Cairnsmore Challenges

Heather on the back foot at Cairnsmore NNR
Cut heather on the back foot at Cairnsmore NNR

Having just returned from a trip to SNH’s Nature Reserve at Cairnsmore of Fleet, I have some mixed emotions. On one hand, the ever-present damage wrought by commercial forestry plantations continues to take its toll on the area, and a hill that should be wriggling with wildlife lies more or less vacant after thirty years of minimal management, overgrazing and an uncompromising razor-sharp forest edge. The Reserve is challenged with poor access for vehicles and management, rampant molinia grass and the difficulties associated with a general public that tends not to want to get out of the car in order to engage with wildlife.

But on the other hand, this is a beguiling place indeed – the half obscured remnant of a wild Galloway now vanished beneath serried ranks of softwood trees.While the challenges involved in turning such a large slab of open countryside around are daunting, there is potential here. Even more importantly, there are also blackgame. A scanty fistful of birds still lurks through the bedraggled, beetley tufts of heather, and one or two have chosen to make themselves conspicuous during the course of this winter. There is a large enough area of open moorland for this germ of a population to progress into something quite useful, and the potential for growth has been demonstrated by two neighbouring shoots which have managed to oversee a resurgence in black grouse numbers over the last couple of years.

The key to any turnaround will be to get on top of the molinia grass and make some inroads in the heather. The difficulty with management so far has been logistical. It is hard to manage a sufficiently large area of heather each year to ensure that the subsequent grazing pressure from the sheep, deer and goats does not just strip away all the regeneration. Some of the fresher cuts of around four or five years old showed no heather regeneration whatsoever, and there is every indication to suggest that these will convert straight into grass unless they are sprayed or managed again soon – some already have.

The heather was at a suitable age to be cut and respond favorably, but much of the stick was dead and the areas were being over-run with cross-leaved heath, asphodel and a carpet of dead molinia leaf. This is connected with grazing pressure, but it was appalling to see (perhaps more graphically than anywhere else I have seen) just what pressure invasive grasses can exert.

Heather beetle has also made its presence felt, and many of the nodding tufts of heather were silver and dead. While there is some benefit to cutting which breaks up uniformity and introduces some variety to a stand of heather, it seems like this kind of management without follow-up treatment might actually be doing more harm than good. There is nobody to “blame” for this, and estates (particularly on the West coast) have spent many years trying to come up with a formula that works on their ground to manage heather without losing it to molinia.

There is no question that spraying and burning will have to play a part in the management of the ground I looked over, otherwise the heather will soon recede out of sight, and the grouse and blackgame with it. Encouragingly, the management team is keen to get stuck in, albeit with limited resources, and it will be fascinating to see where the project goes from here. I walked up over the Clints of Dromore and out onto the hill as the setting sun lit up the vast, cloud-topped Door of Cairnsmore. It is a fantastic place, but a living “case in point” to demonstrate what can happen to the “wilderness” when there is little financial investment.

I’m keen to see more, and if nothing else, I hope to be able to lend a hand here and there on the practical side as the Spring approaches.

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