Why grouse shooting is so important to moorland management - Adrian Blackmore, Countryside Alliance
It is not a stand-alone activity, it is part of a complex system of integrated moorland management that delivers environmental, economic, and social impacts. This year-round management of moorland for grouse comes at a considerable cost to the landowner, and it is underpinned by the income generated through the sale of driven grouse shooting.
Red grouse are a wild bird unique to the United Kingdom, and unlike pheasant and partridge their population is not maintained or increased by the release of birds reared in captivity. Nesting on the ground, they are particularly vulnerable to predators, disease, weather, and loss of suitable habitat, and their numbers can fluctuate dramatically from one year to the next, and area to area, resulting in some years when some moors may have insufficient stocks to allow any shooting to take place; as has been the case this year. Regardless of this, the crucial habitat management and legal control of predators continues, and it is thanks to this management that grouse moors are home to an increasingly rare assemblage of plants, animals and invertebrates. This assemblage is unique, and typically represents a net gain in biodiversity and abundance over moorland that is not managed for driven grouse shooting.
A habitat of considerable international importance, 75 per cent of the world’s remaining heather moorland is found in upland Britain, and it is widely recognised that grouse shooting has been instrumental in protecting it. It is no coincidence that 70 per cent of England’s upland Sites of Special Scientific Interest are managed grouse moors, and over 40 per cent are also designated as Special Protection Areas (SPA) for rare birds, and Special Areas of Conservation for rare vegetation.
The management of heather is vital not just for the benefit of red grouse, but also for other species of ground nesting birds that share this habitat to breed. Scientific research has shown that where their numbers are carefully controlled, curlew and lapwing are 3.5 times more likely to successfully raise chicks, and their densities, along with those of golden plover and redshank, have also been found to be up to five times greater on moorland that is managed for grouse. Curlew is our bird of the highest conservation concern. But when that management ceases, declines are to be expected
The controlled rotational cool burns of heather on small areas of shallow peat is carried out to increase the diversity of heather age and structure, ensuring there is a mixture of older heather for protection and nesting, younger heather for feeding, and a fresh burn where regrowth is just starting. This, along with projects to revegetate areas of bare peat, and the blocking of government-incentivised drains that were originally dug to increase agricultural activity, also encourages the growth of peat forming sphagnum moss which slows the flow of surface water and filters out discolouration, helping make our moors wetter. The aim is to have the widest possible range of biodiversity, with the full range of habitats required; not a monoculture of heather. Old woody heather is also a major wildfire risk, and the removal of fuel load creates fire breaks, and helps preserve the carbon locked up in the underlying peat. Despite the obvious benefits of this, there remain those calling for a ban on all burning. Calls that are irresponsible as the damage caused by wildfires is devastating and there is an increased risk of these with climate change.
Driven grouse shooting is the main economic driver for many upland communities, benefiting a wide range of rural businesses including game dealers, accommodation providers, equipment suppliers, catering establishments and transport operators based in remote rural locations. Providing both full-time and seasonal local employment, it creates strong networks and the most positive economic impact to some of our most isolated parts of the United Kingdom. Driven grouse shooting also has an extremely important part to play socially, as it involves whole communities, and the improved physical and mental wellbeing they enjoy as a result; factors that are all too often overlooked.
The environmental, economic and social benefits of driven grouse shooting are indisputable, and it is these three dimensions that are at the core of mainstream sustainability identified by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
Adrian Blackmore is director of the Countryside Alliance Campaign for Shooting.