2015-10-12   facebook twitter rss

Grouse Moor Management Needs to Move with the Times

Driven grouse moor management needs to move with the times says chairman of the Moorland Association, Robert Benson writing in The Field Magazine.

Some of the worst weather in living memory in parts of the uplands of Northern England has dealt a cruel blow to the wild red grouse and all other moorland nesting birds. In early May through into late June, it was very cold and wet, with frost and even snow on the higher ground. Hen grouse in some areas were not in prime condition for nesting due to heather that was very late to green up and cotton grass that did not appear. The combination of these factors and no insect life for those chicks that did hatch, was disastrous and the survival rate was very poor on the high, wet and westerly moors.

Robert Benson

Robert Benson

The more easterly, lower and drier moors have fared much better and reasonable days are being enjoyed by owners, their guests or teams of paying guns.

This season gives us a timely reminder that the red grouse is a wild bird unique to the UK and that its breeding success is very much in the hands of many elements we cannot control. It is this that should make the allure of grouse so special, for moor owners, managers and guns.

A series of good years has been described as the “golden age of grouse”. In 2014 grouse numbers had returned to pre-war figures largely on the back of a new generation of land owners energetically picking up the reins of their family estates along with a number of new owners investing in new techniques. Advances in management methods, better equipment and an increased labour force of keepers have helped make this possible. But they have also started to build an expectation of a good season with big days every year.

Medicated grit has been a wonderful tool but it must be used wisely and only when necessary. Monitoring of the worm burden is essential. Given everything in their favour, wild red grouse will reproduce remarkably well and in years when this happens, it is important that numbers are reduced to the carrying capacity of the moor for the winter and this may necessitate some large days sometimes involving an expert team of guns. We need to identify the optimal grouse population per moor and must not seek to intensify management to keep pace with an ever increasing density of grouse. Chasing of records will not help to win support for driven grouse and can lead to bad decisions for other wildlife.

Driven grouse moor management brings huge benefits to the uplands, their economy and biodiversity. This is broadly recognised by other stakeholders and where more can be done, change is underway. The Moorland Association is working hard with Natural England, in particular, to try and ensure that these areas of the uplands deliver the other socio economic and environmental outcomes identified. The challenge is to manage red grouse numbers to provide a consistent and reliable resource for driven shooting while delivering improved function of the peat, leading to better capture of carbon and improved water quality. Better biodiversity, driven grouse and grazing are the other outcomes agreed by the stakeholders.

Draining of the uplands was carried out after the war with 100 percent government grant for agricultural production. Over the last 20 years moor owners along with NE and peat partnerships have blocked thousands of kilometres of these hill grips and revegetation of hundreds of hectares of bare and eroding peat is ongoing. Careful controlled ‘cool’ burning of heather, which does not damage the peat or the moss provides a mosaic of habitat for all moorland birds and is vital in the control of what would become otherwise a massive fuel load with a high wildfire risk.

We accept that some old management regimes have to move with the times, that rewetting of peatland and introduction of sphagnum moss is key on deep peat where it is missing and that moor managers have to embrace other outcomes as well as driven grouse. This will require a degree of compromise on all sides.

Others have to accept that without this management for grouse, these moorland areas cherished by millions of open access visitors each year, would be much the poorer, as has happened in the Berwyn Hills of North Wales. In the late 1990s, the last 10 moors stopped management. The keepers disappeared and there was a very significant decline in moorland birds. Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust research shows that between 1985 and 2002 lapwing became virtually extinct, golden plover declined by 90 percent, curlew by 79 percent, ring ouzel by 80 percent and black grouse by 78 percent. These are frightening figures and it is no surprise that hen harriers, like other ground nesting birds particularly prone to fox predation, also declined by 49 percent.

We must strive for a representative assemblage of birds of prey on a landscape scale. Not every moor will have suitable habitat for every species but it is possible across neighbouring moorland managed for grouse. We want to see more hen harriers nesting on grouse moors and seek a management tool that guards against their colonial nesting.

All of this is possible so long as driven grouse-shooting continues on a sensible scale. A few walked up days will not provide the revenue to pay for the management. Passionate and proud owners together with their dedicated, knowledgeable keepers form a tremendous force for conservation and improvement of these moorlands. They invest very largely their own resources year in, year out – and continue to do so even when their whole shooting season is cancelled.


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