Why some keep missing the target

Writing in 2003, The Earl Peel criticised the “simplistic” and “irresponsible” attitudes that threaten to destroy Britain’s moorland.

The following comments are entirely personal and do not necessarily represent the official views of any of the organisations in which I am involved. However, I know that they do mirror many of the thoughts of those directly involved with grouse moor management, whether from an owners or keepers perspective.

      There appears to be a concerted campaign to degrade grouse moor management, using the slur that it fails to meet acceptable levels of biodiversity. This flies in the face of the fact that statutory conservation agencies readily acknowledge the key role of properly conducted grouse management in maintaining a unique and valuable ecosystem.

      Among those directly involved with the grouse there is a growing sense of frustration – even resentment –at being the target of disproportionate criticism. This is set against a passionate belief that if it weren’t for the long-standing skills of the moorland gamekeeper, and the high levels of investment by those with the shooting rights, the uplands of Great Britain would long ago have suffered the same fate as much of lowland Britain, and lost most of their wildlife capital. The fact that such a high percentage of grouse moors have been designated in one form or another is a tribute to keepers and owners.

      It is true that grants are now available for certain conservation schemes, but in the context of the level of finance required to keep grouse moors going, they fade into insignificance. Furthermore, it should be remembered that virtually all the public money channelled into the less-favoured areas goes to those who actually farm land and who are not, in the large majority of cases, the owners.

      The facts speak for themselves. Large tracts of heather moorland have been retained, and indeed enhanced, directly due to the sporting interests. This is despite agricultural and other subsidies that have systematically encouraged over-grazing and large-scale afforestation at a direct cost to the taxpayer.

      It is now becoming increasingly clear that most upland-bird species, many of which are now on either red or amber lists, are dependent on the keepered estates. Any upland-bird recovery success story outside of the managed grouse moor is pretty well non-existent. Compare this to areas in the Cheviots or the Dales which have recently been brought back under grouse management, and where the effects on the wader populations, in particular, have been extraordinary.

      Indeed, a recent survey by one of the RSPB’s own researchers in conjunction with the game Conservancy Trust, demonstrated that there are considerably more waders on “keepered” moorland than on “non-keepered” moorland in some cases as many as five times more.

      A few species were less abundant, such as the skylark and meadow pipit - and the carrion crow, which is not surprising - and that, in retrospect, I think it was a pity that the in-bye land was not included in the survey; I suspect the former species would have shown well on keepered grassland. (As an aside, given that the meadow pipits appear to do better on non-grouse moors, and represents a principal diet of the hen harrier, one has to wonder why hen harriers do not do better on non-grouse moor is. I shall return to this issue).

      A recent article by an RSPB official in “Outstanding” the magazine for areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONB), suggested that the reason the Northern Pennines AONB is the home of up to 10,000 pairs of waders is because of the traditional farming methods which have fashioned a unique landscape, and a mosaic of habitats creating an oasis of wildlife.

      Well, of course, an appropriate habitat is a prerequisite for the existence of any species, but to suggest that this is the sole reason for such high numbers of waders is arrant nonsense.

      There are countless examples of similar habitat, with the exact same farming methods, in the Pennines and elsewhere, yielding virtually nothing in terms of waders, black grouse and other species besides. It is simply disingenuous in the extreme, and dangerously misleading, not to acknowledge that it is only where keepers are employed that such a thrilling display of waders occurs.

      It is interesting to look back to 1995 and the RSPB Wales report called silent fields (the current status of farmland birds in Wales), which concluded that a significant contributory factor to the decline of all farmland birds - including upland waders - was nest predation. For example, in certain areas, where managed grouse shooting ceased, golden plover populations reduced by between 38% and 100%. Also, the decline in the lapwing population had been more than 97% between the 1950s and the 1990s, where on the study areas the numbers collapsed from 360 pairs to fewer than 14 pairs.

      It is estimated that grouse moor management occupies between 30 percent and 40 percent of the Upland range of England and Wales, and, in my opinion, and that of many others, makes an extraordinary contribution to nature conservation. In any normal circumstances such a success story would be a public relations triumph, and claimed from the highest rooftops. Instead, certain cynics continue to carp for reasons that may have more to do with their own vested interests than with conservation.

