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Heather moorlands

Ling heather

Image: Andy Hay

Heather moorland is important for hen harriers but it's also an incredibly special place in its own right. Did you know the UK has around 75 per cent of all the heather moorland in the world? That means that as a country, we have a big responsibility to look after it and all the wildlife and biodiversity that depends on it.

And that's a lot of diversity! Because when we talk about heather moorland, we're not just talking about one habitat. It's actually a whole patchwork of different types of vegetation – wet heath, dry heath, blanket bog, and more – all mixed together and each with its own characteristic plants and specific management requirements.

In fact the importance of the moorland habitat and its value for wildlife is recognised in the many national and international designations it has received, including Special Protection Areas (SPA), Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs), Special Areas for Conservation (SAC) and National Parks, to name a few!

Spend a day out in the heather and depending on where you are, you might see a curlew, black grouse, ring ouzel, field vole, merlin, short-eared owl, adder, red grouse, golden plover, a carnivorous sundew plant, meadow pipit, or even a hen harrier!

it's not just wildlife that benefits from moorland. They act as a natural reservoir

And it's not just wildlife that benefits from moorland. Most of our rain falls in the uplands and moorlands act as a natural reservoir, slowly releasing it into rivers and streams to supply the water that comes out of our taps.

If the moorland is poorly managed, over-burned, or overgrazed by sheep, it exposes the bare peat. The peat is then easily washed away by rain and gets into the streams, turning the water brown, the colour of stewed tea!

Without the mossy covering to help soak up the rain, this can also increase the likelihood of flooding in towns and valleys downstream. But, if we manage the moorlands well and protect the peat by growing sphagnum mosses, bilberry and heather, then the colour of the water is much improved.

The peat has taken more than 5,000 years to develop. It is made up of dead sphagnum mosses and has locked up thousands of tonnes of carbon. If the peat loses its cover of vegetation, or if it is dried out by over-drainage, the carbon is released into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming and climate change.

By blocking up drainage ditches (also known as grips) and holding on to that precious wetness, we can ensure the continued growth of the mosses that form the peat and protect the bugs and beasties that rely on it, like craneflies and dragonflies. In doing so, not only can we reduce the losses, but active wet bogs can actually soak up additional carbon from the atmosphere, helping buffer both ourselves and wildlife from the effects of a warming climate.

It may look wild and untouched but in reality, the moorland landscape has been managed by people for hundreds of years. Grazing by sheep and cattle through upland hill farming and management for grouse shooting have created and shaped the moors as we know them today.