Scottish Moorland Group
Blog » 16/06/14

Greater understanding of grouse moor management is needed

Many people have passionate views about Scotland’s moorland and express them on social media. However, such comment often ignores the objectives of the people with responsibility for day to day management and the less obvious public benefits of their work. Misconceptions can arise because of insufficient information, so part of the role of the Scottish Moorland Group is to explain the management of grouse moors.

In this respect, I recently exchanged correspondence with renowned hill-walker Chris Townsend regarding his blog that followed his participation on the TGO Challenge, which passed through the Angus hills. In this, he disparaged hill roads, muirburn and fencing, and implied that there was no wildlife on those moors. Publication on social media exposes his comments to a very wide audience, so it’s doubly important that the facts are examined.

Moorland in the Angus Glens has been managed in much the same way since before the 1800s – primarily for sheep, grouse and deer hence the development of on open landscape and patchwork of different aged heather, grass and bilberry. That habitat, and the assemblage of bird species which depend on it, are unique to the UK and internationally valued. What a walker sees today is not a new development; it is an updating of a traditional management system, taking into account modern ways of working and employment conditions. In the last 10-15 years new moorland owners in the Angus Glens have invested heavily in the infrastructure with upgraded houses, more employment and a social revival of the area. A walker will see the evidence of that investment in the roads and fences, but may not realise the wider downstream economic impact on the area that derives from it.

Towards the end of the last century, reduced management in the area had led to unnaturally high numbers of red deer, with rank unmanaged heather, declining bird life and high incidence of sheep tick. Ticks affect sheep, grouse and other birds such as waders, as well as transmitting Lyme disease to humans through mammals including deer and hares. It had become very difficult to manage deer numbers, so some estates erected electrified stock fences to control their movement while the tick problem could be dealt with. These fences are less visually intrusive the traditional 8 ft deer fence. They are also more flexible and on one estate at least, the current has been turned off and deer have been managed back onto the hill in line with grazing levels recommended by SNH.

The road system on these hills facilitates management and must be of sufficient quality to drive vehicles along, not least for the safety of visitors and employees, often working alone and in difficult weather conditions. New or upgraded roads will look raw until they bed into the landscape; that is inescapable. The Angus Glens may look a bit too managed to experienced mountain walkers such as Chris Townsend, but these road systems are well used by walkers and give the less experienced access takers confidence that they will not get lost. They have obvious advantages for mountain bikers and less able walkers, and being close to Dundee and Aberdeen the Angus Hills are well used by a wide range of people. In fact the owner and manager of one estate happened to be on the hill for almost the whole of the 20th May when the TGO Challenge took place and they spoke to over 20 walkers. All were appreciative of the relatively easy walking afforded by the short heather and roads, some remembering the “bad old days” of deep impenetrable heather.

Muirburn also comes in for criticism. However it has an important purpose to regenerate the heather and provide a mosaic of different aged vegetation; short heather for grouse and sheep to feed on and longer heather to give shelter for ground nesting birds and mammals such as the white hare which thrive on these moors. For a year or so after burning, a patch will look dowdy and unnatural, but it greens up again and then gives the strong purple colour that so many people value. By contrast, over-mature heather looks grey with thick woody stalks, is of little value for birds, impenetrable for walkers and a harbour for tick. Controlled muirburn helps to restrict the risk of damaging wildfires by reducing the high fuel load of unmanaged heather. Old unmanaged heather burns very hot and burns the peat, releasing the carbon stored in it, whereas fires in shorter heather are much more easily extinguished.

Grouse moors are well proven to look after a suite of rare and protected bird such as the Black grouse (the picture above shows a lek on one of the estates in the Angus glens) and upland breeding waders such as lapwing, curlew and golden plover. The ring ouzel also has a strong correlation with managed moorland according to recent RSPB research. Merlin thrive on managed moors in the Angus Glens and are ringed annually on these estates. All of these birds are facing serious declines in other parts of Scotland, with managed grouse moors acting as bastions for their conservation.

A primary reason for the resurgence in birdlife since the moors in this area came under new management is the control of foxes, crows and mustelids. The evidence demonstrates clearly that this work benefits more than single species management for red grouse.

Grouse moors are a managed landscape but they are very far from the “monoculture” with which they are sometimes labelled. They combine farming, sporting, nature conservation, carbon sequestration, water supply and flood regulation, public access and maintenance of landscape – all on the same land. That is very much in line with the principles of the Scottish Government’s Land Use Strategy and multiple benefits.

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