Grouse moors can help diversity and the economy

Conservation on its own is not enough, says Dr Adam Smith

Picture: Ian Rutherford
Picture: Ian Rutherford

It’s that time of the year when, as usual, grouse stories are circulating. It’s remarkable that grouse shooting as an activity is woven into the fabric of Scotland’s past, present and future to this extent. This is something for which we should be grateful, as recent work from other parts of the UK suggest what might happen if we were short-sighted enough to curb or undermine it.

Across the UK, there is a strong correlation between grouse moor management and the abundance and productivity of species such as lapwing, curlew and golden plover, which are otherwise increasingly rare. And a new scientific study by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), published recently in the Journal of Applied Ecology, identifies that the control of predators such as foxes and crows, carried out to protect red grouse, can benefit one of our most striking birds of prey – the hen harrier.

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Yet sadly, over the past ten years, populations of many of our key bird species have continued to decline. It appears that our past reliance on protectionist policies, site designations and “control” of land users has failed to help much of our wildlife. Part of the problem has been the historical failure to draw upon the interests of those who manage the land and whose activities could be harnessed to address these declines.

Picture: Phil Wilkinson

The need to change perceptions of conservation is manifested through one of the big conservation stories this year, the “State of Nature” report. This outlined the continuing decline in 60 per cent of the UK’s species. But the report’s findings do not go far enough, basically recommending that we “carry on as before”. This approach creates tension between land managers and conservationists and has not delivered effective conservation. The Scottish Government will struggle to achieve its excellent goals of a productive landscape, thriving rural communities and biodiversity by taking this route.

The consequences of failing to work with farmers and keepers in the wider landscape is nowhere better illustrated than in the uplands of Wales, which once supported the most productive grouse moors in the UK as well as abundant populations of other birds.

However, since the last war almost half of the heather cover in Wales has been lost. Since the 1990s, owing to disease, overgrazing and, from the moor owners’ perspective, a lack of support from conservation agencies, grouse management has been all but abandoned and, as a consequence, upland bird populations have crashed.

This analysis has been leant credibility by a recent study carried out by GWCT, funded by the Moorland Association, which analysed the trends of upland birds in the Berwyn Special Protection Area (SPA) in North Wales. The study focused on changes in red grouse numbers and other upland birds between 1983 and 2002. Like many other parts of Wales, grouse bags peaked early in the 20th century. Unfortunately, this was followed by a steady decline in driven grouse shooting and, with it, upland keepering, which had virtually ceased by 1990.

The study showed that between 1983 and 2002, red grouse declined by 54 per cent in the Berwyn SPA. Over the same period, in the SPA, lapwing became extinct, golden plover declined from ten birds to one, and curlew declined by 79 per cent. Today, over 75 per cent of the entire Welsh black grouse population exists on the one remaining keepered Berwyn moor.

Given the private investment and measurable biodiversity benefits grouse management brings to the rest of the UK, many Welsh moor owners find it difficult to understand a negative and obstructive attitude towards traditional moorland management which had produced such an important landscape worthy of designation. There is a desperate need in Wales for a partnership between conservation agencies and sporting interests. Conservation management, on its own, has not succeeded.

Alarmingly, we see in south west Scotland a similar decline in upland areas actively managed for red grouse. This abandonment of sporting management threatens the rich tapestry that is our Scottish countryside. We therefore welcome Scottish Natural Heritage’s Wildlife Management Framework, a guide to decision making for wildlife management situations which could be used to test possible ways of re-starting sporting conservation.

Which brings us back to the grouse. Like it or loathe it, red grouse shooting generates on average £30 million to the Scottish economy. The management of grouse moors (heather burning, legal predator control) hugely benefits our diverse yet fragile wildlife. And most of this management is funded through the private investment of landowners.

Grouse moor management isn’t perfect and we are working to improve some aspects of it, notably the conservation of some birds of prey. But Scotland, as a nation, should embrace grouse management and the private investment it brings as a positive contribution to biodiversity and celebrate the fact that we have a thriving industry maintaining our heather hills.

• Dr Adam Smith is director Scotland of the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust -