes a big difference to numbers. I find it sad that Scottish politicians have decided to ignore all this, as shown by the recent move to stop gamekeepers carrying out necessary control of mountain hares.
There are clearly many people out there who seem to think that heather moorland is a natural environment. How wrong they are, for this apparent wilderness is an artefact of human activity, like the rest of our countryside. It is interesting to speculate what our hills would look like were it not for human intervention. While most moorland was wooded in prehistoric times, we should not forget that there were people even then, and that our hunter-gatherer ancestors had probably caused the woods to grow through their predation on large herbivores. The pollen record from previous interglacial periods suggests that there was much less woodland — even than in our modern farmed countryside — so it may simply be that, in times before human intervention, our open moors would have been just that.
We live in a managed countryside and cannot avoid the truth that a grouse moor needs management. Even those who hate the concept of grouse shooting on ethical grounds should recognise that our wonderful hills need to be looked after.
Historically, the moors were made by farmers, burning the rank vegetation to stimulate new, sweet growth for their livestock. The grouse that came with that were just an accident. If you want to see proof of that, go to a lowland heath area that is managed for grazing, such as the New Forest, and see the same use of fire, even though there are no grouse.
There is not much bleaker by way of countryside than a moor without heather. I clearly remember riding around the hills with James, and him pointing out the obvious boundary between a keepered moor and the desert next door. On one side of the wall the heather and bilberry were flourishing, but on the other there was just white grass and precious little shelter for wildlife. The increase in diversity was obvious even on a cold and wet February morning, but in summer it multiplies inordinately.
Years later, on holiday in south-west Scotland, I had volunteered for a day’s early-season beating on the famous Leadhills estate in Lanarkshire. I remember recognising the estate boundary just as clearly in August. As if to prove the point, there was a male ring ouzel sitting on the boundary wall and I suddenly started to notice meadow pipits and other songbirds where there had been none to see as I motored up the valley from below.
Most Shooting Times readers will know that grouse-moor management is great for other ground-nesting birds, and particularly waders such as curlew, lapwing and golden plover. The combination of heather management by burning to create an ideal habitat mosaic and predation control for the grouse makes the difference between growing populations and those in decline. The importance of the predation control part was beautifully demonstrated by the GWCT’s upland predation experiment in the early 2000s.
What is less well known and celebrated is the effect on songbirds. The likes of meadow pipits, ring ouzels, wheatears and whinchats are all birds of the grouse moor and moorland edge. Predation by corvids, foxes and stoats is recorded for all of them, so again they benefit from management of moors for grouse.
The lovely ring ouzel is a particular case in point, because grouse moors have a difficult reputation due to accidental captures in traps set for stoats. That said, without the keepering, the birds would surely do less well, and new approaches to stoat trapping that came into force this year, in response to the Agreement on International Humane Trapping Standards (AIHTS), are set to reduce the risk dramatically.
When we think of the water vole, we tend to think of rich lowland streams, but they can live high up if the habitat is good. I can remember lying beside a Spey tributary at about 1,200ft above sea level in the summer of 1976 watching them going about their daily business.
The diverse streamside vegetation of a grouse moor can provide a wonderful refuge for water voles compared with the often degraded and over-shaded stream sides lower down. And, of course, no self-respecting grouse keeper would tolerate their number one enemy, the American mink, rampaging about the moor. With other ground predators such as foxes and stoats under good control, the harsher environment of the uplands is still a better bet than a degraded and predator-infested lowland stream.
Heather moorland has a bigger story to tell, too, about water quality and carbon sequestration. Contrary to widespread opinion, draining the hills was not about grouse, but agriculture. The big push to dig grips (ditches) post-World War II was about producing more lamb and beef. This resulted in rivers becoming more flood prone, but also drying away to nothing in drought conditions, thus creating a much harsher environment for fish, including spawning and juvenile salmon and sea-trout.
Today, many grouse-moor owners are blocking those 1950s, 1960s and 1970s grips back up, improving water quality and storage and making a better habitat for river wildlife in general. We should not forget that these upland streams are often on a knife edge in wildlife terms. The fact that they are ‘poor’ acid streams means that predatory fish such as pike cannot make it in such an unproductive environment, hence the relative safety as a spawning environment for salmon and trout.
However, the difference between a safe spawning stream and one so acid that fish cannot live in it, is small. If you add a bit of acidic run-off from blanket conifer forestry, what was once a nursery becomes sterile.
One last thought is that grouse shooting should not be seen in isolation by its opponents. If you take the value of grouse shooting out of the uplands, the owners will need to look elsewhere for income. This usually leads to over-grazing, loss of heather and biodiversity, and eventually to a strong incentive for forestry.
When you do this, even if it is broadleaved rather than conifer planting, much of the carbon in the soil is liberated — so much for planting trees to fight climate change.