Guest blog – Langholm Q&A by Dr Ruth Tingay

ruth is on the right
ruth is on the right

Dr Ruth Tingay is a raptor conservationist with field experience from North & Central America, Europe, Africa, Central and SE Asia. She studied the critically endangered Madagascar Fish Eagle for a PhD at Nottingham University and is a past president of the Raptor Research Foundation. She’s currently researching the illegal persecution of raptors & its link with driven grouse shooting in the UK uplands. Here’s her fourth report from the GWCT 10th North of England Grouse Seminar, 17th Nov 2015, Ripley Castle, Yorkshire (episode one here, episode two here, episode three here,  episode four here).

This blog focuses on the Q&A session that followed Dr Sonja Ludwig’s presentation on ‘Raptors and grouse – what have we learned from Langholm?’ It started like this:

Unidentified audience member: “Sonja, the one thing you didn’t mention in your presentation was ravens, and are they something we should be looking in to?”

Sonja Ludwig: “Well we do have, we’ve always had about four or five breeding pairs of ravens on the project area but it’s difficult to do comparative studies on ravens because we’ve set up nest cameras because they don’t bring in whole prey items as the other birds do, they just bring in bits and pieces in their crop and give it to the young so we won’t be able to identify. We have done some analysis of raven pellets but with small numbers and we’ve seen some evidence of grouse in these pellets, I can’t recall the percentages but it wasn’t a big amount. Of course, there’s anecdotal evidence from the keepers who’ve seen ravens hunting over the moor, especially in the autumn once their chicks have fledged, but we don’t really have any particular evidence. In the last three years we had nest cameras on the grouse nests and we didn’t have any evidence for corvid predation at all, in any of these nests. So this is just a bit of an unknown at the moment”.

Nick Sotherton (Director of Research, GWCT): “I think that you’re right to mention it but I think we’re all really looking for the one thing that’s responsible and I don’t think there’s one thing, it’s probably five or six things all contributing”.

Unidentified audience member: “We’ve talked briefly about ravens but it’s also what the buzzards do on the ground when the red grouse have got chicks. They harry those chicks and hoover them, which is the anecdotal evidence that we’re always getting from the keepers”.

Nick Sotherton: “Absolutely right, but the problem is it is anecdotal and therefore it can be ignored by people who don’t necessarily want to take it in to account. I think with buzzards, what Richard [Richard Francksen, PhD student] has done, I think we’ve got as far as we can with the resources available to us. The only other thing we could have done is buzzard-cam, and that’s caught a buzzard, stuck a camera on its nut and see where it went and what it fed, but we’re just not there with the technology, or the ability to get that kind of licence. So I think we’ve gone as far as we can, and Richard’s figures will be controversial, but our next job is to get him viva’d and that happens next week, so we wish him luck with that, and then we’ve got to get this work through peer review, and that, as we know, on a controversial subject, will take time. Our experience with the Otterburn work was the science was impeccable, it was as good as it got, but we struggled to get it published, not because it wasn’t good science but because people didn’t like what it was telling them, and we’ll go through that with Richard’s PhD as well, not that I’m trying to put you off young man, you’ve got a glittering career in science ahead of you. But that’s where we’re at”.

Sonja Ludwig: “And of course, there’s still people arguing about, although we see that buzzards eat grouse, a lot of people still question whether they’ve actually predated them themselves or whether they’ve just been scavenged, and this causes questions, it doesn’t look at the science but unfortunately we just can’t answer that question”.

At this point, a man strode to the front of the room, took a microphone, and asked Sonja to put her penultimate slide back on the screen. I recognised him as Mark Oddy, one of the Langholm 2 project directors (representing Buccleuch Estates). He then launched in to this:

“For those of you who don’t know me, Mark Oddy, Buccleuch Estates. So I’ll wear my Buccleuch Estates hat, as one of the partners. Just a couple of things. The Langholm Moor Project is a separate legal entity so that everybody funds in to the project, so the keepers are employed by the project, not by Buccleuch Estates. Where do we go next? If I can trust you to be Chatham House rules, we are at a crossroads. Directors unanimously took the decision in September that we can no longer meet our primary project target, so one of the outcomes of that is that we’ve actually drawn effectively a line in the science, so Richard and Sonja are now beginning to write-up. The next three or four months will determine what we do next. Wearing my Buccleuch hat, I think we’re actually down to two options. First option is, there just isn’t the political will, and that’s where we now are at. The science is there, it’s the political decision we need. If we’re not allowed to do anything different, why would we keep going? In August of this year we had the Scottish Environment Minister down at Langholm and took her through some financials.

