Heather and Moorland Management
The Heather Trust is a champion for Great Britain’s iconic and much loved moorlands. Our moorlands are part of our culture and history and they are home to a unique assemblage of bird and animal species. Many moorlands have protected status, such as Special Protection Area (SPA), Special Area of Conservation (SAC) or Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) because they host a species or plant community that is particularly valued, or for the beauty of the wider landscape, such as Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Moorland is not a single habitat type, but a range of habitats, including dry and wet heath, blanket bog and rough grasslands. MoorIand is characterised by low-growing vegetation and the wildlife and livestock which benefit from its open character.
On a trip to the moors you might expect to see wading birds such as curlew, lapwing, oystercatcher, red and green shank, and golden plover, some of which are dramatically declining in number but have found breeding refuges on moorland, as well merlin, short-eared owls, hen harrier, red grouse, ring ouzel, meadow pipits, field vole, hare and adder, as well as a range of moths, pollinators and other insect life. On some moorland edges black grouse can still be found too.
You will also, of course, find heather (Calluna vulgaris) which flowers spectacularly in late summer, bell heather (Erica cinerea), cross-leaved heath (Erica tetralix), bilberry, cottongrass (hare’s tail and common) and other grasses such as wavy hair grass, flushes of Sphagnum moss, sundew, cranberries and possibly cloudberry, crowberry and juniper. The livestock which graze our moors are also a common sight and these include upland sheep and cattle breeds as well as in some places ponies, such as on Exmoor and Dartmoor.
Globally, heather moorland is rare. It is virtually confined to Britain and Ireland, where in the main it is maintained through cutting, grazing and/or managed burning. In some places such as the far North west of Scotland, moorland is the natural state, but in most areas of Great Britain it would become scrub and woodland without management. As such the Heather Trust is interested in the activities that will enable moorlands to continue to hold their unique place in a mixed mosaic of land uses and types throughout the country, and promotes that those activities should be undertaken in a way that is environmentally sustainable.
Managed burning should always be done following the relevant country’s statutory code and following good practice guidelines. Information on burning seasons, codes and guidance below.
The current Muirburn Code was introduced in 2017, and this version is available from a dedicated website www.muirburn.org.uk. It can also be downloaded as a standalone document.
The 2017 version was produced by a Group established by Scotland’s Moorland Forum that was chaired by Simon Thorp on behalf of the Trust.
England: Heather Burning
The current Heather & Grass Burning Code and associated Regulations came into force on 1 October 2007 and provide guidance and the controls for heather burning in England.
Wales: Heather Burning
In Wales, The current Heather & Grass Burning Code was introduced in May 2008. The associated Regulations shortened the burning season and introduced a requirement to complete a burning plan before carrying out any burning.
Northern Ireland: Heather Burning
The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development has issued separate guidance to cover burning in Northern Ireland.
Isle of Man: Heath Burning
The Heath Burning Code provides guidance details of the Regulations for burning heather in the Isle of Man.
Cutting of heather and moorland vegetation is an important option for moorland maintenance. In some places, such as on deep peat areas in England, obtaining permission to use managed burning is increasingly difficult and alternative management tools such as cutting are likely to become predominant. For guidance on heather cutting, see guidance below, produced for Scotland’s Moorland Forum Principles of Moorland Management series (which should be helpful to those outside of Scotland too): https://www.moorlandforum.org.uk/pomm-guidance-documents
British Moorlands Ltd also provides advice on cutting in comparison to burning for grouse moor managers: https://www.britishmoorlands.com/grouse-management/cutting-alternative/
Grazing by livestock is another important way in which moorland can be maintained. Grazing moorland areas requires knowledge and experience to ensure vegetation is neither under-grazed or over-grazed. This requires careful selection of stock suited to upland areas and careful management to move them around the moor. In relatively recent history sheep have predominantly grazed Britain’s moorlands and uplands, but cattle can have added benefits of breaking up dense vegetation with their heavier feet and because they are happier to eat rougher vegetation. As such, there is a move towards reintroducing cattle as a management tool.
The Heather Trust project manages the Graze the Moor Project which is being undertaken on The Molland Estate on Exmoor. Graze the Moor is a partnership between The Trust, Molland Estate and tenants and graziers, Exmoor National Park Authority, Natural England, the Countryside and Community Research Institute (University of Gloucester) and David Boyce Ecological Consultant. It seeks to monitor the impact of changes to the grazing regime, that includes the re-introduction of winter grazing on the moor by cattle. The aim is to test whether keeping hardy cattle on the moor over winter can bring benefits to biodiversity and be economically viable as a farm enterprise. A report on the Project is due out later in 2019.
Research funded by the Scottish Government and carried out by Robin Pakeman and Andrew Nolan at James Hutton Institute (then the Macaulay Institute) in Aberdeen explores sustainable grazing levels for heather moorland:
We periodically publish briefings on a variety of subjects which are relevant to moorland managers.
These introductory briefings are available below as PDFs and are free for members and visitors to read or download.
The Heather Trust frequently supports scientific studies into matters which relate to upland management.
The links to our most recent studies are provided below:
A nutritional analysis of heather (Calluna Vulgaris) and Sedge (Eriophorum vaginatum)
We are funding the University of York for a 3-year study (2019-2021 inclusive) looking at whether there are differences in the nutritional value of heather (Calluna vulgaris) and sedge (Eriophorum vaginatum) under different moorland management regimes. The study will take place on uncut, mown and burnt plots, with samples taken twice a year over the period of the study. Both plant species are an important food source for various moorland bird and insects species. The key question is whether there are differences in the nutritional value of regrowth under different management regimes (i.e. a burning regime where ash is recycled versus a cutting regime where brash decomposes and is recycled). Comparison will also be made with unmanaged (not cut or burnt) control plots. The study is a discrete piece of work within the larger envelope of the University of York’s Peatland-ES-UK 10 year study.