Wednesday, 23 August 2017

RESPONSE TO WALKHIGHLANDS ARTICLE - ANOTHER PERSPECTIVE ON GROUSE


Earlier this week, the popular walking website Walkhighlands published a blog 'primer' article by David Lintern on grouse shooting (you can see the original article, here). https://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/news/the-numbers-game-a-grouse-moor-primer-for-hillwalkers/0016780/

The SGA Committee has responded to the article, with a post on the Walkhighlands forum. Please see the reply, in full, below. 


I write in reply to David Lintern’s blog post ‘The Numbers Game- a grouse moor primer for walkers’. 

David makes a manful attempt to get to grips with the endless politics surrounding grouse shooting, which is no easy task. Anyone tackling it deserves congratulations for even starting.

There are some points which do require another perspective if walkers taking to the moors are to receive a rounded account of the many issues.

To an extent, David is correct when he talks about grouse and numbers, or volume. Numbers are critical to rural businesses survival, whether canoe hire companies angling for leisure customers or livestock farmers. Grouse moor managers are no different. Businesses take steps to ride out financial gullies, maximising in the good times, knowing it may not always be thus, and they need to study the balance sheet keenly in leaner times. The farmer may sell more cattle in a down cycle or raise the head of cattle in peak times. From time to time, we could all do with making a human effort to walk in the shoes of those trying to operate any successful rural business in the present environment.

There are big, small and medium grouse moors across Scotland, just like in other market models. Those who tend to see the moor as their primary commercial concern will look at how they can minimise the blips which come with the management of a wild quarry on a high hillside in indefinite Scottish weather which will be all too familiar to readers of this (Walkhighlands) blog. If an estate has other primary interests, it may make a decision to devote more investment to its tourism or forestry offering and will plough less cash resource into the management of the moor and employ fewer gamekeepers. 

There is an implication in David’s article that running the business of grouse shooting in a way which brings the benefits of upscaling and investment is questionable. This deserves greater analysis at a time when other industries are trying hard to encourage investment and growth. 

A recent survey of 7 regional moorland groups highlighted the amount of money grouse estates in Scotland spend in their local communities. The fact that, across Scotland, a grouse estate will spend, averagely, over £500 000 in the downstream economy before a shot is fired, was well covered in the media. What was less reported was the fact that some of the larger commercial estates were spending up to 4 times that amount, employing more gamekeepers and shepherds to manage the moors, and were investing far bigger sums in infrastructure projects. 

Numbers are important in these communities, as David states, and it important to look at the whole picture of how these communities might sustain themselves in the absence of grouse shooting, which David touches upon eloquently at the end of his piece.

Importantly, that financial injection into trades and businesses continues, whether there is any grouse shooting or not - and, yes, there are seasons when there is not, whether due to bad weather at breeding time, disease, predation or combinations of all of these, coupled with sheer bad luck.

David mentions management interventions which are designed to help ride out the blips, such as using medicated grit to prevent disease outbreaks. There are guidelines as to the use of medicated grit. It must be signed off by a veterinarian and the new design of coating, mentioned by David, makes it a product no less reliable or environmentally secure as any other form of standard cattle wormer.
We need to ask ourselves whether this is objectionable, or whether it is a reasonable price, to give the moor owner at least some confidence in a harvestable surplus which will allow some ‘let days’ for visiting shooters, and some income.

Many moor owners may be wealthy individuals and, for some reason be scorned for that, but no business can sustain upwards of half a million of losses indefinitely, and keep employment, without recouping some cash from shooters, rich or otherwise. At the very least, there might be some sympathy for a moor owner trying to manage her/his estate, using those legal interventions afforded them, so that they didn’t have to lay off gamekeeping or office staff every time there was the reality of a poor season.

David’s comments regarding muirburn impacting seriously on air quality are not backed by consistent science. According to a 2006 paper by Buchanan GM, Grant MC, Sanderson RA, Pearce-Higgins JW, ‘The Contribution of Invertebrate Taxation moorland bird diets and the potential implication of land-use management’, states: “So far, research has produced inconsistent evidence, with predictions, including both positive and negative effects of burning.”
Similarly, David’s assertion that grouse moors are drained to maximise grouse is factually incorrect. In what has been proved to be a short-sighted prescription, government subsidies were given out in the 60s and 70s for moorland ditching or ‘gripping’ for agricultural reasons as part of the ‘more food from our own resources’ programme. Often wrongly criticised, present grouse moor owners are actually at the vanguard of blocking these historic drainage ditches and reversing that oversight, with over 120 hectares of the North Pennines moors being ‘re-wetted’ as well as significant areas of upland Scotland.