Ignoring what we’ve spent on the scientists, what we’ve spent on moorland management and to return the SPA and SSSI from ‘unfavourable’ to ‘favourable’, has cost us, per annum, £450,000. So £3.5 million. So the clear question to the Minister was, if politically you don’t want driven grouse shooting, just tell me what is the economic replacement, because that’s what you’re going to need. I think, one option is, we have to now grasp the nettle and try and put forward a case, which probably in the first instance under licence, will allow some type of lethal control, ‘cos I don’t see what the future alternative is. One of the things the scientists are looking at is maybe diversionary feeding of buzzards. I’d be interested to know what you think about that. Could we do it? Yes, we can do almost anything. Is it practical? Feasible? Affordable? And I have my views, but I also think that this might be a slippery slope because the politicians may just say, ‘Well, I’m sorry, you’ve just got to feed everything’. I don’t know whether we can go and see that future. We mentioned diversionary feeding of harriers; I think that needs to come with a caveat. During the first few years when we only had a couple of pairs, absolutely, we could do it, it was practical and it was effective. As soon as we’ve got these bigger numbers we can’t cope. So I think we need to be just slightly careful. I think it does have a place but it is not the sort of thing, and Nick is absolutely right, for those people who thought it was a single issue problem to solve, it never was. It’s a whole host of things. So I think that’s actually where we are”.

Nick Sotherton (as Chair of the seminar) then closed the discussion.

Before commenting on Mark Oddy’s speech, there are a couple of things I’d like to mention. I’ve attended a lot of conferences over the years but I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed anybody doing what Mark had just done. What normally happens during Q&A sessions is that audience members put questions to the speaker from the floor. Sometimes they’ll stand, sometimes they’ll remain seated, but they stay in the audience. I wondered how Sonja felt, having her Q&A session hijacked by someone who not only didn’t ask her any questions, but took the stage without being invited and started talking about his (and Buccleuch Estate’s?) views on the status of the project. I was almost as astounded by his behaviour as I was by what he actually had to say.

On the subject of etiquette, I should also comment on Mark Oddy’s attempted use of the Chatham House Rule (CHR). The CHR is a mechanism (not legally binding – more of a moral code) that states: ‘When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the CHR, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any participant, may be revealed’.
For the CHR to be operative, it has to be said to be operative. Nobody had stated, prior to Mark Oddy, that this seminar, or parts of it, would be operating under the CHR. It wasn’t mentioned during the GWCT registration process when money was paid to buy a ticket, nor was it mentioned in the programme notes, and the Chair hadn’t mentioned it during his welcoming speech or at any other time during the day. I’m happy to abide by the CHR in certain circumstances but as far as I’m concerned I had not been asked, nor had I agreed to abide by, the CHR at this seminar.

I don’t know where to begin with an analysis of Mark’s speech. It was so embarrassingly absurd no wonder he didn’t want it to be publicly attributed to him. He claimed ‘the science is there’ (to justify the lethal control of buzzards). No, it isn’t. The scientific evidence, as presented by Sonja, shows that red grouse are just an incidental part of the Langholm buzzards’ menu, comprising a proportion of just 1-6% of their diet. The Langholm 7-Year Review states they are eating mostly voles, lagomorphs and pheasants. How do those results equate in any way to a scientific justification for killing buzzards? They don’t, unless you’re a scholar at the University of Driven Grouse Shooting, in which case it all makes perfect sense.

It’s incredible that he has dismissed all the other possible ‘next moves’ that Sonja had mentioned; although some of those options are equally as fatuous, some of them are quite sensible. However, one other possible option did not feature on Sonja’s list.

