NEW research by RSPB shows that moorlands supporting a greater variety of vegetation types at different heights maximises the abundance of a wide range of bird species.
Creating and maintaining this diversity of habitats depends on active management with livestock grazing playing an important role. Simply maximising heather cover, a long-held and often key conservation objective in the uplands, is unlikely to benefit a wide range of birds.
In recent years, moorland birds such as snipe, golden plover, curlew, skylark and wheatear, have undergone significant declines in their numbers across large swathes of our uplands. One of the suggested causes for this has been reductions in heather cover due to high grazing pressure from sheep and deer.
However, the new study by RSPB researchers, which monitored 85 moorland sites in southern Scotland and northern England, found that only two of nine characteristic moorland species monitored – red grouse and stonechat – preferred blanket heather cover. It indicates that the loss of moorland heather cover in itself does not lead to a widespread reduction in the abundance of most bird species, as previously suggested.
The findings suggest that management to improve moorland bird communities should aim to promote habitat diversity within the moorland landscape, through appropriate grazing and burning regimes. RSPB believes that this would bring about a mosaic of moorland vegetation cover and would maintain a greater number of bird species in this habitat.
Dr James Pearce Higgins, a research biologist with RSPB, said: “Since the Second World War, there has been roughly a 25 percent reduction in heather cover on moorland brought about by new forestry plantations and conversion to grassland as a direct result of high grazing pressure. A number of agri-environment schemes were set up to try to reverse this decline, and increase heather cover but our findings show that that placing too much emphasis on maximising heather cover at the expense of a more diverse landscape may be detrimental to upland bird species. For example, one of our most characteristic upland birds, the golden plover, may be four times as common where extensive areas of short, open vegetation, such as that maintained by appropriate grazing and burning levels, exists.”
RSPB is concerned that current government proposals, contained within the consultation on the Scottish Rural Development Programme (SRDP), could result in significant future declines in livestock numbers in these areas. Since the latest round of CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) reforms has decoupled subsidy payments from production, it has become even more economically unattractive to maintain livestock in many areas of rural Scotland. If the SRDP proposals are carried out, RSPB believes that it would deal a further blow to keeping livestock in remoter and more environmentally sensitive parts of the country. As a result, the grazing that helps maintain the mosaic of vegetation on moorland habitats could be reduced, and the bird diversity could threatened.
Duncan Orr Ewing, head of species and land management at RSPB in Scotland, said: “ It is crucial that reform of the Less Favoured Area subsidies in particular acknowledges the importance of an extensive mix of livestock, both cattle and sheep, to maintain wildlife habitats in the uplands. These environmental benefits should be supported by public incentives.”