Langholm has to be the most famous grouse moor in Scotland. Sadly, it is not really famous for the right reasons. Controversy surrounding the issue of raptors saw the moor being used for demonstration purposes in the 1990s which caused a horrible crash in grouse numbers. The project was designed to advance the argument between shooters and conservationists, but instead it seemed to entrench both sides deeper than ever before after the publication of the project’s findings.
Since the end of the project, a variety of shooting and conservation bodies have been working together on Langholm, conducting experiments with the diversionary feeding of hen harriers and attempting to return the moor to the fine and well respected status it held before the beginning of the Joint Raptor Study Group. As you might imagine, progress is slow, and it is being hampered by the surprising veracity of one particular pest species.
Having learned about heather beetle in various other contexts, I was vaguely aware of an irritating little bug which appeared now and again to eat the tops off ling. At Langholm, my eyes were opened. Dozens of acres of ghostly dead heather stand in contrast to scant patches of healthy undergrowth after a major outbreak of beetle, and many of these areas have been totally destroyed and rendered incapable of feeding grouse. Heather beetles feed on the leaves of heather, stripping it bare and preventing it from being able to photosynthesise. Also, the very process of being eaten dehydrates plants so that many will die if an infestation is followed by dry weather.
Without human intervention, significant areas of Langholm could gradually become white ground over the next few years, and the potential for heather loss is dramatic. If neglected, grasses quickly grow up through the dead heather plants and choke out all surviving life, so many of the treatments for badly damaged moorland are based around either burning off the dead heather or cutting it out, and a great deal of hard work is going to be needed if grouse are ever going to flourish in pre-beetle numbers.
Thankfully, heather beetle is limited on the Chayne, where heather is small and far between, but there is nothing anyone can do about big numbers of heather beetles, and they descend almost at random to spread chaos and misery across the uplands. You can spend thousands of pounds developing stands of quality heather, and they can simply vanish over the course of a few weeks when a heather beetles are in town. Nobody knows why they gather in such destructive plague proportions, but there is worrying evidence that it is increasing in frequency. This is clearly something that we need to get to grips with.