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A Draft Framework for Biodiversity in Highland



10.1   Mountains are one of the defining features of Highland, and represent some of the least disturbed areas for wildlife in Britain. They are also a key economic and social resource, being important for agriculture, forestry, field sports and tourism. Yet they also face considerable challenges. Many of these traditional activities are under threat from low economic viability. In many areas grazing levels by sheep and deer are too high. In others natural vegetation has been lost, particularly scrub and upland woodland. Climate change threatens the survival of some of the rarest species. Munro bagging has become a national sport and while human visitation does not directly threaten most species, there can be indirect effects. Much of our upland vegetation is not naturally rich in species or rarities, but the species which are present tend to be specialised and not found elsewhere. The uplands are of particular importance for mosses, liverworts, lichens and ferns.


The biodiversity resource: key habitats and species in Highland

10.2   The natural tree line in Highland is at about 600m, although it is lower in exposed parts of the north and west. Above about 750m the level of exposure restricts vegetation to a mosaic of dwarf shrubs, moss heath and rough grassland. Then on the high tops there is distinctive, but very restricted, montane vegetation, including alpine heaths, montane scrub, and those plant communities restricted to rock ledges, crevices in rocks, and late-lying snow patches. These all support specialist plants and animals, with some birds being particularly associated with the summit plateaux. Highland is of particular importance for montane habitats, and a number of the montane plants are not found elsewhere in the UK outwith the Cairngorms.


10.3   Although Highland would once have been predominantly covered in woodland, it is now dominated below the tree line by moorland with heather and other dwarf shrubs (upland heathland), grassland, and by peatlands. Plantation forestry is also a significant land cover.


10.4   Upland heathland is regarded as being of international significance, being largely confined to the UK and the western seaboard of Europe. Although it occurs throughout Britain, the most important areas are to the north of the Highland Boundary Fault. It is generally found from the upper edge of enclosed land up to about 750m. Of particular significance is the type of upland heathland characterised by the North Atlantic liverwort. This habitat occurs in small patches on boulder fields and on north facing slopes down the north west coast and on the Outer Hebrides, with just small amounts on Skye and Rum. Torridon has perhaps the best examples in the world. It is found largely in designated sites.


10.5   Lowland heath tends to be below 300m and supports different plant communities from upland heath, although the management issues for the habitats are the same. Maritime heath is a type of lowland heath adapted to exposed coastal conditions (see coastal section), for which Highland is of particular note. Highland has perhaps just under a third of the lowland heathland resource of Scotland. Britain has a particular responsibility for lowland heath as we have a large percentage of the remaining resource and particularly of wet and humid heaths and maritime heaths. Good examples are at Durness, Inchnadamph, Loch Maree, the Cairngorms, Invernaver and the Drumochter Hills.  


10.6   Peatlands or bogs are broadly divided into two types, both being fed only by rain and melting snow, rather than ground water or streams. Blanket bogs cover extensive areas of hill land, whereas lowland raised bogs tend to be isolated domes of peat. Both these types of peatland are of international importance. Lowland raised bogs develop predominantly in lowland areas and are rare in Highland. The Flow Country across Sutherland and Caithness is one of the largest areas of blanket bog in the world. Blanket bogs support a very wide range of both land and water based (in the many lochans and lochs) wildlife. They are of particular importance for breeding birds including red-throated divers and golden plovers. They are also important as repositories of archaeological and palaeoecological evidence, which can tell us much about previous cultures and previous environments. In the context of climate change the role of blanket bogs as a carbon store is now considered to be very significant.


10.7   Limestone pavement is a very scarce habitat, which is of European importance. In Scotland as a whole there are only about 300 hectares scattered over about 20 locations, whereas other parts of Britain and Ireland have more extensive limestone pavement. In Highland the limestone pavements are formed on the Durness limestone, which outcrops at Strath Suardal (Skye), Rassal, Inchnadamph and Durness itself. The plant communities at three of the localities are considered to be of such significance that they have been selected to be designated as sites of European importance. Hazel scrub is present on parts of the Strath Suardal pavements, which are likely to support BAP lichens and a fungus (this is the case with coastal hazel scrub elsewhere).


