“Do We Need Grouse Shoots?”

A couple of blackcock at the Langholm Moor Project
A couple of blackcock at the Langholm Moor Project last month

Well worth noting the generally positive article on Langholm Moor in this month’s BBC Wildlife Magazine. BBC Wildlife is a flamboyant victory of style over substance; a magazine so glossy that it is actually quite difficult to pick up, and although the photographs are often stunning, the sheer volume of advertisements and publicity material makes it feel like one of those folders you find in a hotel room. It’s not something I would usually buy, but advised by friends within the Langholm Project that the article had made print, I felt honour-bound to get hold of a copy.

I must admit, some pretty pictures and a few fairly balanced comments serve as a great introduction to the whole world of grouse and harriers, and I could hardly complain. BBC Wildlife is not the place to go into much detail on something so complicated, but I was generally impressed, if by nothing else than the range of talking heads who had been asked for comment.

What did catch my eye was a simplified text box entitled “Do we need grouse shoots”, in which two bigwigs were invited to have their say. Arguing for grouse shooting was Tim Baynes of SL&E and against it the ex-RSPB pundit Mark Avery. Tim Baynes’ brief precis covered the value of preserving red grouse and the associated benefits that grouse shooting provides to other birds, including black grouse. Fair enough.

Conversely, Mark Avery announced that

“without grouse-moor management our uplands would be better with fewer red grouse but more black grouse”.

Perhaps I should be more forgiving of a two or three sentence argument that is so obviously a paraphrase of a longer and meatier comment, but Avery thrives on causing trouble for grouse shooting, and the list of grievances that he has employed to denigrate sporting management is a lengthy one. This latest suggestion that grouse moors are in some way holding black grouse back from true prosperity really is quite a stretch, even in this crystallized form, and while he is often right to have concerns about the intensification of grouse moor management, declaring that black grouse would prosper in a world without grouse moors borders on the disingenuous.

Unfortunately, we have the benefit of fifty years of hindsight to gauge just how resoundingly false this statement is. We have entire counties and regions to use as case studies which allow us to see what happens to black grouse when grouse moor management is removed. Where are all the black grouse on Exmoor, Dartmoor, Wales in its entirety, Shropshire, Staffordshire, Cumbria, Dumfries and Galloway, Ayrshire, Lanarkshire, Argyllshire and the West Highlands? In the small number of these ex-grouse moor regions where black grouse still remain, they do so in meagre pockets. In many areas, red grouse have gone altogether, and the hills are so bare that bird watchers get all giddy when they see a meadow-pipit.

The link between grouse moor management and black grouse conservation is so concrete, universal and well-established that to suggest that black grouse need to be “freed” from it in order to prosper is laughable. The well-known statistic that 90% of English black grouse leks are found on the margins of moorland managed for red grouse effectively says it all, not to mention countless examples of the same in Scotland. The “mighty” Welsh RSPB stronghold of Lake Vyrnwy is eclipsed by the success of nearby Ruabon, which is not a grouse moor per se but which relies on several characteristics of that dreaded grouse moor management in order to produce those birds which are the envy of Wales.

I can only assume that the comment was meant  to mean that grouse moor management in some areas is so intensive that it precludes the kind of early-succession birch and willow scrub which the textbooks claim is favoured by black grouse. In theory this kind of woodland favours black grouse over red grouse (although without predator control it would produce little or none of either), so perhaps this is the thinking behind the sentiment. However, pushing for more of this kind of scrub habitat in the uplands is a very different argument than trying to suggest that we need to get rid of grouse moor management altogether. In fact, it represents the last word in throwing the baby out with the bath water. Grouse moors are sometimes blamed for a lack of biodiversity and a perceived monoculture of heather, but the lack of black grouse in many areas managed for red grouse is more often the result of mismanagement in adjacent marginal farms and woodland than it is a consequence of burning out the odd rowan sapling.

Predator control is a key component of grouse moor management, and it is such an undeniably critical lynchpin for black grouse. And then the whole discussion brings us neatly back again to Langholm Moor. When gamekeepers were withdrawn from Langholm during and after the JRS, red grouse and black grouse numbers went down and stayed down. Under the fearsome and benighted “grouse-moor management” of the current Langholm Moor Demonstration Project, red grouse and black grouse numbers have come up again. The reason why we taxpayers put our money in to demonstration projects is so that we can learn from them, and this is a great lesson to take from the JRS and the popularly styled LMDP II.


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