Loch Garten, Abernethy forest, Cairngorms National Park, Scotland | The RSPB

Case studies

Our mountains, moors, hills and valleys are incredibly important, not just for wildlife, but for people as well. The RSPB has been looking after many of these important places for decades. Here are just a few examples.

Abernethy

Large areas of RSPB Scotland Abernethy were once grouse moors. Now they’re being restored for nature.

FRASER CORMACK/Abernethy Warden
I’m Fraser Cormack, I’m a warden here at RSPB Abernethy. Mostly out here it used to be grouse moor.

CAPTION
For many years Abernethy was partly managed as a traditional grouse moor.

FC
On the more heathery area they would be burning. There would be rotational burning of the heather to maintain a certain age class of the heather which would be preferable for the grouse. They would be cutting down trees, getting trees out of the landscape because they don’t want the trees they didn’t want the area to return back to forest. They would prefer it to be moorland for the grouse.

INTERVIEWER What kind of predator control would have been going on when this was a grouse moor?

FC
Well historically a long time ago there would be wildcats, badgers, foxes, pine martens, stoats, weasels all sorts of raptors. Basically any predator once upon a time would have been seen as a pest.

CAPTION
Since the RSPB took over Abernethy the land has been managed to help wildlife.

FC Within two kilometres we’ve got golden eagles nesting and white tailed eagles nesting. We’ve also got kestrels nesting, merlins not too far away from here at all really just up that burn there and all sorts of forest dwelling animals as well. We’ve got pine martens and stoats and all sorts.

CAPTION
Sadly most of Scotland’s moors are not recovering like Abernethy.
Following a request from RSPB council we have ben reviewing our policy on the most intensive forms of gamebird shooting in the UK including driven grouse shooting
DUNCAN Orr-Ewing/Head of Species and Land Management/RSPB Scotland.
Grouse moors cover about 15% of the land area of Scotland. In the past twenty or so years grouse shooting has become a really intensive activity. What is a wild bird sport has become to all intents and purposes farming of grouse in many respects. Many people look at a grouse moor and they think it’s a natural landscape. It isn’t what you are looking at is an industrial landscape. What happens on a grouse moor are teams of gamekeepers are employed and basically their main objective is to produce as many grouse for shooting as possible. And to do that they use a number of techniques and the ket techniques are really killing any predators that might predate or kill grouse. They also kill a large number of species that they think might be damaging for grouse and we’re talking about things like mountain hares and deer there believe it or not as well because they may carry grouse diseases and then the other main activity is rotational muirburn or burning of heather which takes place on about a ten year cycle and can be very intensive and that means that the vegetation is kept very short in many places now the heather doesn’t come anywhere even above your boot and it also prevents the succession of things like trees and scrub which are important wildlife habitats.

CAPTION
The RSPB has been reviewing all the available evidence on the impact of driven grouse shooting.

DOE
So the important thing to say is that we’ve taken very much an evidence based approach to the review. Our scientists have conducted a literature review of all of the evidence that surrounds grouse moor management. The evidence is overwhelming and increasingly overwhelming that much of the grouse moor management that goes on these days is negative for both the environment and for wildlife.

CAPTION
While some species do benefit from intensive grouse management most don’t.

DOE
On the negative balance side is you are creating a monoculture. The diversity of habitats are not there which benefit a whole range of other upland species and of course some of the damage that’s actually being caused to the habitat affects things like our water supplies. It also affects peatlands which are vital carbon stores and have increasing recognition that they are absolutely essential if we’re going to combat climate change.

CAPTION
We want all our uplands to have the chance to thrive.
The RSPB wants licensing for grouse moors across the UK now.

DOE
We’ll pursue licensing in Scotland and unless we get effective licensing then we are going to look at options for banning driven grouse shooting.

Abernethy forest in Cairngorms National Park, Scotland | The RSPB

Forsinard

Lookout Tower at RSPB Forsinard Flows Nature Reserve, Sutherland | The RSPB

In the far north of Scotland is a large, rolling expanse of peatlands and wetlands that makes up almost 5% of the world’s blanket bog. Forsinard Flows nature reserve is a key part of the Flow Country and is the best example of this type of habitat in the world. The RSPB looks after 21,000 hectares of this special place. It’s home to important numbers of breeding water birds, waders and raptors, as well as specialist plants and animals.

Large areas of commercial forestry were planted on deep peat here in the 1970s and 1980s causing the peat to dry out and release stored carbon, as well as damaging special wildlife areas. Parts of the Flow Country are now being restored by RSPB Scotland, land managers and other organisations, with work including the removal of plantations, and ditch blocking to restore water levels. This is encouraging wading birds like golden plovers, dunlins and greenshanks, to return.

This work has been on-going for more than 20 years, and careful monitoring and trialling of techniques has resulted in the development of pioneering restoration practices. The lessons here are now being applied in other upland areas across the country.

As part of the wider work of the Peatlands Partnership, Flows to the Future project, the rejuvenation of this area is also connecting people locally and nationally with this precious habitat, delivering real economic benefits for one of the least densely populated areas in Scotland. The reserve is also maintaining links with surrounding landowners and enables sustainable sporting on lease for low intensity, sensitively managed, traditional ‘walked up’ grouse shooting along with deer stalking.

The restoration of this habitat is central to our work on adapting to climate change and has a vital role to play in Scotland’s collective efforts to reach net zero emissions.

Dove Stone

Greenshank chick laying on grassland | The RSPB

Above Dove Stone reservoir in the Peak District National Park sits an internationally important area of blanket bog. It took around 5000 years to form, but burning and heavy grazing have now reduced large parts of it to bare, eroded peat and deep gullies.

