Upland Birds

Durham Priority Species
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Upland Birds Action Plan

Priority Species: Black Grouse, Hen Harrier, Merlin,  Curlew, Lapwing, Snipe, Redshank, Yellow Wagtail, Golden Plover

1. Maintain existing populations and range of upland birds in the DBAP area.
2. Improve our knowledge of the distribution and status of upland birds.
3. Improved dialogue between gamekeeping and conservation parties over moorland management for grouse and its effect on birds of prey (and vice versa).
4. Protect, and improve the management of, important breeding and feeding habitat areas.
5. Increase the area of upland habitat which supports upland birds, including hay meadows, moorlands, and in-bye pasture.
6. Increase public awareness of the habitat requirements of upland birds and suitable management regimes.

Black Grouse Targets
Vision Statement: To increase the population and expand the range of black grouse

Target Type Unit Value
1. Expand population of black grouse displaying males expand displaying males tbc

Hen Harrier Targets
Vision Statement: To eliminate persecution by gamekeepers, and improve habitat management.

Target Type Unit Value
1. To increase the number of breeding pairs of hen harrier expand breeding pairs 1

Merlin Targets

Target Type Unit Value
1. To increase the number of breeding pairs of merlin in the Durham BAP area. expand breeding pairs 50

Redshank Targets

Target Type Unit Value
1. To maintain the range of breeding redshank in the Durham BAP area. maintain occupied km squares  tbc
2. To maintain the number of wintering redshank in the Durham BAP area. maintain winter peak counts 780

Lapwing Targets

Target Type Unit Value
1. To maintain the number of breeding territories of lapwing in the Durham BAP area. maintain breeding territories tbc
2. To maintain the number of wintering lapwing in the Durham BAP area. maintain winter peak counts 1254

Curlew Targets

Target Type Unit Value
1. To maintain the range of breeding curlew in the Durham BAP area. maintain occupied km squares tbc
2. To maintain the number of wintering curlew in the Durham BAP area. maintain occupied km squares 245

Yellow Wagtail Targets
Vision Statement: To halt the decline of yellow wagtail and then to expand the current limited breeding range.

Target Type Unit Value
1. To maintain the range of breeding yellow wagtail in the Durham BAP area. range occupied tetrads 44

Snipe Targets

Target Type Unit Value
1. To maintain the number of breeding territories of snipe in the Durham BAP area. maintain breeding pairs tbc

Golden Plover targets are still to be developed

The priority species covered by this plan are all species for which the North Pennines is an important area for breeding. In particular the North Pennines area is of both national and international significance for its upland breeding wader assemblages and breeding merlin.

In many cases the priority bird species are ground nesting, requiring heather or tussocky grassland of varying heights in relatively undisturbed areas. Wet substrates are often favoured for feeding. Others utilise gullies and rocky outcrops for nesting, or increasingly trees on the edges of plantation woodland. All are vulnerable to disturbance and changes in land-management.

Local status

Birds of prey and corvids

Hen Harrier is the most intensively persecuted of the UK’s birds of prey. Once predating free-range fowl, earning its present name, its effect on the number of grouse available to shoot is the cause of modern conflict and threatens its survival in some parts of the UK. Breeding success is monitored closely in the Durham BAP area by Natural England.

Merlin is the UK’s smallest bird of prey and is a short distance migrant. The UK breeding population is at the south-west extremity of the merlin’s European range, and is thinly scattered across upland moorland from south-west England north to Shetland. In winter the UK population increases as most of the Icelandic breeding birds migrate to our warmer climate.

Merlin traditionally breed on ground amongst heather, but increasingly nests are being found in trees, particularly old crow’s nests on the edges of conifer plantations. Merlin is currently recovering from a population crash in the late 20th century as a result of the widespread use of organochlorine pesticides.

Peregrine breeding strongholds in the UK are the uplands of the north and west and rocky seacoasts. Peregrines have suffered persecution from gamekeepers and landowners, and been a target for egg collectors, but better legal protection and control of pesticides (which indirectly poisoned birds) have helped the population to recover considerably from a low in the 1960s. Some birds, particularly females and juveniles, move away from the uplands in autumn.

Raven is a resident bird of western mountains and coastal cliffs but also, and increasingly, of moorland. Once widespread in Britain, it was lost from the lowlands by the end of the 19th century through persecution. A partial recovery followed the two world wars, but declines have continued in parts of the country and breeding productivity fell during the 1980s for reasons which are not well understood.

Wading birds

Curlew is a ground-nesting bird which breeds primarily in the uplands. It has declined in Europe, both as a breeding and wintering species. Loss of breeding habitat to forestry and the switch to improved grasslands from hay meadows and low intensity pasture are two causes.

Curlew are waders that select tall vegetation and nest within tussocks on rough grazing or hill allotments or in taller vegetation of traditionally managed hay meadows. Meadows managed for silage  may be too dense to attract Curlews and are cut too early to allow chicks to fledge. Damp field corners that are left uncut are important feeding areas for unfledged chicks. Extensively grazed pasture with cattle can often create the ideal tussocky conditions that curlew like, but careful management of stocking levels during the breeding season is necessary to  prevent egg and chick losses. The late cutting of traditional hay meadows benefits nesting curlews by allowing  young to  fledge before harvest.

