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Heather moorland is a semi-natural habitat which has been managed by people ever since clearance and grazing started thousands of years ago. It is not a natural environment - like a rainforest which can sustain itself - heather has to be looked after. If not managed, heather grows into a dense mass of long woody stems that support very little wildlife, has no grazing or economic value and is very hard to walk through
Over the centuries, the purpose of management has evolved. For the last few hundred years it has been for a mixture of sheep, hardy upland cattle, grouse and (in some areas) deer - almost the only species of economic value that can survive all year round on the moors. Grazing and rotational burning has produced a beautiful mosaic of different ages of heather which also provides food and shelter for a wide range of other birds
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For many of these birds, heather moorland is their main habitat and, as the area of heather has been gradually whittled away by other land uses, they have become rare and protected - for instance black grouse, merlin, hen harrier, skylark and nightjar
It is because of the habitat produced by past management that 60% of the heather moorlands in England and Wales have been designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest, Special Protection Areas or Special Areas of Conservation. Heather moorland is a fragile ecosystem, and its bird and small mammal populations are easily reduced by too many predators
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It is no coincidence that most of the actively managed heather moorlands in the British Isles are in private ownership, since this has provided the necessary focus on continuity of management to preserve them. Grouse moor owners and tenants take financial responsibility by employing keepers, even in the years when there is no shooting income
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Unmanaged populations of breeding Hen Harrier feed on grouse and have been scientifically shown to destroy viable driven grouse shooting.
In the latter part of the last century, following the Second World War, grazing pressure, commercial forestry and bracken encroachment resulted in the loss of 20% of the heather moorland area. It is primarily due to continued management for grouse shooting that the remainder has survived - a fact that is especially poignant as stock farming and forestry have in recent years gone into economic decline.
Heather moorland is an almost unique habitat of international importance which is still under threat. It can only survive with the continuity of management funded primarily by grouse shooting.