As we all look to the hills at this time of year, we can reflect that so far we have had a mixed bag of weather since the spring, including some ill-timed snowfalls in late April into May and heavy rain in June and July. This has led to a remarkable variation in patterns of grouse productivity this year, with an east/west split in evidence.
The GWCT is the only body that carries out a regular national assessment of red grouse numbers and productivity in Britain. The counts underpin all our other moorland studies, allowing us to analyse how grouse respond to factors such as burning and parasite management and how grouse management affects other wildlife. These data are why we can confidently speak to government about upland conservation.
Our work indicates red grouse on a moor in the central Scottish Highlands, and probably across the country, are tending to lay their eggs earlier. This year the average grouse hatch (24 May) was in line with recent trends in Strathspey. Of course, after a cool, dry spring, in May the weather went downhill, with some parts of Scotland seeing snow a metre deep where it drifted on the higher ground. The Met Office records show that large parts of Angus and Aberdeenshire had 200% of their average (1980-1991) rainfall in June this year.
Consequently, the picture of grouse numbers and productivity is variable. The GWCT counts in Scotland show an average density of 151 birds per 100ha. This is almost exactly the average density for 2011-15, but 17 birds per 100ha lower than 2015 counts. The 2016 counts are made up of large numbers of old grouse, though the age ratio was only slightly down on 2015 at 1.5 young to old.
This masks an apparent east/west split. In eastern Scotland 45% of moors counted struggled to better 1 young to old (on average 3.2 chicks per brood), while 86% of more western moors (broadly the A9 corridor) exceeded 1 young to old (on average 4 chicks per brood). Of these western moors 30% exceeded 2 young to old.
Many moors in eastern Scotland have restricted their shooting programmes, with some choosing to shoot from late August and September to allow for further chick growth. Those further west appear to be working with a relatively normal programme. In England, continued high densities means shooting sufficient bags to maintain a healthy stock has become a practical issue for more estates.
There is no doubt that without disease control the grouse would not have been as resilient this year as they were. There is still much to do, of course, to ensure moorland management is resilient and forward-thinking.
- A key issue is minimising the risk of the strongyle worms developing resistance to the wormer drug used in medicated grit.
- To help reduce this risk, the GWCT has developed best practice guidelines to help moor owners to treat grouse only when necessary – ‘gritting holidays’. Copies can be downloaded here.
- Human health is also important. The Veterinary Medicines Directorate will test grouse for drug residues in 2016, something they should not find, because the withdrawal of medicated grit 30 days before shooting is a legal requirement.
- The GWCT also identified the role of mountain hares as tick hosts and louping-ill vectors when deer and sheep were not part of the disease cycle.
- The mountain hare is a key part of Scotland’s moors and the GWCT has published research highlighting the key role that moorland management for red grouse plays in supporting high densities of mountain hares.
- Our data indicate culls do not appear to be damaging the conservation status of hare populations. Culling of hare populations for sport and to limit habitat damage and disease are valid management activities.
- We do want moor managers to monitor hare populations to ensure sustainable culls. To aid this and bring balance to a contentious debate, the GWCT has been working with SNH and the James Hutton Institute on estates across Scotland since 2007 to identify the best (ease, cost, accuracy) method for counting mountain hares.
- We expect to have the results of this work ready in 2017.
- We have taken a central role in the SNH funded Understanding Predation project, which identified that both science and keepers agree that ground-nesting birds (waders, black grouse, grey partridge) need both habitat and predator control to thrive.
- This overlap of research and practice is providing a strong framework for conversation with Scottish government about practical conservation requirements.
- We will demonstrate the practicality of predator control at GWSDF Auchnerran, where habitat and keepering from 2008-2016 have supported nationally very high breeding densities of lapwing and curlew.
Spring traps and stoats
- Uncertainty continues over which spring traps (almost all are currently variations of the Fenn trap) will be legally available to control stoats, and from when. The challenge is having both a cheap and effective trap now that the international (not EU, but global) standards for effectiveness are in place.
- After 2018, DOC traps, the WCS tube trap, and Goodnature traps will be available. While they kill stoats humanely, they all have constraints on use: e.g. cost, efficiency, utility.
- Proper funding for trap development and testing is now crucial and we are pressing government for a clear timetable for further type approval.
Langholm Moor Demonstration Project (LMDP)
- It is regrettable that gamekeepering has now stopped again at Langholm, as the project has shown that grouse moor management is a good way for SNH to meet the conservation objectives of the SPA; the heather has been restored and harrier numbers got back up to 12 nesting pairs in 2014.
- However, grouse moors need shooting as the economic driver and that has not been achieved at Langholm. This goal was not achieved, at least in part due to predation, monitoring showing that of 874 grouse found dead in the first six years of the project, 718 showed signs of raptors killing the grouse.
- We continue monitoring to quantify the effect of stopping keepering in spring 2016 (already harrier nests appear to have been predated by foxes), and the writing up of the scientific papers has started in earnest.
Black grouse recovery
- Though doing well in northern Scotland, there remains a major challenge in southern Scotland where, despite sporting management, the black grouse population is more fragmented than in northern Scotland or England.
- We are leading a new Southern Scotland Black Grouse Recovery Partnership, launched at the GWCT’s Scottish Game Fair in July 2016. We will apply the lessons learnt during the English recovery project, now supported by the GWCT, Forestry Commission Scotland, SNH, the Lammermuirs Moorland Group, Scottish Borders Council and RSPB Scotland.
Principles of moorland management
- The GWCT, in partnership with Scotland’s Moorland Forum, Heather Trust, SNH, the Scottish Gamekeepers Association and others are working to produce a modern best practice guide to Scottish moorland management.
- Mountain hare management and best practice use of medicated grit are being developed, to be followed by guides to predator control, muirburn, heather cutting and other practices. The first parts of the guide will be available online from late 2016 and developed through 2017.
Our upland research and policy work are central planks of the GWCT’s work. We rely on the generosity of moor-owners, donors and other supporters to fund this programme, and urgently need your continuing support to allow this work to continue. We hope you will do so generously.
Andrew Salvesen OBE DL Dr Adam Smith
Chairman Scotland Director Scotland