2017Search | Site Info | Site Map



Animal Health/


Land Reform









Book Reviews

Light Relief





Contact Us

Get Acrobat Reader



Back to ENVIRONMENT Homepage

Claws out on a silent moorland

A heated battle rages over the birds of prey threatening to destroy Britain's grouse

Magnus Linklater

Columnist, The Times

Filed 27 Aug 05
©Magnus Linklater

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," said Avery.

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 illegal persecution.

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 situation."

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 the path."

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.

©Magnus Linklater

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 Click Here to View