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?