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Grouse moors have five times the wading bird life of other moors

My column in the Times on 11th August:

Tomorrow sees the start of the red grouse shooting season, a sport under attack as never before, with a petition to ban it, and campaigns to get supermarkets to stop selling grouse meat.

As somebody who lives in the rural north and knows the issue at first hand, I am in no doubt that the opponents of grouse shooting have it backwards. On both economic and ecological grounds, the shooting of grouse is the best conservation practice for the heathery hills of Britain. If it were to cease, most conservationists agree that not only would curlews, lapwings and golden plover become much scarcer, even locally extinct, but much heather moorland would be lost to forest, bracken, overgrazing or wind farms.

Be in no doubt: management for grouse is conservation. The owners spend money to maintain the heather moors that constitute an ecosystem found almost nowhere other than Britain. They prevent overgrazing, re-establish heather, remove plantations of non-native sitka spruce, eradicate bracken, manage drainage, periodically burn long heather, kill foxes and crows, refuse to build subsidised wind farms, and thus maintain the great open spaces of the Pennines and parts of Scotland where people are free to walk. In the past decade alone, moorland owners have regenerated 57,000 acres of heather.

More than £50 million is spent on conservation by grouse moor owners every year. That’s roughly twice as much as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds devotes to its entire conservation efforts. There is no way the taxpayer would or should stump up that kind of cash to look after heather moors. But somebody has to: there is no such thing as a natural ecosystem in this country and conservation requires human intervention.

Grouse moor owners recoup some of their costs by leasing shooting to wealthy clients, who often fly in from abroad, fill the local hotels and create crucial local employment. In the economy of many Pennine dales, grouse shooting is irreplaceable, adding more than £15 million a year nationally and supporting 1,500 full-time jobs. It redistributes money from hedge-fund managers in the south and overseas to some of the poorest parts of rural Britain. Much as you might wish them to, rich folk won’t spend lots of money in the Pennines to watch rare birds; but they will to shoot grouse.

Astoundingly, golden plover, curlews and lapwings, the three most iconic wading birds of the uplands, live at five times the density and have more than three times the breeding success on moors with gamekeepers compared with moors without gamekeepers. That this is because of gamekeeping was confirmed in a series of experiments by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust near Otterburn in which matching areas of moor were either keepered or not, then swapped around after four years.

These birds would be at risk of dying out if it were not for gamekeepers, as would black grouse, ring ouzels and merlins. Nesting on or near the ground, such birds are vulnerable to foxes and crows that take their young. With unnaturally high numbers of foxes and crows in Britain — because of human roadkill and garbage — the only way the birds can thrive is if somebody controls the numbers of crows and foxes. The RSPB knows this and kills both species on some of its reserves.

As a result, grouse moors in spring are alive with the calls of birds, whereas the moors that are not managed for grouse are ornithological deserts. In Wales, for example, lots of conservation bodies try to manage the hills for birds, but curlews and golden plover are very scarce, black grouse non-existent — in sharp contrast to the grouse-rich Pennines. One grouse moor owner I spoke to last week said he was happy to challenge the RSPB to an ornithological audit by a neutral body of its upland reserves versus his grouse moor.

The RSPB argues that the hen harrier, a hawk that preys on grouse and breeds on moors, is under threat of extinction, because gamekeepers persecute it. Yesterday saw a damp day of protest on its behalf. In fact the British hen harrier population is stable at about 630 pairs and is much higher than it was 100 years ago when these birds were confined mainly to islands like the Orkneys.

Most of them are in Scotland. The only three successful pairs in England this year were on or next to managed grouse moors. They are not breeding on the RSPB’s English reserves because they too are vulnerable to fox predation, so they need gamekeepers as much as curlews do. On a Pennine grouse moor there is ample food — grouse and other birds. On a Welsh bird reserve there’s just the odd meadow pipit to eat. Because hen harriers breed in colonies, as a 1990s experiment at Langholm in Scotland found, they can quickly build up (to 20 pairs in that case) and destroy the economy and jobs on the grouse moor. The harriers themselves would then collapse in numbers for lack of food. By the end of the experiment, hen harriers at Langholm were back to two pairs.

You can see why gamekeepers dislike the idea of being done out of a job by a bird that cannot thrive without their protection; little wonder that some must occasionally be tempted to deter or even kill harriers. A sensible compromise is on the table, and moor owners are ready to sign up to it: they would allow low densities of harriers on grouse moors, removing the excess chicks to repopulate Wales or Cornwall, and providing “diversionary feeding”. Everybody gains. All that’s needed is the RSPB’s agreement, but it is being obdurate and demanding unworkable preconditions.

The red grouse, the bird at the heart of all this, is an amazing creature. It’s wholly dependent on grazing heather, it cannot survive in captivity, it lures people to invest heavily in conservation in the north, which supports the economy and benefits other wildlife, and it’s found nowhere else in the world — unlike the hen harrier, which is common across two continents. The grouse population can be heavily cropped, just like sheep, to provide fine, free-range meat.

The campaign against grouse shooting makes no ecological or economic sense. Surely it is not a cynical attempt to raid urban wallets with an emotive anti-rich campaign like the RSPCA’s campaign against foxhunting? Surely not.


Post script: The data on the effect of gamekeepers on the breeding success of round nesting birds are truly striking. In the charts below, the red bars are with gamekeeping, the blue bars without. (Source: here)


Fig 1

This chart shows the change in abundance as a result of the introduction of gamekeeping:

Fig 2

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times