Grouse moors could hold conservation key for hen harrier recovery, claims Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust.

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PRESS RELEASE

As the start of the red grouse shooting season approaches, a new scientific study by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (1) and published in the Journal of Applied Ecology (2), identifies that the control of predators such as foxes and crows, carried out to protect red grouse, can benefit one of our most striking birds of prey – the hen harrier.

This study is the first to show how grouse moor management can help hen harrier productivity by protecting the harrier from predators and boosting its natural moorland food supply. But it highlights a conservation conundrum as high densities of harriers can prevent successful management of productive grouse moors. This has led to illegal control reducing the conservation status of this much-acclaimed bird of prey.

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Red Grouse Moor

Within the study, which was carried out between 1992 and 2007 at Langholm, a grouse moor in southern Scotland, researchers from the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust compared numbers and productivity of hen harriers in relation to a change in control of foxes and crows on the moor managed for red grouse shooting.

During this period, hen harrier numbers increased from two breeding females in 1992 to 20 birds in 1997. In 1999 grouse management and its associated predator control was stopped following the heavy losses of red grouse because of harrier predation. Carrion crows and red foxes then increased and numbers of female harriers dropped to just four from 2002 onwards with predation by foxes cited as the main cause of harrier breeding failure.

Grouse moors can bring conservation benefits not only to harriers but also to globally important heather moorland habitats and other important ground nesting birds such as lapwing, golden plover and curlew (3). If this management for grouse were to stop it could exacerbate the current declines of these internationally important upland bird species and heather moorland habitats.

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The Iconic Red Grouse, the reason why the Hen Harrier is now on the verge of extinction in England.

Despite raptors in general being protected by law in the UK since 1954, an important factor restricting the range and number of breeding harriers is probably their persecution on grouse moors to conserve grouse stocks in Scotland and northern England.

For the future benefit of the hen harrier population the study clearly identifies the importance of finding ways to ensure that grouse moors are managed for harriers while still being economically viable.

Dr David Baines, the GWCT’s Upland Director of Research and lead author of the study said, “Supported by well-documented research, it is known that hen harriers can increase to densities whereby they reduce numbers of grouse and thus cause a moor to become financially unviable.”

Dr Baines continued, “Devising techniques that can be put in place to reduce the impact of harriers on grouse would mean that harriers could breed more successfully on grouse moors where their natural predators such as carrion crows, hooded crows and red foxes, which predate clutches, chicks or even adults, are legally killed by gamekeepers on grouse moors to optimise grouse stocks.”

The study concludes that to mitigate the impact of harriers on grouse populations, several techniques are being tested. These include introducing a ‘harrier quota’ principle, which would limit the number of young harriers in an area through non-lethal means and diversionary feeding of nesting harriers with supplementary food such as dead rats or day-old poultry chicks.

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The Hen Harrier, read all about this magnificent bird in your history book along with the Doddo

Dr Baines concludes, “Successful implementation of these measures on grouse moors may be a way forward to protect hen harriers. As we have shown, the control of generalist predators by gamekeepers not only helps conserve important species of ground-nesting birds and grouse but is also beneficial for our spectacular hen harrier. The argument is compelling and dialogue between shooting and conservation bodies is crucial to ensure the future of this magnificent bird of prey. It is therefore gratifying that stakeholders on both sides of the debate have recently expressed their desires to work collectively towards finding answers.”

15 comments to Grouse moors could hold conservation key for hen harrier recovery, claims Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust.

  • David Jackson

    Just who do these idiots think they are trying to kid when they claim grouse moors hold the key to a hen harrier recovery? Have the CWCT forgotten all the hen harriers that once existed in England have been destroyed totally on grouse moors by the people who work there. This article is a disgrace in what it has ignored and is now trying to claim.

  • Coop

    A twisted view of ecolgy, from a twisted bunch of people, who try to dress up the sterilisation of ecosystems as “conservation”. This ludicrous diatribe conveniently ignores the fact that in the absence of grouse shooting, Hen Harrier populations would be at levels which could absorb natural predation. These people are obsessed with the discredited idea that the existance of a given organism is dependent on the eradication of it’s predators by humans.