As we’ve seen, the main bone of contention seems to be that driven grouse shooting has not commenced at Langholm. As discussed in my previous blog, post-breeding densities of red grouse have recovered to the same densities that allowed driven grouse shooting to take place at Langholm in the early 1990s, but for some bewildering reason, a higher target density has been set for Langholm 2. That in itself is difficult to understand, but even more so when you consider the background to the setting of that new target. According to the 7-Year Review, the initial target density was set at 150 birds/km², based on the presumed availability of 40km² of heather moorland. However, a few years in to the project, scrutiny of aerial photographs revealed that there was actually only 30km² of heather moorland available, so the target density of post-breeding birds was revised. As red grouse are reliant on the availability of heather to survive, you’d think that the density target would have been decreased, to reflect the decrease of available habitat. But no. Inexplicably, the target density was increased from 150 birds/km² to 200 birds/km²; in other words, they thought they’d try and cram more birds into a less extensive area. I just don’t get that at all.

Surely, another option that could be considered as a possible ‘next move’ would be to revise the target post-breeding density downwards, to a more realistic figure that reflects the availability of suitable habitat but still allows driven grouse shooting to take place?



32 Replies to “Guest blog – Langholm Q&A by Dr Ruth Tingay”

  1. So nonsensical target set for grouse densities followed by ludicrous theatrics that surprise, surprise misrepresents scientific data and points very strongly towards ‘control’ of raptors, and not through diversionary feeding which is effectively rubbished. It seems the shooters are prepared to sabotage the trial and the time, effort and money going into it to justify Victorian hatred of birds of prey, perhaps that’s the real ‘sport’ on grouse moors and shooting the grice is really secondary. RSPB needs to wake up, they’ve been incredibly accommodating and patient and all they have received in return is incessant abuse and knife in their back. Any cold comfort that the age old abuse was slowly dying away is unfounded and damaging. Thank you for these extremely well written and informative blogs Ruth.

  2. i) much focus on the 200 target: I know there has been discussion on previous figures regarding what is a sustainable figure, eg. 150 birds /ha, however the financials for this will be different for every estate and may have changed during the life of the project, dependent on type of ownership, level and duration of capital investment and return, revenue streams, predicted vs actual overheads etc. I think it’s difficult to simply dismiss a figure you don’t like without knowing how it was calculated and what wider factors were included in their calculation of what constitutes ‘viable’

    ii) a fair point is made on the cost of returning and maintaining SSSI condition as ‘favourable’ – either you have to reject NE’s management goals or come up with an alternative economic/business plan that doesn’t involve shooting.

    1. I haven’t dismissed the 200 birds/km2 target “because I don’t like it”, I’m questioning it because it seems illogical. Heather coverage at Langholm these days is significantly less extensive and more severely fragmented to what is was in the earlier ‘heydays’, so the target density should be adjusted accordingly.

      1. Ruth

        You have set out in great detail in these last two blogs the various issues you had with Sonja’s presentation.

        As a highly qualified ecologist, familiar with the history and objectives of Langholm, why didn’t you challenge during the Q&A session what you didn’t agree with, or seek clarification of what you felt Sonja hadn’t explained fully?

        1. Lazywell,

          Normally I would have asked but as I mentioned, the discussion was terminated by the Chair immediately after Mark Oddy stopped talking.

          1. Lazywell – you ought to have a word with Nick about that… He’d be welcome to a Guest Blog here.

          2. Ruth, I see from the programme that there was another period for ‘Discussion, questions and answers’ at the end of the seminar, when I guess you could have raised some of your concerns – whether in relation to Langholm, medicated grit, direct dosing, crypto or whatever.

            Mark, I will certainly relay your generous offer to Professor Sotherton; and then stand well back…

    2. It’s supposed to be a sport of kings, not princes and pauper’s if they can’t afford it jog on and leave it to those who can, should in no way be subsidised by tax payers money, bloody golf clubs and football clubs will be asking for hand outs next

  3. Wow! Leaving aside Oddy’s boorish behaviour towards Sonja Ludwig, I find it quite incredible that following his announcement, the chairman closed the discussion. There surely would have been plenty of questions provoked by his announcement.