10.8           Habitats classified as UK BAP priority habitats which occur in Highland

*indicates habitat discussed in another section

·         Blanket bog

·         Limestone pavements

·         Lowland heathland

·         Lowland raised bog

·         Upland calcareous grasslands*

·         Upland heathland         


10.9    UK BAP priority species recorded in Highland associated with mountains, heaths and bogs

Juniper, mountain scurvy-grass, Newman’s lady fern, Norwegian mugwort, Oblong woodsia, woolly willow, alpine moss pertusaria lichen, alpine sulphur-tresses lichen, Baltic bog moss, Skye bog moss, a lichen, northern prongwort, Scottish beard moss, silky swan-neck moss, Stabler’s rustwort liverwort, white stalk puffball fungus.

Argent and sable moth, netted mountain moth, northern dart moth, sword grass moth, Nightjar, black grouse, common scoter.


10.10       Some other species of conservation interest

Golden plover, red throated diver, dotterel, golden eagle.


10.11       Key biodiversity objectives for Mountains, Heaths and Bogs

Maintain and where possible restore the current extent of upland habitats. The priorities are the regeneration of tall herb vegetation, alpine willow scrub, moss heaths, wet and dry heath, blanket bog, species rich grassland and the transitions between habitats, and the promotion of more appropriate grazing and burning management.

·         Where appropriate extend native woodland and scrub in the uplands, following an analysis of the appropriate balance in a given area.                                                                                                                                                                                                  



10.12       Trends and issues

·    Increases in afforestation from 1940s to 1980s at expense of heather moorland, rough grassland and blanket bog. Not currently so much an issue, as FC now indicate presumption against planting on active peatlands. Some existing plantations having impact on adjacent peatlands.

·    Various peatland restoration schemes now underway. Drainage for agriculture has reduced extent and condition of peatlands. Past agricultural improvement can also be locally significant. Commercial peat extraction not currently undertaken in Highland. Domestic peat cutting still takes place.

·    Increases in native woodland and natural regeneration schemes leading to consideration of balance between open ground and woodland. 

·    Commercial forestry and grant-aided natural regeneration of woodlands requires stock/ deer-fencing to exclude grazing and encourages long-term dense regeneration of scrub and tall heather. It also discourages burning on adjacent ground.

·    Forestry plantations are frequently unmanaged and harbour foxes and crows that predate on moorland birds.

·    Increases in rough grassland at expense of heather moorland and damage to peatlands due to overgrazing by high deer and sheep numbers and decline in shepherding. This overgrazing also causes and exacerbates localised wind erosion and run-off.

·    Poor muirburn practices leading to deterioration and loss of heather moorland and peatlands, and prevention of natural regeneration of woodlands, scrub and dwarf heath. Particularly a problem in the west on wet heath.

·    Increased use of ATVs for recreation, agriculture and sporting activities causes localised erosion.

·    Decline in hill cattle since 1970s, contributing to decline in diversity of some grasslands.

·    Increases in tourism and recreational use of the uplands. Related localised development may not always be appropriate, also localised erosion and disturbance.

·    Increased awareness of natural heritage value of uplands.

·    Increases in other types of development including hydro electric infrastructure and tracks.

·    Heavy dependence on agricultural commodity support mechanisms, making farming vulnerable to changes in market.  Some beneficial increases in agri-environment measures. Unpredictable effects of new LFA proposals.

·    Farm diversification leading to pressure for alternative land uses, but opportunities for reducing reliance on high stock numbers and for more integrated developments and marketing.

·    Long term changes through acidification and climate change (montane species esp vulnerable).

·    Accidental or intentional killing of protected species by estates as part of vermin control.


10.13  Current mechanisms/ initiatives for promoting biodiversity

·     Conservation designations, SNH management agreements, nature reserve management.

