I'm still on holiday this week, so here's another guest post. This time from RSPB Director of Scotland, Stuart Housden:

Last Thursday, Teresa Dent, Chief Executive of the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), who has recently been appointed to the Board of Natural England, sent a letter to 'The Times' on grouse moor management, and it was widely promoted by GWCT. Although it wasn't published, I thought it would be helpful to respond to the content and to set the record straight on a few things where the RSPB was mentioned.

As you would expect, Teresa seeks to present the work of grouse moor managers in a positive light. She specifically mentions the success of the curlew found on moors managed for red grouse in the North Pennine Moors Special Protection Area (SPA). Curlew are a species which is very important to the RSPB, as its the land bird for which we arguably (after the Scottish crossbill) have the biggest contribution to make in the UK in terms of its European importance.

Our own research has shown that legal predator control can be important in maintaining breeding populations, particularly where there is a 'predator edge effect' from adjoining conifer plantations. Tackling the root causes of predation is something we must all focus on in the future to help us manage this conservation issue more effectively. Blocks of forestry or improved grassland can help foxes, and crows survive (as they are generalist feeders) and in turn this can impact breeding success of curlews and other ground-nesting birds.

There is no doubt that gamekeepers seeking to protect red grouse can benefit curlews and some other ground-nesting species. The sympathetic management of moorland is similarly beneficial, preventing conversion to conifer plantations, or loss through overgrazing by sheep. But this can be overdone, with too frequent burning, scrub removal, and the use of moorland drains which damage wetland areas or peatlands.

Red grouse. Image by Tom Marshall (www.rspb-images.com)

Driven grouse shooting does not take place on any of our upland RSPB nature reserves and yet they support healthy numbers of breeding curlews, black grouse and other ground-nesting birds. This would not be the impression you gained from the text from Teresa Dent or the GWCT study mentioned. For example, at RSPB Dove Stone in the Peak District we have, since 2010, seen increases in breeding dunlin of 160%, golden plover (19%) and curlew (17%) since we undertook landscape-scale re-wetting and restoration of degraded peatlands there.

We can also report that breeding waders have seen a threefold increase at RSPB Geltsdale since 2003, while the black grouse population has increased more than sevenfold in this time; from seven lekking males in 2005, to 55 in 2014. Therefore, although some ground-nesting birds can benefit from the habitat management provided on grouse moors, it is misleading to say that they can only be found where grouse moors are managed for shooting grouse. A bit more respect for this from those in the sporting fraternity would be welcome.

What Teresa doesn't mention is that the North Pennine Moors SPA is also designated by Natural England for supporting 11 pairs of hen harriers (about 2% of the UK population). This species has not nested there for eight years, despite recent assessments that the site could support well in excess of 11 pairs. So, why aren't they there and why has GWCT chosen to put a selective spotlight on a species that has benefited from grouse moor management in the SPA?

The Bowland Fells SPA should also support far more than the two pairs of harriers currently present, having supported 13 pairs at the time of designation as an SPA. Where are those harriers today? For the record, RSPB nature reserves across the UK provided a home to 42 pairs of hen harriers last year, about 8% of the national population, found on a tiny percentage of the UK's uplands where the RSPB has reserves.

Despite the tensions with sport shooting, we don't support a ban on driven grouse shooting because we think these moors can play and should play a role in helping birds like the curlew. We continue to work with moorland managers at the joint Langholm Moor Demonstration Project, and are pleased to be involved with other similar initiatives on grouse moors such as the Operation Countrywatch underway in Perthshire. Teresa's figures show the curlew is recovering in the North Pennines, but it continues to decline in the lowlands and in fragmented upland landscapes.

But, and there is always a but, there is also very strong evidence of illegal damage and destruction of protected species, and in some cases their habitats, on driven grouse moors from the North of Scotland to the Peak District. Increasingly, grouse moor managers are seeking to increase the surplus of red grouse for shooting. This involves more intensive predator control, and on many estates a zero tolerance of protected species as well. It’s not just the RSPB that says this. The Government’s own statutory advisors have said just this in their framework documents for hen harriers and golden eagles.

