Why moor is less in Britain

Our heather-clad landscapes are in danger of being destroyed by overgrazing, burning, and juggernauts of encroaching bracken. Malcolm Smith reports

Stand among the knee-high, purple heather in the Berwyn Mountains of north-east Wales and it is difficult to imagine that anything can be wrong with Britain's moorlands. But cast your gaze to its distant edges. There you will notice the geometrical, dark green of the occasional Sitka spruce plantation and the lighter hue of sheep pastures. Both have eaten into the moorland heather like bites out of a giant apple.

A huge area of Britain's moorlands - a habitat better represented here than in any other part of Europe - has been obliterated by plantations of conifers or by ploughing and drainage to convert it into grassland for livestock. Zealous burning and overgrazing have spelt the death knell for an even wider acreage of moorland.

Bracken - that juggernaut of a fern whose expansion is all too difficult to stop - has also taken its toll, converting vegetation of heather, heaths, bilberry and mosses to a dense stand of nothing but tough, green fronds.

In these ways, according to a new study by Dr Des Thompson of Scottish Natural Heritage and his three co-researchers, a fifth of the moorland in England and Wales was lost between the mid-Forties and Eighties. In Scotland, a little under a fifth was destroyed between the Forties and the Seventies, despite the economic value of grouse and red deer.

In a parallel study, Dr Richard Bardgett and James Marsden, of English Nature, working with Dr David Howard, of the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology, estimate that just over 14,000 square kilometres of moorland remained in England and Wales by the early Nineties. Most of the English heather is in good condition. But not so in Wales, where on over a third of the moorland area there is overgrazing by livestock and general neglect.

As a result, much of this moorland would hardly be recognisable as such. The area of moorland that is dominated by heather, crowberry, bilberry or other "healthy" plants amounts to no more than 7,000 square kilometres in England and Wales. On the rest, these typical moorland plants are in the minority.

Dr Thompson reckons that 70 per cent of what is left is "at risk of change", much of it already in a fairly poor state of growth because of overgrazing by sheep.

When heather becomes patchy and too well nibbled, burning can destroy it completely. All too easily, a heather moor redolent with insects, red grouse and the occasional pair of impressive birds of prey such as hen harriers can be transformed into a monotonous carpet of tough grasses. Insect and bird populations nosedive, while some species, such as grouse, leave for good. Of the 40 bird species totally or partly dependent on moorland, 40 per cent are declining in distribution.

In international terms, Britain's moorland is something of a star turn. "Six of its heath and mire vegetation types are virtually confined to the UK and Ireland. Another seven are better developed here than elsewhere," says Dr Thompson. Some are outstanding for the mosses, lichens and liverworts growing underneath the shrub carpet. Ground-dwelling invertebrates, a few mammals (including red deer, of course) and birds such as the golden eagle, merlin, golden plover and red grouse feed and breed almost exclusively on heather moors.

But the heather moors we have come to admire are not natural habitats at all: they are maintained by a delicate balance of management. If the land is left ungrazed, trees appear - rowan and birch in the most exposed spots. If it is overgrazed or too frequently burnt, grassland is the result. The balance tips in favour of grassland when farmers keep more than two sheep on each hectare.

There are, however, reasons to be hopeful that the balance can more easily be found so that the heather moorland that remains is retained and the condition of areas in poor nick can be improved.

For instance, several Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESAs) have been designated by the UK government to include moorlands such as the southern uplands and Exmoor. Administered by agriculture departments, farmers in ESAs receive annual payments to stock their land appropriately and to farm in an environment-friendly way. In some ESAs there are specific measures for restoring moors in poor condition.

A Moorland Scheme - part of the Agri-Environment Programme - is also in the pipeline. It will apply to moorlands outside ESAs. Also a voluntary scheme (which has the disadvantage that farmers mismanaging their moorland are under no compunction to join), it will pay farmers for each sheep removed in order to reduce grazing levels.

None of these schemes, though, does much to address any fundamental change of thinking about how our heather moors should be managed in future. The ideal balance has, historically, been struck by most grouse moor managers who, by careful burning and light sheep grazing, create a uniform carpet of purple heather. It produces a pretty dull landscape.

What's good for grouse isn't necessarily good for all other moorland wildlife. Dr Thompson and colleagues argue for a shift in moorland management to produce a more diverse habitat. To achieve it, moors need to be managed as a mosaic; burning, grazing or cutting some parts more often than others, but leaving other areas to develop naturally with scrub and trees.

It has to be done without undermining the economic value of the moors, whether for sheep or grouse. Finding this new balance may be a challenge beyond what ESAs and the Moorland Scheme can deliver. But it is a challenge that must be addressed if we are serious about conserving one of our few habitats of international repute.

Suggested Topics
News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Sport
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
PROMOTED VIDEO
Sport
Fans hold up a scarf at West Ham vs Liverpool
footballAfter Arsenal's clear victory, focus turns to West Ham vs Liverpool
New Articles
i100... she's just started school
News
news
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
New Articles
i100
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
Sport
football
New Articles
i100... despite rising prices
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Qualified Primary Teaching Assistant

£64 - £73 per day + Competitive rates based on experience : Randstad Education...

Primary KS2 NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Primary NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Primary NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam