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Claws out on a silent moorland
A heated battle rages over the birds of prey threatening
to destroy Britain's grouse
Columnist, The Times
Filed 27 Aug 05
This article, originally published in
The Times 25th August 2004, is reproduced
with the kind permission of its author and the newspaper.
The article is highly relevant to the
report published in July 2005
by the Game Conservancy Trust (1)
Langholm Moor is a wild and beautiful place, high
in the Scottish Border hills. From its topmost point you can see
across into England and the Lakeland peaks. There are 25,000 acres
of heather moorland here and not a human being to be seen. You might
expect a place like this to be rich in wildlife - to see larks,
pipits, ring ouzels, golden plover, even some rarer birds such as
hen harriers or peregrine falcon, and, of course, to hear the sharp
go-back go-back of the red grouse.
But Langholm is a silent moor. In the course of
a morning spent walking over its springy turf last month, we heard
just two grouse calling, saw a bare minimum of small birds, listened
in vain for the sound of curlew or lapwing. It was a depressing
experience. For this was once one of the finest grouse moors in
Britain, an estate where bags of up to 5,000 a year were once recorded,
and where a multiplicity of wild birds could be observed.
It is today a conservationist's nightmare. What
has happened here has nothing to do with pollution or with human
persecution. Langholm is a Special Protection Area under British
and European legislation and has been the subject of a unique experiment
to preserve the hen harrier, a beautiful and powerful bird of prey
almost non-existent in England and Wales.
Twelve years ago, the Duke of Buccleuch and his
son the Earl of Dalkeith, who own the land, ordered their gamekeepers
to allow the harrier to breed unimpeded for five years while conservation
experts monitored the results.
The experiment failed dismally. The harrier is
not only a super-efficient killer, it colonises rapidly if conditions
are favourable. On Langholm, in the five years, their numbers rose
rapidly to a peak of more than 20 pairs.
The result was that the grouse on which they were
feeding were all but wiped out. Shooting had to be abandoned and
six gamekeepers were laid off or redeployed. The harriers, however,
deprived of their primary food supply, also declined rapidly. This
year just two pairs have been observed and only one has nested successfully,
a figure actually worse than before the experiment began.
To find out why this has happened, and whether
anything can be done about it, I asked the Royal Society for the
Protection of Birds, and the Game Conservancy Trust to stage a debate
on Langholm itself.
For both sides, Langholm is a difficult, even
painful, issue. For the RSPB, the idea that birds of prey, if allowed
to multiply, may wipe out other species, including small birds and
rare waders, poses a huge moral dilemma. A society devoted to the
preservation of bird life finds it hard to accept that one of its
most cherished species may have been responsible for reducing a
wildlife area to an ecological desert.
The GCT, interested in conserving game birds for
shooting, is equally embarrassed. Landowners everywhere, watching
what happened at Langholm, have adopted a zero-tolerance approach
to harriers. In England, the great grouse moors of Yorkshire and
Lancashire are now virtually devoid of them, and numbers are dropping
also on Scottish moors.
As a result, police, encouraged by the RSPB, have
launched a campaign called Operation Artemis, to stamp out illegal
persecution. The tension has never been so bitter.
Solving the problem, however, is vital for both
sides. The RSPB agreed to put up two of their most senior officials
- Stuart Housden, head of the organisation in Scotland, and Mark
Avery, director of conservation. The GCT, for its part, sent one
of their top scientists, Stephen Tapper, and David Baines, who is
carrying out survey work on the moor. Neither side had met officially
at Langholm since the so-called Joint Raptor Study ended in 1997,
and though it is Scottish Natural Heritage which monitors the moor,
these two bodies hold the key, not only to its future, but the whole
vexed issue of raptors and their prey.
We met at the Buccleuch estate office in the small
village of Langholm, where Mark Oddy, the estate manager, briefed
us on the latest position. It was not encouraging. A recent SNH
report showed that the number of all birds, large and small, was
down but also that, because there were no longer gamekeepers on
the moor, the habitat heather - which has to be regularly burnt
back - was also in decline.
The first revelation was to find how much common
ground exists between the two sides. Both conceded that the huge
increase in harrier numbers and then their rapid decline had caught
them by surprise. Both agreed that the absence of gamekeepers was
a setback. Both were at one in wanting to see both grouse and shooting
restored at Langholm.
"The Joint Raptor Study rocked us back
on our heels in terms of the impact that birds of prey were having
on the grouse population," said Tapper. "The target
number is 13 pairs, which seems an unsustainable number."
His colleague, David Baines, agreed: "I thought the decline
would have ceased or slowed, but it's getting worse and worse. This
morning I didn't see a single grouse."
For the RSPB, Mark Avery made an important concession:
"There is no quibbling about the fact that the numbers of
raptors that developed here made driven grouse-shooting uneconomic,
and finished it off as a going concern," he said.
As we drove out onto the Langholm heights, another
surprising fact emerged. The RSPB, an organisation dedicated to
the well-being of birds, is actually in favour of shooting. Or rather,
it accepts that a well-managed grouse moor, where keepers control
vermin such as foxes and crows, is ultimately to the benefit of
all wild birds, including the harrier. "It would be rather
strange if a well-managed grouse moor did not have grouse, but we
accept that good keepering affects a range of other species as well,"
Both he and Housden were united, however, in condemning
gamekeepers who destroy the nests of harriers or kill adult birds.
So how do you persuade landowners and their keepers not to "control",
harriers, when the Langholm experiment so clearly demonstrates that
these birds of prey, allowed to breed freely, will destroy grouse
stocks and put an end to the sport which sustains employment on
the moors? This is the heart of the matter, and here serious disagreements
began to emerge.
For Tapper, the answer seemed clear: there should
be a quota system for harriers, with grouse-moor owners accepting
that they must tolerate, say, two or three pairs of harriers, in
return for an understanding that they will be allowed to move them
on if numbers rise above that, perhaps relocating the young to areas
such as Dartmoor and Exmoor which have no harriers at all. "Owners
need to be reassured that their moors can be managed in such a way
that guarantees their future," he said. He made the point
that landowners would be more likely to co-operate if they could
see that the harrier problem was being addressed proactively by
the RSPB, rather than finding themselves under constant attack for
Neither of the RSPB men accept the idea of relocating
harriers, though moving birds of prey from one area to another has
been done - witness the introduction of sea eagles and red kites.
That would, said Housden, be in breach of European Commission directives
(a matter of hot dispute between both sides) and unlikely to work.
For them, the way ahead is "diversionary
feeding,", whereby harriers are fed dead rats to blunt their
appetite for grouse. "We think it's promising,"
said Avery, "because it potentially leads to a situation
where you have hen harriers tolerated on a grouse moors and are
not removing the shootable surplus of grouse. It looks like a win-win
He said that when the scheme was briefly tried
out at Langholm it showed that the number of grouse chicks eaten
by harriers was reduced by 86 per cent. On the other hand, he had
to concede that there was no resulting increase in grouse numbers:
"You had hen harriers on the moor eating very few grouse,
but the strange thing was that it did not lead to an increase in
the number of grouse."
Tapper said that most landowners were unconvinced
it would work. "It's not the only thing we should be doing
and we shouldn't hang around for several years doing nothing,"
he said. "We've got to do a number of other things as well."
He urged the RSPB to look again at the idea of "relocating",
harriers if necessary.
But there, on the Langholm heights, devoid of
wildlife, and without employment, we met an impasse. The RSPB continues
to insist that diversionary feeding must be properly tried out before
anything else is attempted. They want to see a few "brave"
landowners prepared to allow dead rats to be deposited on their
moors so that hen harriers can be diverted from their natural prey.
So far, no one has stepped forward.
The RSPB says it has gone a long way towards addressing
the issue of birds of prey, in defiance of many members. "You
are not recognising how far we, as an organisation, have come,"
said Housden. "Most of our members would say: 'It's an outrage,
you shouldn't be talking to these people.' But we are prepared to
work with landowners. We are a bridgehead to the public, we are
a prize to be captured - and we are three-quarters of the way along
Despite this olive branch, the RSPB's position
seems, to a layman like myself, illogical. If Langholm is anything
to go by, feeding harriers with a guaranteed supply of dead animals
is likely to boost numbers to the point where they would simply
pose a renewed threat to the grouse. And, to me, the idea of redressing
the balance of nature by shipping in thousands of dead rats is not
only absurd but repugnant.
Where would the process end and who would pay
for it? Even if the grouse population did stabilise, presumably
the harriers would simply revert to attacking grouse as soon as
the rat supply ended. Diversionary feeding looked merely like a
way of postponing a final decision.
One thing, however, did emerge clearly from our
day on the moor. A state of war between the two sides is bad news
for the very birds that need protecting. What Langholm shows is
that too many harriers in one place will eliminate, not just grouse,
but other wildlife as well. The sooner the RSPB accepts the reality
of that, the quicker a solution can be found that ends illegal persecution
and wins the support of landowners and bird-lovers alike.
The alternative is that some of the wildest and
most beautiful parts of Britain will become themselves the silent
moors of the future.
Further Reading recommended by Land-Care
1. Tapper, Stephen (2005). Nature's gain. How
gamebird management has influenced wildlife conservation.
A report from the Game Conservancy Trust, July 2005.
For information how to obtain a copy see www.gct.org.uk
2. Irvine, James (2005). Contrary to what RSPB
and English Nature would have us believe, curlews are doing fine
on upland moors managed for grouse shooting.
See ENVIRONMENT Homepage, filed 24 Aug 05, www.land-care.org.uk
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