Experts gather for North of England Grouse Seminar

By Dr Jennifer Brewin, GWCT Writer and Research Specialist

Adam Smith addressing the audienceThis week saw the 12th North of England Grouse Seminar in Harrogate, run by the GWCT’s Uplands Research Team. A welcome sunny relief from the winter’s wet weather met the delegates and set a positive tone for the day. Having moved to a larger venue, we were able to accommodate the high demand, and almost 200 delegates with a wide variety of backgrounds gathered to listen to the most up-to-date science around moorland management. The gamekeepers, landowners and land managers were joined by many others including vets, nature reserve managers and scientists, which meant a room with diverse expertise and different perspectives.

GWCT chairman Sir Jim Paice opened the conference with a warm welcome to all, before the programme kicked off. Talks came from GWCT staff and scientists, as well as external speakers, who between them gave updates and insight into both policy and recent scientific findings. Jim also presented Mark Oddy with a life fellowship of the GWCT in recognition of his contribution to the Werritty Review and Langholm Moor Demonstration Project.

Adam SmithDr Adam Smith started the talks by summarising the main findings of the Werritty Review into grouse shooting in Scotland, giving a useful rundown of the key points and interpretation of what it may mean for the future of grouse moor management. Describing the three Ms – muirburn, mountain hares and medicated grit – and a focus on raptor conservation, Adam called for everyone to be monitoring raptors on their moors with useful pointers as to how this might be easily adopted with techniques such as the EpiCollect system. Watch the GWCT website for more to come on this for moorland managers.

The first external speaker was Dr Beth Wells of the Moredun Research Institute, who discussed the use of medicated grit for grouse, emphasising the critical need for monitoring parasitic worm burdens before usage. Small-scale testing of shot grouse for flubendazole drug residues has begun and may become more widespread. Beth highlighted the need for funding to allow a study on measuring the degree of resistance to flubendazole by strongyle worms to commence. Delegates were also very interested to hear that Moredun and the GWCT may be working on a replacement LIV vaccine.

Sonja LudwigThe GWCT’s Dr Sonja Ludwig presented the main findings of the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project. The ten-year project showed that grouse moor management benefitted some key ground-nesting birds. Diversionary feeding of harriers was associated with fewer grouse chicks being fed to harrier chicks than predicted from previous studies. Feeding alone, however, did not bring about grouse recovery, which was limited by high mortality of adults and chicks, typically associated with signs of consumption by raptors. There was good heather recovery, which may increase grouse carrying capacity, but is unlikely to mitigate against predation.

Brad Tooze from Natural England discussed their position statement, released in February 2019, which marked a change towards the end of managed heather burning on blanket bog within protected areas (SPAs and SSSIs). He acknowledged that it has created much hostility, posing a big challenge for grouse moor managers who have long used rotational burning. He assured the audience that Natural England continues to monitor new evidence and remains confident that this position statement is scientifically justified. Many in the audience challenged this view, referring to their experience on the ground and benefits to the vegetation, especially sphagnum mosses, of using cool burns to manage peatlands. Many felt that their experience was at odds with Natural England’s conclusion, and it was pointed out that although the report from 2013 on which Natural England bases its actions calls for more research, the subsequent position statement effectively prevents this taking place.

This theme stimulated much debate and discussion over lunch and was continued into the afternoon with an interesting talk from Associate Prof Andreas Heinemeyer from the University of York. Stressing the importance of long-term experiments, Andreas shared the fascinating results of his study looking at burning, cutting or no management on peatlands and the effect this has on many ecosystem services. We look forward to the project reports and papers that will follow.

Director of the GWCT Uplands Research team Dr Dave Baines then gave an encouraging presentation demonstrating the value of grouse moors to the UK curlew population, showing much higher breeding success across the UK on moorland managed for grouse compared to non-grouse moors. This difference is so marked that the results suggest curlew’s success on grouse moors may be compensating for their inability to breed well enough elsewhere, with curlew spilling over out of grouse moors to top up numbers elsewhere. For many in the room, having experienced the relative abundance of curlew on their own moors, these positive findings were very welcome and confirmed their instinct that, despite the UK curlew population having almost halved in the last 20-30 years, grouse moors may play a vital role in their future.

Dave Newborn's farewell presentationFinally, to close the conference, Dave Newborn, long-standing member of the GWCT’s Uplands team, gave what may be his final public lecture before retirement later in the year. Looking back over his 40-year career in grouse research, Dave described the development of medicated grit to treat strongylosis in grouse and help stop the cyclical crashes in numbers that had previously been typical on many grouse moors. Dave discussed cryptosporidiosis in grouse, which was first diagnosed in 2010; research into acaricide treatment of sheep to control LIV in grouse; and possible future challenges for grouse moor managers. Having spoken at all the Grouse Seminars since the series began, Dave has been a stalwart of the Uplands Research team and an integral part of the GWCT’s scientific staff.

The Chairman concluded the day by emphasising the importance of the research done by the Trust and others in helping understand ecosystem processes, in this case on upland grouse moors, that underpins the development of management solutions.

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