Gamekeepers help threatened Ant

Narrow-headed Ant (Formica exsecta). Copyright: BftB-Buglife.jpg

A prescription of rotational muirburning and grazing management by highland gamekeepers has helped to preserve one of Scotland’s most northerly homes of an extremely rare ant.


Narrow-headed ants, a wood ant, are one of Britain’s rarest and are now confined to the Scottish highlands and a single heathland in Devon after disappearing from most of their former territories.


However, recent survey work, commissioned by the Cairngorms National Park, has found that some sites of national importance, around the village of Carrbridge, are maintaining populations.


Priority Species


Five sites on Seafield Estate with known historic nests were re-surveyed by a Strathspey ecologist with a total of 97 nests recorded of the endangered ant; now a UK priority species.

Narrow-headed ant nest. Image Credit: Hayley Wiswell

Management for red grouse, on one site at Foregin, helped to maintain the open heathland areas the ants need, with 28 nests recorded overall - the second highest number.


Conservationists acknowledged that hill sheep grazing and the rotational burning of heather at the site, over the longer term, had helped to maintain suitable habitat for the ants, which have a characteristic notch in the back of their heads.


Despite narrow-headed ants preferring heath at the edge of scrubland, woodland encroachment, dense scrub and even overgrown heather can generate too much shade for successful nesting.


However, moorland management by the gamekeepers is helping to preserve the ants’ open habitats, with some new nests identified in parts of the location.

Image copyright: Gus Jones- BftB-Buglife.jpg


Moorland Biodiversity

Whilst certain species benefit from woodland expansion, encroachment of Scots Pine and overgrown heather were identified as dual threats to the long-term future of narrow-headed ants at some of the studied Carrbridge sites.


Heather moorland is unique. It has its own biodiversity,” said gamekeeper Duncan MacKenzie, a member of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, who was managing the moor at Foregin at the time of the survey work.


If species are there on the moor, they must find the management beneficial.


Obviously some species benefit from more woodland and allowing vegetation to grow but others don’t, to the point that they may no longer be there, if that growth is not managed.”

Image credit: Hayley Wiswell

Narrow-headed ants are black and red and grow to between 10 and 12mm in length. They live on aphid honeydew on nearby plants and the Queens shed their wings after mating.


The discovery that nests are still existing at the important highland site is testimony to the management at Seafield Estate, by three-full time gamekeepers, working alongside tenant farmers.


There is a lot of surveying work goes on, here, on things like butterflies and moths. That is on top of white tailed eagle, Osprey and black grouse work,” said Head Gamekeeper, Ewan Archer.


We are working with the Spey Fishery Board on river restoration and the National Park on Capercaillie, so there is a lot of collaborative working going on, here, for conservation.”


Seafield Estate is a mixed highland estate, combining field sports, deer management, forestry, fishing, farming, woodland planting, regeneration, accommodation and conservation.


Fourteen thousand acres of the estate have been designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and its woods contain some of the last remaining Capercaillie populations. 


**The SGA would like to thank Hayley Wiswell (CNPA) and the team at Buglife for permitting the use of images. 

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