A proactive approach
In light of the SNP's promised Land Reform Bill, Michael Alexander argues that in order for our commercial grouse moors to survive, certain changes need to be made.
In a previous issue of Fieldsports, Mark Osborne called time to take stock on the refining of techniques in moorland management for grouse. He cites James Percy as also being mildly critical. If these two leading lights in grouse shooting circles are convinced of the need, it really is time to take action.
Mark suggests that some management techniques have lead to politicians and those employed in government agencies objecting to what they see as the “industrialisation” of grouse production and the upland landscape. These techniques have also alienated members of the public who previously had no axe to grind. Failure to reset the balance may well lead to those who wield enormous power, politicians and people inside agencies such as Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), increasing regulation in a way that will not be in the best interests of grouse moor owners and managers.
My interest lies with Scotland where there is a political will for regulation of driven grouse shooting. Why then has the grouse shooting community not sought to reset the balance and explain to politicians and members of the public what moorland management involves and the benefits associated with grouse shooting? Could it be that they are feeling comfortable following the rejection of Independence in the September referendum? If that is the case, they are making a huge mistake that could well come back to bite them in a big way.
The Independence Referendum energised the Scottish people like no other political event, with a previously unheard of turnout approaching 80 per cent. Scottish politics is going through a very dynamic period at a time, according to Mark Osborne, when UK residents are thoroughly cheesed off with their current political masters and politicians are likely to have our future, quite literally, in their hands. It is time grouse moor owners and managers followed Osborne's advice and took stock of where we are, what we are doing and what we should be doing, going forward. The Scottish Government are committed to implementing their Land Reform Bill in the current parliamentary term.
Not all Scottish politicians and agencies are anti-shooting – some recognise the benefits sport shooting brings to remote areas with fragile economies. An example of a balanced approach from government can be seen in the Wildlife and Natural Environment Act (Scotland) 2011, where section 27 introduced a code of practice on that other great issue in the Scottish uplands, deer management (Deer Code). The Deer Code sets out recommended practice for sustainable management and supports the voluntary approach. Could this be achieved in grouse management?
The code is divided into four themes:
• Protect and enhance the environment;
• Support sustainable economic development;
• Support social well-being;
• Ensure welfare is safeguarded.
Mark's article touches on a number of the environmental impacts associated with refining our management techniques and accepts that in some extreme cases, agencies have a valid point. In particular, the plethora of new roads which now grace many of the hills of Scotland can be unbelievably badly designed with no attempt to blend them into the adjoining landscape. Good access provided by hill roads is important for efficient keepering, but also for deer and livestock management, wildfire control and recreation. Other environmental impacts include excavation of peat, and muirburn (see page 96).
Peatland restoration is an important part of the Scottish Government's climate change mitigation strategy. Peatlands, besides supporting grouse shooting, keep carbon locked-up, and continue to absorb and store more. Scotland's peatlands contain almost 25 times as much carbon as all other plant life in the UK. Peatland restoration may be a significant contributor to grouse management alongside heather.
Controlled muirburn reduces the fuel load and the likelihood of the spread of wildfires. Poorly managed muirburn can lead to destruction of rare habitats, carbon emissions, impacts on water quality and creation of wildfires. A more selective approach would provide increased habitat biodiversity by leaving areas of scrub around the moorland edge, rather than managing simply in terms of forests and moors.
In her keynote speech at the Perth conference, Nicola Sturgeon stated that Scotland's future depends on a strong economy. Government agencies must now take account of sustainable economic development. Grouse moor owners and managers have failed to engage and fully promote the significant economic contribution of the activity. Referring to the number of jobs in fragile communities, number of shoot days and overnight trips is not enough.
