The Welsh Conundrum

Gors Maen Llwyd, on the Mynydd Hiraethog

Gors Maen Llwyd, on the Mynydd Hiraethog – there were black grouse down on the right.

I had a very interesting day in Wales on Tuesday, looking at heather cutting as a management technique in the Clwydian Mountains and a few miles west on the Mynydd Hiraethog. Wales has a reputation in the sporting world as something of a fallen giant; the traditional home of some of the best upland shooting in Britain which, for a combination of reasons, came unstuck during the twentieth century. There is more or less nothing in the way of grouse shooting in Wales now, and while there are extensive areas of heather moorland capable of supporting a whole range of moorland bird species, most of it is lying empty and unmanaged.

I won’t pretend after a single day in Wales that I am qualified to comment on the upland management of an entire country, but having seen a few hundred acres of moorland and spoken to the people who are responsible for managing it, a few things became tantalisingly clear. Private land owners in North Wales seem to have effectively turned their backs on the hills. It seems that many farmers, shepherds and estates simply don’t have any interest in their land beyond its ability to serve them a financial dividend, either through farming or forestry. This is obviously a huge generalisation, but it seems particularly pertinent in terms of black grouse.

We often hear about grouse shooting providing the financial fuel for moorland conservation, but the unspoken truth is that it also provides the fuel of enthusiasm. I can think of dozens of farmers, shepherds, tenants and syndicates who don’t make money out of their grouse work, but who labour away at grouse projects because they just love it. These are not the big driven moors, but collections of friends, co-workers and families who bear grouse in mind when they make decisions about the land. They don’t expect hundred brace days, but take a brace or two when the seasons and their hard work allow for it.

When government grant systems offer financial assistance to build fences, block ditches and undertake work that will help grouse, landowners and sporting syndicates seek out these schemes and top up the grants with their own money. They don’t expect to sell days and recoup their losses, but just absorb the cost. Class-conscious observers are appalled when they read that it costs upwards of £160 to shoot a brace of driven grouse, but by comparison to the grouse on the Chayne, those driven birds are incomparably cheaper. In six years work on the Chayne, I have spent upwards of £7,000 of my own money and have shot three grouse. I have made no money out of this project aside from writing about it, and I am currently planning a new blackgame friendly wood which will cost me almost another £1,000. However, this sum is meaningless to me because the grouse are their own recompense. Small-time grouse boys approach local government bodies with conservation ideas and engage with the grants system so that they can help the birds they love. The sport is one of many ways that country people engage with their land, so while we’re not all big-budget outfits like Wemmergill or Gunnerside, we are united by a conservation interest.

The situation I saw in Wales represents what happens when this link is broken. Grouse numbers slumped so long ago that the very idea of shooting seems to have flown out of the window. When surveys revealed that red and black grouse numbers were flatlining in the 90s, NGOs and conservation bodies lobbied the government for funding to fix it. In due course, this money filtered through to the landowners, who patiently took the money and did the necessary work required of them. They followed the stipulations of the funding, but if the money stopped, they stopped. Without the legacy and spark of sport, they had no incentive to do any more than the minimum required of them.

Fantastic amounts of money are being spent in Wales each year on heather management, but it doesn’t seem to be sparking its own momentum in any meaningful way. Contractors are paid to do the management work at a set cost which never diminishes. Landowners don’t seem to develop an interest and start to match funding or take on responsibilities of their own. Having forgotten the joy and satisfaction of a workable stock of grouse, birds are just something that “those conservationists” are interested in.

With the exception of a few sporting estates, upland conservation seems to have been nationalised in Wales. For better or worse, this begs the question – “do we want to pay for the conservation of the Welsh uplands?” People get very hot under the collar when grants are allocated to grouse moors in England and Scotland, but the public funding is only ever part of the financial makeup of the moor’s management. The total cost of management is also met by some shooting turnover and a considerable amount of private money. For a small minority of estates, the entire operation is funded privately without any subsidy or support.

Without sport in Wales, every single conservation project is paid for entirely by you and I. When the RSPB claim ownership of management work, it is usually funded by the public grants and subsidies due to any landowner or manager, and the money picks up an avocet logo as it passes through their hands. In years of financial drought, grants wither everywhere in the U.K. In Scotland and England, this leads to a tight purse string, but in Wales it leads to a sudden, shuddering halt. Without the personal, spiritual enthusiasm and backing of the landowners, Welsh conservation seems to be wallowing the doldrums. Somehow, when it comes to managing the moorland, throwing money at a problem simply doesn’t cut it. It seems clear to me that there is a requisite conservation “X-factor” that frequently takes the form of sport.

I will write more on Wales in due course, largely because I was genuinely impressed by some of the management work I saw. There are people on the ground who genuinely care about the black grouse and there is progress being made. I am often put-0ff by the thought that black grouse are a token interest for some conservationists, and I was quite taken by the passionate backing they are getting from some quarters. I suppose am viewing all this with a suspicious eye because it is so alien that I can’t quite get my head around it. Judging it on results, the “nationalised system” is perhaps not producing many black grouse that would not otherwise have been there, but, aside from a few curious anomalies which are easily explained, it is not altogether clear why it does not work. Conservation charities are notoriously bashful when it comes to issues like predator control, so while there is a desire to engage with larsen traps &c., there are matching concerns about public perception which do not really factor for private landownership. Perhaps this is where the answer lies.

I saw a few black grouse at the Gors Maen Llwyd reserve where the Welsh Wildlife Trust have done (and continue to do) a fantastic job with their heather, but as yet there is no real sign of a booming black grouse response for this area of moorland. I’m not sure what I was expecting when I went to Wales, but I came away knowing that I’d like to see more.

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