To broaden my understanding of the conservation work that is going on around me, I visited Langholm Moor in Dumfries and Galloway. The moor is a man-made habitat and has been completely deforested. It is home to an ongoing project to resolve the controversy regarding raptors and grouse. Grouse shooting is the main source of income for the site, and raptors such as the Red-listed Hen Harrier are being persecuted for predating on multiple grouse species. I got to meet Simon Lester, one of the site’s gamekeepers until his recent retirement. He showed me round the site and explained some of the problems the moor is experiencing.
The Demonstration Project on the moor aims to restore “grouse moor management… as a way of meeting the conservation objectives of the site” (Langholm Moor Demonstration Project, 2010). There are several elements to the programme:
The habitat will be controlled using measures such as heather burning, heather restoration and control of livestock and feral goats. The heather is burnt down for several reasons. Simon explained that the grouse can only feed on heather when it is cut short. Also, heavy grazing from livestock in past years has severely reduced the quality of the heather that grows on the moor, so it is regularly reseeded and sprayed with fertiliser. I asked Simon how he controls the burning process, as it seems an extreme way to manage heather growth. In response, he said burning is a lot easier than cutting, but occasionally they do lose control of the flames. The process needs to be carefully planned and carried out over time in a mosaic pattern, so as to keep a variety of heather plots of different ages.
There are now no sheep present on the moor, but a small population of feral goats remains. In past years a mass culling of some four hundred individuals was carried out, leaving two hundred goats remaining. While the population size has now undoubtedly increased since then, goats are a lot less damaging to vegetation than sheep who, to quote George Monbiot, leave the habitat “sheep-wrecked” (Monbiot, G., 2013).
Another part of the project involves controlling populations of predators that prey on the grouse. While common species such as foxes, crows and stoats are culled on site, protected species such as the hen harrier are unaffected. Simon showed me a snare used to trap foxes. By law, the snares need to have stops fitted, which lock the snare mechanism and avoid strangling the animal. Simon makes a daily round of some three hundred snares, and shoots any trapped foxes he finds. This is a more humane approach to dealing with the problem, a combination of the stop-fitted snares and a quick death.
Measures to control disease amongst grouse have been put into place on the moor. Simon explained how birds such as grouse digest the fibrous food they eat by swallowing grit found naturally on moorland. To combat the nematode worm Trichostrongylus, which has a devastating effect on grouse numbers, gamekeepers provide the birds with medicated grit, which protects them against infection and prevents crashes in populations. However, as stated on the Raptor Persecution Scotland blog (2015), grouse often deposit faecal matter in the grit boxes, which can result in the spreading of disease. When I visited Langholm Moor, there was faeces present in the box Simon showed us, suggesting perhaps that there are flaws to the plan and in fact disease can still be spread even with the medicated grit.
Another measure to conserve the grouse on the moor is diversionary feeding. This involves providing food for nesting hen harriers to deter them from predating on grouse chicks. For the first two to three months of the breeding period, gamekeepers provide carrion – namely rats and cockerel chicks from nearby farms – for the harriers to lessen grouse predation. This seems effective, but Simon told us the technique doesn’t actually affect grouse numbers, as the population tends to decrease in winter not summer. Therefore, the expense required to feed the harriers seems largely wasteful, if there is no measured improvement in grouse stock.
So where does Simon want the project to go? He wants to see all buzzards killed, as the species is so abundant. The priority on the moor is grouse, and any species that threatens its wellbeing is either culled or, in the case of the protected hen harrier, discouraged from including grouse in their diet.
After visiting Langholm Moor, I am left with mixed feelings. Simon seemed such a passionate naturalist with knowledge of a broad range of species, yet he supports the death of a native British species for sport. The grouse that are shot on the moor are left where they fall, not even eaten. I am not a vegetarian, and believe that we as a race were designed to eat meat, but killing animals for the pleasure alone is a travesty. How different is this to poaching lions? Money changes hands, a bullet is fired. Perhaps I have not yet grasped the full intentions of the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project, but from what I have learnt on the trip and during my research for this post, I have come to the conclusion that sustaining an area of upland moor by shooting a species that lives in it, seems a very sad way to maintain our country’s biodiversity. It just goes to show how little our government cares for wildlife, when grouse shooting is the only source of income for a site of nature.
- Langholm Moor Demonstration Project (2010) Project Detail. Available at: http://www.langholmproject.com/project.html (Accessed: 26 February 2016)
- Monbiot, G. (2013) Feral. London: Penguin Books Ltd.
- Raptor Persecution Scotland (2015) The red grouse and medicated grit scandal: it’s hard to swallow. Available at: https://raptorpersecutionscotland.wordpress.com/2015/10/06/the-red-grouse-and-medicated-grit-scandal-its-hard-to-swallow/ (Accessed: 28 February 2016)