Matt Ridley

Don’t grouse about grouse

Grouse moors, like big-game hunting in Zimbabwe, boost biodiversity as well as creating good jobs

Don’t grouse about grouse
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The vast Bubye Valley Conservancy in southern Zimbabwe is slightly larger than County Durham, as well as much hotter and drier. Yet both contain abundant wildlife thanks almost entirely to the hunting of game. In Bubye Valley, it’s lions and buffalo that are the targets; in the Durham dales, it’s grouse. But the effect is the same — a spectacular boost to other wildlife, privately funded.

Bubye Valley was a cattle ranch, owned by Unilever, until 1994 when it was turned over to wildlife. A double electric fence was put round the entire 850,000-acre reserve. Gradually the buffalo, giraffe, wildebeest, zebra and antelope numbers grew. Elephants and rhinos were moved there from areas more vulnerable to poaching, and the conservancy now has the third-largest black rhino population in the world. Seventeen lions were introduced and there are now more than 500 — so many that they are reducing the numbers of cheetahs and wild dogs as well as their normal prey, and may need to be culled.

Being hot, dry and featureless, the thick bush of Bubye Valley does not make good photo-tourism country, so the reserve derives income from selling licences to rich hunters to stalk and shoot buffalo, lion and other species. Shocking? No: the income from the licences — as well as the meat — is shared with local communities, and goes to build clinics and schools. The conservancy also employs hundreds of people. This is a self-funding conservation triumph in which the rich pay and the poor benefit.

It’s the same all over the world: properly controlled hunting provides an incentive and a reward for conservation. One cold, foggy morning in early May this year, at 4 a.m., I was sitting in a little tent on a Durham moor watching what I think is Britain’s most spectacular wildlife sight: the lek, or communal display, of male black grouse. As more than 25 black-and-white cocks with red eyebrows strutted their stuff just a few yards from where I sat, I was serenaded by curlews, golden plovers, lapwings, snipe, redshanks, oyster-catchers, red grouse, partridge, skylarks, cuckoos and many other birds.

The reason for this extraordinary abundance, which you would not find in the hills of Wales, Dartmoor or the Lake District, is simple — gamekeepers. Grouse moors have a zero-tolerance policy towards foxes, crows, magpies and stoats, all of which eat the eggs and chicks of ground-nesting birds. In Britain today, where the number of crows and foxes has rocketed because of road kill, landfill and a lack of natural predators, ground-nesting birds cannot thrive without human intervention.

It is thanks to gamekeepers that black grouse numbers, after declining for decades, have almost doubled in recent years in the Pennines. With the help of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, black grouse are beginning to recolonise dales from which they were lost decades ago.

On another North Pennine moor, a survey of breeding birds was carried out this spring. The results have gobsmacked conservationists. On this one grouse moor, there were at least 400 pairs of curlews breeding. This is about as many as in the whole of Wales. There were 800 pairs of lapwings, 100 pairs of golden plovers, 50 pairs of oyster-catchers, 40 pairs of redshanks, 200 pairs of snipe, 50 pairs of woodcocks, 60 pairs of common sandpipers.

In the early 2000s, at Otterburn in Northumberland, the trust did a neat experiment in which two areas had gamekeepers and two did not, then they swapped for four years. The results were astonishing. With gamekeepers, the breeding success of golden plovers, curlews and lapwings more than doubled, and their numbers rocketed.

All these birds thrive in the Pennines (and the Angus glens of Scotland) precisely because red grouse, the sportsman’s quarry, also thrive in the absence of their nest predators. As well as tasting delicious, red grouse are ornithologically special: arguably the British Isles’ only endemic bird, found nowhere else in the world. Officially a subspecies of the willow grouse, they look very different (refusing to go white in winter, for example) and have uniquely adapted to a diet of heather, a plant that also thrives here more than anywhere else.

