Thursday, 29 May 2014

Mark Avery calls for grouse shooting ban…

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

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  1. I have never seen anything from the 'other side' with anywhere near this many facts or differing arguments to back their cause. Your last question hits the nail on the head.

  2. I think this sort of information is absolutely wonderful. However, this is the sort of thing that needs to be in the blogs of the major newspaper sites, because they are simply not getting the message, while misinformation hits simple emotional triggers. I don't think much of the British public really understands the conservation benefits of hunting in anywhere near the way that, say, the USA does.

  3. I have been on the fringe of this story for a while now since it appeared over the last few days. I am a shooter that knows very little about grouse shooting or management so I was unsure of where I stood with the scant detail coming from the "other" side. I am aware there is a small amount of unscrupulous behaviour regarding hen harriers which plays right into the hands of the antis, but I know it is not widespread so I was looking for some science.

    This article is what I've been waiting to read, very informative and with the detail necessary to understand more the "for" argument. The argument "against" has been nowhere near as informative. It is obviously still a contentious issue, with much discussion to come, but arguments should always be backed up with science.

    Thank you

  4. Chris and Jon (and others) are very quick to accept the 'science' on offer here. However the oft-repeated lines from GWCT about their studies are extremely selective in what they tell us. I doubt there is anyone who genuinely believes removing predators of ground nesting birds would increase the productivity. Does that increase in productivity result in any population increases or are the survival rates post-winter following dispersal and return any different? In addition while the choice of land management may improve the situation for some species equally it has a negative impact on others. How many species have benefited from a reduction in grouse management in the Welsh uplands, Tree Pipit, Raven, small mammal populations, Red Kite? Selectively focussing on just a small range of species to justify a particular land use is a misuse of science in exactly the way BASC Richard Ali described "poor evidence, incomplete data and partial statictics masquerade as the genuine article".

  5. That should read 'genuinely believe removing predators would not increase productivity'

  6. Ex RSPB man from what I've read and yet there is a distinct possibility that the RSPB may have been responsible for the accidental poisoning of the red kites and buzzards recently found in Scotland.Perhaps they should look a bit closer to home for some of their failings