Mosaic of Moorland Vegetation Benefits
RSPB Announce Research ResultsNew 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 the reduction 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 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.”Sue Armstrong-Brown, the RSPB's head of agricultural policy, said: “Our research proves that the right level of grazing – with both sheep and, most importantly, cattle – is a vital means of managing the uplands to support more wildlife. The English uplands support a number of birds of International importance.
“It is heartening to see the government recognising the value of cattle grazing in the uplands too. Lord Rooker's announcement at this week's Royal Show of more conservation options for upland farmers, through the Environmental Stewardship Scheme, will favour those land managers seeking to keep livestock on the hills for the benefit of wildlife, landscape and rare breeds.
“These benefits will only be realised if Defra secures adequate funding for the scheme. This new research adds urgency to the widespread calls for Defra to confirm how English upland land managers, especially farmers, will be provided with the funding and long-term stability they need to deliver these unique environmental benefits.”
4th July 2014