To have developed techniques of moorland management, including heather-burning and the control of ticks and parasitic worms, that allow red grouse to thrive wild in numbers that rival the wildebeest of the Serengeti is an achievement in itself. To have done so while benefiting other wildlife and providing employment and welcome income to the dales and glens is magnificent.

Grouse shooting has saved this special habitat, with its rare mosses, spiders and moths, from being ruined, while making very little demand on the taxpayer — indeed while paying hefty taxes. Managing heather moorland for grouse means not planting it with subsidised Sitka spruce trees, or over-grazing it with subsidised sheep, or wrecking it with subsidised windmills.

It is a myth, by the way, that moorland is worse at retaining water and preventing flooding than forest. Spruce plantations in the peaty uplands lack absorbent mossy undergrowth and are scarred by deep ditches, which increase the rate of runoff during storms. Moorland owners have blocked the ditches they were bribed to dig in the 1970s. They now look with bemusement across the fence at the Forestry Commission digging new ditches in deep peat — for which they would be prosecuted if they did it.

Other rare, red-listed birds are also thriving on this one moor, which is typical of all the North Pennine grouse moors in its wildlife: cuckoos, ring ouzels, tree pipits, whinchats, pied flycatchers, marsh tits. And merlins — Britain’s smallest and rarest falcon is doing well here, watched over by gamekeepers in case egg collectors come calling. Merlins rarely succeed in breeding if foxes or crows are on the prowl.

The same is true of hen harriers, the bird that the RSPB makes a huge fuss about because it alleges that gamekeepers persecute them — as some may occasionally do, because hen harriers like to congregate in small breeding colonies and eat grouse. Hen harriers, which are ground-nesting birds vulnerable to foxes, are thriving in Scotland, especially on fox-free islands such as the Orkneys or in places where gamekeepers control fox numbers. But they have struggled to recolonise England. An experiment in the 1990s at Langholm in southern Scotland proved the point: when hen harriers increased, grouse numbers crashed, so gamekeepers lost their jobs, at which point foxes returned and hen harrier numbers also crashed.

Last year 12 hen harriers nested in England. The seven nests under the control of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds reared just one chick. The other five nests, not controlled by the RSPB, reared 17 chicks. Yet the RSPB has the cheek to lecture private landowners on how to protect hen harriers.

You will hear little of this from the BBC. An independent review of the BBC’s impartiality by Heather Hancock, now chairman of the Food Standards Agency, in 2014 found that BBC newsrooms had an unhealthy dependence on the RSPB’s vast press operation for all of their countryside coverage. Chris Packham, a BBC presenter and vice-president of the RSPB, goes around demanding that the ‘evil’ pastime of grouse shooting be banned, apparently indifferent to the collapse in numbers of curlews and black grouse that would undoubtedly follow. (The BBC has now announced that it has launched an investigation into Packham’s outbursts, following a complaint from the Countryside Alliance.)

Throughout the world, hunters benefit conservation. In America, this is explicitly recognised, with hunting licence fees used to fund conservation. Even the International Union for the Conservation of Nature recognises that ‘recreational hunting can contribute to biodiversity conservation’. In Africa, the contrast is stark between Kenya, which banned hunting in 1977 and has seen its wildlife populations plunge by 70 per cent, and Namibia, which encourages trophy hunting and has seen wildlife populations increase steadily.

Yet far from being thanked for their efforts, the conservationists of Bubye Valley and the Durham dales are under almost constant attack from animal-welfare groups and their allies in government and the media. The critics hate the idea that rich people are pouring millions into saving the best habitats and species in exchange for harvesting some free-range meat. They seem to prefer conservation fully nationalised and bloodless, even if unsuccessful.

Neither lions nor grouse can control their populations when habitat is limited, other than by starvation and disease. Human hunting, especially if the rich pay and the income is captured by locals and invested in wildlife, is morally, economically and environmentally a better solution. Many of those who shoot and eat grouse this month will do so precisely because of, not despite, the fact that they are keen conservationists.