Wet Management

One of a few alternatives to burning.
One of many alternatives to burning.

I caught the tail end of an online debate recently in which an RSPB representative was defending the ongoing failure of a black grouse conservation project on Lake Vyrnwy in North Wales. By contrast to keepered management at Ruabon (which the RSPB recently claimed as their own, for some reason), the birds at the Lake Vyrnwy reserve have been flat-lining for several years. Far from serving as a glowing flagship upland reserve for the RSPB, Lake Vyrnwy is slipping into a very “Geltsdale-like” silence on black grouse.

The first time I heard about Vyrnwy was when I read the results of a study carried out on the reserve which showed that over half of all black grouse killed between 2000 and 2003 died beneath the talons of raptors. Not a great statistic for the raptor champions, and one that never really attracts much media attention. I like to make it available whenever I can, so HERE IT IS if you’re interested. I also see that the Forestry Commission (who are thanked for having supported this study) have had plenty of opportunity over the past decade to amend their guidance document on black grouse to include a reflection of these findings, but instead choose to blame only foxes and crows for black grouse predation.

Anyway, my problem is not raptor predation pressure on black grouse. At least, not here anyway.

The issue which caught my eye was that Lake Vyrnwy’s failing black grouse population was being attributed to the fact that the reserve is on blanket bog, so it cannot be managed productively using burning, particularly since there are also water catchment issues – The RSPB’s argument was that inhibited habitat management on the reserve was the chief reason why black grouse are not responding. The argument deliberately dismissed any other issues (including predation), focusing instead on a more ambiguous idea of absent or sub-optimal habitat, with a certain amount of hand-wringing and baleful “but it’s a blanket bog” moaning. A similar slippery approach is being used on another high profile Demonstration Moor, and serves to create a fog of scientific tooth-sucking while the real issues go wholly unanswered.

I was frustrated to hear that this is the reason given for the shortage of black grouse at Lake Vyrnwy because I have recently been doing a lot of work on heather cutting, travelling up and down the country to see what keepers, conservationists and contractors have been doing to manage heather when, amongst other things, burning is not an option. The early results of what I have found show that while the heather regeneration from cutting is perhaps not as nutritionally productive as heather which comes back from burning, there are a number of features which make cutting into a pretty useful “second fiddle” in the moorland manager’s toolkit.

If the RSPB are worried about burning Lake Vyrnwy, then perhaps they could cut the heather with a mulcher – a technique employed at Langholm Moor on some very wet ground to restore heather that was damaged by beetle. The quality and extent of the restoration at Langholm is staggeringly good. If the ground is so wet that heavy machinery would damage the sphagnum layer, then perhaps the RSPB can use one of their own little ATV-pulled “mini mulchers” which I have seen across the Peak District and into Yorkshire, which skim over wet ground and create some fantastic regeneration. Nobody is arguing that you should not be sensitive to wet moorland, blanket bog or deep peat, but while burning is best, there are other options if it is not possible.

Even more significantly, cutting’s real asset is that it can be used to create customised habitat features which would be quite impossible with a fire. Hatched “radiator” cuts put in with a 5 foot pass create access to invertebrate forage and cover for young broods of black grouse, and RSPB funded contractors already do this in North Wales. In fact, the idea is an RSPB one.

Cutters can pass right through and around scrub woodland, making winter shelter and areas of forage for adult birds. A large “strip-matrix” can incorporate drying out areas for young chicks, hawk hurdles to foil attacks from sparrowhawks and goshawks and creates countless opportunities to set snares and catch foxes. Some of the highest concentrations of black grouse I have seen in this country have been based on moors which are cut rather than burnt.

This information is not new and the ideas that the RSPB did not come up with themselves are readily accessible online or in print. Claiming that the fact that Lake Vyrnwy is part of a water catchment somehow precludes it from effective management is a non-starter. Aside from anything else, The Welsh Wildlife Trust reserve at Gors Maen Llywd sits above Llyn Brenig, a massive reservoir used to supply Chester, and yet the reserve managers are planning to burn heather in 2014.

I’ve never been to Lake Vyrnwy, but I plan to visit in the spring. I would be very surprised when I get there if their habitat is the limiting factor for black grouse productivity. In effect, history has shown us that black grouse are not picky – They can live more or less anywhere and on anything, provided that they themselves don’t get eaten. The statistics produced by Gordon Bowker between 2000 and 2003 show that too many birds are being killed and eaten each year, and that has got nothing to do with water catchments.

The advances that we have made in heather cutting over the past twenty years now mean that we can do all kinds of things that were traditionally impossible. We can design a habitat that helps black grouse to evade raptors, and we can create moorland which, in combination with snares, is almost impenetrable to foxes. The RSPB have all the equipment, funding and technology they need to make Lake Vyrnwy produce black grouse, but to put it into action would be to publicly admit that predators (winged and four-footed) are a major limiting factor. As it is, the “flagship” Welsh reserve seems content to swill a few birds around in the doldrums.

Anyway, now it’s 2014. It seems like my loyal readers are in for another year of furious griping.

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