Are indirect measures of abundance a useful index of population density? The case of red grouse harvesting.
Indirect measures of population abundance, such as harvest data, are often used to make inference on long term population dynamics when direct data are either not available or are logistically difficult to obtain. However, when harvesting records are used, a common concern is that they may not reflect actual population abundance. We investigated the extent to which harvest data reflected changes in population density of the red grouse Lagopus lagopus scoticus in Great Britain. We used 92 independently managed populations over the period 1977-2000 and examined the temporal and spatial variability of the hunting records and independently obtained count data from each of these managed estates. Three different analyses support the conclusion that grouse hunting records are a reliable indicator of grouse abundance: I) the number of red grouse shot in autumn showed a tendency to be linearly related to the density of individuals counted in the summer prior to the harvesting, 2) the relationships between the variance and the mean in the harvesting and corresponding count data, calculated over different populations at the same time, or the same locations at different times, were not statistically distinguishable, 3) similar direct and delayed density dependence patterns were observed in hunting records and count data. Our results suggest that red grouse hunting time series are a good proxy for population abundance.