For many years I have been regularly monitoring the hills of County Durham and keeping a watchful eye on several adder populations. During the last 15 years one area in particular has been affected by habitat management aimed at benefiting grouse. This has included bracken removal about 6 years ago and most recently a heather burn.
Bracken is often regarded as a bit of a menace on the moors. From a reptile surveying point of view it certainly makes finding the ground very difficult, at the height of summer, because of the way it forms a blanket, four feet above the ground, through which it is very hard to see. The benefits of bracken are through the autumn, winter and spring months when it collapses and forms large, dense well insulated mounds. Once it has been sprayed off these mounds no longer get added to, over the years they eventually decompose and disappear.
Heather offers grouse shelter and food with young shoots and buds being a particular favourite. Once the heather becomes too long for the birds to find useful for nesting in it is burnt in controlled fires. This removes the lank vegetation and in time new fresh heather regrows. However the height that is no longer any use to grouse is usually the exact height it offers most protection to amphibians and reptiles.
So a population of reptiles which has made good homes in the heather for many years can suddenly find themselves homeless. At least the ones that survive the burning process, as this often goes on into April when many reptiles are out of hibernation/brumation and actively basking and seeking mates.
From a herpetologists point of view it all seems very depressing and it would be easy to think the very things you are passionate about are in rapid decline due to this single practice alone. Yet, without stirring up trouble, this form of management has gone on for many years and there still seem to be reptiles out and about on the moors. Whatever you think of grouse and their place on the Durham uplands, with all the surrounding issues that people get very vocal about, the impact may in fact be minimal. Without rigorous research into the exact impact of grouse moor management on reptiles we may never know.
The current trend at land based colleges across the country seems to be to teach a more species-wide approach to upland management. The old tales of adder being a predator of grouse seem also to be dying out among younger folk going into grouse moor management. I’d be impressed to see an adder that could eat anything the size of a game bird egg or chick. It would also be difficult for any adder to get within ten feet of a game bird nest without being pecked to death by the adult bird.