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Grouse and Deer on the Moor

Shooting

Article written by 13 September 2012

I am not sure why someone with as little knowledge as I have about deer have been asked to talk to such a knowledgeable conference.

What expertise I have is limited to the optimisation of grouse numbers on heather moorland in both the north of England and Scotland. As a result of that experience, I have obviously become involved with deer and particularly Red and Roe deer, and their effect on grouse production.

First off, I should probably address some misconceptions;

1.   The first is that I do not believe deer and grouse are necessarily mutually incompatible. I believe that the optimisation of grouse numbers so as to maintain driven grouse shooting at what some people describe as an economic level, can mean that deer and grouse can both be sustainable on the same ground.

2.   I believe that the relationship between deer and grouse is much more complex than people think and often portray. In other words it is ridiculous for grouse people to refer to grouse being good and deer being bad or indeed vice versa. Fundamentally you have to determine what you are trying to achieve and whether the way you are going about it, makes that possible.

3.   I suspect what happened over the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, are gradual changes, which for a whole host of reasons, then led to the misnomer that somehow deer and grouse were always incompatible because, at that time deer numbers went up and grouse numbers went down. I do not believe that this is cause and effect, although I can well see why this easy conclusion has often been reached.

If the aim on an Estate is to optimise grouse numbers i.e. to produce a shootable surplus in the majority of years and bear in mind that the important word here is surplus, we need to look at what has to happen to achieve this and just as important, what cannot happen because these things will prejudice that objective. We also have to accept that producing grouse in shootable numbers in Scotland is infinitely harder for a whole host of reasons, than it is in the north of England. Generally,  the feed value of heather in the north of England is better than it is over most of Scotland. There is a mass of continuity of well managed grouse moors in the north of England with the focus being almost exclusively on grouse production. There are very few mixed sporting Estates in the north of England as compared to Scotland where there are often grouse, deer, fishing and pheasants on the same Estate and finally, weather conditions tend to be better further south than in many parts of Scotland, particularly the Highlands. Also whether we like it or not, the real wealth of the UK comes from London and these owners can invest money easier in moors in England than 5-6 hours further north and in grouse production terms money means a lot. We therefore have a lot of things going against grouse production in Scotland and as the saying goes, it only needs one more straw to break the camel’s back.

What do I believe are the problems emanating from deer, to prevent grouse numbers building up on your typical Scottish grouse moor which has substantial numbers of deer on it or on the edge of it;

i)   The first thing is the scale of the deer.  If there are a few Reds and I guess the same would be true of Sitka as well as Roe deer, then I cannot see why even where grouse numbers are low and you are at the start of the recovery in the grouse programme, deer and grouse would then be mutually incompatible.

It is all about the quantity of deer for the reasons I set out below.

ii)   Large quantities of Red deer for instance, intrude into the moor, often concentrate their grazing and lying areas, such that loss of heather occurs and as a result whilst there is perhaps only a small loss overall of grazing, that loss makes it much harder to run burns through what will overtime become dispersed heather and hence there becomes less of a desired heather rotation on the moor, which is what grouse need in abundance.

iii)   Probably more importantly, is the disturbance that large numbers of four legged beasts do when they are on the ground, particularly when they are disturbed.  I think that the disturbance element to all really small grouse populations is much more relevant than most people think.

This may be particularly the case when the hen grouse is away from the eggs feeding or when she has young chicks, but disturbance by humans or deer, almost certainly  leads to less productivity and greater predation.

iv)   I think by far the most important effect of having largish numbers of deer on or adjacent to the moor in the case of Roe is the amount of time that what I would refer to as a grouse keeper, spends doing things such as deer stalking, deer culling, dressing out deer and the like as opposed to purely concentrating on grouse. I am convinced that full time grouse keepering is the absolute key to achieving the objective of shooting surplus quantities of grouse in the majority of years on any given moor. That means that if an Estate keeper does functions other than concentrating on grouse, then there will of necessity be less input into the recovery of grouse numbers. Deer therefore have been one of the main “diversions”, if you can call it that on a mixed Scottish Estate, which take the keeper’s eye off grouse. Clearly pheasants, partridges and fish are all capable of doing the same, and in recent years because there has been an explosion in the number of pheasants and partridges released on the edge of Scottish moorland, they too are a real and I would suggest, unwelcome diversion – that is if producing grouse is an aim.

Then we come to the question of tick and louping ill. It is undoubtedly the case that some Red deer in particular, are hosts for tick and effectively reservoirs for louping ill. However, I am certain that in very very many cases, the adverse effect of tick and louping ill on grouse are over-stated. Yes, tick and louping ill can be a major cause of grouse decline but often they are blamed when the fundamental causes of that decline are neither.

The problem we have had in Scotland is a build up primarily of Red deer numbers but also less visibly but probably no less true, there has been a build up in Roe deer numbers and a general decline, with some exceptions, in the overall fortunes of grouse over those decades. Is there a link?  The answer is yes. Are however deer a direct cause in the decline of grouse on the majority of moors?  I am certain that the answer is no.

