The following article has been reproduced from the latest Scottish Gamekeepers Association’s magazine
Reports emanating from Langholm moor claim only 3 hen harrier chicks fledged in 2018, less than 15 times the successful number fledged when five gamekeepers were employed as part of the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project.
During 8 years of moorland habitat and predator management, as part of a second study attempting to solve the grouse/raptor conflict, the gamekeeping team led by Simon Lester managed to achieve a breeding high of 47 hen harrier chicks in 2014 from ten nests, remarkably with none lost to predation.
However, the 10-year multi-party project was wound down early in March 2016 when Simon – a passionate believer in the multiple benefits of responsible grouse management – became frustrated at lack of progress in trialling potential adaptive management approaches which could have broken the conflict, and resigned.
Two years on from that stalemate, and with millions of public money spent on two high profile projects with broadly similar aims, it now looks like Langholm is spiralling back to its former state as a failed Special Protection Area (SPA) for hen harriers and a degraded moor.
This year, with no gamekeepers managing predation pressure on the near 12 000 hectare site, 2 harrier nests were predated by foxes and one nest was disturbed. Only 3 chicks fledged successfully, almost mirroring the situation which prevailed following the end of the Joint Raptor Study at Langholm back in the 1990s.
During that multi-party study, now referred to as ‘Langholm 1’, 20 pairs of Hen Harriers bred on the gamekeeper-managed moor. When all the gamekeepers lost their jobs due to raptors rendering the grouse moor financially unviable, the harrier numbers slipped quickly back to 2 pairs.
Not only that, red grouse numbers declined further, breeding wader populations fell to perilously low levels and the status of both the Langholm SPA and SSSI were deemed ‘unfavourable’.
That tragic situation, which looks set to unfold for a second time, has been described by ex-Langholm gamekeeper Andrew Johnstone as ‘heartbreaking’.
The son of a Buccleuch Estates gamekeeper, he has stayed in Langholm – known as the ‘Muckle Toon’ – all of his life and still lives in a house in the middle of the moor.
Today, he describes the expanse of heather as a strangely eerie place – a far cry from when he first went grouse beating there as a 13-year old boy.
“There were lots of grouse, Curlew, Peewits, everything. There was lots of life, it was great,” he says, recalling frequent 100-brace shoot days. It is sad to see it now. To be quite honest, they’ve spent millions of pounds and it is on its way back to rack and ruin. There’s heather beetle again, and there are no grouse left.
“It is actually a disgrace what has happened there, after all we did to bring it back.
“It would take years to get a stock of grouse back again and I don’t see it happening, to be honest. You could put the sheep back on it or trees and windmills. That’s probably what will happen… trees and windmills.”
Andrew worked as a trainee for 18 months at Langholm under Brian Mitchell in 1981 and returned to the moor under Simon Lester as part of the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project, eager to see grouse shooting returned to what was once a first-class grouse moor.
Sadly, that never happened. Despite the number of harriers and other raptors flourishing, the project never met the 1000 brace threshold to enable economic grouse shooting to take place and to underpin the annual spend on keepering of £225 000, even with diversionary feeding of the harriers.
The 7-year report, written in 2015 and due to be updated soon by the final report, claimed that 78 percent of adult grouse found dead had been predated by raptor species. The report authors also stated: “we have reasonable confidence that grouse recovery is not being restricted by habitat…’.
“When I was a trainee in 1981, it was a good shooting business,” recalls Andrew. “When shooters were in the butts, their partners were in the town at the shops and spending money. The hotels were busy and it was great for the town. That income has never been replaced.
“People said that wildlife tourism during the Langholm project would replace the lost shooting income but that was a total load of rubbish. It didn’t make anything for the town.”
Following two attempts to make Langholm work, and millions of pounds expended, the authorities now have a failing SPA for hen harrier on their hands once again and a weighty legal obligation to improve it. Covering it in trees, as Andrew fears, will only make the matters worse for the bird it is designated to protect.
Ten good gamekeepers have lost their livelihoods over two projects, populations of key moorland species have crashed and vital visitor income has been lost to the local community, never mind the cultural significance.
For Simon Lester, it is a source of huge frustration that more could not be done to resolve the disputes between the project partners.
“If we had been able to convince partners that the sheer number of buzzards and ravens were the problem causing the predator trap at key times – and that some of that pressure should be legally relieved – we could have shot grouse at Langholm, with a suite of raptors, and people would have learnt an awful lot.
“But it became clear it was not going to happen. That’s why I left. The saddest thing is that we will have to watch it go down the pan again to make people realise the problem.”
A scientist who was deployed to count the buzzards recognised the predation impacts on the grouse but was not allowed to express this observation fully, according to keeper, Andrew Johnstone.
“He (the young scientist) even admitted they (buzzards) were giving the grouse a really hard time. But when he came to writing his report, one of the other scientists got hold of him, and said he had to change what he was going to write.”
Whatever the truth of the matter, it is unlikely the public will get full disclosure on that particular issue.
Nevertheless, Simon Lester believes a robust case ought to be made for a workable species licensing system which can help unlock some long-running conflicts, producing gains for both wildlife and local economies; something the SGA has advocated consistently since its formation.
“If a proper species licensing system was in place, I believe you could almost eradicate raptor persecution. Obviously, unfortunately, there are still a few lunatics out there trying to over-do things. But if there was more scope to manage problems legally, people would get more used to living with raptors.”
In England this year, more Hen Harriers have bred successfully than in the last decade (34 chicks) thanks to the introduction of a novel brood management scheme which was derided by ‘conservationists’, but formed a central plank of DEFRA’s Hen Harrier Action Plan. This arrangement offers land managers some security that birds would not be allowed to build up to such a number that their business and private investment in the management of their moor would be sacrificed, and that translocation of some of the birds would be a solution.
Simon believes conflict strategies such as these are helpful and regrets that project partners at Langholm could not have broached adaptive trials which would could have helped place moorland managers at the forefront of raptor conservation. One of the stated aims of the project, after all, was to produce a win-win situation, with the project blurb itself begging a critical question. Can moors with low grouse numbers achieve an economically viable state in Scotland with the avail-able policy and management tools?
It became apparent to Simon and his keepering team that the answer was no, yet the commitment to trial adaptive management and learn from the results was not forthcoming, despite promises.
“It is not just about losing the Harriers at Langholm. No one really talked about how we improved the range and number of black grouse, too, from 5 to 18 lekking males between 2008 and 2014. All the other raptors are now down as well. We had double figure Merlin nests by the end, starting out with only one nest. It is all skidding back downhill because the keepers have been off the moor now for 2 years. It’s very, very frustrating.”
At the time of Simon’s resignation from the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project, the partnership announced the news, as follows: ‘Simon has provided tireless leadership to the five-man keepering team which has undertaken the key management actions for the project. These have resulted in significant improvement of the heather habitat, the effective use of diversionary feeding of hen harriers each summer and the management of parasites and predators. These measures have increased the numbers of red and black grouse and breeding raptors, notably hen harriers. Despite a larger grouse population than at the start, the project has not been able to produce a sustainably large, harvestable surplus of driven grouse to economically underpin the management.’
We thank the Scottish Gamekeepers Association for allowing us to reproduce this article.