Red grouse. © Jeremy Wilson

The Langholm Moor Demonstration Project (LMDP)* aims to resolve the conflict between red grouse shooting interests and the conservation of raptors. It builds on the Joint Raptor Study (JRS) of 1992-1997 whose principal study site was Langholm Moor, and which showed for the first time the circumstances under which raptor populations constrained driven grouse shooting.

The new, 10-year project, known to many as ‘Langholm 2’, has now published a 7-year review, which evaluates progress against five formal criteria.** So how are we getting on? I discussed this with RSPB scientists Professor Jeremy Wilson and Dr Staffan Roos, who both work closely with the project, to find out.

Heather and grouse – reversing past losses

Langholm Moor lost well over half its heather between the 1940s and the start of the LMDP in 2008. However, the corner has at last been turned thanks to tireless efforts by the gamekeeping team in burning, cutting and re-seeding to establish new, young heather cover (Fig. 1), and the commitment of Buccleuch Estates to reducing grazing impacts by sheep and feral goats.

This is all good news, but the LMDP is seeking to restore driven grouse shooting on a smaller heather area than at any time in Langholm’s recorded history as a grouse moor and expectations need to be set accordingly. Progress with red grouse numbers is formally described in the 7-year review, as ‘not on target’, simply because driven shooting has not yet resumed.

But this hides a simple numerical truth. Red grouse numbers are increasing fast and are already back to the densities recorded at the start of the JRS when driven shooting still took place (Fig. 2).

Figure 1. Recovery of heather on Langholm Moor in May 2014. © Jeremy Wilson

Figure 2. The mean densities of red grouse at Langholm Moor in spring and July derived from block counts. These are the same data as in Fig. 3b in the 7-year review, and black symbols show years in which grouse were shot. Driven grouse shooting is only recommended by the GWCT above a July density of 60 birds per km2 (Hudson P. 1992. Grouse in space and time. Game Conservancy Trust Ltd, p.9)

Hen harriers – a target met

Hen harrier numbers and breeding success have met project targets. In 2014, aided by a year of exceptionally high vole densities, there were 12 breeding attempts, of which 10 were successful, fledging 47 chicks (Fig. 4 on p. 24 in the 7-year review). The strict protection of raptors on Langholm Moor also means that there are good populations of merlins, short-eared owls, buzzards and peregrines (Table 3 on p. 25 in the 7-year Review). Langholm Moor is becoming a healthy ecosystem with many of the top avian predators as an integral part of the food chain. What an example for the moors in the North of England, where illegal killing has almost extirpated the hen harrier.

Management for raptors and red grouse - the resounding success of diversionary feeding 

Almost all hen harrier nests at Langholm Moor are provided with ‘diversionary’ food to reduce the propensity of the parents to hunt red grouse chicks. This technique was trialled with great success at the end of the JRS and has been equally successful here, with predation of red grouse reduced to negligible levels (see Position statement on p. 22 in the 7-year review).

The dedication of the Langholm gamekeeping team in conducting diversionary feeding has carried the day and showcases a wider role for gamekeeping on grouse moors. In short we have a technique which, within the law, and at modest cost resolves most of the alleged conflicts between harriers and grouse managers. This is no mean achievement, and all the partners should now actively promote this technique to moorland managers.

Other species – more increases

The successes are not limited to red grouse, hen harriers and heather. Meadow pipit numbers (important prey for harriers and merlins and the upland host for cuckoos) are now above their project target, there are signs that the long decline of breeding wader populations, especially curlew and golden plover, may be beginning to reverse (see Fig. 7 in the 7-year review), and the the number of lekking male black grouse has increased from five to 18 (Fig. 8 in the 7-year review).

So what does it all mean?

Those impatient to see the resumption of big-bag, driven grouse shooting at Langholm Moor seem to be approaching Christmas with their glass half empty, and even describe the LMDP as “failing” to deliver red grouse recovery and “failing” to help resolve long-standing challenges to the sustainability of driven grouse management.

On the contrary: the LMDP’s achievements to date are remarkable, especially when one remembers that the moor is recovering from 60 years of continuous heather loss, has only withdrawn sheep from the main areas of heather ground since 2011, and is nowadays a very isolated grouse moor surrounded by agriculture and commercial forestry rather than the welcoming embrace of other driven grouse moors and their well managed heather, and active predator control.

True, driven grouse shooting has not yet resumed, and perhaps bag size ambitions will need to be moderated. But with three more years to go, a growing red grouse population, a recovering habitat base, and gamekeepers, scientists and raptor conservationists working well together, the LMDP is succeeding. It has the potential to inspire change and should do so by looking beyond the 10-year span of its current objectives to be a role model for defining sustainable grouse moor management in the 21st century. As a committed Project partner, we hope others will share the RSPB’s vision of the future.

* The LMDP is a partnership between Buccleuch Estates, Scottish Natural Heritage, Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Natural England.
** The extent and condition of heather habitat; red grouse numbers; breeding raptor populations; management for red grouse and raptors; populations of other bird species.

  • This is encouraging Stuart and I am sure much of the promise that this project has, is down to the hard work put in by all the partners but especially by the RSPB.

    Hopefully diversionary feeding will be made standard practice across all grouse moors. This practice may have costs associated with it but all businesses that have a potential to affect the environment,for example the power generation companies are required by law to abate their releases to the environment,as are oil companies when processing oil in refineries. There are countless other examples like this.

    Despite the legislation requiring this abatement of releases, which can be very expensive and which directly impacts on company "bottom lines", these companies still make very healthy profits.

    So why should grouse moor owners be any different to the rest of industry. The grouse moor owners need to get used to the idea that they will need to forego a small amount of profit in order to make their industry and practices environmentally acceptable (which currently it is not).

    All this does not mean that the business of driven grouse moors should not be licensed. All the types of companies, from small to large that I have given as examples have to have a license to operate. This is standard practice in industry, so grouse moors need to be included in this licensing process.

  • The report (Chapter 8) says that the study found that there is less grouse habitat at Langholm than was thought, 3,000 ha rather than 4,000 ha. But instead of reducing the target grouse population accordingly, the same target, for a bag of 1,000 brace was maintained, meaning a higher target density is required, of 200 birds per km2 in July, and 90 birds per km2 in spring. This is double the average density of the 22 Scottish grouse moors used as comparators in Table 1 (average july count of 104 grouse per km2 and of 49 grouse per km2 in spring). Many of these moors will not be isolated like Langholm, and many of them will have better heather than at Langholm.

    Para 7.1 of the report states that there are 1,000ha at Langholm with >50% heather cover, and 2,200ha with >30% heather cover - so around 1/3 of the "grouse habitat" at Langholm, on which there is a target grouse density of double the average on Scottish grouse moors, has

  • Stuart, a nice take on the project, and I'm loathed to dampen your spirit, but be careful of raising false hopes. The div feeding - very time consuming and expensive - prevented grouse chick losses during period that harriers were provisioning for their own fledglings. However adult grouse losses to raptors (unknown) still have a major impact overall.

    That's the big challenge and it's related to your 'big-bag' phrase. Many asked why not shoot this year  - perhaps walked-up shooting  - but the £225,000 figure for the annual management of the moor (paying keepers to div feed, predator control, heather re-seeding/burning to highest standard etc) is the cost to cover. Much as I would like to see walked-up grouse (including other ecosystem services) valued at to the same extent as driven grouse, we are not yet there.

    There is much hope within this project but we must all be careful of selective cherry picking the good stuff when as we know, true so called 'win-wins' in conflict management are exceedingly rare in the real world.

    Merry Christmas!