Langholm II

Photo: Tim Melling
Photo: Tim Melling

I’m not the only one who thinks that the GWCT hasn’t had a very good year according to the responses I’ve looked at in the readers’ survey for this blog (click here to enter your views). They are behaving so strangely that I wasn’t too surprised to read their rather odd account of the second Langholm study published on their blog just before Christmas.

This was the GWCT response to the 7-year update report of the 10-year study based at Langholm involving a whole gang of interested parties.  The report itself is well worth a careful read.

The RSPB has a different take on things than their mates in the GWCT according to this blog by Stuart Housden, the RSPB’s Director for Scotland.

I’m glad that the RSPB has highlighted something that I had noticed myself, that the Red Grouse densities at Langholm are now well above those stated by GWCT themselves as being generally necessary for viable driven grouse shooting, ie 60 birds/sq km2 in July.  It seems that different criteria are being employed for Red Grouse recovery at Langholm than on other moors which seems a bit odd.

The last time I visited Langholm was in July 2010 and the grouse moor owner who was with me, and who knows Langholm well, was jumping around saying that there were plenty of Red Grouse to shoot in that year. As you can see, in 2010 the densities measured over the whole of Langholm  were a little under the 60 birds/sq km2 in July that is regarded as the threshold but not far under. Maybe my grouse moor owning, grouse shooting, companion was right and there were enough that year for a viable shoot – I’m in no doubt he would have had a few days shooting there if he had been in charge.

If you look at the actual report, rather than the GWCT spin on the report, Appendix 1, Figure 13, shows the decline in grouse bags at Langholm over the period from 1933 (mostly, as we know, caused by loss of heather through over-grazing or agricultural improvement). In 1990, a couple of years before Langholm I started, there was the expected 6-year peak of grouse bags at c4000 grouse.  Grouse bags then declined through the period of Langholm I and did not recover in 1996 (or thereafter) as would have been expected if the Hen Harriers and Peregrines had been illegally killed.

But in 1992 there were about, by eye from that graph in Fig 13, 1500 grouse shot at Langholm. Move now to Figure 3b (p19) in the Langholm II report (reproduced rather helpfully in Stuart Housden’s blog) and look at the first year, that same 1992. What we see is that both spring and July grouse densities are now only a little below what they were in 1992 when c1500 grouse were shot commercially.  Maybe 1000 grouse (500 brace) could have been shot in 2014.  Since shot Red Grouse are worth £140/brace (£70/bird)(p21 of Langholm II report) then a bit of shooting might have brought in £70k or so in each of the last couple of years. Now I guess that £70k is a mere pittance compared with the amount of taxpayers’ money pouring into Langholm but it surely shouldn’t be sniffed at. It would, it seems, have paid for about a third of the cost of ‘keepering during this recovery period, after all.

Table 1 in the Langholm II report is a bit odd, to my mind, too. It appears to be a useful comparison between various grouse parameters at Langholm and on other Scottish and some English grouse moors. Such comparisons are always informative and Langholm doesn’t do too badly in the comparison although it seems to be underperforming in several areas. However, the data used for Langholm are those from 2009-12 for some reason, and the fact that there has been considerable recovery and improvement since that period in 2013 and 2014 is, rather peculiarly, not mentioned as far as I have noticed.  So Table 1, which doesn’t show Langholm to be in any way appalling is using the data from the earliest years of an ongoing recovery – how strange! Why?  If only 2013 and 2014 had been used, rather than not used at all, in this comparison, what would that have shown?

Another strange thing in Table 1 is the emphasis given to the fact that the overwinter mortality is in the absence of shooting – well, maybe ‘strange’ is an unfair choice of word. If there had been some grouse shooting at Langholm, and there were certainly enough grouse to shoot hundreds of brace in each of the last two years, then would that overwinter mortality figure have been higher? Not necessarily, because the Red Grouse can’t be eaten by predators if they have already been shot by shooters, just as they can’t be shot by shooters if they have already been eaten by predators (the lesson of Langholm I). Rather than get into a discussion about ‘additive’ and ‘compensatory’ mortality (which are both quite misleading phrases anyway) it would be better if this demonstration project to see whether grouse shooting will be viable at Langholm actually got a grip and shot some grouse! You may have noticed that I am not the biggest fan of driven grouse shooting, but it does seem extraordinary to me that in this demonstration project to establish a viable driven grouse shoot there is so much coyness about shooting grouse. Time is running out.

