Loch a Chnuic, Abernethy RSPB reserve, Speyside, Scotland, August 2007

Uplands

Mountains, moors, hills and valleys, collectively known as the uplands, are the wet, windy and wild-looking landscapes of our countryside.

Crucially, they cover roughly a third of the UK.

Critically, they, and the wildlife that calls them home, need help.

 

 

This page is a 4-minute read.

Fragile areas

  • 55% of upland species have declined over the past 50 years
  • 15% of them threatened with localised extinction in the UK
  • The last golden eagle in the Lake District disappeared in 2016
  • Wildcats are hanging on by their claws in Scotland
  • The hen harrier, curlew and mountain ringlet butterfly face local extinction
  • Climate change is also having profound impacts.

Over 40,000 square kilometres of our uplands are in the UK-wide network of National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and, in Scotland, National Scenic Areas.

Why upland land management needs to change

The uplands are often not as wild as they look. Most are working landscapes, managed as farms, gamebird and deer shooting estates or for commercial and native woodland. They’re popular with visitors too, who come to walk and cycle, enjoy the scenery and watch wildlife.

The heart of the problem is that nature isn’t always prioritised in how the land is managed. Attempts to make the uplands more productive, mainly for farming, forestry or shooting, have damaged habitats and species, even though less-damaging practices can still result in viable businesses.

Some types of upland agriculture do benefit wildlife, such as low-intensity cattle and sheep farming. But heavy grazing contributes to a loss of rare habitats, and too much drainage has damaged internationally important blanket bogs, risking the release of their stored carbon.

More native woodlands would be very good for wildlife. Planted sympathetically, commercial forestry can also be managed with wildlife and the environment in mind. When in inappropriate locations, however, these trees can damage habitats, such as peat bogs, fragment open landscapes, harbour predators and so prove catastrophic for wildlife.

Low-intensity shooting, including ‘walked-up’ shooting for grouse, plus legal predator control, can benefit ground-nesting bird species. Large scale, intensively managed shoots, however, often include unsustainable practices, such as burning peatland plants causing damage to the fragile ecosystem; the illegal killing of birds of prey and other protected species; and the mass culling of mountain hares.

Healthy uplands aren’t just good for nature…

Our uplands are home to an amazing array of wildlife: like the mountain hare, Atlantic salmon, golden eagle, ptarmigan, dotterel and freshwater pearl mussel. They’re also home to species that used to be widespread in the lowlands, but now find the uplands as last refuges, like the curlew and whinchat. All these creatures have adapted to live in often challenging environments, and many parts of the uplands have been given special legal protection for the wildlife they support.

...they're vital for all of us!

  • Our uplands attract millions of visitors each year – having access to places like our uplands keeps people active and we know that getting out and enjoying nature is linked to good physical and mental wellbeing
  • Uplands are home to people and communities who live and work the land. An increasing number of whom are now working with organisations like ours to help bring nature back
  • Upland peat bogs store an estimated 2,000 megatonnes of carbon, making them crucial in the fight against climate change
  • They reduce flooding – peat bogs, coupled with woodlands, can also slow water running off the hills. With climate change causing more extreme weather, these natural flood defences are more important than ever
  • Seven out of every ten litres of water that comes out of our taps at home comes from the uplands. When healthy, our uplands act as natural filters for the rainwater. This means less treatment is needed by the water company, lowering bills for all of us.
Golden eagle Aquila chrysaetos adult male sitting in heather, Cairngorms National Park, Scotland

What’s the solution for the uplands?

It’s time for everyone who relies on our uplands to work together to secure support that helps land-managers – and nature – adapt to climate change, support wildlife, and protect the vital ecosystem services that our uplands provide.

The upland landscape will continue to change as it has done for millennia, but future public support payments for agriculture and forestry must reward only those activities that make a positive contribution to sustaining our uplands for the benefit of society as a whole. Private benefits, such as sporting management, must also work in tune with the environment and help support public needs, especially mitigating climate change and helping to conserve threatened species.

Heather and Scots Pine woods at Loch Achrnuic, RSPB Abernethy nature reserve

RSPB is making an impact

Along with other organisations, the RSPB is working to secure a brighter future for our mountains, moors, hills and valleys. We want a positive future for the wildlife, the people who depend on these places for their livelihoods and to ensure our uplands fulfil their environmental, economic and social potential.

More than half of all the land the RSPB looks after is in the uplands. In recent years we’ve created 2,358ha of new woodland and re-wetted 13,847ha of peatland, all with the help of thousands of volunteers and funders. Together with the other land we manage, these habitats are home for an array of birds and other species, some of which are scarce and internationally important.

RSPB scientists are researching the needs of upland species and then testing land-management solutions, to secure the recovery for species, including some with highly restricted ranges, such as common scoter and red-necked phalarope. Our nature reserves are often the last refuges for some of these species.

But we can’t do this alone.

Our vision is simple:

  • An uplands richer in nature, delivering for people and the climate, where good land-management practices in tune with nature, thrive and prosper
  • Where rare and threatened wildlife returns
  • Where we use the power of nature to tackle some of our greatest challenges like climate change and flooding
  • And where millions of visitors value our wild places, and come to improve their health and wellbeing, as well as being blown away by the sheer majesty of their surroundings.

This vision is within our grasp, but to achieve it, nature needs to be prioritised in how the land is managed.

Sunlight on Indians Head, Dove Stone

Working in the uplands

Challenging way of life

Many people call the uplands home, but these can be tough places to live. Local jobs are few and far between, affordable houses are scarce, and getting anywhere on public transport can be a challenge. Added to this, young people often need to travel long distances to school and there are ever fewer local shops, post offices, and banks. 

In some areas, large numbers of tourists are drawn by the allure of space and open landscapes. This increasingly year-round influx brings its own pressures, as well as opportunities.

Why are the uplands important?

We are currently facing a climate and nature emergency. We need to reverse the fortunes of our vital uplands so that they play their part in dealing effectively with this crisis.

Those who live in and manage our uplands have a vital role to play in ensuring that the land delivers for nature, for the climate, and for wider society.

Reversing the damage

In the past, agriculture policy in the uplands has focused on improving the productivity of hill farms, but this has put pressure on vulnerable habitats. Poorly located commercial forestry has also created problems, as has intensive management of land for shooting.

What we need is landscape-scale habitat restoration, which will deliver a wide range of public benefits. This will can work effectively through a collaboration between landowners, public bodies, and local communities.

The RSPB’s contribution to this effort is working in our priority landscapes across the UK, where we have identified opportunities for partnership working.

Good examples of this include:

  • The Flow Country Partnership
  • Cairngorms Connect in the Highlands of Scotland
  • Our work with United Utilities in the Lake District, Bowland, and the Peak District.

Grouse shooting in the uplands

Red grouse (Lagopus lagopus scoticus) walking, Cairngorm National Park, Highlands, Scotland
Estates currently manage large areas of our uplands for driven grouse shooting with little effective regulation. We’re all paying the price.