Published in support of the UK Biodiversity Action Plan for black grouse

Moorland and moorland edge

Unlike red grouse, which live almost exclusively in heather, black grouse use heather moorland for only part of their life, and in some areas (such as Wales and western Scotland), they may use it very little. Black grouse (and other upland birds, such as waders) use a mix of heather types and a mosaic of vegetation of different ages. This mosaic can be achieved through a combination of:

  • Limiting grazing by sheep, deer and cattle

  • Siting foddering/winter feeding sites for livestock away from important black grouse habitat

  • Burning, swiping or mowing to create a patchwork of long and short heather

  • Blocking moorland grip drains
  • The ideal management of moorland and adjacent grassland habitats for black grouse depends on the vegetation structure already present, as well as other factors, such as soil type, climate and the degree/extent of historic changes. For more detailed advice, use your local black grouse expert.

    The ideal moorland structure for black grouse is heather over 40 cm (16 inches) long, to provide shelter for nesting females. However, extensive areas of solid, tall heather do not allow other moorland plants to grow and can hinder chick movement and feeding, especially during wet weather. Management is necessary to create a structural mosaic and to encourage young shoots, which black grouse feed on. This can be achieved by mowing or burning heather in small patches. Areas of 20 to 50 hectares (50 to 125 acres) of heather should have an average vegetation height of at least 30 cm (12"), but some should be longer (40 cm/16") and some shorter (less than 20 cm/8").

    Moorland edge
    The moorland edge is often an important feeding area for adults and broods of young, and this grassland usually hosts the lek site. Management here should aim to provide a mix of rough grazing, pasture, wet flushes (often provided by blanket bog or mire) and perhaps some broad-leaved trees and shrubs in the bottom of the valley. Grazing of these areas should allow grasses (and rushes, sedges, heather and herbs) and bog cotton to flower and set seed. Bracken is of limited use to black grouse, though is used by some other birds such as whinchats, and its encroachment onto moorland can be a problem. This can be avoided by preventing heavy grazing or removed through careful use of herbicide.

    A mix of grass and heather is the ideal habitat for black grouse. Chris Gomersall (RSPB Images 6035500-00110-002).

    Wet flushes
    In the past, attempts have been made to improve heather growth by draining the peat. This had little success: the peat flows into rivers, increasing erosion, and - most importantly for black grouse and breeding waders - reduces bog flushes and other areas used by chicks. Open grip drains on moorland do not benefit black or red grouse, as they reduce the amount of cotton grass and the abundance of insect food. Blocking grip drains can reverse these effects and increase the diversity of the habitat.

    There are a variety of different grants available for moorland management to help black grouse. Click on the relevant links below.