An economic study of Scottish grouse moors: An update 2010 (undertaken by the Fraser of Allander Institute, University of Strathclyde for GWCT Scotland) indicated that grouse shooting provided a sizeable contribution to economic activity – £23.3 million to Scottish GDP – and sustained up to 1,072 jobs in remote rural areas. Interestingly, profitability of shooting had improved consistently through increases in fees since 1994. Profitability is likely to have further improved between 2010 and 2015. Estates spend the majority of their wages and supplier spending locally in Scotland. The economic study concludes that Scottish policymakers should consider engaging with the industry to secure, and potentially increase, its contribution to the Scottish economy.
Those opposed to grouse shooting address economic requirements by substituting it with eco-tourism, where keepers become rangers employed to take tourists to the hill to see the reintroduced wild species. A number of upland estates in Scotland have sought to diversify through activities such as wildlife photography and found a ready market. Other economic models would have to be developed to achieve a similar contribution to that of driven grouse shooting.
Access to Scotland's outdoors is probably the primary way in which grouse moor management can potentially upset people who have no particular axe to grind, this alienating the population at large. The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 gives some of the best access rights in the world. At the same time, the Scottish Outdoor Access Code asks for responsible behaviour from the public by:
• Minimising disturbance through being alert to the possibility of shooting taking place
• Avoiding crossing land where shooting is taking place
• Taking account of advice on alternative routes
Some moorland managers have not helped the situation by erecting fencing that crosses recognised access footpaths without adequate stiles, gates or signage, and gives the impression of an over-managed and industrialised landscape.
There has been a significant increase in the use of fencing to manage the tick burden and associated occurrence of louping ill disease in grouse. On some moors deer have been fenced out and the movement of sheep, used as tick ‘mops', controlled by fencing. Inappropriately designed and located fencing can impact on the landscape and the ability of people to access upland areas.
The use of signage, explaining where and when shooting is taking place and offering alternative access routes, helps enormously.
Welfare of all creatures that inhabit moorland is impacted by the management techniques for grouse production. Probably the greatest issue between grouse managers and bird conservationists is that of raptors. Conflict is particularly rife over the predation of grouse by harriers. Nowhere else in the northern hemisphere where both species exist does such a conflict arise.
The late Keith Erlandson, field trial aficionado and writer, wrote a piece, re-published by Country Illustrated in 2007, explaining the reasons. Erlandson's explanation is down to differences in stocking densities between the UK red grouse and willow grouse in, say, Norway. Originally, red grouse were shot over pointers and setters, as is the willow grouse today. With the advent of the breech-loading shotgun, driven red grouse shooting became fashionable, and with it the demand for bigger bags. Scotland and other parts of the UK are now genuine world leaders, with a unique product that commands a premium price and provides much needed support for rural economies.
Territories occupied by our red grouse are much smaller than the ranges of willow grouse coveys in Norway, so there are fewer broods of willow grouse to be predated. Pairs of nesting harriers working their territories will cause local shortfalls, critical to the UK but of no great consequence in Norway where the pointer continues quartering until it finds more grouse. The Langholm Moor Demonstration Project has shown that diversionary feeding can reduce predation when harrier numbers are low and their nest easily accessible, but more research is required since, alone, it has not been shown to increase numbers of young grouse (GWCT).
Defra are currently considering a draft plan to increase the hen harrier population based on brood management. Nesting hen harriers can take significant numbers of grouse to feed their own chicks. Should a harrier build a nest within 10km of another, the harrier chicks in the second nest would be temporarily removed to reduce pressure on the grouse population.
Any harrier chicks temporarily removed to aviaries would be released back to suitable habitat once fledged. This has not yet been trialled in the UK but has been successfully demonstrated in France. Brood management is an approach that can both boost the hen harrier population and give keepers the confidence to allow hen harriers to settle on driven grouse moors (GWCT).
Mark Osborne is correct in saying that moorland managers need to manage to produce a shootable surplus of grouse in the majority of years, to manage towards the highest possible standards and not merely to satisfy our short-term greed. Grouse moor owners have a real duty to utilise our natural resources in a balanced way which gives benefit today but also conserves for tomorrow.