Red Grouse Moor Burning in the Scottish Highlands

Searching for the red grouse near Lochindorb was, as usual, a frustrating and difficult hunt at the end of the day.  Early in the morning the grouse are bold, staking their claim to this highland road, but as the day progresses they head away from the road into the hills.  Searching for their small snake-like heads bobbing above the heather becomes a challenge.  Waiting for them to peek over a hillock or call in their gobbled chuckle it takes time to find an individual close enough to the road with enough courage not to fly.  We could do this on foot, but the mobile hide that the car provides can be used to our advantage.  

As we neared the end of the open moor towards the woodland the landscape changed.  From the deep golden orange of winter heather a much harsher and more desolate landscape came into view.  Regimented in its size and shape this was clearly intentional.  Not the ragged edges and rampant advance in all directions that remain after a wild fire, but straight and almost discrete as it blends into the un-scorched surrounding moorland.

Stood amongst this parched landscape with just the white skeletal remains of the heather to show that there was once areas of flowering heather, is our target.  A beautiful male red grouse.  We are not here to shoot him.  That will come later in the season, living a protected life through the breeding season and early summer months until the "Glorious 12th" arrives.  From the 12th August to the 10th December each year these stunning birds are hunted.  Anything but glorious if you happen to be a red grouse.  A sport that brings much needed money into the local economy but at the same time causing debate around the ethics of shooting animals for sport.

In a small window after the shooting season and before the red grouse breeding season, gamekeepers will burn small strips of the heather.  This is a practice that has been happening for over 200-years and probably informally much longer.  This rotational burning ensures that the heather is kept in prime condition, low to the ground making it accessible for the grouse and encouraging new growth.  It provides a variety of habitats, new young heather is more nutritious whilst the old established heather gives a good place for the grouse to nest.  Other species benefit from the new shoots, red deer and mountain hares enjoy fresh heather as much as the grouse.

Discussion remains as to the validity of this ancient technique.  Many believe that it encourages new growth in plants and benefits the ecosystem as a whole.  Others see it as one step closer to destroying the fragile and unique moorland ecosystem, stripping the peatland of its protective layer allowing the peat to dry out as the water table deepens ultimately releasing heavy metals into the nearby rivers and carbon into the atmosphere. 

Arguments abound on both sides.  Research is complicated further by support from pro- and anti- burning organisations who unsurprisingly have research findings to support their own beliefs.  Statistics show that burning only takes place in each area every 8 to 30 years and it is estimated that only 0.68% of British heather heathland is burnt each year.  Is this figure enough to suggest the environmental impact claimed or is it an under estimation by those who want and need it to continue?

There will always be debate.  Grouse shooting is driven by the land owners who want the best landscape for their valuable birds.  Whilst they work with the environment in mind, the gains of their land will always be a priority.

However, from an entirely selfish perspective this burning gives a great alternative landscape for this stunning chap.  Picking at the remains of the heather, sadly a disappointing endeavour he swiftly moved back to the beautiful golden heather, but not before I managed to capture him trying to figure me out from the rear window of the car.


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