Letter: Blame the sheep

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Sir: Duff Hart-Davis reports (8 November) the findings of the Langholm report Birds of Prey and Red Grouse, recently launched in Edinburgh. The results were not in dispute. On Langholm as soon as the raptors received their proper legal protection they increased, the red grouse failed to peak and in a season when 2,000-4,000 might be expected to be shot there were fewer than 100 bagged.

However this should not cause the knee-jerk reaction of attempting to manage (kill) the rare raptors. We should rather address the underlying ecological reasons for the lack of grouse for the guns.

At the Edinburgh launch I asked about moor C, a moor in the Highlands of comparable size to Langholm. Here the protection of the raptors did not cause a huge increase and the grouse numbers held up well. This moor was dominated by heather and did not have the massive grazing pressure of sheep experienced for many years at Langholm.

The sheep in Langholm have been responsible for altering the balance between the hen harriers and the red grouse. Conversion of heather to grass encourages the small birds, particularly meadow pipits, and small mammals that the harriers eat and makes conditions for the red grouse worse. This problem is well understood by many ecologists. Scottish Natural Heritage hopes to come to an arrangement with the Department of Agriculture to apply money from funds such as Environmentally Sensitive Area schemes to solve it. It would be good to see European money being used to redress a wrong caused by headage payments under the Common Agricultural Policy.

Traditional management techniques which are good for red grouse are much better for other species than over-grazing by sheep or red deer or, heaven forfend, the swamping of the hills with a dense mass of exotic conifers.

CHRIS MEAD

Thetford, Norfolk

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