22 July 2019

New study reveals huge decline in bird species when grouse management ends

Red grouse PT 2

ENDING grouse moor management risks declines - and possible local extinctions - of a range of ground-nesting bird species, a new study has revealed.

Published by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), the new research looks at the impact of stopping grouse management on birds such as curlew, golden plover, lapwing, black grouse, hen harrier and merlin in the south west of Scotland.

Its conclusions are drawn from studies in two Special Protection Areas, Muirkirk & North Lowther Uplands and Langholm/Newcastleton Hills (which will shortly be the subject of a report from the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project). A Special Protection Area (SPA) is a designation under the EU Directive on the Conservation of Wild Birds. Under the Directive, member states have a duty to safeguard the habitats of migratory birds and certain particularly threatened bird species.

Among the key findings in the report are;

  • Red grouse bags have declined, with 42% of 31 moors now no longer shooting red grouse.
  • Increases in the numbers of hen harriers during the keepered phase of the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project contrasted with a collective decline in other SPAs in south west Scotland where there was almost no grouse keepering
  • The numbers of black grouse attending leks declined by 80% during an approximate 15-year period from the early 1990s onwards. However, twice as many lekking males found where gamekeepers were employed to provide driven grouse shooting.
  • In Muirkirk & North Lowther Uplands, where keeping has sharply declined, an 84% drop in golden plover population, 88% drop in lapwing and 61% drop in curlew.

The research mirrors an equivalent study carried out in north Wales which examined the end of grouse moor management within the Berwyn SPA. That research showed a local extinction of lapwing, 90% loss of golden plover and a 79% reduction in curlew between 1983-5 and 2002 (Warren & Baines 2014). Over the same period, substantial increases in carrion crows, ravens and buzzards were noted.

Dr Siân Whitehead, lead author of the newly published report, said: “The declines in moorland birds may be attributed to changes in land-use, including afforestation and agricultural intensification or abandonment, as well as a decline in the extent of grouse moor management. The impact of the latter is clearly illustrated in both case studies, in which significant drops in ground-nesting moorland birds happened in tandem with evident declines in levels of keepering.

“The findings demonstrate that existing funding schemes for managing moorland birds are clearly not working. Urgent implementation of measures, which include both habitat management and predator control at an appropriate scale and intensity are needed to prevent further declines, and possible local or regional extinctions, of ground-nesting moorland bird species.”

Moorland representatives said the findings illustrated the value of the land management conducted by gamekeepers and estates.

Tim Baynes, Moorland Director of Scottish Land & Estates, said: “Few other land uses provide the outstanding biodiversity benefits that grouse moor management does. From curlew to black grouse to hen harriers, all see population declines where keepering is withdrawn. The exceptional land management is paid for privately by grouse shooting and where huge bird declines have occurred in south west Scotland, we would like to see Government support  the return of red grouse management which would help to fulfil its obligations to rare and threatened species.”

Alex Hogg, chairman of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, said: “There are some who suggest grouse moors only support grouse and nothing else. This is proof that this notion is not only incorrect, the opposite is true. Where gamekeepers are not managing moorland, we are witnessing the tragic loss of globally threatened species. When calls are being made for grouse shooting to be restricted, everyone needs to think carefully about the species declines that would occur across the rest of Scotland; declines which have evidently already taken place in the south west.”

Read the report in full here Changes in the abundance of some ground-nesting birds on moorland in South West Scotland

Notes to Editors

GWCT’s report on the Berwyn SPA is available to read here:


Further detail from the new studies at Muirkirk & North Lowther Uplands and Langholm/Newcastleton Hills:-

Muirkirk and North Lowther Uplands SPA

Moorland transect surveys at Muirkirk and Garpel covering 2 periods (1994 and 2009/2017)- when gamekeepers managed the moors for red grouse and when they did not- showed a decline in Curlew abundance of 38 percent, associated with the cessation of grouse shooting at Muirkirk.

Golden Plover (a species for which the SPA status still applies) and Redshank were no longer found at Muirkirk after gamekeepers were off the moor. Lapwing and Snipe observations halved from the time keepers were there and when they were not. 

At Garpel, repeat surveys after gamekeepers left, failed to find any Waders at all. Garpel was previously described as one of the most favourable sites in Britain for Golden Plover.

Upland Bird Surveys at Muirkirk, from the early 80s to 2015 showed an 84 percent decline in Golden Plover, an 88 percent decline in Lapwing and a 61 percent decline in Curlew.

“Thus, waders and harriers declined in parallel with those of red grouse once levels of moorland management by gamekeepers had been reduced.”

Langholm-Newcastleton Hills SPA

On Langholm Moor where grouse moor management took place in two phases, Hen Harriers peaked at 20 breeding females in 1997. After the gamekeepers were removed in 2000, the breeding Harriers dropped by 61 percent. When the gamekeepers went back on the moor again in 2008, breeding female Harriers increased again to 12 in 2014 before the project was wound up.

No Harrier chicks were lost to predation during the second phase of the Langholm Moor Demonstration project although they were seen on nest camera being predated again after keepering stopped for the second time. 

When it was being managed for grouse, the Langholm-Newcastleton Hills SPA boasted Hen Harrier breeding success more than twice that of the Muirkirk and North Lowther Uplands SPA or Glen App and Galloway Hills SPAs (both designated for Hen Harriers), where no grouse management occurs.

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