October saw publication of the final report of the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project (LMDP), a partnership between Buccleuch (formerly Buccleuch Estates), Scottish Natural Heritage, the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, the RSPB and Natural England. The report can be found at www.langholmproject.com.  Below we offer a brief summary of the key findings and discuss their implications in the context of the wider and growing challenge of increasingly environmentally unsustainable practices on intensive grouse moors, including illegal killing of raptors, the unnecessary culling of mountain hares and the burning of blanket bog habitats.

Why Langholm?

The project ran between 2008 and 2017 at Langholm Moor, 11,500 ha of moorland straddling Dumfries and Galloway and the Scottish Borders, much of it managed for grouse shooting since the 19th century.  The same site hosted the Joint Raptor Study (JRS, 1992-1997) which found that despite Langholm’s history as a premier driven grouse moor, it had lost half of its heather cover to sheep grazing over 50 years and become hemmed in by conifer plantations, and that on such fragmented, ‘grassy’ moors raptor predation, especially by hen harriers and peregrines, could limit red grouse numbers and hence prospects for driven grouse shooting.    

What were the aims?

With this history, Langholm Moor was an important site to test whether a driven grouse moor could be restored, using only legal management techniques and also meeting its nature conservation objectives as a Special Protection Area (for hen harrier) and Site of Special Scientific Interest, restoring heather cover, and reversing declines of other ground-nesting birds such as waders and black grouse.   This was a bold step by the landowner, Buccleuch, who are to be applauded for seeking solutions to the conflict between driven grouse shooting and wider environmental objectives.  Crucially, and unlike its predecessor, the LMDP was a demonstration and not a research project which also tested and refined some existing management measures, including diversionary feeding of hen harriers to reduce predation of red grouse.

How was the project delivered?

The project was funded by its partners and the Scottish Rural Development Programme and employed five gamekeepers, a project manager, a project scientist and seasonal fieldworkers to support the monitoring programme. The programme of work included a full, legal programme of predator control and grouse medication, destocking of sheep, and heather and peatland restoration including re-seeding, muirburn, heather cutting and bracken control.

What did the LMDP achieve?

Despite the discovery that heather loss had continued apace since the end of the JRS, decades of heather loss on Langholm Moor were at last reversed through grazing restrictions and re-seeding, though there is a very long way to go.  Raptor populations thrived; the hen harrier population was maintained at qualifying levels for the SPA at around 6-7 breeding pairs and bred very successfully in part due to the predator control programme, and diversionary feeding of hen harriers was very successful, reducing the number of grouse chicks being taken to hen harrier nests by between 34% and 100%. Numbers of black grouse, curlew, golden plover and snipe all increased markedly over the 10 years of the project against the backdrop of continuing declines in the wider regional landscape.  This response of ground-nesting birds also included red grouse themselves, which increased five-fold to 80 per square kilometre by 2014 though, on industry advice, this was not considered enough to support the shooting target of a 1000 brace grouse bag in at least one year of the project.  As a result, this target was not achieved and shooting of smaller bags was not supported.  Lastly, during the project thousands of visitors came to see and learn about its work, building social capital and trust and, under the able leadership of the project scientist Dr Sonja Ludwig, the key project outcomes were published in multiple papers in peer-reviewed journals, allowing detailed scrutiny of findings. 

What do we conclude?

Following the JRS many grouse moors interpreted its findings as justification for continuing illegal persecution of raptors, especially hen harriers. The result has been hen harriers becoming almost extinct as a breeding bird on grouse moors in both England and Scotland, a situation which prevails to the current day.  There is a risk of a similarly myopic industry response to the results of the LMDP, with the fact that the project did not meet its grouse shooting target seen as a justification for doubling-down on intensification of predator control methods.   This would spectacularly miss the point.  In fact, it is a remarkable achievement that within just ten years, the LMDP reversed decades of heather loss and restored grouse densities to those that would have been considered a sufficient basis for driven shooting as recently as the 1990s, and did so whilst maintaining or recovering other ground-nesting bird populations. This is especially so when one considers that the moor is now isolated from others and partly surrounded by conifer forestry as a source of predators, problems it did not face in its prime.        

The LMDP also shows that shooting more modest bags of grouse almost certainly would be compatible with the delivery of wider public benefits from the management of grouse moors, especially bearing in mind that gamekeeper densities here were lower than on many moors and that many more years of management effort would have been necessary to overcome the impacts of decades of loss and fragmentation of heather cover.  So grouse management could contribute to the wider conservation and environmentally sustainable management of our uplands, but this will depend on more sustainable, legal approaches which rid moors of the illegal killing of raptors and other damaging environmental practices associated with ever more intensive, ‘driven shooting’ models that now rely on post-breeding densities of several hundred birds per square kilometre.

In a recent report on the LMDP for the Scotsman, Adam Smith of GWCT concluded that “adapting grouse moor management must now be the watchword”. He is right, but that adaptation must be to return to the principles espoused by Aldo Leopold, a founding father of the science of wildlife management, that the recreational value of a head of game is inverse to the artificiality of its origin, and hence to the intensiveness of the system of game management which produced it.  Adaptation based on this principle would serve well to guide the fundamental reform and rehabilitation that is urgently necessary to make grouse moor management, arguably 150 years overdue for reform, fit to continue in the 21st century.        

  • I want to take a moment to thank you for this great article. It's a lot more clear for me what is your mission. Bruno from élagage

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  • This is one way forward markavery.info/.../ and I've said all along why can't the RSPB along with other interested wildlife trusts get together and do the same 

  • Thanks for a very clear, unbiased account of the project. I fully support the RSPB's position on licensing driven grouse shooting which could deliver huge benefits for conservation and the environment. I hope the RSPB will continue to base its policies on sound science and not sentiment.

  • I feel that the report tells us more about those participating the project than the science. Here is a quote: “Legal gamekeeping reduced predation pressure and maintained grouse productivity. Site habitat was not the key limit to grouse populations. Predation pressure limited grouse survival; 79% -97% of adult grouse mortality was linked to consumption by raptors.” It seems that the person writing and approving the report were well aware of illegal gamekeeping and that the report may have had a different outcome if t had been practised.