SCOTTISH Environment Minister Stewart Stevenson visited a ground-breaking project in the Borders last week.
The MSP was at Langholm to see the progress of the innovative moor project there which combines game and conservation.
Mr Stevenson said: “The project at Langholm Moor is of crucial importance in finding a way for driven grouse shooting to co-exist with hen harrier populations. This visit was an opportunity to see how the project is operating on the ground.”
Launched in 2007, the £3million, 10-year Langholm Moor Demonstration Project aims to re-establish the grouse moor – once one of the best in Britain – while maintaining the raptors.
The minister saw work on the 20,000-acre moor, more than 7,000 acres of which is protected, to integrate conservation and grouse moor management.
The project is trying diversionary feeding of the hen harriers: the raptors are known to prey on red grouse so scientists have been leaving alternatives, such as day-old chicks and rats, near hen harrier nests for the birds to take instead.
And officers say after four breeding seasons, as far as they know, no grouse chicks have been taken into breeding hen harrier nests, which is leading the project partners to think diversionary feeding could be an effective management technique.
The group’s head keeper Simon Lester also showed Mr Stevenson a range of techniques used on the modern grouse moor, including controlling foxes, crows, stoats and weasels, burning heather to improve it for grouse and other birds, and helping it recover from pest attacks.
And the minister saw areas of the moor that had been badly affected by the damaging heather beetle and which had been burnt under new muirburn licensing provisions brought in earlier this year – the first moor in Scotland to be so licensed.
Mr Stevenson said: “Diversionary feeding of hen harriers at the moor is a key part of protecting grouse numbers (but) is only part of the story and I was interested to find out more about activities such as predator control and heather management.
“Muirburn is an important tool in managing heather moorland and I was also pleased to see that the project is able to make use of new licensing arrangements brought in through the Wildlife and Natural Environment Act earlier this year.”
The minister was also told about hen harriers being tracked using satellite tags: one nicknamed McPedro, which bred on Langholm moor last year, spent last winter in Spain. Two other birds tagged on Langholm and a north England moor are currently being tracked in western France.
Speaking following the visit, the project’s chairman and the estate manager at Langholm, Mark Oddy said: “Mr Stevenson has a genuine interest in supporting the management we are doing here. We are very grateful to him for his support. Today has been helpful in ensuring that if any new regulation is being considered for introduction, the project can help ensure it is both effective and practical.”
The Langholm moor project is funded by Scottish Natural Heritage, Buccleuch Estates, Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, Natural England and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. And 7,600 acres of the moor is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and Special Protection Area for the upland habitat, a range of breeding birds, geological exposures and for breeding hen harriers.