01 June 2020

Farming, science and conservation: the story of GWSDF Auchnerran so far

Auchnerran Report 2019The first annual report has been published for the Game and Wildlife Scottish Demonstration Farm at Auchnerran, Aberdeenshire, the Scottish demonstration farm of the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust.

The farm tenancy was acquired by the Trust in 2014. The farm extends to some 417ha at a height of 180-280m above sea level and is typical of a Scottish hill edge farm. It provides the Trust in Scotland with a base for research, conservation and demonstration, with an overarching objective to run it as a viable farming enterprise whilst producing game for a small shoot and to sustain and enhance local wildlife.

Another important aspect of work at the farm is to develop potential options for Scottish agri-environment schemes for grass-dominated, hill-edge farms like Auchnerran.

Farming

To date the Trust acknowledges that this has been challenging. When the Trust took on the farm it was in a poor state (very low soil pH, poor quality grass and overgrazing, and a sheep flock that was beset with problems). The previous regime, however, had allowed wildlife to flourish by its low-intensity approach.

The farm is 70 per cent grass, with the balance being woodland, fodder and game crops, and rough ground. Its main commodity is a sheep flock, which, after lambing, is taken to the adjoining 5,000ha hill to graze until late autumn, with an important part to play in maintaining moorland habitat and controlling tick. The farm has a target flock size of 1,500 ewes plus followers. Under farm manager Allan Wright, the flock has been improved in quality, with poor stock being removed, and is expected to achieve its target next year.

Silage and brassicas are grown to support winter feeding and some fields are being limed and re-seeded to produce better silage yields and better nutrition for the flock, part of which is wintered off-farm.

Last year was also the farm’s first in the Agri-Environment and Climate Scheme, with measures implemented including fencing, which allowed more efficient grazing of many areas, and options for wildlife including wader-grazed grassland, wild bird seed for farmland birds, and forage brassica crops for farmland birds.

The shoot

The farm inherited a population of pheasants from a previous release and the intention is to sustain and encourage these now-wild birds. Numbers have unsurprisingly dropped from the previous high densities of released birds, but there are still significant numbers of wild-breeding pheasants, with the farm’s improving game cover holding up to 60 per cent of pheasants on the farm in the autumn.

The farm also has rabbits at pest levels, with other species including woodpigeon and woodcock (the latter are monitored to determine whether they can be harvested). There is therefore a good basis for development of a modest farm shoot, which can be improved through measures including habitat management, planting of game crops and seasonal feeding. No birds are put down at Auchnerran to supplement existing populations.

Research and monitoring

Science undertaken at the farm has been extensive, starting with essential baseline monitoring in the first two years to identify the wildlife present on the farm. Those initial surveys showed a wide array of invertebrates, game, breeding and wintering birds, mammals and reptiles – the legacy of years of low-intensity farming but ongoing predation control associated with our neighbouring grouse moor.

All breeding birds are counted every year, with 2019 showing a fall in abundance, and 15 of 27 species declining. It is thought this might reflect harsh and variable weather conditions through 2018/19 or may be in response to changes being made on the farm. However, brown hare numbers were up almost 50 per cent in 2019 vs 2018.

Other research projects have covered rabbits, of which the farm had an estimated population of some 20,000 in 2014, and measures to reduce this are ongoing. Tick numbers are also monitored on the hill using tick counts on the sheep and a sample of hares.

Waders and thrushes are the focus of significant work. Waders (lapwing, curlew, oystercatcher and woodcock) breed in impressive numbers on the farm, and work is ongoing investigating the drivers of their productivity as well as their movements through the landscape. This includes research supported by the Working for Waders initiative into lapwing via ringing and tagging, and also tagging of curlew, which is revealing fascinating insights into their habitat use and where they spend the winter.

Surveys of thrushes (blackbird, song thrush and mistle thrush) have shown that they too are more abundant at Auchnerran than elsewhere in the vicinity, with greater productivity.

Auchnerran has also been the Scottish base for the EU LIFE Laser Fence project being undertaken with European partners and Liverpool John Moores University, with trials focusing on deterring rabbits and rats from protected areas.

Dr Dave Parish, Head of Scottish Lowland Research, Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, says: “There are too many highlights to mention individually, but our report gives all the detail of much of our work on the farm over the previous year, with an overview of activity from the outset. I’m delighted to say the farm is now in the black thanks to the efforts of the farm manager, Allan Wright, and the rest of the team. It’s important to remember this is a real farm, not a nature reserve, and that the farm business has to make its own way with no subsidy from the Trust at all.

“Crucially, the farm gives us an absolutely fantastic resource to explore the science of where farming, game management and conservation interests intersect. It gives us a base to demonstrate not just what we are doing but also what can be done. In 2019 alone we hosted 172 individuals on the farm from 52 different organisations covering the farming and land-owning sectors, NGOs, policy influencers, statutory bodies, research organisations, and MPs and MSPs.

“Our ambition remains the same as at the outset – to protect and sustain existing stocks of waders and other species whilst improving the status and profitability of the farming enterprise and, in the process, to show others what we are doing.”

The GWSDF Auchnerran Annual Report can be viewed/downloaded here.


Notes to editors

The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust is an independent wildlife conservation charity which carries out scientific research into Britain’s game and wildlife. We advise farmers and landowners on improving wildlife habitats. We employ 22 post-doctoral scientists and 50 other research staff with expertise in areas such as birds, insects, mammals, farming, fish and statistics. We undertake our own research as well as projects funded by contract and grant-aid from Government and private bodies. The Trust is also responsible for a number of Government Biodiversity Action Plan species and is lead partner for grey partridge and joint lead partner for brown hare and black grouse.

For information, contact:

Playfair Walker
Telephone: 0131 445 5570
Email: richard@playfairwalker.com

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