- The evidence for many of the criticisms made of red grouse shooting is far from clear, accurate or balanced. Further research, much of it over the medium to long term, is required.
- In 2016 an international group of scientists reported their concerns that some UK organisations were presenting evidences for moorland management damage that “bear only passing resemblance” to key research findings, and they suggested much of this contextualisation of issues, such as burning, stemmed less from the evidence of the environmental effects and more from attitudes towards patterns of land ownership.
- Because heather burning takes place in small areas typically leaving over 85% unburned in a year and 65% unburnt for more than three years, many studies assessing the whole of a moor indicate an overall increase in biodiversity.
- Criticisms of burning on moorland are often driven by concerns about the potential negative impacts of this practice on the functional integrity of blanket bog and, subsequently, water quality. There remains contradictory evidence about the actual positive or negative impact of burning when longer time-scales are taken into account. More research is needed.
Water quality, flooding and carbon
- Historical records here show that many catastrophic flooding events happened in our uplands long before driven grouse shooting was invented.
- The Natural England Upland Evidence Review found “no evidence was identified specifically relating to the effect of burning on watercourse flow or the risk of downstream flood events. If there are any effects, these are likely to be highly site specific”.
- Moorland is already a key component in the delivery of drinking water. It supports our ability to meet climate change targets through carbon capture. Best practice grouse moor management contributes to these aims by maintaining heather and peat cover, ‘re-wetting’ peatland by filling in historically subsidised drainage ditches (grip blocking) and reducing burning where possible.
- A note of caution: where peat has been rewetted it will not solve downstream flooding. Fully rewetted peatland is 98% water and the water table will be so high that there would be the likelihood of rapid runoff response. Nevertheless, although opportunities for peatland restoration to modify runoff regimes are likely to be slight and uncertain, they should and are already being taken.
Causes of hen harrier mortality
- The failure in hen harrier recovery is typically ascribed to illegal killing by gamekeepers but as the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) recognises here that “Illegal killing is by no means the only factor that can impact on hen harrier populations in Britain.” A Natural England report here lists six identified causes of hen harrier nest failure; fire, persecution, predation, lack of food to provision for feeding chicks, weather and infertile eggs. Wind farms also cause mortality.
- A crude estimate of suitable hen harrier habitat indicates that 50% of this area is found outside grouse moors yet illegal killing by gamekeepers is typically ascribed solely to the lack of hen harrier recovery. See example here.
- What might happen to the mountain hares that currently thrive on grouse moors would depend on what land use replaced grouse shooting.
- The Mammal Society said: “Mountain hare numbers have declined locally where favourable habitat such as former grouse moors has been afforested or heather has been removed by excessive grazing. Young forestry plantations can support high densities of hares which sometimes cause significant damage to trees, but these high densities decline once the forest canopy closes, and the ground vegetation is diminished.”
- Our research would also suggest that without predator control and the maintenance of open moorland mountain hare numbers would fall, and likely become fragmented, increasing their risk of local extinction. It appears grouse moor management has driven our uniquely high densities of mountain hares, so grouse moor managers should be encouraged to take responsibility for maintaining this situation.
- The sheep or deer tick (Ixodes ricinus) also feeds on red grouse and other moorland birds, to which they can pass a virus called the louping-ill (LIV). At present grouse moor managers are effectively alone in driving a comprehensive programme of tick control to the benefit of livestock and wildlife. Others, including the RSPB, also view tick control as one of the benefits of driven grouse shooting here.
- Ticks feed on other moorland birds. Although it appears that waders such as curlew do not contract LIV, excessive tick burden has been cited as a cause of mortality for curlew chicks. It is known that high numbers of ticks attached around the face can be debilitating for the chicks of moorland birds. In one study 91% of curlew broods contained chicks carrying ticks at an average of 4.5 ticks per chick, and maximum of 64 ticks on one individual.
- Medicated grit, which is prescribed by veterinary surgeons, was invented by the GWCT to kill grouse gut parasites, thus reducing the fluctuations between years in grouse populations. This allows moorland owners to invest confidently in the management package that protects habitats, species, jobs and culture. The medication in the grit is the same as is used to treat internal parasites in hundreds of thousands of upland sheep and cattle, and many captive birds of prey, every year.
- The effect on vulnerable species can be significant. In our experimental study curlew numbers were dropping by 17% per year the absence of predator control. When implemented, curlew numbers rose by 14% per year (after a lag period as the new chicks reached breeding maturity). We have calculated that the low breeding success seen on moors where predators were not controlled in this experiment could lead to a drop in lapwing and golden plover numbers of 81%, and curlew of 47%, after ten years. Lethal predator control should only be undertaken at a level that has a positive impact on the population you are trying to protect. This can be seen as ‘intensive’ by some but removal of predators below this level is ineffective.
Supporters of a ban on driven grouse shooting should be challenged to explain the clear imbalance in their evidence. Secondly there is a failure to recognise the associated risks that may result from changes in practice.