A study published in the Welsh Ornithological Society’s journal Birds in Wales highlighted the fragility of some bird populations on the Berwyn Special Protection Area (SPA) in North Wales and identified the loss of lapwing from the sample plots as well as a massive reduction of other important waders such as golden plover and curlew.
The study, which cites the loss of driven grouse shooting as being a possible reason behind these declines, together with afforestation, changes in upland farming and climate change, identifies that a reduction in vital moorland management for red grouse has been associated with changes in numbers of upland birds.
The analysis was carried out by GWCT researchers using data from previous surveys conducted by the Nature Conservancy in the early 1980s and a repeat survey of the same plots by the RSPB-led Repeat Upland Bird Survey in 2002. These data were kindly provided under licence by the Countryside Council for Wales, now Natural Resources Wales. The study area is designated a Special Area for Conservation (SAC) for having the most extensive blanket bog and heath in Wales and is designated a Special Protection Area (SPA) for its internationally significant numbers of hen harrier, merlin, peregrine and red kite.
In 1994, there were 10 active grouse moors in Berwyn but following the loss of driven grouse shooting in the late 1990s, surveys revealed that lapwing had disappeared from sample plots; golden plover had declined by 90% while curlew had declined by 79%. Even numbers of hen harrier, whose decline has been frequently blamed on gamekeepers, suffered a decline of 49% since management for red grouse was abandoned.
Driven grouse shooting ceased in the 1990s because there were too few grouse to shoot sustainably. Since then, GWCT counts show that numbers have declined further so that now most moors do not shoot grouse at all. Red grouse are now red-listed as critically endangered in Wales as a whole, with a rapid decline in range and abundance. A similar picture is found for black grouse which in this study had declined by 78%.
This situation contrasts sharply with the status of upland birds in northern England, where over an equivalent period densities of red grouse have increased significantly whilst in the North York Moors a recent study by the national park suggests that waders on moors managed for grouse shooting are now at their highest level for 18 years.
A previous study by the RSPB identified that densities of breeding waders on grouse moors in northern England and north-east Scotland were three to five-fold greater on managed moors for red grouse than on similar moorland without gamekeepers. The likely cause of this difference has been demonstrated in Northumberland, where a nine-year scientific study conducted by the GWCT revealed that when generalist predators such as foxes and crows were removed this resulted in a three-fold increase in breeding success of waders and grouse and a subsequent increase in numbers of breeding pairs.
However, there is light on the horizon in Wales and on the Ruabon Moor in North Wales, where a full-time gamekeeper is employed and the moor has been the subject of extensive habitat management by the estate, RSPB and Natural Resources Wales, black grouse numbers have shown an approximate ten-fold increase with an estimated population of 200 males in spring. The site is also seeing a recovery of red grouse numbers and a small, but encouraging, increase in breeding curlew and golden plover.
The Berwyn study was funded by the Moorland Association.