Heaths and havens for rare birds: typically 270-900 metres above sea level
The moorland zone is characterised by dry and wet heaths. The most common vegetation on dry heath is ling and bell heather along with grasses and sedges that also cope well with poorer soils. Mosses, such as the many species of sphagnum, predominate wet heath.
In spring, gamekeepers lightly burn off small amounts of older, woody heather (muirburn) to enable young heather to regenerate. This creates a mosaic of heathers at different stages of growth and provides a mixture of habitats and feeding areas for red grouse. At this time of year, they will also trap weasels, stoats and crows which eat the eggs and young chicks of grouse, golden plover and other ground nesting birds.
Deer are counted in early spring to help plan culls for the forthcoming season; counts are undertaken when there is still some snow coverage making it easier to spot the deer and tell the sexes and ages apart. Gamekeepers also undertake habitat impact assessments before the new year’s growth begins in earnest. They use their findings to inform where herbivores, such as red deer, might require more specific management.
A flush of growth in the early summer brings out moorland plants such as varieties of bearberry, cowberry and bog cotton as well as many varieties of sphagnum moss in wet, boggy areas. Bird species including merlin, kestrels and ring ouzels can be seen enjoying the finer weather after breeding whilst adders bask in the sun. Insect life from dragonflies to midges abound. Sheep are let out onto the hills in the late spring or early summer when there is sufficient new grass for them to graze.
August 12th (The Glorious Twelfth) heralds the start of the grouse season where people from around the world come to partake in both driven and walked-up shooting.
The moors are also popular with walkers and cyclists who come from far and wide to enjoy the stunning hills that, by now, have transformed into seas of purple heather.
In autumn the red deer rut starts. The exact timing differs from year to year but it often begins in September and lasts through most of October. Male red deer (stags) compete to mate with females (hinds), crashing into each other with their antlers as they seek to dominate. This is the key time for deer stalking, another activity that attracts people to Invercauld to engage with nature and the essential task of managing the wild red deer population.
Grouse shooting continues, too, when there are sufficient birds. Sheep that have been grazing up on the moors will be driven back to the warmer valley floor, or further afield, in late October. Flora recedes in preparation for the winter ahead.
When the snow comes, red grouse form packs and hunt for areas of bare ground on which to feed. The annual stag cull gives way to the shooting of hinds to keep the population of red deer in balance; this is often an arduous task in bleak conditions. If necessary, gamekeepers can use the snow to help undertake further muirburn. Winter sees mountain hares transform from a bluey-brown colour to white to provide camouflage against the snow and protection from predators.