Photo: Kositoes via wikimedia commons
Photo: Kositoes via wikimedia commons

Well, we can be pretty sure that it isn’t the Hen Harriers that are eating the Red Grouse because they are being fed and aren’t taking Red Grouse chicks. No grouse chicks were seen being brought to Hen Harrier nests in 2008-12.  This is the second time that the efficacy of diversionary feeding has been demonstrated at Langholm but in both cases something else, not Hen Harriers, has intervened to lower the expected number of Red Grouse in July (although there are enough Red Grouse in July for viability of driven grouse shooting on most other moors it seems).

It’s a bit puzzling, and the GWCT seem determined to cry ‘fail’ already on the Red Grouse recovery even though numbers have headed upwards quite strongly. That seems a little odd to me.  If, even when Hen Harriers are taking practically no Red Grouse chicks or adults through the summer months, Red Grouse recovery is impossible then it means one of several things, but all of them are bad news for driven grouse shooting. It either means that there’s something rather rubbish about Langholm in terms of food availability and chick survival or that there are high levels of predation by other predators.

If the former then the Hen Harrier has been a bit of a scapegoat for rather too long.

If it’s other predators than either the gamekeepers aren’t doing their jobs properly with legal predator control (and no-one is likely to suggest that (although there seem to be a lot of mustelids and crows at Langholm considering how ‘well-keepered’ it is (see Figs 10 and 11))) or there are other predators that are protected that take the place of the Hen Harrier when they step aside from killing Red Grouse because they are fed artificially. If it is other protected predators then no doubt there will be calls to bump off the Hen Harriers and the Buzzards and the Goshawks and the Short-eared Owls and anything else that moves on a moor in Scotland or England.  Is that where we are heading? That isn’t where I would want to end up if I were doing the PR for grouse shooting.

Maybe Hen Harriers are taking lots of Red Grouse in winter, as many of them are staying at Langholm through the winter (very wise of them in a way, as they seem to get shot if they leave), but then no-one is shooting Red Grouse in the autumn.  With more normal levels of autumn shooting (this is, after all, supposed to be a demonstration project that is aiming for that to happen) there might be fewer over-wintering Hen Harriers and even higher spring densities of Red Grouse and bigger July densities and bigger bags and another step closer to viability? That’s what people will be wondering if the project doesn’t actually get some grouse shot. But the GWCT have already called ‘fail’ on the whole thing,

Is Langholm II simply going to reinforce one of the possible take-home messages from Langholm I, that driven grouse shooting and legal treatment of birds of prey are incompatible? I think we should wait another three years and see, but if that’s the choice, and it may well be, then I know which I would choose and I think that the public would undoubtedly think the same. So we could, down here in England, simply ban driven grouse shooting now.

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19 Replies to “Langholm II”

  1. If I was feeling charitable then I would suggest that the GCT's spin on the demonstrable grouse recovery at Langholm failed to take into account Hofstadter's Law: "It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law". However, I'm not feeling very charitable, so I won't suggest it as an explanation.

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  2. Pages 10 and 16 of the report stood out to me at first glance. The keepered area extends to 12,000 hectares and they want to shoot 1000 brace to recoup the costs of that keepering. However only 3000ha is suitable habitat for grouse. In order to reach the target of 1000 brace they need 200 grouse per km2 on the bits of suitable habitat. This is 3-4 times the density actually needed to support driven shooting and seems to be an unrealistic target given the poor quality habitat over most of the site. Surely they could have sustainably shot 500 brace over the past couple of years given the densities of 120 grouse per km2 that were present on suitable habitat in July. They would then just have to accept that keepering the wider area is an unmet cost until the habitat improves, or accept that it won't improve and keeper a smaller area at lower cost. Either way it seems that habitat condition is the main problem at Langholm. It would be interesting to see how this project would work in an area with more extensive areas of unfragmented heather grouse moor (of course it would be difficult as there aren't any hen harriers left in such areas).