    1. I think there are two ways of looking at it. The Chair has a responsibility to keep proceedings to time, and to be fair to Nick Sotherton, he did this impressively well throughout the day, aided by the speakers from GWCT who, on the whole, stuck to their allotted time. There’s nothing worse than having to listen to someone ramble on, way past their allotted finish time, with a mute Chair. I’ve seen this happen before, and in one instance, a speaker was allowed to continue for 25 minutes after his allotted time, which meant that the following speaker was bumped off the programme. Not good!

      On the other hand, I did wonder whether discussions were being deliberately stifled because I (and a colleague) was present. It’s hard to know and I’d probably give Nick the benefit of the doubt. Still, it didn’t stop some people making some fascinating comments!

  4. I think that it is time for an independent review of all the work around Langholm and the JRS. This review should also investigate the changes in habitats that are known to have occurred over the last few decades along with the amount of public money that has been spent on trying to restore these habitats and why this restoration has seemingly failed or been so slow to demonstrate an improvement. This review should also investigate and report on the suitability of the Langholm site as a “typical” grouse moor. It seems to me that its position in the landscape and the surrounding land-use is anything but typical.

    The comments on the Otterburn research are also interesting. I recall specialist staff from what was then English Nature saying that they had pointed out the weaknesses of the research proposals before the research commenced but that GCT opted not to act upon those comments. If those weaknesess remained then it may go some way to explaining why some people are less than accepting of the results.

  5. There’s a perfectly logical explanation for the increased target density. Costs will have risen significantly since the early 1990s – minimum wages, insurance, fuel, everything has gone up. £1000 in 1990 is £~1790 now. So the value of the product – in this case grouse shooting – must similarly rise in value to maintain the economic model. Quite possibly you need more grouse now than you did back then to generate the same level of income, ie you now need more grouse just to continue to break even.

    You could examine this hypothesis in two ways. One would be to look at the books at Langholm – easy if they co-operate, impossible if not. The other would be to see what densities are commercially viable across grouse shooting estates generally – if all now need at least 200 birds/sq km min, whereas back in the 90s they got by with 150, then we have our answer. If on the other hand there are plenty operating today at 150 birds/sq km or less… .

    Either way if I’m right then this demonstrates the financial unsustainability of grouse shooting – an argument for the economists that further intensification is essential to protect the industry, or for us that the sooner it’s ended the better before the damage escalates further. Higher stakes for both parties either way.

  6. It gets more frustrating the more you hear from the DGS industry. The old school keepers & land managers just don’t want predators full stop. Oddy’s lack of respect for the Q&A session was rude and typical of the hard core he represents. However it has told us an awful lot about where their intentions lie as regards to helping to help raptor numbers. The public face of the industry says they love raptors & want to see them soaring over the moors, but behind closed doors their plans are very different.

    The movement to ban DGS is accused of not being prepared to get involved and that dialogue and compromise is the only way forward, well I hope they can see from this that it’s obvious that it’s not possible until a new attitude is adopted from the DGS side.

  7. Ruth are you sure you didn’t stumble into a meeting of mafia dons?
    The godfather stepping in at the end and the secret coded words as if everything was bugged are clues.

  8. Have these grouse people ingested so much lead they are incapable of understanding any scientific information at all?!

  9. Are the higher target densities at Langholm related to commercial competition with the moors which have the higher densities quoted in the previous post and which are maintained by illegal and unsustainable management ? Why would SNH agree to these targets in the first place ?

    It is hard to believe that GWCT find it difficult to get good science peer reviewed or published because it is controversial. GWCT seem to be encouraging the view of Mark Oddy that, essentially, their only obstacle is political. To these folk of course, politics is what everyone else does.

  10. Fascinating stuff as usual, if only the badger’s would leave the goalposts alone, can now guess why no grouse were shot last year when the densities were higher than in the nineties, to leave a harvestable population on the moors was in the least irresponsible but came over more of a desperate attempt to scupper the programm, attract more predators and hope you get the rrrsults you wanted.

  11. I’m amused by Ruth’s outrage – I’ve been to too many meetings where scientists show off and compete with each other – and the elephant of the real issues stays firmly in the corner. At this meeting it tap danced right centre stage, and what an act !

    My reading is that Mark Oddy pretty effectively said that there cannot be commercially viable Grouse shooting without raptor persecution. Which may not be news to readers of this blog, but coming from the heart of the industry is a very significant statement which should be read alongside Defra’s eventual release of their Hen Harrier plan.

