Mountain, hill and moorland

Mountain, hill and moorland

Expanses of unenclosed farmland in the uplands contain a variety of heath, grass, wetland, scrub and woodland habitats.

These areas support the largest expanses of semi-natural vegetation found in the UK. They are widely used for extensive livestock grazing, grouse and deer shooting, and recreation.

What

The variety of habitats in these areas is determined by soil, climate, hydrology, burning practices and the number and type of herbivores present. This patchwork of habitats provides a home to a range of species, many of which are only found in these upland areas, and some of which are increasingly rare in the UK. Knowing what species and habitats you have on your land and in the local area, as well as how species and habitats respond to different management practices, will give you the best basis from which to conserve them.

Cattle grazing in Geltsdale RSPB reserve, Summer 2000

Why

Unenclosed upland areas can contain a wide array of habitats including:

  • Dry heath dominated by heather (ling) or bilberry (blaeberry)
  • Wet heath with cross-leaved heath, bog-myrtle, deergrass and purple moorgrass.
  • Blanket bog and their associated bog pools found on gently-sloping areas containing a deep layer of peat, and dominated by Sphagnum (bog) mosses and cotton grasses.
  • Grasslands, the most common of which is acid grassland consisting of bents, fescues, mat-grass (‘white ground/hill’) and wavy-hair grass. Other more nutritious grasslands occur on areas of fertile or lime-rich soils.

Along with the surrounding pastures they provide vast areas for birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles and invertebrates to forage and breed in.

Some habitats found in our upland areas are of international importance, for example between 10-15% of the world’s blanket bog occurs in the UK (a large proportion in Scotland). Some species are found in internationally important numbers; for example around 27% of the global population of curlews occurs in the UK uplands.

The mix of wet and dry habitats, different vegetation heights and structure provide important habitat for a number of species of high conservation importance which have been lost from many other parts of the UK (golden plovers and curlews for example). Many rarer invertebrates are also found in these habitats including the large heath and marsh fritillary butterflies, the golden-ringed dragonfly, bilberry/blaeberry bumblebees and the tormentil mining bee. The more common craneflies are incredibly important; their larvae (leatherjackets) overwinter in the soil and provide a key food source for wading birds.

Upland areas provide large areas of grazing land, primarily for hill sheep breeds, and have an important role in the UK stratified sheep industry. The deep peat soils of blanket bog store a significant quantity of organic carbon, which when disturbed (through drainage and/or burning) can release this carbon back into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Peatlands and other upland habitats play a role in retaining water and reducing flooding lower down river catchments.

Bog pool with cotton grass, sphagnum

How

Management aimed at developing a range of habitats across an upland area will provide the greatest benefits to the largest variety of wildlife. A mosaic of the habitats described above alongside scattered native woodland, scrub and bracken, is likely to provide suitable conditions for a wider diversity of wildlife than an area solely consisting of grass or heather. Different habitats support different species, but they also work in combination. A good example is the curlew. They typically nest in tall vegetation or tussocks, the adults fly to feed on earthworms and leatherjackets in nearby pastures, but then travel with their flightless chicks to areas of damp ground to feed on aquatic invertebrates – the loss of any one of these habitats can lead to the loss of curlews from an area. A little time spent finding out about the range of wildlife using the land will help land managers take account of any rare or threatened species present.

Grazing and burning are the two main management tools used to manage these large upland expanses. Restoration of peatlands and wetlands damaged by historic drainage is also a priority.

Planning Grazing regimes

The agricultural stocking capacity of an upland area and the impacts that grazing has on its wildlife varies considerably depending on the proportion of different habitats present and the climate. The large scale of unenclosed uplands, and their typically low stocking rates, allows animals to preferentially graze individual plant species or vegetation types as their palatability and nutritional value changes through the year. Shepherding of sheep around the land can help livestock utilise available forage more effectively and ensure overgrazing of favoured areas is avoided.

It is possible to enhance, (and conversely damage) individual upland habitats by changing stocking levels, grazing periods or type of grazing animal.

Stocking Levels

High grazing pressure over a prolonged period will reduce the abundance of certain plants, alter vegetation structure and in time change plant communities. Less palatable or unpalatable plants (e.g. mat-grass, wavy-hair grass, purple moorgrass) may come to dominate vegetation in such situations. Vegetation, soils and water features can all be damaged by trampling and potentially lead to erosion (increasing sediment flow in watercourses) and pollution. High stocking densities during the summer months can result in plants being unable to flower, reducing both pollen and nectar resources for a range of pollinating insects and seed production. High stocking will typically cause reduced height of vegetation, and increased uniformity of vegetation, both of which will negatively impact many upland species.

Very low or no grazing for a long period will generally allow  taller and denser vegetation to develop, herbs to flower and seed, dwarf-shrubs to return where they may be absent and, in time, pockets of scrub and woodland to form. This more varied structure will create habitat mosaics for a wider range of species, such as nesting habitat for merlins, black grouse and ring ouzels, and for adders and common lizards.

Suggested sustainable stocking rates vary between 0.05 LU/ha (livestock units per hectare) and 0.20 LU/ha, averaged across the year, which corresponds to approximately 0.3 – 1.3 breeding ewe per hectare, however this should just be used as a guide. Stocking levels should be set and modified in response to changes observed on the grazing unit such as vegetation height, extent of different habitat types or damage to plants such as heathers.

Grazing Period

Timing grazing to coincide with times when vegetation is at its most attractive to livestock will utilise grazing forage most effectively and will help to maintain a more diverse upland habitat. Livestock are attracted to areas of bent and fescue grasslands throughout the growing season, whereas areas of mat-grass are only palatable in early spring. Cottongrass, deergrass and purple moorgrass all offer better grazing during the first flush of spring growth.