    By leaving the surplus of grouse unshot they are effectively leaving them to sustain predator populations over the winter, which is not going to help matters. I'm quite surprised RSPB signed off on the conclusions of this report.

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  3. It is certainly true that GWCT has had a bad year, but then it is largely of its own making with unprecidented attacks on conservationists for having the temerity to criticise certain aspects of grouse moor management particularly harrier persecution. Getting into bed with the gutter pro shooting press and its proponents hardly enhances their scientific credibility.
    As to Langholm II it has seemed odd for sometime that they grouse such that any other moor would have shot even if it was moderately rather than loose them to "high winter predation." It has already been shown non-territorial grouse suffer high winter mortality if that is the case they have enough to shoot.
    However that may not tally with the political agenda. Shooting with harriers and no brood management in sight or buzzard control etc may not suit at all!
    It seems they may truly wish to perpetuate the myth you cannot successfully run a grouse moor and have raptors. If that is their true belief they should be consigned to history------Sooner rather than later.

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  4. There are several points not mentioned here and the main one is the predation of adult Red Grouse. Using only a % can confuse the reader and especially the press which I presume we will see in the next few days. No one is given the exact figures for the loss like 7.8 Red Grouse out of 10 were lost out of 4000 birds = the 78% recorded noting these birds were abnormal carrying radio packs. Female Hen Harriers tend to winter on moors not males which was not even mentioned. Male harriers were watched hunting in 2014 and not bringing in white rats or chicks to the nest. The habitat management was totally for Red Grouse and not any other species. Waders like Golden Plover have been observed flying 25 miles to find good feeding from Red Grouse moors. No management was done to encourage waders to breed. Waders produce less young on moorland than next to improved grassland. The 18 male Black Grouse are meaningless if you have no Grey Hens. This happened at Geltsdale in 1990s with 32 cocks. So finally it comes down to the author/s. Obviously the RSPB and SNH were not involved!!

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  5. In the study reports I have read from the GWCT there is a remarkable lack of scientific process. They 'cherry pick' results and skew the numbers, and I have seen no evidence of correct trial procedures. They don't publish their search criteria on trials or publications, they pick and choose statistics, which are incomplete and quoted without context. They are textbook 'Bad Science' examples.
    I agree with the comment that groups that want to be taken seriously from the scientific community should not sign up to any of these studies.
    I know they have a voice and speak for a powerful group, but just on the science alone - never mind the ethics - they are derelict. No organisation should feel any pressure to sign up to their results until they employ good scientific practice.

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  6. After a good number of years supporting the GCT/GWCT (I used to think they were an honourable organisation and carried out some excellent work), 2014 was the year I wrote to them to cancel my subs.
    I am very disappointed with some of their personnel (no names no packdrill) and the organisation as a whole.
    I also know I'm not the only one who took this step during the year...

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  7. I get the feeling from the GWCT blog and Rob Yorke's comments on Stuart Housden's RSPB blog that the assumption is that the alternative is the raptor-killing status quo. I wonder what they would have said if the only alternative was no grouse shooting ?

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    1. Roderick
      Thanks for reading it and herewith, to save clicking the link to Stuart Housden's blog, herewith my comment below. Much as some would like to ally me with the GWCT, my comment is as someone interested not in driven grouse but in finding a way to manage human interests (grouse only, raptors only and grouse/raptors together) in far removed, easily forgotten uplands for the widest range of outcomes.

      'Stuart, a nice take on the project, and I'm loathed to dampen your spirit, but be careful of raising false hopes. The diversionary 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.'

