It is well known amongst sporting estates in Aberdeenshire that we have seen better years when it comes to our grouse population. We asked our Wildlife Manager, Colin, what the challenges can be surrounding grouse.
By Colin McClean, Wildlife Manager
“The post of Wildlife Manager on Glen Tanar is designed to try and balance the nature conservation interests of an internationally important wildlife site with the economically important sporting interests of a traditional Highland estate. This balance is probably at its trickiest where deer are concerned, but the concept of balance also raises issues for both grouse shooting and even salmon fishing.
The debate surrounding grouse moor management has been bitter and divisive. Jobs and economy on one side. Environmental damage and particularly raptor persecution ranged on the other. It's perhaps a dangerous path for this wee blog to tread. However GT has arguably maintained a very good balance where grouse shooting is concerned. For example we remain, unless others correct me, the only estate to have provided supplementary food for hen harriers and then successfully driven grouse in the same year. Hen harriers are very effective predators of grouse and can take grouse chicks in large numbers while raising their own brood. Supplementary feeding reduces this predation and, from our own observations during the photography of three harrier chicks, I estimate feeding reduced predation by some 200 young grouse. Glen Tanar can also boast of having successfully driven grouse in a year when 13 raptor species (including owls) all successfully bred and fledged young. That’s a pretty good balance by any standards.
Glen Tanar Estate has a diverse, multi-objective economy and grouse shooting is a relatively small part of the picture. Consequently we are about as unintensive a grouse moor as you can get. We control foxes and crows for a range of conservation objectives, with capercaillie protection being the most important. This undoubtedly benefits grouse but no other predator is ever killed here. In recent years we have burnt very little heather on moorland as we have concentrated burning around the forest edge in an attempt to create better seed bed conditions and therefore enable the forest to spread. Consequently our hills are clad in quite old heather which is great for nesting grouse and other birds, but not so nutritious for grouse to feed on. We have tried the use of a small amount of medicated grit but our hills are made of grit and the grouse look down their beaks at our offering and pick up natural grit from roadsides and peat banks. Medicated grit has been shown to break the natural cycle which grouse populations tend to go through.
Grouse numbers tend to oscillate from high to low and back again over a roughly 7 year cycle and disease is often a driver for this cycle. Medicated grit can wipe out the parasite which causes the disease and grouse numbers can therefore remain high for much longer periods. However the application of sufficient medicated grit to have the desired effect requires time and effort that we can’t spare so it's not something we have tried hard to do. Having said all that, grouse naturally like our heather dominated open hills and do well here, such that in most years there is a small surplus we can shoot. Even a small surplus of grouse generates very welcome income. There is after all, nothing that generates cash in the Highland hills better than grouse. Some might argue that windmills would challenge that last statement, but we are in the Cairngorms National Park and windmill construction on any large scale is not an option.
After seven good grouse years by our standards, in 2017 our grouse population sank into the blanket bog. The sizeable, healthy looking stock which we saw over winter, vanished without much trace, leaving only grouse ghosts cackling faintly in the mist. Disease appears to have swept through our birds in spring and then late April snow knocked a lot of nesting attempts firmly on the head. The few adults which were left produced even fewer chicks and there was a strong argument for shooting none at all. However we have many regular guests who come and stay in holiday cottages and whose trip highlight is a small grouse shoot, so we decided to eke out a reduced cull by using pointer dogs. These dogs are large, long legged beasts with incredible stamina and forensic noses. Fitted with GPS collars, we know they run for 30km a day and still look for more action. They are ideal for finding birds at low density as they will range over a huge area and when they detect a scent they stand stock still, pointing with their noses at where they think the birds are. Of course the grouse then quite often make a run for it, scuttling unseen through the heather, so the dog may end up pointing in the wrong direction. That’s all part of the game.
In recent weeks we have enjoyed the company of deer stalking guests from Scotland, England, Austria, Holland, Switzerland, USA and we have French, Germans and Danes to come. Deer stalking does its bit to alleviate Brexit. Grouse shooting on the other hand is a very British affair with our only “foreign” guests coming from Ireland. Big bags are not essential and most of our guests are happy to spend a day chatting to friends in beautiful surroundings while watching the dogs tirelessly work. Perhaps only 10-20 birds will be shot.
But amidst the chat and the income, the debate surrounding grouse shooting rages on. Jobs and economy on one side, raptor persecution on the other. Political scrutiny is now intense. For me there is little political threat to grouse shooting provided the sector obeys the law of the land. There are far too many jobs involved for politicians to take action lightly. However obeying the law is a must and this remains a challenge for some. The recent review of satellite tagging of golden eagles shows an unambiguous pattern of regular disappearances above grouse moors when they rarely disappear over anywhere else. For me it's not the RSPB or campaigners like Chris Packham or Mark Avery who threaten grouse shooting. They are just campaigning for the law to be obeyed. The threat to grouse shooting comes from those who refuse to abide by the law and continue to persecute raptors. If a ban ever does come about, then the responsibility for losing all the traditions, all the economy and all the jobs will lie entirely at their door."