Monday 7 October 2019


Commenting on the results of the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project, SGA Chairman Alex Hogg said: 

“Langholm is not all moors. It is an island moor fringed by forestry. Most successful moors today will join onto others, preventing the combined build up of predators and improving the chances of successful shooting, in years when breeding conditions are favourable. This is achieved through legal predator control by gamekeepers, operating at a much bigger, landscape scale.

“However, Langholm gives valuable insights into the challenges of trying to produce economic return from a moor through shooting which, in turn, finances the land management of gamekeepers which, in turn, maintains globally rare, EU priority habitats, and bolsters globally threatened bird species.

“The possibility of removing some of the predation pressure was discussed during the project, under an adaptive licence, which may have led to a different outcome. However, that was not supported and it was frustration over this which ultimately led to the project’s premature end.

“Despite the investment of over £3m of private and tax payer money, 5 gamekeepers lost their jobs and the reality is that Scotland is left, again, with a failing SPA for Hen Harriers and a silent moor rapidly losing its keystone wildlife and heather habitat. At this critical juncture, with political spotlight on grouse shooting, we now need to ask if this is a wise use of scarce resources.

“Other studies, such as in South West Scotland, have shown a similar undeniable pattern: when grouse moor management is lost or curtailed, we lose endangered wildlife, jobs and community benefit and the combined weight of research must act as a warning to decision makers.

“In order to avoid more ‘lose, lose’ scenarios such as Langholm, agencies need to look more deeply and honestly at adaptive solutions which can help protect the interests of moorland owners and conservation. 

“England currently leads, with projects such as the Hen Harrier brood management scheme. Hopefully Scotland can look at Langholm, other studies and other potential tools, and grasp the nettle to avoid similar situations in future.”

What the report said: 

Question: Would lowering the expected ‘grouse bag’ not provide an economic solution?

Answer: “Setting a lower grouse bag target would not have altered this outcome
for two reasons. First, after allowing for an average annual loss of grouse to other causes, the number of grouse able to be shot without stopping grouse population growth was limited. Shooting a bag likely to generate enough revenue to sensibly contribute toward the management costs would certainly have been unsustainable. For example, 100 brace of grouse would need to cost £150,000, or £750 per bird (over ten times an average 2019 market price) to cover 50% of the annual management cost. Secondly the target of 1000 brace shot in a year during the project was itself only just enough to attract contemporary investors who balance increasingly high risk and uncertain rewards in game management.”

Question: Would diversionary feeding not provide the key to success?

Answer: “Restoration of grouse moor management, in combination with diversionary feeding of harriers, has not yet resulted in a sufficiently increased grouse density to allow driven shooting on Langholm Moor, and thus the management to be considered economically viable.”
“Diversionary food influenced hen harrier nestling diet and reduced the number of red grouse chicks taken relative to modelled predictions. Such feeding may help reduce conflict between hen harrier conservation and red grouse shooting, but only if overall grouse productivity is thereby maintained or increased.”
Question: Is Langholm moor the same as every other grouse moor or are challenges more specific?
Answer: “On Langholm Moor, afforestation in the surrounding landscape and isolation from other heather moors may have led to a grouse population less well buffered against growing predation pressure, especially outside keepered periods. As grouse shooting could not be restored, the future management of the moor remains uncertain.” 
Question: Could better habitat not have improved grouse success?
Answer: “Despite diversionary feeding and the keepers’ predator control, the key losses of grouse still appeared to be to predators with adverse weather for chicks possibly playing a role in some years. Some 93% of grouse carcasses found showed signs of predation or scavenging (82% raptor, 8% mammal, 3% unknown predator, 7% other) and raptors were associated with 35% of grouse nesting failures. While several factors may influence these rates and their interpretation, the evidence available suggested that mortality associated with raptor signs was the most important factor determining adult survival and was closely linked, possibly alongside weather, to low rates of chick survival. 
“Habitat is important for ensuring there is the opportunity for the grouse population to expand, but as the project analysis indicated, habitat restoration alone does not improve survival or breeding success so may be insufficient to increase a population that has become constrained by high mortality associated with predation.”

Langholm, some numbers: 

  • In order to reach a financial break-even, Langholm Moor would have had to be able to shoot 3000 brace of grouse. The project target was set much more modestly at 1000 brace.
  • In 2014, 47 Hen Harrier chicks were successfully fledged from 10 nests, with none lost to predation.
  • In 2018 (after gamekeepers were removed), 3 Harrier chicks were fledged, 2 nests were predated by foxes and one nest was disturbed.
  • When gamekeepers were operating on the moor, the numbers of black grouse rose from 5 lekking males to 18.

  • When gamekeepers were operating, the moor had double figure Merlin nests. In 2018, after the gamekeepers were removed, only 1 of 9 Merlin nests hatched young, with all other nests predated. The one successful nest was in a tree.
What Head Gamekeeper Simon Lester said of the lessons of Langholm, when it comes to offering future solutions regarding the red grouse/raptor conflict.
“If a proper (species control) licensing system was in place, I believe you could almost eradicate raptor persecution. If there was more scope to manage problems legally, people would get more used to living with raptors.”
Bryan Burrows, a former grouse keeper and the SGA representative on the Langholm project steering group lives 1.5 miles from the moor. He still visits the moor regularly.
“People should see the moor now. There is little wildlife and it will get worse. When the 5 gamekeepers were on it, they did well to get the heather back because it had receded that badly. Now, since they’ve gone, there is heather beetle back on it again. There were 82 buzzards in the area when the moor was keepered. Now, when you walk, you see the odd 1 or 2. The Merlin nests have failed because of ground predation. Away from keepered areas, there are large chunks of Scotland like this now. It is actually a disgrace what has happened. It will be interesting to see if the Harriers even come back next year. When the project was running, you got the occasional party out looking at the Harriers but usually it was 4 or 5 cars parked up, containing the same people. They didn’t have to pay to do it, so I don’t know how much money can be made from tourism when Access laws make it free anyway, and there is nothing to see.”