      Money to manage these areas is required and is central to these upland moorland areas (increasingly globally rare) being able to thrive and at the moment, Langholm is seeking a workable financial model that could work on other moors where driven grouse is currently undertaken at the cost of persecuting raptors.

      We sniff at mention of cash for conservation but even the wildest of rewilders Monbiot at al would have to fund the prevention of wildfires, provision of boar/wolf road crossing points/fencing, re-creation of diverse raptor habitat in the uplands etc

      It's time to reframe the debate - this is not human/wildlife. Social/ecology scientists are looking to find a way forward in what is a human;human conflict - see this for starters http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=9410377&fileId=S0030605314000799&utm_source=First_View&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=ORX

      Here's to progress in the 2015. Happy New Year!

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      1. "Many asked why not shoot this year - perhaps walked-up shooting - but the £225,000 figure for the annual management of the moor ..... is the cost to cover"

        This is a slightly odd statement as it suggests that unless the total cost of management can be covered, you don't want to see any of the cost covered. Surely meeting 25% of the cost is better than 0%?

        "diversionary feeding - very time consuming and expensive"

        And yet the agreed position statement of all the partners in the Langholm project is that "diversionary feeding of hen harriers has proven to be a cost-effective, practical and viable technique"

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        1. Paul - yes, exactly. the more you look, the odder the report looks.

          I've decided that unless I can have a Ferrari, a penthouse flat in central London and my own yacht that I'm not going to do any paid work in 2015. Those are the costs that i want to cover and however unreasonable they are, that's it. I'm hoping to get the RSPB to sign up to this and then blame them if it's completely infeasible.

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  8. I agree with Paul's point. Looking at the start of Chapter 8, 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 km 2 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, and many of them will have better heather than at Langholm. So is the Langholm grouse target realistic?

    Para 7.1 states that there are only 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 <30% heather cover. Is the Langholm grouse target realistic?

    One other thing I noticed from the report was that because there has been no shooting at Langholm, there has been a shortage of birds from which to measure parasitic worm burdens (p16). Unfortunately there is no comparison in the report of the levels of worms that have been recorded at Langholm with numbers from other places. Peter Hudson's work in the 1980s and 1990s showed that parasitic worms were a major factor causing the cycling of grouse populations. Since the grouse densities at Langholm have increased substantially, the absence of shooting may mean that worms begin to affect grouse numbers (and may also affect predation, because birds with high worm burdens are weaker and more susceptible to predation).

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  9. Rob the juxtaposition did not intend a link !

    However, I've just been browsing the latest BTO atlas for a talk I'm giving and what jumps out - or rather hits you between the eyes - are the spectacular declines of so many of our most valued moorland birds - ranging from Curlew and Golden plover in Wales to the spectacular decline of Short eared Owl, especially in SW Scotland, where it is joined by a range of other species. We continue to pour money into the uplands and if nature conservation is one objective, then it is failing quite spectacularly. In any rational system we would be questioning what is going on - but not in Britain's rural areas where a historic myth of our countryside and uplands holds sway.

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  10. Too much spruce forestry (full of predators raiding the adjoining moorland) is part of the problem. Chapter 9 of Ratcliffe's book, Galloway and the Borders, gives the gory details. Mainly carried out by the FC to their eternal shame.

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  11. Having come from an industral background I just find it amazing that driven grouse moors are not subjected to the same type of legislation as the rest of industry. In this case any industry that has the potential to impact the environment has to have a license to operate and must abate their impacts on the environment to a level acceptable to achieve, for example, air quality levels. Even cars these days must achieve acceptable emission levels. The costs of achieving these release levels are directly down to the operator but operating companies still manage to make healthy profits notwithstanding the environmental legislation.
    Why should the businesses of driven grouse moors be any different from the rest of any industry which has the potential to impact the natural environment? Quite clearly driven grouse moors serverely impact the natural environment.
    In the rest of industry operators that do not or cannot reduce their impacts to an acceptable level lose their license and are shut down by the local authority or the Environment Agency.
    I see not reason at all why grouse moor owners should not be required to follow the rest of industry practice in this respect.

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