      What particularly rankles of those who are subjected to such criticisms is the state of the remaining 60 percent to 70 percent of the uplands, where she green and grouse interests play no part. Despite the fact that these areas, often managed with nature conservation in mind, produced precious little in the way of wildlife, the voices of doom are curiously silent.

      Apart from grouse moors, considerable sums of public money have been lavished on upland habitat recovery schemes of which few, if any, have successfully recaptured any of the upland bird species associated with these habitats. As I have said elsewhere, it is like building expensive houses in which no one lives. Parts of the Lake District, Shropshire, Exmoor, Dartmoor and Wales are largely devoid of many of the species that thrive on managed grouse moors, and yet the lack of positive action and public concern is notable. Indeed the RSPB’s own reserve of LakeVyrnwy, in mid-Wales – 16,000 acres of wonderful heather ground – was described recently as an ornithological desert. The woeful lack of hen harrier breeding success there is also notable – despite the fact that hen harrier’s regularly visit the area and attempt to breed. It is perhaps worth pointing out that most of the uplands of Wales are not managed for grouse, so keepers cannot be blamed for the absence of hen harrier’s there.

      I have spent considerable time on Dartmoor, where the wager populations continued to fall and are now on the verge of extinction. Despite this, there is no evidence of any co-ordinated recovery plan, just a tacit admission that there appears to be a problem.

      The Dartmoor National Park Conservation Officer is advised by the RSPB and others that the paucity of waders, raptors and other species is due to inferior habitat. Yet, whereas some areas are particularly affected by overergrazing, there are also substantial tracts of land which could easily support good populations of moorland birds. Once again, compare this to parts of the Pennines, where in many areas, despite degraded habitat, there is a plethora of birds thriving off the lack of managed grouse moors.

      It is not altogether surprising therefore, that this perceived inertia by the conservation bodies, combined with constant sniping at Grouse management from certain quarters, creates such a degree of anger and scepticism amongst owners and keepers alike. This friction does not advance the cause of the hen harrier one jot.

      Biodiversity appears to be the hook on which everyone attempts to hang their Upland conservation hat, but, quite frankly, reading some of the interpretations I can only come to the conclusion that their sole objective is to reduce everything to the lowest common denominator. Muddled thinking prevails. One moment the prime objective appears to be as wide a selection of species - albeit at a very low density – over as wide an area as possible, but the next moment, the high density of waders (10,000 pairs) breeding in the North Pennines is being carolled.

      I see no reason why there should not be centres of excellence within the uplands range, where certain species, such as waders and grouse, thrive more than others, such as crows. After all, there is no reason why different priorities could not be given on the non-grouse moors, thus accommodating an abundance of some other species.

      Returning to the key question of hen harriers. Clearly, all predators are a potential threat to the shootable surplus of red grouse, which is of course, the economic dynamo that drives the management of these upland estates. However, as I have already mentioned, there is growing evidence that, in the absence of judicious predator control, many other species would be reduced to unacceptably low levels, regardless of the state of the habitat.

      The major predators are the corvids, the mustelids, foxes and raptors. All of these are common throughout the United Kingdom and are not remotely threatened by keepers. The one major exception appears to be the hen harrier which, unchecked, is capable of reducing grouse numbers to a point where shooting is no longer possible (i.e. Langholm). Most raptors were given legal protection at a time when they posed no threat to rural livelihoods. That has changed as raptor populations have soared, but we must accept that the low status of the hen harriers demands the need to restore it to a level at least to that at which it will exist if there was no managed grouse shooting.

      What is becoming increasingly clear is that the hen harrier’s failure to nest successfully is not restricted solely to the grouse moors, so the challenge of re-establishing this bird cannot fall exclusively at the door of moor owners and keepers. All those with responsibility for upland management will need to play their part. Unsurprisingly, grouse moor owners and keepers feel particularly aggrieved when the finger of criticism is constantly pointed at them, when others are failing to produce harriers on their own ground.

      The latest campaign to encourage hen harrier numbers seems to entail flexing the new powers afforded to the countryside agencies under the 2000 Countryside and Rights of Way act (Prosecution and Custodial Sentencing). This seems a crude and undignified way of threatening those who have done most to preserve heather ecosystems, but who will have a genuine problem with one species. How much more sensible to work to people’s strengths, rather than their weaknesses. It sometimes seems that certain organisations are caught up in the thrill of the chase, to the detriment of partnership and progress.

