Shortly after the publication of the 2008 National Red Grouse Survey, which showed a continuing sharp decline in Irish red grouse with local extinctions across many lowland bogs and moorland habitats, the board of Countryside Alliance Ireland (CAI) established of the Irish Red Grouse Association.
Six years on the Irish Red Grouse Association has become a registered charity and became the Irish Red Grouse Association Conservation Trust (IRGACT). We look back at the project’s success and the astounding results it has achieved across Ireland.
The prime objective of the IRGACT was the conservation of red grouse by empowering and helping local conservation projects on the ground while working with other NGOs and Government organisations in promoting the cause at the national level. The rural community rallied behind the Trust, with support gained from farming organisations, dog trialling clubs, gun clubs, hawking clubs, ornithologists and the rural communities.
The Irish red grouse population peaked in the 1900’s, when its interests were protected by keepered estates across Ireland, on which over 500 gamekeepers were employed in the management of the grouse moors. However, after the 1914-18 War and the formation of the Irish Republic the landholding ownership structures changed dramatically, with the ownership of many estates devolved to their farming tenants and gamekeepers frequently not retained.
The loss of gamekeepers, exacerbated by afforestation, agricultural intensification and the extraction of peat, caused the grouse population to crash. They now exist in isolated pockets on a handful of moors and in dire need of assistance, with their total numbers thought to be in the region of 5000.
While grouse populations can rise and fall with seasonal weather variations, the leading IRGACT projects are showing grouse population increases of 15-20% since 2010. Increases have also been recorded for moorland waders including curlew, golden plover and lapwing, as well as the Irish mountain hare.
The IRGACT approach is low in cost but proving highly effective. On the ground the Trust provides subsidised predator control equipment, advice and grouse surveys to all community-led projects. Annual seminars and moorland walks are also organised to spread new ideas and research among the participating projects, sharing best practice in areas such as burning and cutting moorland vegetation.
To date over 60 communities have expressed an interest in establishing red grouse projects and 40 of these are at various stages of implementation. The interest among local communities has been tremendous and the local farmers are among the most enthusiastic of supporters. Working with local communities has been the key to the IRGACT.
These red grouse projects have proven that they have the ability to stem the decline of the grouse population, while boosting other red listed species, and the momentum is building. The Trust is achieving ever more recognition on the national stage, and everywhere a project is running the local people, be they birdwatchers or hillwalkers, are seeing the results with their own two eyes. And as the more people who learn about the Trust, the more supporters there are, and the more grouse conservation projects there will be.