Two years after the official launch of the £3million Langholm Moor Demonstration Project (LMDP), Shooting Times visited the site to find that the latest figures show that red grouse numbers on the Dumfriesshire moor have already doubled.

“The project is on target and the local community is very excited about the prospect of seeing more grouse back on the moor,” said LMDP’s chief scientist Damian Bubb. Grouse have been counted within the same 10 50-hectare areas every spring and summer since 1992. “We are still analysing the grouse count data from this year, but the counts are just over double the number we counted last year, though we’re still at a relatively low density. The breeding success has also improved compared with last year from 3.1 young per hen to 4.6 this year,” added Damian.

The 10-year project, which is funded by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), Buccleuch Estates, the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), the RSPB and Natural England, aims to reconcile grouse moor and raptor interests with the core objective of re-establishing the Duke of Buccleuch’s moor as a driven grouse shoot, producing an annual income in excess of £100,000 (the project costs around £300,000 per year and it is hoped that the projected income will reduce the net cost) while maintaining a viable population of hen harriers.

The moor has also successfully supported five hen harrier chicks this year. “The harriers are now fully fledged and the chicks are testing their wings with lots of aerial tomfoolery,” explained headkeeper Simon Lester. “We only had one nest this year. Last year, we had two and fledged nine chicks, the most there had been for many years. It was a direct result of removing a lot of foxes. The young birds will soon leave the moor to establish territories elsewhere, but they have all been wing tagged, which will help to record returning birds.”

Simon was appointed to the project after seven years as headkeeper at the wild bird shoot at Holkham Hall, in Norfolk. “Some moorland keepers viewed the LMDP with great suspicion. A few also questioned my suitability for the project, as I had only ever keepered on lowground shoots. But the principles of conserving wild grey partridge can also be applied to grouse. What’s more, I’ve been fortunate enough to receive a lot of help and advice from Brian Mitchell, Buzz McNeill and Kevin Hay, all former keepers on the moor, as well as Alan Edwards, who represents the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation on the project’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Group. I’m also used to working with harriers. We had 30 pairs of marsh harriers at Holkham and I know how detrimental they can be to wild game.”

Returning to its former glory

So when does the team expect to resume shooting on a moor that was once so prolific it recorded a record bag of 1,261 brace in a day in 1911? “I think it is important to shoot as soon as we have enough grouse, otherwise we may lose credibility within the shooting community,” Simon explained.

Project manager Graeme Dalby commented that it is difficult to predict when it will be possible to shoot. “We will consider spring counts and July counts carefully before making any decisions on starting shooting,” he said. “I know that some of the Pennine moors can recover from low populations within a couple of years following crashes. As Langholm is an isolated moor, we do not benefit from surrounding areas being heavily staffed by keepers, so our increases may be slower.”

The project is based on Langholm Moor partly because it was the principal site for a previous project, the Joint Raptor Study (JRS), between 1992 and 1997, and scientific monitoring has continued throughout the intervening years. “I am keen to stress that the LMDP is not a repeat of the JRS,” said Simon. During the JRS, hen harrier numbers increased, peaking at 20 breeding females in 1997. Due to predation by hen harriers and other raptors, red grouse showed a corresponding decline in numbers and, as a result of the reduction in grouse numbers, the estate redeployed or laidoff the gamekeepers and management of the moor largely stopped. “The 10 years between the two projects shocked everyone. Left unmanaged, Langholm supported very few grouse and hen harriers. There was also a steep decline in wader numbers,” said Simon. “A lot of people have written Langholm off, which only makes me more determined to revitalise the moor so that we can rigorously test diversionary feeding and gain a greater understanding of the predator/prey relationship.”

In addition to predator control, heather burning and the use of medicated grit to control strongyle worms, food is given to the hen harriers to reduce predation on grouse. The diversionary food is put out during the period when the hen has hatched her eggs and, having lost up to half her body weight and with a hungry family to feed, tends to target grouse chicks, which are easy prey. Last year, more than 1,000 day-old cockerel chicks and white rats were taken from the feeding posts by the harriers. Nests were watched to identify prey delivered to the harrier chicks and the majority were passerines (54 per cent) or diversionary food (23 per cent).

No grouse or grouse chicks were recorded being brought to the harrier nests, though grouse are still at low numbers.

“It’s early days, and we need more grouse and more harriers to be able to test properly the effectiveness of diversionary feeding,” said Simon. “But, from what I have witnessed, it seems to have worked so far. Buzzards and peregrines have killed more grouse than the hen harriers have. The logistics of getting to the nests to monitor them will also become more of an issue when we get more harrier nests.

“If any keepers are interested in looking at using this management tool on their moors, there is an open invitation for them to come up to Langholm to see how it works for themselves,” said Simon.

Providing a model for the future

The RSPB’s spokesman for the LMDP, Duncan Orr-Ewing, concurred. “The project is arguably the most important project in the UK uplands at the moment,” he said. “We hope that practical measures will emerge from the project, which will allow sustainable driven grouse shooting to be practised, using legal management techniques and co-exisiting with healthy hen harrier populations. The LMDP could provide a blueprint for other grouse moors to follow in the future.”

The team have had to overcome various setbacks, including heather beetle destroying 20 per cent of the heather, which provides a valuable food source and cover for grouse. But Simon remains optimistic that Langholm’s heather can slowly be restored. “Sometimes I do feel a little daunted by the task. I recently returned from a two-week holiday to find a lot of the heather had been beetled. A tinge of browning heather has turned into a full-scale heather beetle attack,” he said.

“It has devastated both young and old heather over square kilometres of the moor. What should by now be a landscape bathed in purple is a dull red-brown and the affected area is increasing day by day. Yes, it is upsetting, but I would feel much more discouraged if this had happened in year seven or eight of the project. We have many years ahead of us to resolve this issue.”

Livestock overgrazing and restrictions on heather burning have also impeded the heather’s restoration. A group of 40 Scottish Government officials currently reviewing the law on heather burning and other environmental issues toured the moor on 7 August to see how critical it is to give land managers more flexibility to maintain healthy moorland. It was also an opportunity for the team to explain the importance of predator control and, in particular, Simon explained how important the use of snares is to control foxes.

“We cannot use insecticides on the beetle, as it would kill off all the insects that feed the chicks. The only way is to burn the heather so that regeneration is rapid. We will have to wait until October to start burning again, because in Scotland — unlike England — it is not possible to burn out of season,” said Simon.

Due to the beetle attack, the only food now available for sheep is the fresh, young heather emerging on the burned sites, which is quickly destroyed when stock is left to graze on it. “I have been delighted by the response of the shepherds, as they have acted quickly to remove their sheep before they cause too much damage,” said Simon.

In the next few years, Buccleuch Estates is hoping to secure Scottish Rural Development Programme funding, so that more access tracks can be created throughout the moor. “At the moment, much of the moor is inaccessible. The site is 25,000 acres so we need more than the limited tracks we currently have. This means that even the simplest of tasks can take hours to complete, which is not a constructive use of our time,” said Simon.

The team of scientists and keepers working on the project are passionate about finding a solution to a difficult problem. Duncan Orr-Ewing added that the project has brought conservationists and shooters together. “So far the project has been successful on a number of fronts,” he said. “We have keepers, Buccleuch Estates, GWCT and RSPB staff as well as local Raptor Study Group volunteers working together in a spirit of mutual respect and co-operation on the ground.”

For more information, visit www.langholmproject.com.