Something missing in the Angus Glens
I recently spent a windy day walking up a glen inside the Cairngorms National Park in North-East Scotland. My walk took me from the middle reaches of U-shaped glacial valleys flanked by riverside patches of alder and birch woodland, up to the vast tracts of heather moorland above. This area, known as the Angus Glens, is famous for its intensive grouse shooting, and the stripy-patch burn pattern of the heather is part of the land management designed to optimise conditions for the quarry species. This, together with ruthless predator control, enables shooting estates to achieve population densities of grouse that are tens or even hundreds of times greater than those in natural settings.
The Angus Glens are also infamous for the curious scarcity of birds of prey, such as the hen harrier, peregrine and golden eagle. I was keen to see how mammals were faring in this rugged upland environment. Initially most obvious in the fragments of valley-side woodland was the heavy pressure from wild herbivores such as rabbits, hares and deer – both red and roe: although scenically appealing, these woodlands have been ecologically wrecked by excessive browsing and grazing, to the extent that almost no vegetation survives beneath the canopy but a carpet of moss at ground level; there are no shrubs, seedlings or young trees to replace the ageing hulks, so nothing will replace them when they die unless human intervention provides a new generation of planted trees in tall tubes. Despite deer-stalking as a routine autumn activity, there are far too many deer for the maintenance of a natural woodland structure. So, these woods are dying on their feet, and their simple structure limits their biodiversity value in all sorts of ways that we may not yet fully appreciate.
The next striking feature was the unusual abundance of rabbits, and their tendency to lie and rot wherever they died: my route up the glen was peppered with active warrens and littered with the ageing carcasses of rabbits that had died as roadkill or by other causes. In Worcestershire, such meaty treats would be swiftly scavenged and consumed by foxes, buzzards, polecats and corvids. But here in the Angus Glens that community of predators and scavengers is largely missing thanks to the very effective predator control by gamekeepers; so, the rabbits can live, breed, multiply and die in the absence of natural processes of predation and carcass disposal.
As if to back up my rabbitty observations, I saw not a single
corvid nor fox scat all day in the glen; and the only birds of prey were three buzzards spotted way down on the low ground – well away from the grouse moors. And the buzzards were outnumbered by gamekeepers: I encountered six driving urgently around the estate in smart green Landrovers, perhaps engaged in routine and perfectly legal activities such as checking and re-setting abundant ‘tunnel traps’ designed to kill stoats and weasels, checking snares set for foxes and Larsen traps to catch corvids.
Grouse shooting and deer stalking are important sources of income and employment for many upland communities in this part of Scotland. Shooting estates trumpet the contribution that predator control makes to the conservation of ground-nesting birds; and game shooting defends its position on predator control as ‘a question of balance’. To me, however, the extreme situation in the Angus Glens amounts to a massive ecological imbalance maintained by the near-total removal of predators – some of it historical, such as the loss of the wolf and lynx – that facilitates a wholly unnatural abundance of prey species. As a fan of predators, I can’t help mourning what is missing from these wild-ish landscapes in the name of game shooting – even inside the UK’s largest National Park. Thank goodness, in Worcestershire, we can enjoy encounters with a range of predatory mammals (or at least their field signs) and birds – long may that more natural situation remain!
Call me an odd-ball, but I derive far more pleasure from a brief glimpse of a stoat or weasel than I do from encountering hoards of artificially abundant grouse. Of course, I am not paying for my wildlife experiences – I can enjoy them pretty much for free. So long as there are people willing to pay £1000 or more for a day’s driven grouse shooting, inevitably estates and their gamekeepers will work to maintain those predator-free zones on and around our heather moorlands.