Heather will be targeted either once other grazing areas have been diminished or in autumn/winter when the grasses stop growing. Younger heather, for example young shoots following burning, is generally more attractive than older heather. Avoiding heavy autumn and winter grazing will ensure grazing sensitive plants such as ling heather (which will be damaged if more than 30% of its annual growth is removed) will be maintained in a healthy condition.

Grazing animal

Different types of livestock, including wild herbivores, have different impacts on vegetation both in the way they graze, access water and generally move around.

Sheep will avoid certain grasses (such as mat-grass, wavy-hair grass), and favour bent-fescue grasslands. They will browse on ling heather and other dwarf shrubs throughout the grazing season, but graze these plants more heavily, sometimes causing damage, in the autumn.

Cattle are less selective graziers than sheep and will more readily consume mat-grass and purple moorgrass (particularly when it is young). Cattle do not readily graze heather, but can cause damage both through trampling, dunging and ‘pulling’ at plants. Due to their larger size and weight, cattle can cause damage to sensitive habitat features such as moss areas or wet spring heads. Cattle dung can provide a useful food for invertebrates which in turn will benefit many bird species.

Horses and ponies will graze low quality vegetation such as sedges and fibrous grasses more readily than sheep.

Deer will generally make more use of heather than either sheep or cattle but as they range over a much larger area are less likely to cause overgrazing. Where deer are common it is important to consider the impact of deer on habitats in addition to that of livestock, and plan grazing levels accordingly.

Restoring moorland vegetation

Where heather has been damaged or suppressed through heavy grazing it can be restored by reducing grazing levels, in particular by removal of sheep in the autumn and winter months. Restoring heather on more grassy areas can be more difficult, but using summer cattle grazing to reduce grass competition can open up areas for heather to re-establish.

Restoring hydrology

Many blanket bogs have been subjected to significant drainage works, where drains or grips were dug at regular intervals across vast areas. From both an agricultural and sporting perspective this drainage was not very successful and has increased problems such as water run-off and land erosion. It has also damaged important blanket bog habitats and reduced cover of Sphagnum mosses (which are the plants that form peat).

Wet moorland can be restored by blocking up these drains and re-wetting the peat by placing dams across the grips at regular intervals. This will help increase the cover of Sphagnum mosses, providing valuable habitat for insects which in turn provides feed for chicks.

Other moorland management practices

Stock feeding provides additional feed to supplement livestock diets and/or to enable livestock to be held on land when it does not have enough available forage. This practice may be required in emergencies, such as periods of bad weather, however it can lead to soil enrichment and localised overgrazing of heather, so should generally be avoided. Carefully planned and executed supplementary feeding can, however, be used to help move livestock around.

Burning is used to remove old mature heather plants and allow younger, more nutritional heather to regenerate to provide food for grouse and sheep. Burning can also help break up uniform stands of heather to provide mosaics of vegetation of different heights which is important for birds while also helping livestock move around.

A burning plan should be developed to identify sensitive wildlife habitats and no burn areas. This should also aim to maintain heather of all ages, including areas of tall grown and over mature heather which can support a different range of plants, such as lichens and mosses. Frequency of burning will vary according to climate, altitude and aspect, however as a guide on dry heather a rotation of 10-20 years is likely to be appropriate.

In some cases, burning will not be an appropriate management tool. For example, blanket bog (vegetation on deep peat >50cm deep with cottongrass and Sphagnum) should not be burnt as this can damage both Sphagnum mosses and the underlying peat. Steep slopes prone to erosion and areas of scrub should also be avoided. Burning can be very damaging to reptiles – see further advice below.

In some areas moorland grasslands such as purple moorgrass swards are burnt to provide fresh young grass growth for livestock. This is generally not encouraged as over the long-term it can lead to greater dominance by competitive grasses.

Mountain, moor and hill - GD

More information

Edgar, P, Foster, J & Baker, J (2010). Reptile Habitat Management Handbook. Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, Bournemouth.

ARC (2011). Selecting Environmental Stewardship Options to Benefit Reptiles. ARC, Bournemouth.

In practice

Here are some useful case studies and articles about how farmers are putting Farm Wildlife into practice on their farms

Case Study: British dung beetles – here to help

By Kathryn Smith | 15th April 2019

Author: Ceri Watkins, Co-Founder of Dung beetle UK Mapping Project Species: Dung beetles Why is farmland important for these species? There are approximately 60 species of dung beetle in the UK. They are not the ‘ball rollers’ seen in warmer countries and on TV, instead they live inside the dung pile (dwellers) or in the […]

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Case Study: Restoration of rank wetland habitats to benefit waders

By Kathryn Smith | 4th August 2016

Author: Dan Brown, Dr Duncan Allison & Sarah Bird Farm: Anston Farm, Dunsyre, South Lanarkshire Aims: Anston is a 651 ha mixed upland livestock farm in South Lanarkshire. A variety of habitats can be found across the farm. The hill ground includes dry heath and acid grassland, whilst the upper in-bye fields contain a mixture […]

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Case Study: Managing for breeding waders on Shetland

By Kathryn Smith | 26th September 2014

Author: Sue White Farm: Uradale Farm, Shetland Aims: Breeding waders are very much iconic species in Shetland. This particular feature forms an integral part of a holistic plan and along with mown grassland for wildlife management benefits breeding waders. Uradale Farm covers 750ha of mostly heather moorland. On the lower ground there are about 200ha […]

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