Cloaked with heather, our moorlands look glorious. But the health of these vital habitats can be dependent on traditional cropping and grazing – and it is vital to get the balance right, as Tim Field explains

August is here and the moorlands look glorious, cloaked by the heater’s purple glow. But these are vital habitats that require traditional cropping and grazing to remain healthy. Tim Field discusses the balance needed to get this exactly right.

For more on moorland management, read grouse moor management debate: the burning question.


The magnificent, early summer wildflower displays of our species-rich pastures have dwindled, first setting seed and then falling victim to hay cutting or a mob of ruminants. Leggy grasses in the margins and untended setaside appear strikingly scorched with their desiccated seed heads. Mown and grazed pastures crave a drop of moisture to green-up again. As the splendour and beauty of these floral displays pass the heat of summer intensifies and our attention turns to the management of our most precious flower-rich farmland.

More than 400 plant species – a quarter of Britain’s total floral diversity – are found in meadows and grasslands and many would be absent without management. Grazing livestock is the most important tool to maintain this conservation interest; the hay maker a close second. Traditional cropping and grazing of pasture, notably without herbicides or artificial nitrogen, creates an assemblage of nondominant grasses and herbs that thrive when more competitive grass species and weeds, such as docks and thistles, are routinely knocked back. Meanwhile, more intricate ecological interactions occur out of view, such as the semi-parasitic yellow rattle that sucks the energy from dominant grasses.

General theory dictates that grasslands are cropped annually (baled for hay and/or grazed) and where there is any risk of ground-nesting birds, wait until the middle of July to allow chicks to fledge. There are nuances in management depending on the type of meadow: be they on floodplains, chalk or limestone, by the coast, a wet rush or, more typical, neutral meadow. In upland areas, spring grazing is traditional prior to “shutting up” for hay. Where no hay is taken – notably in the wetter parts of western Britain where a good crop is harder to rely upon – animals can graze lightly all year round or heavily in the late summer and autumn. The type of animal is equally as important, with variance in grazing motion, selectiveness and mechanical action of the hooves. Cows tear whereas sheep bite.


Whilst these habitats were formed from centuries of traditional grazing regimes using native breeds, a challenging market for extensively reared meat is putting pressure on the natural and cultural heritage that they serve to maintain. What is more, we should cherish grazing livestock as grassland ecologists rue the adverse impact of rabbit population declines. During four years of studying at St Andrews, with the occasional hack around a golf course, I was regularly reminded of the cultural impact that grazing animals have left behind. Where once grazing rabbits and other livestock tended to a tidy grass carpet, amongst ridges or “links” of dunes forming sand bunkers, water hazards and dotted with a sequence of bunny burrows, the Old Course has arisen as the home of golf.

August arrives and anyone with an interest in grouse or bees celebrates the swathes of hillside that glows purple. The treasured heather is in bloom. However, those lucky enough to care for a piece of moorland have their challenges. Woolly maggots (sheep) and deer can conflict with heather management where an imbalance in grazing sees bracken and purple moor-grass overcome the flowering plants. Ten years ago, I had the great pleasure of staying with The Right Honourable Lord Pearson of Rannoch in the Highlands. Perhaps better known for his political persuasions, Lord Pearson is also hugely enthusiastic about the revival of heather moorland. Not just for grouse interests but also to “sweeten” the land and improve the condition of the burns for depleted fish stocks.

As one theory goes, mixed grazing with cattle at low stocking densities would have prevailed before the Highland Clearances led to a seismic shift in land use. Unlike the abundant sheep and deer that now reside, cattle are less selective and eat the purple moor-grass. Grazing and stocking rates were a determining factor in historical heather coverage, so we should reflect on this as we tackle heather moorland into the future. Trials at Rannoch investigated the effect of summer cattle grazing on heather moorland with positive results.

Whilst I have visited other moors that could benefit from light cattle grazing, I appreciate scalability in the uplands is somewhat less realistic. However, the point is made; grazing is a delicate balance that for centuries has sculpted the flora and fauna of our cultural and environmental landscape. Those calling for global veganism might want to bear that in mind before righting off the fortunes of a quarter of the UK’s floral diversity.

Follow Tim and Agricology @agricology