·     SNH’s Peatland Management Scheme in Caithness and Sutherland.

·     A number of blanket bog restoration projects underway in Caithness and Sutherland involving RSPB, FC.

·     Agri-environment schemes and moorland management schemes (with stock disposal options).

·     SAC are developing training courses for farmers, crofters etc on agri-environment options eg moorland management planning and have lodged a HISTP bid to implement in HIE

·     Tomorrow’s Heathland Heritage, HLF funded scheme for lowland heath (unknown whether   Highland will be included).

·    Deer Management Groups, with potential to increase biodiversity benefits.

·    Deer Management Plans in some areas, eg Cairngorm Speyside DMG, ditto.

·    Ongoing research and trials on deer fencing methods to reduce bird mortality (FC, DCS etc).

·    Cairngorms Upland Grain initiative.

 10.14  Policy/ Highland-wide measures for promoting biodiversity

(see also Farmlands section)

·    Agriculture support reform, particularly to promote organic/low input  farming, use of hill cattle, better muirburn and shepherding, sustainable management of peatlands, marginal arable cropping including hay meadows and cereals. Also improved incentives for keeping stock off the in-bye in summer.

·     Promote better management of supplementary hill feeding.

Promote either consultation or statutory control of all development issues in the uplands.

·    Review of muirburn legislation, promotion of Muirburn Code.

·    Carbon sink.

·    Amended system of estate evaluation not focusing solely on stag numbers.

Implement the recommendations of the UK Raptor Working Group.

·    Develop strategies to reduce deer numbers to levels compatible with maintaining priority habitats in favourable condition.

·    Assess the carrying capacity of upland/bog habitats for grazing, including common grazings.


10.15    Potential practical opportunities for enhancing biodiversity and its sustainable use

·    Joint training programmes on best muirburn practice/ vegetation management for gamekeepers/estates/deer managers, with incentives to encourage implementation. Priority is west coast.

·    Explore new markets for shooting forest rather than hill deer.

·    Long-term planning for black-grouse.

·    Further research and monitoring on moorland management and on sustainable harvest of quarry species, with demonstrations of good practice.

·    Encourage woodland and scrub habitat for black grouse - many estates only value red-grouse and burn heather with naturally regenerating trees.

·    Provision of guidance on cost-effective design and construction for upland tracks

·    Promotion of guidance/training on sensitive use of ATVs and encouragement of use of ponies for deer extraction

·    Promote positive grazing management, particularly cattle through agric and forestry grants, with additional grants as stopgap pending wider agri-environment measures.

·    Promotion of quality meat marketing and marketing of locally grown produce.

·    Increase availability of info to tourists on informal outdoor recreation opportunities

Develop Deer management plans to identify damage to natural heritage and appropriate stocking.

·    Promote schemes for demonstration of sustainable deer management (Glen Affric NNR, Strathconon).

Use of existing forestry grant mechanisms for natural regeneration, woodland edge habitats etc. WGS applications and grants need to demand higher deer culls and offer greater incentives and compensation.

·    Further peatland restoration schemes.

·    Code of practice for domestic peat cutting

·    Monitor key alpine species to assess impact of climate change

·    Develop plans to identify the appropriate balance between open ground and woodland for specific areas.

·    Training for local service/ accommodation providers on the value of the upland resource.

·    Promote local participation in habitat protection and improvement, to improve local skills, local involvement. 


10.15    Survey/research Information and requirements

·   An Inventory of Lowland Raised Bogs in Great Britain, SNH

·   Scottish Blanket Bog Inventory, SNH, currently being compiled.

·   Inventory of Scottish lowland heathlands, SNH, needs updating.

 10.16       Sources of further information

·    Good Practice for grouse moor management, Moorland Working Group, pub SNH 1998.

·    A muirburn code, SNH, 1993.

·    The Flow Country, RA Lindsay et al NCC 1988

·    Open Hill Deer Management Plans Guide, DCS