by Andrew Gilruth - @AndrewGilruth
Mark Avery* is not alone. He has started a petition calling for an outright ban on driven grouse shooting in England. The logic is very simple. If it is the case that game keepers are preventing the recovery of hen harriers - close them down.
So why not just ban it?
Well a recent scientific publication suggests what might happen if we were short-sighted enough to curb or undermine grouse moor shooting.
Across the UK, there is a strong correlation between grouse moor management and the abundance and productivity of species such as lapwing, curlew and golden plover, which are otherwise increasingly rare. And a new scientific study by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), published recently in the Journal of Applied Ecology, identifies that the control of predators such as foxes and crows, carried out to protect red grouse, can benefit one of our most striking birds of prey – the hen harrier.
The consequences of failing to work with farmers and keepers in the wider landscape is nowhere better illustrated than in the uplands of Wales, which once supported the most productive grouse moors in the UK as well as abundant populations of other birds.
However, since the last war almost half of the heather cover in Wales has been lost. Since the 1990s, owing to disease, overgrazing and, from the moor owners’ perspective, a lack of support from conservation agencies, grouse management has been all but abandoned and, as a consequence, upland bird populations have crashed.
This analysis has been leant credibility by a recent study carried out by GWCT, funded by the Moorland Association, which analysed the trends of upland birds in the Berwyn Special Protection Area (SPA) in North Wales. The study focused on changes in red grouse numbers and other upland birds between 1983 and 2002. Like many other parts of Wales, grouse bags peaked early in the 20th century. Unfortunately, this was followed by a steady decline in driven grouse shooting and, with it, upland keepering, which had virtually ceased by 1990.
The study showed that between 1983 and 2002, red grouse declined by 54 per cent in the Berwyn SPA. Over the same period, in the SPA, lapwing became extinct, golden plover declined from ten birds to one, and curlew declined by 79 per cent. Today, over 75 per cent of the entire Welsh black grouse population exists on the one remaining keepered Berwyn moor.
Given the private investment and measurable biodiversity benefits grouse management brings to the rest of the UK, many Welsh moor owners find it difficult to understand a negative and obstructive attitude towards traditional moorland management which had produced such an important landscape worthy of designation. There is a desperate need in Wales for a partnership between conservation agencies and sporting interests.
Conservation management, on its own, has not succeeded.
Alarmingly, we see in south west Scotland a similar decline in upland areas actively managed for red grouse. This abandonment of sporting management threatens the rich tapestry that is the Scottish countryside. We therefore welcome Scottish Natural Heritage’s Wildlife Management Framework, a guide to decision making for wildlife management situations which could be used to test possible ways of re-starting sporting conservation.
Which brings us back to the grouse. Like it or loathe it, red grouse shooting generates on average £30 million to the Scottish economy alone. The management of grouse moors (heather burning, legal predator control) hugely benefits our diverse yet fragile wildlife. And most of this management is funded through the private investment of landowners.
Grouse moor management isn’t perfect and the GWCT and others are working to improve some aspects of it, notably the conservation of some birds of prey. But we, as a nation, should embrace grouse management and the private investment it brings as a positive contribution to biodiversity and celebrate the fact that we have a thriving industry maintaining our heather hills.
Surely it is time to move on and avoid such simplistic views on grouse moor shooting?
UPDATE Defra about to save hen harriers? Read our blog post from 5 June 2014.
*Former RSPB Conservation Director