AS the red grouse shooting season continues across the Yorkshire Dales, scientists from a leading game and wildlife research charity are trying to determine to what extent climate change may have an impact on this enigmatic game bird and its precious moorland habitat.
Research by the Game Conservancy Trust has shown that moorland managed for shooting does delivers a net conservation benefit; preserving a globally rare habitat supporting populations of important wader species like curlew and golden plover which are in worrying decline elsewhere.
Dales Moorland and their shoots - under threat from
The red grouse itself has long been susceptible to significant and dramatic population fluctuations. Every year game-keepers count the number of birds on their land and will only allow shooting to take place if there is a sufficient surplus of birds above a sustainable breeding population.
Last year shooting in northern England - including parts of the Dales - was largely cancelled after one of the most dramatic and widespread population crashes of red grouse.
The situation has improved this year but not enough for much shooting to take place. Dave Newborn, Senior Scientist from the GCT's upland research group summed up the prospects for the 2006 season:
"After last year's unprecedented population crash we have seen a good recovery in England this year, with some exceptional brood sizes in some places. But the fact that the breeding stock was so low at the start of the year means that once again shooting will be very limited this year.
"However, the prospects for a strong recovery next year look positive."
The crash last year was partly caused by the strongyle worm; a red grouse gut parasite that thrives in mild wet winters. Added to this red grouse are also seriously affected by the continued escalation in tick abundance, possibly also triggered by warmer winters.
...the rate of decline of this threatened habitat has been much reduced due to landowners and gamekeepers who manage moorland for grouse shooting
Dr Dave Baines - Game Conservancy Trust
Important research carried out in Yorkshire could herald the answer to the tick problem; it involves treating sheep with insecticide and then using these to 'mop up' ticks in infected areas.
Dr Dave Baines, the Trust's Uplands director of research said: "The increased severity of parasite infection, whether it is strongyle worms, ticks or both, may be a product of progressive climate change with milder more humid winters and early springs extending parasite activity and survival.
"Increased disease outbreaks may have serious repercussions for much of our key work on biodiversity. Previous research by the Trust has already shown that red grouse provide the financial incentive to preserve heather moorland. For example moors managed for grouse typically have five times as many golden plover and lapwing as other nearby moors and about twice as many curlews."
"In addition, much of the moorland across Europe has been lost or seriously eroded over the last fifty years but in Britain, the rate of decline of this threatened habitat has been much reduced due to landowners and gamekeepers who manage moorland for grouse shooting."
With shooting providing the private investment needed to maintain the habitat not just for red grouse but for a range of wildlife which would otherwise disappear, the GCT says it will now monitor any effect that climate change may be having on our moorland and its red grouse populations.