By Dee Ward
VERY few issues are simple, despite the often-polarised nature of public debate – especially on social media. In rural Scotland the discourse is just as stark – particularly when it comes to the pros and cons of grouse shooting and the benefits of rewilding.
Recently gamekeepers have been wading through snow drifts to ensure a good supply of food for birds on estates across the country. This hidden conservation continues mainly unnoticed. At the same time, media attention has been gained by groups proposing to introduce Eurasian lynx to Scotland.
In the rewilding debate, the historic management of land in Scotland is often overlooked. Tree cover has been reduced over centuries by the activities of man which has led to the extinction of large herbivores and apex predators. At the time of the Romans, Scotland had less tree cover than it has today so this is not a new problem, and during the 20th century a lot of ancient meadows were ploughed up to produce food for the war effort. Tied to this was the introduction of fertilisers and pesticides in the 1960s that left few places for wildlife to prosper.
Where wildlife has thrived is on estates with gamekeepers. Typically, wild habitat was encouraged for shooting so not every inch was commercially farmed. Foxes, crows and stoats were kept in check so smaller birds could survive and breed.
Against this imperfect background I draw my own experience from my estate in the Angus Glens which is a modest yet beautiful upland estate with some grouse and a lot of wildlife. We have high densities of hares and 100 different bird species including nesting eagles, peregrines and merlin but this has taken a lot of work. We have planted 250,000 trees in the last 15 years, mainly along riverbanks and on the lower slopes of the moor, re-meandered burns, restored peatland as well as reducing the number of mesopredators like stoats, weasels and foxes, and planted lots of bird-friendly crops. The results have been amazing and one of the outcomes has been increased numbers red grouse.
We decide in early August each year after our counts, how many surplus grouse can be shot. Shooting of grouse and deer sits comfortably with the other tourism and wildlife-based aims of the estate, and brings in much-needed income, often from European visitors. Each person coming to Scotland from abroad spends money in our cities as well as locally in the Angus Glens. This revenue benefits local tradespeople, pubs, hotels and other businesses as well as our wildlife and biodiversity plans.
Sustainable grouse moor management can deliver biodiversity – red grouse, black grouse, mountain hares, ring ouzels, curlew, lapwing, golden plover and a host of raptors just as sustainable farming can deliver good quality food, using fewer pesticides whilst allowing wildlife corridors, wetland and natural areas. Rewilding can deliver the Caledonian pine forests with beavers, elk that many crave.
There is room for all of this in Scotland but we need to work together with local communities and rural workers like gamekeepers to ensure we can deliver these nature-based solutions.
Dee Ward is owner of Rottal Estate near Kirriemuir, and vice-chair of Scottish Land & Estates