Friday, 19 December 2014

20 years at Langholm – what have we learnt?

Image: Laurie Campbell
by Andrew Gilruth - @AndrewGilruth

The early years: revealing the genuine conservation conflict

It was on Langholm Moor (1992-1997) that the GWCT and partners1 demonstrated that hen harrier populations can render grouse shooting uneconomic. In six years, harrier numbers rose from two to 20 pairs. Shooting was abandoned because the hen harriers ate over a third of all grouse chicks that hatched.

With no grouse shooting, the local culture, economy and employment suffered and the control of generalist predators ceased. By 2003, 20 harrier nests were back down to two and numbers of breeding grouse and waders had more than halved2. Predation was identified as the most likely cause of the declines. Grouse moor managers felt their worst fears had just been proven – this was a real lose-lose situation.

Today the moor is home to a second vital study: searching for a win-win situation

For the last seven years, the GWCT and partners3 have put huge energy into achieving Langholm’s core objective: an economic driven grouse moor that hits all its conservation targets…

…and thereby demonstrates how to resolve the conflicts between raptors and red grouse.

How is it going? How easy is it to run a grouse moor? There is, now, a much better understanding of the challenges – but Langholm has not yet resolved its core objective.

To avoid any ambiguity, five conservation ‘tests’ were set in advance. The new seven-year interim report predicts (there are three more years to go) that if we stick to the existing conservation methods this second study will:

Habitat improvement – Pass
Raptor recovery – Pass
Red grouse recovery – Fail
Other wildlife recovery – Might pass
Resolve wildlife conflict – Fail

Why have the grouse not recovered?

The quality of keepering and legal predator control is good, as is grouse health, but grouse mortality all year round is high and 78% of adult grouse found dead were identified as having been predated by raptors.

If we adopt new conservation methods, we could pass them all

It would be easy to give up now, but the partners at Langholm believe they can pass all five conservation tests – if new conservation ideas are used. The fact that all sides continue to work together in search of a solution is what makes Langholm unique. It remains the only place in the UK that can not only test, but also monitor, new ideas to resolve the conflict between raptors and grouse.

What new conservation ideas?

The Langholm project hopes to publish its plans in early 2015. These are likely to focus on raptor predation because existing monitoring indicates that grouse recovery is not being restricted by habitat, disease, lack of food, weather or other mortality.

Langholm has inspired change – and it’s about to do that again 

FREE Hen Harrier Recovery Plan guide

Download your FREE guide to the hen harrier & grouse shooting issue >

What's inside your FREE guide

✓ essential hen harrier facts
✓ details of the hen harrier recovery plan
✓ summary of the issues and arguments surrounding a proposed ban on driven grouse shooting
✓ key figures and scientific findings

Download your FREE guide >


1 The Joint Raptor Study (JRS) was a collaborative research venture, undertaken jointly by the GWCT and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH), but funded and guided throughout by a consortium of interest groups that included the RSPB, Scottish Natural Heritage, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, the Game Conservancy Scottish Research Trust, Buccleuch Estate and Peter Buckley of Westerhall Estate.

2 Baines, D., Redpath, S.M., Richardson, M., & Thirgood, S.J. (2008). The direct and indirect effects of predation by Hen Harriers Circus cyaneus on trends in breeding birds on a Scottish grouse moor. Ibis (Supplement 1), 150: 27-36.

3 The Langholm Moor Demonstration Project (LMDP) is a partnership between Scottish Natural Heritage, the Buccleuch Estate, the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Natural England.


  1. How we frame the debate is becoming more important - this is a human;human conflict - not a wildlife conflict. See this new paper from Redpath

  2. The review report raises a number of questions, not least of which is the extent to which raptors generally will be covered by any new “conservation ideas” ostensibly devised to "manage" the hen harrier conflict on grouse moors. One can imagine one such idea which is already set out in the draft Hen Harrier Recovery Action Plan - brood management. Are we likely to see this extended to other birds of prey that are deemed to pose a threat to “commercially viable” grouse shooting? The Langholm review report suggests that the problem now lies with raptor predation of adult grouse. But there are some inconsistencies in the report that should be addressed before setting out any new “ideas”:

    - the report states that diversionary feeding of hen harriers seems to be effective in reducing predation on grouse chicks but that so far other raptors are not in the frame for grouse chick predation;

    - the report also says that most tagged grouse recovered show signs of raptor predation without specifying which raptors are responsible. I should have thought that a healthy adult grouse is too big a prey item for a hen harrier; Langholm research suggests that grouse chicks never mind adult birds form only a very small part of a buzzards diet which only leaves peregrine falcon and goshawk in the frame;

    - but the evidence for heavy predation of healthy adult grouse by peregrine and goshawk is not compelling. The report states that 78% of grouse found dead were predated by raptors. Yet the report also states that the number of birds recovered represents only 10% of adult grouse mortality. Extrapolating the numbers would mean that peregrines and goshawks are responsible for killing over nearly 8000 grouse in 7 years – 1100 grouse a year or 3 every single day of the year. I might be wrong but bearing in mind the pitifully small and declining numbers of peregrine and goshawk in the area, this does not seem to add up. This suggests that there is something wrong with the assumptions made in identifying raptor kills as opposed to scavenging and in any case there is no analysis of how many of these grouse would have died anyway ie that raptor predation is additional;

    - the comparison of grouse numbers with other grouse moors seems flawed based as it is on an average between 2009 and 2012. Not only is this starting from a very low base but it misses the upward trend since 2012 which should be seen as encouraging. This is clearly not comparing like with like although interestingly the other grouse productivity measures for Langholm are comparable with other Scottish grouse moors.

    It seems to me that the review’s objective is to paint the worst possible picture in terms of grouse numbers and the impact of raptor predation. The report itself shows grouse numbers recovering towards the target. Even taking into account that the target density has been bizarrely increased to cover a 25% reduction in the grouse’s core habitat, this represents progress. Numbers of grouse shot at Langholm have been in decline since the 1930s because of a number of factors mostly unrelated to raptor predation. The report’s claim that the resumption of a viable grouse shoot at Langholm is now only threatened by raptor predation seems at best made on shaky ground and at worst a disingenous attempt to give credibility to the legalised removal of birds of prey from grouse moors. I await with interest to see what is proposed in the “next steps” paper.

    1. Nice analysis Ian. You should arrange a visit to speak to the RSPB scientists who supplied the data on site. It is, as you point out, still as clear as a peaty burn.

  3. The most efficient predator that needs control is man with gun, trap and poison. Nature does not need help in natural predator control.
    Profit is the driving factor that sustains the shooting estates argument, to kill all predators (except man). I know that protected species status upsets the estate management but we all need to obey the laws of this country, don't we?
    Then what do you do? Go out and have jolly good shoot (for fun) and of course fat profits. Decimate the population of the "precious" game birds! Then intensive grouse/ pheasant breeding to produce more gun fodder to waste.
    It is time that the shooting industry especially the archaic driven game shoots, grew up and joined the 21 century.