THE final report into a 10-year, multi-million-pound project to restore driven grouse shooting alongside the conservation of hen harriers on Langholm moor has been published.
The report comes as a group seeks to take on ownership from Buccleuch of the moor in a community buy-out, largely funded by the Scottish government through the Scottish Land Fund.
According to a group of shooting and rural organisations, the report produced ‘ultimate proof’ of the conservation benefits of grouse moor management.
They said the reported highlighted how game-keeping significantly improved the fortunes of some under-threat bird species and restored heather which had been lost for decades.
The joint statement was issued by British Association for Shooting and Conservation, Scottish Countryside Alliance, Scottish Gamekeepers Association, Scottish Association for Country Sports, Scottish Land & Estates, Moorland Association & National Gamekeepers’ Organisation.
The statement said: “This unprecedented scientific project was a watershed and proves the important conservation value of grouse moor management.
“As the report says, management for red grouse can recover and support globally important moorland habitat and precious species at a time when the UK is losing species dramatically.
“This project showed gamekeepers using modern management techniques, including legal predator control, led to improved populations of curlew, golden plover and snipe at a time when they are declining nationally. Predator control also protected breeding hen harriers.
“Loss of heather over generations was halted and heather-rich vegetation increased by 30 per cent, largely because of investment in controlled muirburn, heather reseeding and grazing reduction.
“To lower predation pressure, the report says new legal predation management options may be needed to allow grouse to recover from low densities if wider bird assemblages are also to benefit.
“Ensuring our moorlands are managed well in the future is a shared objective.”
Duncan Orr Ewing, head of species and land management at RSPB Scotland, one of the project partners, said he agreed with the successes highlighted in the report.
Large areas of heather had been lost since World War Two; nearly half had gone from overgrazing by sheep. This project had reversed that decline and extended the area of heather.
He said: “The most important thing about Langholm is its Special Protection Area designation by the EU for its hen harries and they have thrived during the project.
“There are six to seven pairs, which is what this site should support, along with other ground-nesting birds like curlew and snipe. Many curlews have been lost to upland afforestation in this part of the country.
“If you plant trees in blocks, as we have done, you fragment the landscape and predator populations increase. Foxes and crows will use them as cover to prey on the moor.
“If we’re going to hold onto some of the ground-nesting birds, predator control will be essential but it has to be legal control.”
Mr Orr Ewing said the main disappointment, although grouse numbers had risen five-fold, was they didn’t get to a point where shooting could take place.
“From our perspective, the grouse population increased significantly and was above the levels considered appropriate for driven shooting.
He added: “Grouse moors have intensified management and they’ve compared Langholm to the more commercial moors where they aim to maximise grouse production.
“The objective at Langholm was to deliver grouse and a range of other public benefits. On those other moors illegal practices may be occurring and at Langholm, that did not happen. The aim was to manage it sustainably and not use illegal persecution.
“Fewer pairs of harriers are breeding in northern England than in Langholm alone and we know the habitat in northern England is perfect for harriers.”
Mr Orr Ewing met the Langholm Initiative steering group organising the community buy-out on Monday.
While the RSPB could not offer financial support, it could lend its expertise and advice.
Before the meeting, he said: “One thing is certain; because the site is so important for moorland breeding birds, whoever owns it will have to take that into account.
“Conifers and windfarms would not be compatible. Scottish Natural Heritage has the say over what land use is appropriate.
“Those things, which are compatible, are nature conservation interests, probably more native woodland, not on the main moorland blocks but around the edges.
“My main point is that this project has shown what a sustainable and legally managed grouse moor can look like.”