Guy Anderson - RSPB Principle research manager and Brian Ethridge, satellite tagging juvenile Hen harrier, Geltsdale, Cumbria

Upland land use and management

The landscape we see today is the product of past and current land management activities. Farming, grouse moors, forestry and renewable energy generation all shapes the way the land now looks.


Different patterns of land ownership also influence how land is used and managed. Large areas of the uplands are owned or managed as sporting estates, particularly in northern England and the central and east Highlands of Scotland. Farming and forestry often sit alongside activities such as grouse shooting. Elsewhere, owner/occupier and tenant farmers, forestry companies, water companies and other private landowners can determine how land is used.

Farming in the uplands

Farming is common across much of the UK uplands, with beef cattle, sheep farming and localised pockets of dairy farming the main activities.

The scale of farming operations, choice of livestock, and farming practice is determined by a variety of factors. These include the extent and quality of enclosed land, rough and common grazing land, the market, agricultural policy, and local tradition.

The quality of land

Most upland farms typically have an area of enclosed land (in-bye), managed as pastures and meadows and a larger area of unenclosed land (often in the form of rough grazing or rights to graze common land). Depending on individual circumstances, upland farmers may also have access to other land.

The quality and area of unenclosed land is highly variable, often including a mix of peatland habitats (eg blanket bog), dwarf shrub heath, acid grassland and scrub Throughout the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, major areas of land are managed as croft land (typically a small area of enclosed land with grazing rights to an area of larger common grazing).

Across northern England, particularly the Peak District, Pennines and North York Moors, much of the unenclosed land is managed for grouse shooting. In Scotland, much of the unenclosed land is managed for grouse shooting and/or deer stalking.

Report: Paying for public goods from land management.

A report for the RSPB, the National Trust and The Wildlife Trusts.

28 June 2019
View publication Details

Hill farm economics

Upland farming is a challenging business due to the distance from markets, the nature of the land, climate and associated variable costs.

Upland farming incomes are generally low, with a significant proportion coming from farm subsidy payments (historically from the EU Common Agricultural Policy and now from domestic funding) but also from farm diversification and other activity.

Even with farm support payments and income from diversification, many farm businesses in the uplands still struggle to make a living due to the difficult farming conditions and low market returns. This has been compounded in recent decades by businesses being encouraged to intensify, driving up input costs and workload with no increase in profits. Instead, a recent report demonstrated that profitability can be improved by taking a lower input, nature-friendly approach which relies only on a farm’s own natural assets.

The High Nature Value farming systems, which are such a characteristic and important feature of many upland areas, are known to be particularly vulnerable and are in need of targeted support (beyond what is currently available) to secure the environmental and social benefits delivered by these systems. These include carbon storage and sequestration, provision of high-quality drinking water, infrastructure to support access and recreation (vital to our physical and mental wellbeing), and wildlife-rich landscapes.

Farmer feeding Highland cattle out of doors

Sporting management

Large parts of the uplands are managed for red grouse shooting and, in Scotland, for red deer stalking.

In Scotland populations of deer have now reached over one million animals. In the absence of natural predators such as lynx and wolves, deer populations have to be managed to high welfare standards. Many sporting estates maintain deer numbers at artificially high levels to promote the number of stags for clients to shoot as well as to promote estate capital values. High deer numbers and densities cause damage by browsing and trampling to sensitive wildlife habitats, and prevent native tree regeneration (which has to be protected by costly deer fencing). Deer are part of healthy natural ecosystems; however, their populations need to be reduced in many upland areas to deliver a wide range of public benefits. These include native woodland restoration, peatland protection and adaptation to climate change, as well as reducing collisions with vehicles and preventing Lyme disease. We also need to prevent new non-native deer populations from becoming established and increasing their range. The use of lead ammunition for deer management is toxic to wildlife and humans and we would like to see a legal requirement to use non-toxic alternatives.

We support new deer legislation in Scotland to reform deer management systems and practices and bring them into line with modern expectations. These measures include enhanced powers to the public authorities to deliver sustainable deer management and to intervene to reduce deer populations where there is evidence of damage to conservation interests and other public impacts. We would also like to see updating of the deer shooting seasons and other remaining artefacts of systems related to more sporting management than modern day requirements.

Many sporting estates also release and shoot large numbers of pheasants and red-legged partridges to increase their sporting offer. An estimated 47 million pheasants and 10 million red-legged partridges are released each year in the UK, with many released to supplement shooting incomes on upland estates.
A large proportion of our upland landscapes are also managed for driven grouse shooting. This type of shooting is unique to the UK, and involves a row of beaters walking and flushing grouse over a line of shooters concealed in grouse butts. The big numbers of grouse required for driven shooting are the product of intensive management practices. These include the killing of predators as well as burning heather and carrying out other land management activities that improve both the populations and food supplies for grouse.

Whereas grouse shooting is underpinned by these management activities, deer stalking, pheasant and partridge shooting is less reliant on wider land management activity.