For land managers tasked with caring for Scotland’s treasured moorland landscapes, 2018 has not been the easiest year to be out in our hills and glens.
For estates with sporting interests and the rural communities which they support, where grouse shooting is vital part of the local economy, the weather conditions have meant the season has largely been wiped out – along with the income to businesses such as hotels, local shops and restaurants.
Yet, the picture is far from doom and gloom. Efforts on estates continue, and land managers have been working to ensure high levels of biodiversity on moorland, particularly in ensuring rare birds continue to thrive. At Glenogil, in the Angus Glens, a biodiversity audit conducted by Game Conservancy Deutschland found 103 different bird species thriving – an increase of 51 per cent since 2015. It also recorded more breeding pairs of golden plover than in the whole of Germany.
GWCT’s guide to Conserving the Curlew showed that where predator control exists, the curlew population increased by 14 per cent a year. It has been a similar tale in Strathbraan, Perthshire, where a 20-year programme of woodland planting, grazing reduction, rotational heather burning, predator and bracken control has seen black grouse rise from very low numbers to around 50 males this year.
Other programmes, such as Heads Up for Harriers, are also faring well, with 27 sporting estates volunteering in this important project in 2018. Participation has risen each year, as has the number of successful nests, and there is an increasing number of nests on driven grouse moors too.
All of this takes place against a backdrop of decreasing instances of wildlife crime, with recorded raptor persecution now at its lowest ever level.
Whilst income from grouse shooting will be negligible this year, investment is being made by businesses and owners to allow this conservation effort – which benefits us all – to continue apace. However, this work is not solely focused on birds.
Peatlands across Scotland store an estimated 1.6 billion tonnes of carbon and moorland estates are taking part in programmes which will enable carbon sequestration, habitat improvement and restoration of severely eroded areas of upland amid some of Scotland’s most wild and beautiful landscapes.
One project covers more than 3,700 acres of land in the Monadhliath and the other involves more than 1,200 acres in the Cairngorms National Park. Estates taking part include Garrogie, Alvie, Pitmain, Farr and Glenmazeran in the Monadhliath and Invercauld, Candacraig, Mar and Glenfeshie in the Cairngorms.
This work will be vital in helping the Scottish Government hit its target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent by 2032 – and to restore 40 per cent of Scotland’s peatland (618,000 acres) by 2030.
We often read critics of grouse moors blaming muirburn for endangering our peatland – but nothing could be further from the truth. Gamekeepers, who are hugely skilled professionals, have to comply with the Muirburn Code, which was relaunched last year by Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham.
This details the steps by which muirburn is carried out through ‘cool burning’ which regenerates the famous purple heather so treasured on Scotland’s moorland landscapes.
Such important land management is often overshadowed in the general debate about country sports – but it is not to say that credit is never forthcoming to gamekeepers and estates.
The Eat Game Awards in London in October saw the Angus Glens Moorland Group nominated in the Game Hero category for their Game for Giving project, an initiative set up to work with local butchers and chefs to create oven ready meals using fresh game and ingredients that are donated to local charities.
They were featured in a category alongside TV chefs such as Jamie Oliver, James Martin and Angela Hartnett, and third place went to another Scottish nominee – Rachel Richards of Kingussie High School.
A home economics teacher, Rachel has been showing pupils how to handle and cook game meat supplied through the Speyside Moorland Group. The lessons not only engage the pupils in food preparation but also ensure the next generation are learning about the nutrition of game meat and the sustainability that hill to plate food provides.
Too often, opinions and headlines around grouse moors can be polarised – for or against, good season or bad season. As has been experienced this year, when the weather has intervened in visitors going out on our moors, there remains much to be positive about.
Estates with sporting interests do not just exist on the Glorious Twelfth – moorland benefits public goods such as wildlife, the environment and food all year round.
Tim Baynes, director of the Scottish Moorland Group (part of Scottish Land & Estates).