Dunlin from Russia and northern Europe winter in large numbers on the UK coast, but our own breeding population of approximately 9,000 pairs flies south for the winter. Dunlin tends to breed at higher altitudes in the north pennines than other waders, on wet upland moors in tussocky vegetation.  Breeding numbers have declined in recent years due to changing land-uses in the uplands, particularly forestry and drainage.

Lapwing Lapwings in England and Wales have declined by 49% between 1987 and 1998. In contrast to this in recent years, many breeding waders have undergone increases within the North Pennines, probably as a response to the traditional agricultural practices of the local area. Shepherd has demonstrated increases in populations of lapwing (50%) and snipe (49%) between 1995 and 2005.

Lapwing are one of the easiest species to manage grassland for, as they will tolerate the widest variety of conditions and are found nesting in a range of different habitat types from spring sown crops to former opencast sites. In a typical inbye grassland system, lapwings favour a short sward between four and 10cm in height on a field with open aspect free of trees or other obstructions. Areas of scattered rushes and tussocks are needed for chick hiding and bare areas and dung patches for camouflage and during nesting. Areas of nearby shallow water with muddy margins and damp areas of grassland will provide feeding habitat for adults, and chicks during their development.

Redshank breed in a variety of habitats from saltmarshes to freshwater marshes and upland pasture.  The numbers breeding on farmland are declining, due to drainage. Overgrazing of coastal marshes is also removing breeding habitat and breeding birds are increasingly dependent on nature reserves.

In the uplands redshanks are a wet grassland specialist feeding on insects at the edges of pools and ditches. They are most likely to be found in fields with mosaics of short damp grassland for feeding and grass or rush tussocks for resting. Areas of grassland can be improved for redshank by raising water levels from blocking drains and ditches or creating shallow pools and scrapes, and through controlled grazing.

Snipe breeds on moorland bogs and wet pastures in the uplands, and in fenland and marshes in lowlands. Breeding habitat for Snipe has been reduced over the centuries as wet grasslands, fens and bogs have been drained, and more recently improved drainage and ploughing of old grasslands.  Increasingly birds are dependent on nature reserves and protected areas.

Snipe are waders that are dependent on damp soft soils and a good range of tall vegetation. Snipe need an open tussocky sward that provides tall vegetation for nesting and concealment along with areas of short vegetation for feeding. A high water table close to this vegetation is crucial during the breeding season, so the presence of scrapes and wet gutters help provide the snipe’s ideal mix of habitats on a localised scale.

Other species

Black grouse is one of the most rapidly declining birds in the UK. Once widespread across Britain, there has been a serious decline in numbers over recent decades and populations have become fragmented. Positive habitat management is helping numbers to increase in the North Pennines and the population has in fact now expanded from 773 males in 1998 to 1,029 males in 2006. Black Grouse require a mosaic of nearby habitats including heather moorland, grassland, hay meadows and open woodland or woodland edge.

Ring Ouzel is a summer visitor which breeds in mature heather in gullies on moorland, around farms, forest edges and around old quarries, in upland areas of Britain. They require a mosaic of mature heather, bracken pockets and short turf.

There has been a progressive decline in population over a long period and a further decline of more than 50% in the last 10 years. Forestry will have removed some previously suitable sites, grazing pressure may have removed sources of late summer food, and there is anecdotal evidence from the foot and mouth outbreak that human disturbance from recreation can have a serious impact on breeding numbers.

Yellow wagtail is a formerly common summer visitor and passage migrant, but is experiencing decline nationally and in the Durham BAP area. Breeding is centred around mid-Durham and the Saltholme Pools area of the Tees Marshes, but is also found in grazed pasture and hay meadows in the Pennine dales.


  • Perscecution remains a threat  for some birds of prey, and particularly for Hen Harrier. The influence of persecution on hen harrier success or otherwise is hotly contested by gamekeeping and conservation interests.
  • Increasing disturbance through human recreation and by dogs is a serious potential threat to breeding success for many of the upland species, most of which are ground nesters, or which often nest near to climbing routes.
  • Drainage of upland peat and of pastures and more intensive grassland management has deprived many species of important feeding and nesting sites and remains a threat.
  • The effects of climate change are as yet unknown, but may include increased rainfall at critical times of the year for breeding success, and/or reduced precipitation overall leading to drying out of critical wetland habitats. Birds breeding at higher altitudes, such as Dunlin, may be most at risk.
  • Badly timed farming operations. Many wading birds have eggs destroyed by spring operations such as chain harrowing.
  • Poor livestock management. Overgrazing reduces diversity of structure needed by wading birds, and excessive grazing in spring increases the risk of egg trampling for ground nesting species. Undergrazing, leading to rush infestation and loss of breeding wader habitat, can also be an issue in some locations.