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Gamekeepers rule roost in 25-year conservation test

Scotland’s heather-clad hills and many of their threatened bird species are best protected by human intervention, a report has found.

For nearly 30 years an expanse of moorland in the south of the country has been at the centre of the most heated conservation debate in Scotland.

A project started 25 years ago by the then Duke of Buccleuch has been determining whether maintaining grouse moorland could be commercially viable while at the same time protecting birds of prey such as hen harriers and other raptors. The Langholm Moor initiative involved traditional heather burning, sections of the moor being left untended and leaving dead rats around hen harrier nests to discourage them from eating grouse.

The project’s final report, published yesterday, concluded that gamekeeping had improved the fortunes of a range of bird species and restored heather that had been lost for decades.

The Langholm Moor Demonstration Project, a partnership of various groups, said efforts to strike a balance between conservation and grouse control had been “markedly successful”. It included reduced predation of ground-nesting birds and tackling heather loss. About 75 per cent of all the heather moorland in Europe is in Scotland.

The grouse population on Langholm’s 25,000 acres also benefited, but did not recover enough for commercial shooting. The birds failed to breed sufficiently to “achieve the chosen economic return”. The project was unable to identify ways to allow birds of prey to flourish while running an economically viable grouse shoot.

Mark Oddy, of the project hosts Buccleuch, said it was clear that the report showed moorland management had a “positive and substantial contribution” to make. “It was heartening to see the environmental and conservation benefits of moorland management highlighted,” he said.

Ross Johnston, Scottish Natural Heritage’s deputy director of sustainable growth, said that driven grouse moor management was difficult in the face of “predation pressure”.

Duncan Orr-Ewing, head of land at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, who represented the RSPB on the project’s board, said: “The project has mostly been successful. In terms of delivering for birds of prey and wading birds, the project largely hit its targets.”

A joint statement from pro-shooting groups, including the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association and Scottish Countryside Alliance, described the report as a “watershed” moment which showed the conservation value of grouse moor management. They said: “This project showed that gamekeepers using modern management techniques improved populations of curlew, golden plover and snipe when they are declining nationally. Predator control also protected breeding hen harriers.”

A Scottish government review of grouse moor management is expected to be published later this year.

This article originally appeared on The Times.


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