The original article talks about predator control and rightly so. It is a key element of grouse moor management. There tends, however, to be a considerable degree of dishonesty about controlling predators in this country. For example, the original article talks of ‘eradication’ yet few people question the fact that Scottish Wildlife Trust has been running a successful grey squirrel eradication programme in Scotland for some years, to revive the native red. SNH and RSPB are about to attempt to access £3m of public money to eradicate stoats on Orkney for conservation reasons. The control, but not eradication, of stoats and other abundant predators by gamekeepers is not only a service, delivered free, benefiting game birds. The same reason it is being considered for Orkney is why it is undertaken on moorland, with proven results. Britain’s biggest conservation priority, the Curlew, is found to breed up to three times better on moors managed by gamekeepers than elsewhere. Predator control may not always be palatable to everyone but the truth is most conservation organisations in the UK today will also carry out some degree of predator control (and sometimes controlled muirburn) even if they won’t want to shout too much about it for fear of prigging membership sensibilities.

The article speaks of there being no data for standalone subsidies given to grouse moors in Scotland. Moors, like other holdings, may receive subsidies for tree planting or projects such as creating habitat for black grouse but there is no standalone subsidy for red grouse management in this country. David is correct in his assertion that grouse moor management is a ‘manipulated system’ but care needs to be taken here because most land-based industries are. Forestry and woodland regeneration has, within its business model, an increasing reliance on the killing of deer out of season and all year round to protect the crop, as well as the culling of mountain hares which also damage young trees. All ‘crops’ depend on some form of environmental and economic trade-off.

David is right to point to raptor persecution as a blot. There is no hiding this or any attempt to. Much is being done to root this out and much more will have to be done, although the sustained reductions in illegal poisonings do point to progress, as does the recent return of the golden eagle to favourable status. The Hen Harrier faces an uncertain plight, as mentioned, yet persecution on moors is not the sole problem facing the bird, nationally, even if it remains a genuine concern and headline grabber. For many years Harriers have also been failing on Special Protection Areas established for their safety and are struggling also on mainland reserves, where there is no grouse shooting. The role of predators and weather merits deeper analysis but partnership working between conservation bodies and shooting estates, rather than the erection of barriers, is likely to be the best hope for the Harrier in the years to come.

David concludes his article by suggesting that grouse shooting’s number is up and that grouse shooting is not remotely sustainable in environmental terms.
There are certainly some individuals, celebrities and organisations who would clearly like nothing more. Indeed, some activist groups are sustained by their opposition to the shooting community. However, equally the question must also be asked whether NOT having grouse shooting is sustainable in environmental and economic terms and David, rightly, points to the need for campaigners to develop alternatives, rather than simply denounce. Without shooting to provide the income to cover moorland management, who cares for the globally rare heather moorlands and the species which rely upon it? Someone will have to, and likely at a significant public cost. These moorlands support biological communities found only in the UK and contains 18 species of European or international importance, with the 1992 Rio Convention on Biodiversity ratifying the global importance of UK heather moorland.

When grouse shooting stopped in Berwyn in Wales, designated as an SPA for Hen Harriers, merlin, peregrine, red kite and upland waders in 1998, studies were undertaken to examine the impact of lack of management by gamekeepers on moorland species. Between 1983-5 and 2002, lapwing were lost, golden plover declined 90 percent and Curlew declined 79 percent. While Buzzard and Peregrine numbers increased, Hen Harriers numbers dropped 49 percent, which perhaps explains the earlier point about the role of predation. Black grouse numbers declined by 78 per cent. On the one remaining moor with a full-time gamekeeper, Ruabon Moor, black grouse numbers increased tenfold, with 200 males in Spring. Red grouse management techniques are being reintroduced slowly, assisted by public money from the Welsh Government, in order to bring about the proven benefits which will help return the birdsong to moors now sadly quieter.

Similar projects are happening in Northern Ireland. Only this week, red-listed Curlew were reported to have bred succesfully at Glenwherry Farm for the first time in 20 years. This is a site where the Irish Grouse Conservation Trust are working with farmers, conservationists and public agencies to benefit hill wildlife through integrated management, with red grouse management a major plank.

No system is ever perfect and cannot be improved. The land is dynamic and encounters threats and challenges. However, those taking to the hills should be aware that not all campaigners are right and all land managers are wrong. Scotland’s lauded landscape is a managed landscape and has been for many centuries. It is a land for communities and life as well as leisure and tourism and ought to be respected for both, with understanding on both sides.

Kenneth Stephen on behalf of The Scottish Gamekeepers Association Committee.