I should say that until I got heavily involved in grouse moor management in Scotland, I wasn’t of that opinion, but like everyone else, rather assumed that the matching increase in deer numbers and the decline in grouse must be closely related and almost certainly due to the invisible level of louping ill which in itself was largely the fault of deer. The reality is I am sure somewhat different.

What we have done on certain Scottish Estates to increase grouse numbers so as to achieve the shootable surplus model, is to fence out Red deer and to very heavily cull Roe deer both on the hill and the adjoining low ground. Whilst re-emphasising my lack of deer knowledge, I do think that in many areas and because of their habitat and solitary nature, we often underestimate Roe deer populations. It is interesting to note that in very few areas in the north of England, possibly because of more people or more sheep, even where there are large numbers of Roe deer in woodland and forestry adjoining the fell, it is very rare to see Roe deer out on the open hill. Not so in Scotland.

Fencing out Red deer, undoubtedly ticks some of the boxes to assist an owner, manager or grouse keeper to improve grouse numbers. If the deer are not within a moor, they don’t need culling and they are not going to disturb grouse in any way. However, our experience with these fenced out moors is that whilst it may have been very difficult initially without the fencing to have got the environment right in the widest possible sense, so as to enable the build up in grouse numbers, once grouse numbers get to a certain level, there is in my mind no reason why deer should not co-exist on these hills. The difficulty is getting to the latter stage, without erecting the fence and having got the fence erected, how many owners or keepers will be happy to then allow the deer back in? Fencing also allows us more easily to have managed sheep flocks on the hill, to mop up ticks which are clearly a major concern both on their own and where louping ill is an issue.

There are examples such as Phones, where no deer fence has been erected, but with a very heavy culling pressure, deer numbers have reduced dramatically and grouse numbers have risen equally dramatically. However, much of the success on that Estate which includes record grouse bags in 2010, has been because of much more focus on grouse keepering rather than the grouse keepers doing a number of different jobs, of which grouse keepering was only one. Obviously if you don’t have the quantity of deer on the ground, the keepers are not going to be concentrating on deer and as a result they are likely to have more time to focus on grouse production.

You cannot get away from the fact that it is extremely difficult at the current time, to  properly control ticks and louping ill in deer, unless in a parkland or deer farm environment. Equally, you can’t prevent, often in large numbers at certain times and under certain conditions, Red deer coming onto a moor and perhaps at a sensitive time, disturbing certain parts of the moor in a way that is counter productive to optimising grouse numbers. However, although most people might find this amazing to hear, I would much much prefer to see a mixed use Estate, than one merely concentrating on single unit production i.e. just grouse or just deer. The problem is of finding the balance and for a long time, people have tended to be from one camp or the other. This is ironic given that until the late 1970’s and 80’s, many Estates had both grouse and deer in goodish numbers and there are still one or two Estates that just about still achieve that. As I have said, things have become much much harder for all of us in recent years and optimising grouse numbers has become incredibly difficult.

I am encouraged by recent GWCT research from the Angus Glens and elsewhere that shows that whilst there is less of an increase in grouse numbers where deer are present to a significant degree than where there are no deer, it does seem to be possible to achieve both a recovery in grouse numbers and provide a shootable surplus, where deer and grouse co-exist, provided certain management functions are put in place. In particular controlling the number of deer and having a very well managed sheep flock to mop up ticks. The devil is however, in the detail – in this case in the number of deer

AND

the number of game-keeping staff.

In short, whilst I would not want large numbers of deer on a moor being managed for grouse, If there were the right amount of keepers on the ground, which took into account the extra work involved in the deer, then co-existing can occur.

When I went to the Millden Estate in Angus, it was clear from the Game Books that very few Red Deer had been shot on the Estate prior to about 1970. There were then I think 5 grouse keepers. By 2005, there were a very large number of Red Deer being culled and still the same number of keepers. That means the keepers could not be spending the same amount of time that had occurred 30 years before on producing grouse, because they were heavily involved in the later years on deer culling.

To conclude, I do not see deer and grouse as being incompatible, but I do think their relationship is difficult and the keys are to define the objectives and then to manage accordingly. Almost certainly it means if an owner wants both on the same ground, that he or she has to accept some compromises and just as importantly must put in extra resources, particularly manpower, to achieve this mix. That generally is the sticking point.

This is an edited version of a talk Mark Osborne gave about the relationship between grouse and deer, to Scottish Natural Heritage Deer Conference in Inverness on June 13th 2012

Mark Osborne - FRICS, FAAV, MBAE

Mark Osborne is founder and Managing Director of JM Osborne & Co. and has been a qualified Chartered Surveyor and Land Agent for over 30 years. He trained on two large traditional landed estates (Chatsworth and Castle Ashby), before s.. Read more.

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