  • John Shields

    The comments here reflect a serious level of ignorant prejudice on the issue of game and wildlife and the work of the GWCT. The GWCT has done a huge amount to promote biodiversity across the UK over the years, including dealing with the illegal killing of raptors, and its work is precisely to prevent the sterilisation of ecosystems referred to in the earlier comment by Coop. Their research is not a ‘diatribe’ – it is conducted with the utmost scientific rigour and is peer reviewed. Just because people may not like what that research says, does not invalidate it.

    Predator control is not an evil concept – it is a necessary reaction to habitat loss and the removal of many of our naturally occurring apex predators. Indeed, contrary to Coop’s comment, in the absence of game shooting, we would not return to some kind of natural balance. Urban and rural development, combined with industrial farming and habitat fragmentation, put paid to that vision.

    People may not like grouse shooting – it is a perfectly valid ethical decision if someone does not want to eat meat or kill animals at all – but the fact of the matter is that many of our most cherished species, hen harriers included, are on the verge of extinction in the UK, and ONLY occur in those areas that carry out predator control programmes, usually as part of a game shooting operation. The purpose of this is not to kill foxes and crows per se, but to achieve some kind of a manageable balance where species do not become threatened. That will come at a cost to those species – like foxes and crows – that thrive in an anthropogenic environment. But this is a battle of balance and species survival, not of individuals, and people should not get overly sentimental about predator control, because this stands in the way of rational decision making on the issue.

    Humans have created the imbalances over the years, and – if we want to redress some of those evils – only a science-led and dispassionate approach is going to help the countryside recover. The GWCT’s work is central to that, and I would recommend people set aside their dislike of game shooting for a few minutes, and take a look at what work the GWCT actually does. Even those naturally opposed to game shooting will find some aspects to rejoice in – see http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/nature/nature_studies/once-upon-a-time-in-a-land-before-pesticide-wildlife-was-so-abundant-8576870.html

    Editor’s comment, thanks John much apprreciate your comments. We are sure what you had to say will stimulate additional comments. Editor

  • john miles

    Scientific work in the UK and the world is aimed at the people who pay the money and in this case, it is the owners of the Red Grouse moors. Ravens were seen taking harrier eggs at Langholm but I see no mention of the fact in your response. The damage to the SSSI by the present scheme at Langholm is a disgrace. By removing habitat to create heather is removing the biodiversaty allowing the harriers more chance to feed on Red Grouse. The big increase in Hen Harriers in Scotland like Orkney [100+ breeding females]is away from Red Grouse moors not on them. The only decrease is due to shooting estates killing the birds. No shoot wants Hen Harriers or Short eared Owls any where near the moor from 12th August onwards as they might disrupt a drive

  • Circus maxima

    Sorry John…but the 5% of Harrier population I know best gets on very well in the complete absence of both grouse shooting and predator control.

    However in the other significant populations which I look at, where there is grouse shooting and predator control, the harriers are barely surviving.
    Its not strange it is a scientifically proven fact.

  • Coop

    The hypocrisy of Mr Shields is all too evident. He lectures us on “balances” and “imbalances” while his pals in the shooting industry manipulate habitats on a daily basis, to ensure that quarry populations reach unnaturally high levels; which, ironically, may lead to increases in generalist predators! The G”W”CT may be able to fool some gullible folk, by tacking the word “wildlife” into their title, but this shoddy attempt to hijack the Hen Harrier issue, in order to justify the abuse of our natural heritage, is beneath contempt. I’d like to say this to them in person at the Birdfair. But, of course, they only showed up for a couple of years, before realising that they weren’t welcome!

  • paul williams

    2 years and still no breeding Hen Harriers in Bowland. Only 1 successful Peregrine Falcon this year….Biodiversity my arse.

  • Steve

    Following the death of the Earl of Sefton in the 1970’s gamekeepers on his estates at Abbeystead faced an uncertain future. In the period leading up to the sale of the estate to the Duke of Westminster several years later, predator control was placed on the back burner,in fact many estate gamekeepers stayed at home instead of undertaking the duties they had been employed to carry out. As a direct consequence of this lax behaviour predators normally kept in check exploded. Hen harriers numbers on the estate burgeoned to at least twelve breeding females. Species considered vermin together with hen harriers only began to decline after the new owner had purchased the estate.

