Are moorlands drained for grouse shooting purposes?

Claim

Moorland is drained for grouse shooting.

What the science says

Incorrect.

Drainage ditches were dug on moorland mainly to improve grazing for agriculture, not to support grouse. The practice was most common in the 1950s to 1980s, primarily driven by Government grants paid to improve hill farming. Many grouse moor managers and other moorland landowners are now working to block up historical drains and re-wet moorland for the benefit of grouse.

From:

The Labour party: “Labour demands review into driven grouse shooting

“Earlier this year, as happens annually, much of that land was drained and dried out to prepare it for grouse shooting”

Based on:

There is a common misconception that moorland was drained for the benefit of grouse, and that this practice continues. It is widely stated, but rarely supported, so it is difficult to identify the original source behind this claim.  

The fuller picture:

Although some moorland drainage has been carried out for centuries, often to enable peat cutting for fuel, the extent and intensity of drainage increased from the 1950s to the 80s1.

During this period, Government incentives were paid for landowners to dig drainage ditches (sometimes called “grips”) with the aim of improving the land for livestock, and moorland drainage was widespread. Drainage was intended to remove surface water and lower the water table on moorland, to improve grazing as part of the post-war drive for “more food from our own resources”2,3. In the same era, large areas of British moorland were drained for commercial forestry2.

It was thought that there may be some benefit to grouse from digging drainage ditches, with possible improved food supply and reduced disease transmission, but this was not the main driving factor. These benefits were not seen when moorland was drained: drainage did not obviously reduce disease transmission; grips are a danger to young grouse chicks, which can fall into them; and they are obstacles for livestock and people. In fact, drying out moorland can reduce the diversity and abundance of moorland insects, which provide an important food source for grouse chicks4.

As early as 1970, when government grants for drainage were at their peak, the then GCT advised that draining on level waterlogged peat was  slow, costly, usually ineffective, and could lead to gully erosion5.

What is happening now?

Many upland landowners, including grouse moor owners, are actively blocking drains to restore moorland, both at their own expense and with support from Government Agri-Environment funding and other grants. The Moorland Association has reported an estimate by Natural England that around 18,000 hectares of moorland habitat on grouse moors has been restored in this way across northern England6. Similar schemes and activity are underway in Scotland.

References

1. Chesterton, C. (2009). Environmental impacts of land management. Natural England Research Report 030. Chapter 9. Drainage and burning management on moorlands.

2. Holden, J. (2004). Artificial drainage of peatlands: hydrological and hydrochemical process and wetland restoration. Prog Phys Geog, 28:95123.

3. Werritty, A., Pakeman, R., Shedden, C., Smith, A. & Wilson, J. (2015). A Review of Sustainable Moorland Management. Report to the Scientific Advisory Committee of Scottish Natural Heritage.

4. Coulson, J.C., Butterfield, J.E.L. & Henderson, E. (1990). The effect of open drainage ditches on the plant and invertebrate communities of moorland and on the decomposition of peat. Journal of Applied Ecology, 27:549561.

5. Watson, A. & Miller, G.R. (1976). Grouse Management. The Game Conservancy Green Guide, Booklet 12. Fordingbridge.

6. The Moorland Association. (2016). Highs and lows for start of grouse season. Available at: http://www.moorlandassociation.org/2016/08/highs-lows-start-grouse-season/.

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