|Grouse chicks have specific habitat requirements|
As broods of young grouse begin to hatch out across the hills, it’s a good moment to look back through some of the work the Heather Trust has done on habitat management techniques for brood rearing over the past few years.
Several keepers have found that traditional grouse moor management is no longer viable in many areas, and there has been a big push to discover new and innovative ways to produce grouse. Some of this work has been undertaken by cutting heather, and this has opened up a whole new side to heather management in which carefully customised habitat design can work to reduce chick mortality and shift the moorland environment in favour of young birds.
On Speyside, British Moorlands have worked hard to keep grouse chicks safe from predators by cutting in long, narrow strips across the hillside. This means that cover and security are never far away, and young birds can quickly escape into thicker heather when predators arrive. This theory also suggests that narrow cuts through mature heather can “trap” insects which are blown on the wind, and informal studies have shown that cuts provide just as much crucial insect life for chicks as traditional fires burnt over larger areas.
Cutting through mature heather also allows chicks to get access to mature blaeberry plants which are associated with a rich diversity of caterpillars and grubs. This aligns with work undertaken by the Welsh Wildlife Trust near Denbigh which has cut through areas of mature heather to improve access to insects for young black grouse. 2018 has seen a cold, dry spring in many areas, and a general shortage of insect life may prove to be telling later in the summer when broods are being counted before the shooting season opens.
Further south in Cheshire, Heather Trust board member Richard May has been working on “Maze Cutting”, which includes customised “lay-bys” and loops in areas of managed heather so that young birds have somewhere to dry out in periods of wet, windy weather. A little imaginative thinking can really start to “tweak” wider habitat management plans in favour of groundnesting birds, and while these often feel like small details, we believe that they can deliver a big impact when seen as a whole.
The Heather Trust showcases the work put in by moorland owners and keepers in order to generate discussion around new techniques and ideas to boost productivity. A good deal of this information was fed into the Moorland Forum’s Principles of Moorland Management guidance which will soon be published to establish something like “Best Practice” guidelines for heather management.