In good condition, peat bogs store large amounts of carbon, which is important in reducing the effects of climate change. They are also important for the quality of drinking water, as they slow the water flow and filter sediment, reducing treatment costs. All that water holding capacity has other benefits too such as the potential to prevent and alleviate flooding during extreme weather events.

Along with the landowners, United Utilities, the RSPB has been working to restore the bog. Key to this is keeping it wet by installing gully blocks made from stone, heather bales and peat. We’ve also been planting sphagnum mosses, one of the key building blocks of blanket bogs.

We also work hard to manage the ever-present risk of fire on Dove Stone, by regularly cutting large swathes of heather. Not only does this provide a buffer and better access to tackle potential fires, it creates a mosaic of habitat for other species to grow where heather was otherwise dominant.

This work of course is also hugely important to benefit breeding waders such as curlew, golden plover and dunlin whose numbers are now increasing at Dove Stone in the restored areas.

Of course, we can’t do this work alone. Building connections within the local community is at the heart of what we do at Dove Stone, and local volunteers have now contributed over 46,000 hours of their time to help restore this landscape.

Giving up their free time to lend a hand

Find out why RSPB volunteers go out in all weathers to help with the work at Dove Stone.

Volunteers working on the moors above Dove Stone reservoir near Oldham, are helping to turn around the fortunes of a rather unassuming plant. This is sphagnum moss, and it might not look like much, but it’s the starting point for a crucially-important habitat, blanket bog.

Ed Lawrence works for landowner United Utilities as a wildlife warden, and he explains why a water company would be interested in landscape restoration.

“Effectively, sphagnum moss is a building block of the deep peat habitat. It keeps the soil underneath it saturated, so it decomposes very slowly, stopping the peat degrading, which is when it washes off and goes into our reservoirs. This is where we’re getting all of our water from – it falls on here, on the land, and it comes into the reservoirs, and from there onto the treatment works. Our view of catchment management is that if we can improve the land, change the vegetation type, to something that will deliver better quality raw water into our reservoir, it can then reduce treatment costs, and benefit the customer down at the treatment works.”

United Utilities manages the water catchment land together with the RSPB, and it was this partnership approach to bog restoration that has been recognised with a major European conservation award, the Natura 2000 award.

[Jon Bird] “It means a great deal, getting this recognition, accepting this on behalf of our stakeholders, such as Natural England, National Park in the Peak District, our partners United Utilities, and for all the fantastic volunteers that got involved over the project. It goes out to them.”

Kate Hanley from the RSPB works with the volunteers, whatever the weather. “So, although it’s a really nice day today, for up here, most of our sphagnum work is late summer and into the autumn, and also into the winter as well, and it can be really quite unpleasant when there’s sleet coming down, and it’s really cold and you’re working in water all the time. And I think that really just goes to show the strength and the commitment of our volunteers to the work that the partnership’s doing here is that they come back time and time again, and they do this work through such horrible weather, and it’s because they know that it’s really important and it really makes a difference to the place that they live in.”

[Denzil Broadhurst] “I live locally, yeah I live in Uppermill, yes, which is only a couple of miles just over the hill from here. This area is an area that I’ve known all my life, you know, so I know what it was like, you know, forty, fifty years back, with huge areas of bare peat, and I’ve seen it change so much, especially over the last 10 or 5 years, it’s been fantastic, yes.”

Dave O’Hara from the RSPB says he’s seen a huge improvement in the numbers and variety of wildlife.

[Dave O’Hara] “It’s a very specialised wildlife community on these bogs, very rare as well, and birds like golden plover, curlew and dunlin, have all increased significantly on these bogs, since restoration work has been underway. We’ve also seen a range of other benefits, birds like skylark if you’ve heard so many of today, have really increased again as the bogs become healthier.”

[Ed Lawrence] “It’s been a hugely successful and beneficial partnership with the RSPB. I think it’s primarily we’re very different organisations with obviously very different functions, a bird conservation charity, and a water company, but when we look at this land and this habitat around us, our vision for what we would like to see here, is absolutely shared. By improving the habitat, we’re improving the water quality, we’re improving it for biodiversity, and we’re also improving it for the many people, visitors who come and visit this area as well. So there’s a lot of gains for everyone.”  

RSPB volunteers working on the moors above Dove Stone | The RSPB

Haweswater

Swindale Valley, Haweswater, Lake District National Park | The RSPB

Nestled in the quiet and remote eastern part of the Lake District National Park, RSPB Haweswater is a dramatic landscape of high fells, rushing rivers, heath, meadow, bog, and woodland. It’s home to a wide range of birds, including pied flycatchers, redstarts, ring ouzels and peregrine falcons, but one of the most valuable habitats are the cliffs and crags. Some of these are extremely rich in plant life. Harter Fell at the head of Haweswater is the best of these with a spectacular display of wildflowers, resembling a vertical garden.

In 2011, the RSPB took over the tenancies of two hill farms here. Working in partnership with our landlord, United Utilities, we began to explore different ways of managing these farms to provide a range of benefits, such as improved water quality, a home for wildlife, carbon stewardship and recreation opportunities.

In Swindale Valley, we put the curves back into a stretch of Swindale Beck, artificially straightened for farming purposes at least 160 years ago. This has slowed the flow of the river, helping to improve water quality and reduce downstream flood risk, as well as attracting spawning salmon. We’ve also restored swathes of species-rich hay meadow, hundreds of hectares of blanket bog and planted tens of thousands of trees.   

On the commons, we've reduced livestock numbers and created fenced areas to help rare mountain plants to recolonise. We’ve also created way-marked trails and run a number of ecotourism initiatives, including guided walks and nature-based events. Working in partnership with local businesses, we host a red squirrel photography hide, glamping and fell pony treks. The reserve employs more people than under previous farming tenants, helping to support the local economy and communities.