More action from Teresa and the GWCT to combat this directly is needed, especially since their own research at Otterburn shows the numbers and breeding success of ground-nesting birds increased in the presence of protected raptors. That's why we are asking political parties to introduce a robust statutory licensing system which will build public confidence in the management associated with the sport and root out the 'bad apples'. Then we might have growing populations of curlew and hen harrier on grouse moors across the UK, and place the industry on a long term and more sustainable footing.

It is good to see the GWCT acknowledging the need for more hen harriers in the English uplands. It is also good to see them supporting a Hen Harrier Recovery Plan that tackles illegal persecution, which is the key reason for the loss of this species across northern England, and large parts of Scotland.

We know if harriers are unmolested they can bounce back pretty quickly. I want GWCT to be providing the leadership required to put an end to illegal activity once and for all. We've heard calls for a more forward looking and enlightened approach before-but it seems some in the shooting community have failed to listen and wildlife crime has continued.

There are now calls from GWCT, BASC and others for Defra to publish their Hen Harrier Action Plan amid allegations from some that the RSPB are blocking its progress. In principle, we have no objection to its publication but it would be premature given that it has yet to be finalised and a number of key points have yet to be resolved. We have worked hard to seek an agreement that resolves the harrier-grouse conflict, which delivers many more harriers, and is balanced, legal and effective. The RSPB needs to see:

a) Zero-tolerance of illegal persecution from all stakeholders,

b) State support for Detective-level Wildlife Crime Officers to tackle incidents of illegal persecution wherever they occur,

c) The deployment of 'diversionary feeding' wherever harriers settle on moors.

d) Reassurance that any brood management scheme will only be trialled once hen harrier numbers have recovered to a pre-agreed level, and after less interventionist approaches, particularly diversionary feeding, have been implemented thoroughly. The Joint Nature Conservation Committee (who provide advice on nature conservation to the UK Government) suggests that there is habitat for 323–340 pairs of hen harriers in England.

With a more recent study co-authored by GWCT suggesting English grouse moors can support 70 pairs of hen harriers with little impact on their businesses and with only three pairs nesting successfully this year, brood management may be some way off yet. But getting started with a recovery plan to deliver the 70 pairs of harriers looks overdue to me.

We now want Defra to take the lead and finalise the plan by the end of this calendar year (incorporating the points above) so that a detailed roadmap for recovery of the hen harrier in England can be financed and up and running by the start of the next breeding season.

  • Much is made of the merits of predator control on grouse moors in helping populations of waders. Many shooting supporters extrapolate this (quite unscientifically) to a notion that a primary cause of declines in birds such as waders is due to an onslaught by predators such as foxes and crows in areas that are not managed for shooting. Has the RSPB had to resort to lethal control of predators on its upland reserves where it has seen increases in wader and black grouse populations? Of course if we follow the shooting community's logic on fox and crow control, grouse moors should be havens for ground-nesting birds of prey such as hen harriers and not just the merlin which they loudly proclaim as a success story. By the way, on the latter, perhaps we should look to the trees when judging how successful merlins are. Given a choice, they will nest in old crow nests in trees thus at least avoiding predation by foxes. Just demonstrates the complexities of managing habitat for bio-diversity.  

  • In a famous trial in the 1960s, I think it was Mandy Rice-Davies who famously said when an individual with a particular intrested had given evidence at the trial, "he would say that wouldn't he". I think Theresa Dent's letter is very much in this category.

    The key points you list Stuart, are obviously the nub of the matter but of course there are several other important ones like the prevention of; damaging burning, the draining of wet areas and the use of chemicals.

    Even if all these points are incorparated into Defra's action plan it is vitally important that they are incorporated in a meaningful way. In other words, these are standards that any grouse moor MUST meet and are NOT guideline standards that the owner should try to meet. We all know that "best efforts" as far as grouse moor owners are concerned, DO NOT WORK, this approach has been tried long enough and manifestly failed.

    Therefore a license system for grouse moors whereby meeting these standards is a clear requirement of holding a license and if they are not met then the license is withdrawn, would seem to offer a way ahead. I think the RSPB needs to be very insistent on this point.