    And, Ruth, you are of course correct: Chatham House Rules are by mutual agreement of all parties and Mark Oddy’s claim that CHR should apply is meaningless.

  12. The most basic mistake these people are making is in believing (it’s their un-questioned assumption really) that we (human beings) have a right to try to screw some income out of any piece of land regardless of any ethical considerations.
    Land doesn’t owe us anything. If they bought it with that assumption then they’re wrong and need to be dis-abused of their blinkered view. If they inherited it, even more so. Stewards not plunderers. And as stewards they’ve un-utterably failed.

  13. Lazywell,

    As impressive as your time and motion study is, and as flattered as I am that you’d take such an interest in my activities, there’s just one flaw with your analysis. You’re assuming that I was still at the seminar for the final period of discussion, questions & answers. I wasn’t, I’d already left. Hopefully you won’t require a note.

  14. Aside from whether CHR apply or otherwise, to covertly record – it can only have been recorded verbatim – what seems to be the session in its entirety, and feed that to the frenzy of the likes of M Avery (with names etc.), is pretty underhand and murky, and doesn’t shed an especially positive light on Dr Tingay. I’m assuming that the attendees raised genuine questions in an open manner for a constructive, progressive dialogue. Recording and publishing without their consent – with all the accompanying spin – drives that discussion underground, and is not, if progress is your aim, a move to be welcomed.

    1. ANOther,

      I’m sure many in the grouse shooting industry would agree with you that reporting on what many attendees thought was a ‘closed door’ event is ‘not a move to be welcomed’.

      The fact is, it wasn’t a closed door event, it was a public event which I paid to attend. What’s ‘underhand and murky’ about reporting on it? (The irony of your choice of words isn’t lost on me!).

      My conscience is clear. It’s not my job to spare the blushes of an industry that is dependent on criminality and ecological destruction. And ‘the likes of M Avery’ (and others) seem to have appreciated my efforts if the contents of my inbox are a useful measure.

      Where else would they have learned that the (over)use of medicated grit has caused the cessation of the natural population cycling of red grouse? Or that the excessively high density of red grouse on driven grouse moors has a strong relationship with the spread of Cryptosporidiosis? Or that the GWCT’s ‘best practice’ advice on direct dosing, in circulation since 2004, has been illegal? Or that the GWCT’s Director of Research wants to keep questions about medicating red grouse “under the radar” for fear that the regulating authorities might twig to what’s been going on? Or that the GWCT’s claim that raptors are responsible for 90% of recorded red grouse deaths at Langholm is scientifically unproved? Or that Buccleuch Estates wants to start killing raptors at Langholm, without any scientific evidence to support it?

      Yep, I can see why some would prefer that all this hadn’t been reported.

      You’ll be thrilled to learn there’s more to come…”secret trapping trials” and requests for live wild mammals for such trials in exchange for money…..

  15. It should come as no surprise that the DGS fraternity should wish to manipulate Common Buzzards as well as Hen Harriers. They’ve been doing it for so long to another indigenous wild species – the Red Grouse – that they apparently see this as the natural thing to do. Looks as though they’ve now got Ravens in their sights too.

  16. Regardless of the current density target, or how it was set. There is no proof that the project is not commercially successful without trying to create income from selling days. I just do not understand the notion that it could not be viable.

    There is another angle of course which is drop most costs and have p/t keeper, lower density grouse and sell more small days for less. Economy would work but “style” of shoot wished would not.

    One point that I am sure is known but missed in this discussion is prey in diet is only part or predator effect. The point was raised about the disturbance caused to nests/chicks. This is also a common complaint with other pred-prey systems whether mammal or avian predators. The disturbance and fear effect can in some systems (not usually verts) have as big effect of repro output as predation mortality. As far as I know this remains unproven/untested in game birds.

    In some pred-prey, reindeer-wolf/lynx for example the main complaint is that the deer scatter and it makes work for the herder. With buzzards targetting a particular pen of pheasants the same. The difference is that the deer are legally livestock I guess.

    Not at all surprised by Oddy’s statement, they smell some political will I am sure.

    I assume/hope he only meant buzzards?


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