      It will be interesting to know if “sanctions” will be taken against those non-governmental organisations that spend huge sums of public money to manage upland areas, but are failing to deliver in terms of upland-bird species; a freeze on all grants perhaps, until there are marked signs of improvement?

      No wonder denies that persecution is part of the reason why the hen harrier population remains at such a low level. However, moor owners and keepers remain fearful that, if harrier numbers increase beyond a certain level, grouse numbers would be compromised to a point where owners would no longer be inclined to invest in the uplands and gamekeepering skills would be lost. Should this situation occur - and there are signs that this is already happening - then it would lead to a collapse of many moorland species and do nothing to enhance the status of the hen Harrier.

      The real challenge, therefore, is to devise a scheme that gives owners and keepers the confidence to know that, should harriers reach a certain high density, there would be a control mechanism. The people whose livelihoods depend upon grouse need to know that, by helping to preserve hen harriers, they are not simply cutting their own throats.

      The Langholm experiment shows how hen harrier numbers can rise dramatically on the back of a keepered estate. However, as a direct consequence of their success, the owners were eventually forced to stop keepering as a grouse numbers were reduced to a level that made the operation totally unviable. The area was designated as a special protection area (SPA), largely because of the hen harrier density, and yet, because of the harriers, four keeping jobs were lost and £150,000 direct annual expenditure – not to mention a much greater indirect sum – fell out of the local economy.

      Subsequently, harrier numbers have declined from 22 pairs at their peak down to 2 breeding pairs this year – exactly the same as when the experiment started. The grouse numbers remain at rock bottom, and I am now reliably informed that the wader populations have also collapsed. It could be argued that Langholm no longer justifies its SPA designation. As for the much vaunted concept of ego-tourism, there are now fewer birds to entice visitors than before. So much for sustainability…

      Certain solutions are being espoused by the RSPB and others as the way forward. Buffer feeding is heralded as being one way of reducing the impact of predation on grouse chicks by providing an alternative food source (i.e. dead rats and mice) for the hen harrier.

      However, the scientists who carried out the research showed that while buffer feeding did reduce the number of grouse that were killed, there was no improvement in the level of chick survival, or the stocks of grouse in either the following autumn or spring. It is conceivable that buffer feeding could play a part in resolving the conflict, but, as the scientists concluded, more work is required to establish the validity of its usefulness. To say, as has been claimed, that buffer feeding currently offers a practical solution is simply untrue.

      Another suggested solution is to manipulate the habitat through reducing sheep numbers, so increasing the heather sward at the expense of the grasses. These harbour voles and meadow pipits, which represent the principal food source of the harrier.

      However, reducing sheep numbers is generally not an option, and is not always desirable for a host of reasons. Also, most moors in England and Wales will always retain a heather/grass mix, even in the absence of sheep. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, biodiversity requires a mosaic of habitat, and to attempt to instigate a monoculture of heather would be distinctly counter-productive.

      We seem, therefore, to have reached an impasse, where it is illegal to manage a schedule one bird, even if by doing so, its long-term survival in our heavily modified, actively managed ecosystem could be assured.

      The law governing the European Bird Directive is actually more flexible than some would have us believe. Article 9 allows derogation “when there is no other satisfactory solution… for the protection of flora and fauna”. Indeed, in Sweden, licences are granted to keepers to catch, and sometimes even kill, problem raptors.

      The RSPB is dismissive of the problems caused by an over-abundance of raptors in certain circumstances. The organisation chants the mantra that moor owners and keepers must come to terms with hen harriers within the existing law. I believe that this is a simplistic and irresponsible attitude to a genuine problem. Everyone with a stake in the uplands must work together to find a way forward that ensures a healthy future for the hen harrier, but does not compromise the great wealth of bird life that exists on the back of the grouse moor owner and keeper, or the very sizeable sums of money that are generated for the local economy.

      Whether it be the goshawks threatening black grouse and red squirrels, marsh harriers threatening black-tailed godwits, kestrels threatening little terns, or hen harrier’s threatening grouse and waders, flexible regimes will have to be established at the expense of rigid position statements that simply thwart progress, and prevent solutions to the real problems confronted by those at the coalface.

      The time is right for a more enlightened debate, based on the facts and free of prejudice.

The Earl Peel is a moor owner and former chairman of the Game Conservancy Trust.

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