Adrian Blackmore: Grouse moors are facing a red tape threat

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HEATHER moorland is rich in wildlife and biodiversity and is a resource of international importance. The management of moorland for grouse shooting has helped to conserve this unique landscape in the UK where elsewhere it has been lost.

Three-quarters of remaining heather moorland is found in Britain. Almost half our grouse moors are designated as Special Protection Areas for the rare birds they support, and as Special Areas of Conservation for the variety of plant species under European wildlife directives.

More than 70 per cent of grouse moors are also Sites of Special Scientific Interest, and 45 per cent of them carry all three of those designations, with the regulatory framework that comes with them. Why then should the RSPB feel it necessary for Parliament to introduce, after the next election, a licensing system to govern grouse moor management?

Over the past century considerable areas of heather have been lost through over-grazing, afforestation and encroachment by bracken, but in recent years grouse moor owners have been responsible for regenerating and recovering over 217,000 acres. However, heather also needs to be managed, as old woody stems have no nutritional value to grazing animals and are a serious wildfire risk. Management therefore includes the regulated, controlled, rotational burning of small areas of heather to produce a “patchwork” of young shoots for food whilst leaving older stands for nesting cover; a practice which benefits many species of threatened ground-nesting birds in addition to grouse.

Those ground-nesting birds also benefit from the legal control of predators that is undertaken on grouse moors. Foxes, stoats, weasels and carrion crows all take eggs and young chicks, and scientific research has shown that where these predators are carefully controlled, curlew and lapwing are three and a half times more likely to raise chicks to fledging. Their densities, along with those of golden plover and redshank, have also been found to be as much as five times greater on managed grouse moors than unmanaged moorland. Given that heather moorland managed for grouse shooting accounts for just a fifth of the uplands of England and Wales, these figures are significant.

As well as regenerating an area of heather the size of Birmingham in the past 100 years, grouse moor owners have blocked over 1,250 miles of drainage ditches to help lock up more carbon and created thousands of small ponds and scrapes which not only help amphibians, insects and water voles, but trap sediment, slow down run-off, and reduce potential flood risk below the moor edge.

All this work is carried out thanks to the red grouse, a totally wild game bird which is unique to our heather moorlands. Unlike pheasant and partridge, it is not possible to maintain or increase its population by the release of birds which have been hatched or reared in captivity. The only way to do so is through careful management. This comes at a considerable financial cost, but when there is a sustainable surplus of grouse to allow shooting to take place without impacting on breeding stocks, the sale of shooting days can be used to offset those costs; costs that would otherwise make that management financially unviable.

There are 175 grouse moors in England and Wales, and their owners spend in excess of £52.5m each year on their management, of which 90 per cent is privately invested. The majority of that spend benefits the rural economy, and with over 1,520 full-time equivalent jobs being supported it is easy to see why it is the main economic driver in so many of our upland communities.

The RSPB’s wish to see grouse moors licensed has nothing to do with the considerable benefits that are already being delivered – benefits that are not replicated elsewhere in the uplands. Rather it is to do with the lack of hen harrier breeding success on grouse moors. But breeding success is no better on the remaining four-fifths of our English uplands.

No one disagrees that there should be more hen harriers in Britain. It is after all a species that is at home in many different environments, native in over 120 countries worldwide and with a global population of some 1.3m. However, the RSPB’s wish to introduce more bureaucratic red tape through licensing is not the way ahead.

Adrian Blackmore is director of shooting at the Countryside Alliance.