COUNTRYSIDE ALLIANCE COMMENT
Red grouse restoration in Ireland
Shortly after the publication of the 2008 National Red Grouse Survey, which showed a continuing sharp decline in Irish red grouse with local extinctions across many lowland bogs and moorland habitats, the board of the Countryside Alliance Ireland (CAI) established the Irish Red Grouse Association Conservation Trust (IRGACT). Six years on, we can now start to look back at the project’s success and the astounding results it has achieved across the whole of Ireland.
The prime objective of the IRGACT was the conservation of red grouse by empowering and helping local conservation projects on the ground while working with other nongovernmental organisations and government organisations in promoting the cause at the national level. The rural community rallied behind the Trust, with support gained from farming organisations, dog trialling clubs, gun clubs, hawking clubs, ornithologists and the rural communities.
The Irish red grouse population hit historical highs in the 1900s when its interests were protected by keepered estates across Ireland, on which over 500 gamekeepers were employed in the management of the grouse moors. However, after the 1914-18 War and the formation of the Irish Republic, the landholding ownership structures changed dramatically, with the ownership of many estates devolved to their farming tenants, and gamekeepers frequently not retained. The loss of gamekeepers, exacerbated by afforestation, agricultural intensification and the extraction of peat, caused the grouse population to crash and the moorlands to reduce in quality. The grouse now exist in isolated pockets on a handful of moors and are in dire need of assistance, with their total numbers thought to be in the region of 5,000. While grouse populations can rise and fall with seasonal weather variations, the headline IRGACT projects are showing grouse population increases of 15-20% since 2010. Increases have also been recorded for moorland waders including curlew, golden plover and lapwing, as well as the Irish mountain hare. The IRGACT approach is low in cost but proving to be highly effective. On the ground, the Trust provides subsidised predator control equipment, advice and grouse surveys to all community-led projects. Annual seminars and moorland walks are also organised to spread new ideas and research among the participating projects, sharing best practice in areas such as burning and cutting moorland vegetation. To date, over 60 communities have expressed an interest in establishing red grouse projects, and 40 of these are at various stages of implementation. The interest among local communities has been tremendous, and the local farmers are among the most enthusiastic of supporters. Working with local communities has been the key to the IRGACT.
These red grouse projects have proved that they have the ability to stem the decline of the grouse population while boosting other red-listed species, and the momentum is building. The Trust is achieving ever more recognition on the national stage, and everywhere a project is running, the local people – be they birdwatchers or hill walkers – are seeing the results with their own eyes. And the more people who learn about the Trust, the more supporters there are, and the more grouse conservation projects there will be.
The exemplary work of the IRGACT can and should be highlighted far and wide; for, together, conservationists, landowners and the shooting community have formed a working group that in its short life has already started to show rich rewards. The practice also reminds us that predator control and heather management, through burning and cutting, are essential to improving the quality of the moorlands. Lessons can be learned from the IRGACT, none more so than that of the English and Scottish uplands, where the friction between groups is ever growing and the need for scientific evidence of the improvement of the land is continually called for.
IRGACT volunteers counting grouse at Mulranny, Co. Mayo