    This scenario just goes to show the hen harrier is able to flourish under such circumstances despite of what Mr Shields claims.

  • Is everyone not considering, absolutely, the wrong problem here? It seems to me that the “conclusions” being so confidently paraded by GWCT are self-evident in many ways if, and only if , we lived in an enlightened and tolerant world!! Whatever the advice, whatever the results, the whole matter revolves around whether grouse moor owners and their keepers will accept the presence of harriers at the end of the day, regardless of whether foxes and crows have been eradicated. With the utter intolerance and prejudice which exists in that quarter, all results like this are academic in the extreme. To, at the end, be uttering platitudes urging discussion between interest groups I feel is bordering on the absurd and highly insulting. The amount of “discussion”, and accompanying expense, which has been devoted to the issue over many years is ridiculous in the extreme. Bringing those who are responsible for the absence of harriers to book, and maintaining that situation, is the only thing that will reverse this deplorable trend. Meaningful and oft repeated condemnation by the Government and conservation bodies, accompanied by targeted action deliberately aimed at the pariahs within our UK community responsible for the repeated diminution of our wildlife heritage is what is needed not research findings no-one has any intention of embracing!

  • Apologies, I left this comment off.

    Perhaps GWCT can advise in a couple of years or so, how many of its members have actually followed these conclusions and how many harriers have been reared as a result?

  • Kie

    Ahem, point of order – anyone who recalls the detail of the Langolm research project properly will recall that it was jointly funded by GWCT, SNH and, yes, the RSPB!

    So there’s little point in trying to dismiss the scientific results of a peer reviewed research project that has been funded by ‘one of your own’

  • Hugh

    “Grouse moors could hold conservation key for hen harrier recovery” claims GWCT. Well that’s stating the obvious. But the key isn’t predator control. The key would be for grouse moors to stop killing hen harriers. Simple.

    The Langholm site used for this study saw hen harrier numbers fluctuate with changes in the control of foxes and crows (see extract copied from GWCT site below). Big surprise that harriers benefited from predator/competitor release! But their population “low” (when predator control was relaxed) was four breeding pairs, living alongside foxes and corvids. Almost a functioning ecosystem! That’s four more breeding pairs than any grouse moor in the whole of England this year.

    Is that:

    a) because English grouse moors are less good at killing foxes and crows and the hen harriers can’t manage alongside the hordes of predators roaming English moors?
    b) because English grouse moors have done a better job extirpating the hen harriers?

    “Within the study, which was carried out between 1992 and 2007 at Langholm, a grouse moor in southern Scotland, researchers from the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust compared numbers and productivity of hen harriers in relation to a change in control of foxes and crows on the moor managed for red grouse shooting.

    During this period, hen harrier numbers increased from two breeding females in 1992 to 20 birds in 1997. In 1999 grouse management and its associated predator control was stopped following the heavy losses of red grouse because of harrier predation. Carrion crows and red foxes then increased and numbers of female harriers dropped to just four from 2002 onwards with predation by foxes cited as the main cause of harrier breeding failure.”

  • john miles

    Kie – I give money to this government. Is it one of our own when it wants to kill Buzzards and prevent prosecution of moorland owners! The fact that money has been given seems irelevant as John Armatage should say about his petition which is not supported by the RSPB members even though he was a member of staff.

  • harrier man

    Mr John Shields, a brief reply to your commments so where are the breeding hen harriers in England ‘your’ science is simply rhetiric easy to con the general public, your band wagon comes up with these articles every year at this time pulling the wool over our eyes i dont think so.

  • John Shields

    I am sorry if I seem to have angered people, but most of the comments in reply to me seem to be politically motivated. I don’t own a grouse moor. I don’t agree with killing raptors under any circumstances whatsoever. But I am sanguine about the need to manage (and yes, that includes killing) corvids and foxes so as to relieve pressure on other species. There is nothing intrinsically ‘better’ about a fox than a capercaillie. But one is certainly more threatened than the other. All I am suggesting is an adult discussion as to how humans can deal with the imbalances in nature that they have created over the last few thousand years – mesopredator release being king among them. I don’t think anything in my comments above is particularly controversial or deserving of the vitriol directed at it.

    Editor’s Comment. John, we appreciate and respect your views, please keep sending them to us.