William Powell Country

The Golden Hand of Gamekeepers


Article written by 16 August 2012

The golden hand of gamekeepers ensure golden plovers flourish on grouse moors.

A major, breakthrough study by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) has shown beyond doubt that managed grouse moors conserve upland wading birds such as golden plover, lapwing and curlew very effectively, while elsewhere in comparable habitat they continue to decline in numbers or are absent entirely.

The GWCT’s nine-year Upland Predation Study (see note 1) showed:

• The breeding success of curlew, golden plover and lapwing was three times better when some generalist predators such as foxes and crows were controlled on the moor by gamekeepers.

• Breeding numbers of lapwing, golden plover and curlew (all birds of conservation concern) increased in years following predator control but declined in other years.

• The concentration of moorland breeding waders in the North Pennines, which is almost entirely managed for grouse shooting, appears to be a direct result of grouse moor management and has led to its designation as a Special Protection Area.

Following this study a recent RSPB research report has highlighted the value of legal predator control in protecting moorland waders. Now GWCT work is showing how the conservation value of grouse moors can be further enhanced for the benefit of both wildlife and people.

A novel development in grouse moor management is ‘medicated grit’ (see note 2), which reduces the incidence of potentially lethal infestations of the strongyle worm and improves grouse breeding success. Dr David Baines, GWCT’s Upland Research Director, says, “Viable grouse moors pay for the effective conservation of large numbers of golden plover, curlew and lapwing which are declining or absent everywhere else. Medicated grit allows more predictable grouse densities across years, thus allowing more predictable shooting, as opposed to the age old boom and bust of population cycles. This predictability reduces the risk of grouse moors falling into a ‘predation trap’, where grouse numbers remain too low for viable grouse moor management.”

Medicated grit therefore helps avoid the risk of investment in moorland management being withdrawn because grouse shooting is no longer viable. But with such a powerful tool comes responsibility:

“GWCT would like to celebrate the success of medicated grit and use it to encourage more holistic management of the moorland environment as a whole,” David Baines continues.

The Trust would like moor-owners to consider:

• The many examples set by those that are undertaking ‘best practice’ management of more sensitive habitats on the moor by not maximising grouse production on all areas. This could include the relaxation of more intensive burning on areas of blanket peat to favour carbon retention, or creating pockets of scrub on the moor fringes for endangered black grouse.

• Sensible harvesting levels based on robust grouse counts that retain grouse at optimal stocking levels the following spring that promote successful breeding and risk of density related disease outbreak.

• Careful monitoring of worm burdens, if need be aided by GWCT, to allow decisions to be made on whether medication is necessary in any particular year.

Dr Baines concludes, “It would be sad if we lost a significant fraction of our bird life through want of a little wildlife management. The evidence from our research is that such losses are not inevitable and the North Pennines, which is almost entirely managed for grouse shooting and hosts high concentrations of waders, including golden plovers and lapwing stands as a testament to the difference game management can make to conservation in the uplands.”


  1. The GWCT’s Upland Predation Experiment: was published in the science publication, the Journal of Applied Ecology. For nine years, scientists from the GWCT, a leading UK research charity looked into the effects of predator control, practiced by moorland gamekeepers on the breeding success of threatened moorland wading birds.  The Upland Predation Experiment was one of the longest running studies of its kind ever undertaken.  The research showed that for the first time that the control of common predators such as crows and foxes significantly  improves by more than three times, the breeding success of curlew, lapwing and golden plover – all species of conservation concern.  The results have important implications for the future of bird conservation in the uplands.
  2. Medicated Grit: One of the Trust’s primary achievements in the uplands within recent years has been the development of a new improved form of medicated grit, together with a more effective delivery system in regularly spaced, twin-chambered boxes. This system, now practiced annually on 95% of driven moors, appears to have radically reduced strongyle worm burdens and improved grouse breeding success. Given the regular cyclical four to five year fluctuations in grouse numbers in northern England, this year was predicted to be a crash year when parasitic worms would peak and cause huge grouse mortality through strongylosis. Not only did this not happen, but also grouse were sufficiently fit to withstand the severe snow, then rain to produce moderate broods. Although average brood size was perhaps one to 1.5 chicks down on last year’s record, the high pair density in the spring generally meant that overall densities in July were broadly comparable with those in 2011. Other compelling evidence of the effectiveness of grit came from the few moors which either don’t use medicated grit, or if they do, then don’t provide sufficient gritting sites relative to the elevated grouse densities of recent years. Here losses of up to 50% of adults between April and July were attributed to strongylosis.

Credit: http://www.gwct.org.uk/


Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust

The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust is the leading UK charity conducting scientific research to enhance the British countryside for public benefit. Read more.

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