The picturesque 5,000-acre Garrows Estate, near Loch Tay in the Perthshire Highlands, is a magnet for bird photographers. Ronnie Kippen, who retired as headkeeper in 2018 after almost 40 years, remains employed by the estate. He said: “A photographer recently stopped me to say he’d just seen a golden eagle sitting on the cairn; it’s fantastic. I told him to tell his friends that he was in the heart of driven grouse country and was able to photograph an eagle.”
But there wasn’t always the abundance of wildlife that thrives on Garrows today. Game books dating back to 1887 do show that, historically, there were good numbers of grouse, and when the current owner, Sir John KempWelch’s family bought it in 1929, the population was healthy – as it was in the 1960s and 1970s. However, a decline began in the early 1990s and, by 2009, numbers had dropped dangerously low to less than 10% of previous figures.
Reversing the wildlife decline Determined to reverse the decline, the estate took several radical measures to try to improve the habitat, including dramatically reducing the number of sheep. Like most Scottish farms in the post-war period, the push for greater agricultural output had increased the size of the flock and allowed them to inhabit every area of the estate, which resulted in overgrazing, particularly of the moorland.
Sir John asked GWCT advisor, Adam Smith, to suggest a plan for habitat improvement. He said: “Over many years, we have received excellent advice from Peter Hudson, Dick Potts and Adam Smith of the GWCT and none of the actions to improve habitats would have happened without their guidance.”
As well as recommending a reduction in sheep numbers, Adam advocated taking the flock off the hill completely in the winter to allow the heather to recover and returning them to the moor in spring. The plan was carried out, and the results were spectacular: native plants that hadn’t been seen for decades began to reappear, along with insect and birdlife.
Although heather cover improved, the grouse did not show the same recovery as other wildlife. The number of tick had greatly increased in the region and the impact on grouse – particularly the chicks – became a concern. As it was likely that sheep were one of the main carriers, Adam Smith recommended greater discipline in treating the flock with acaricide every six to eight weeks. They were also treated for the tick-borne disease, louping ill. Sir John said: “Our shepherd began to notice symptoms in some of the lambs and at that point we had sheep and grouse tested for the louping ill virus. The tests proved 84% positive and the vet said it was the worst case he’d seen. After better treatment, there was a great improvement in the flock’s general condition.”
By reducing the disease in the sheep, the flock became part of the solution to the tick problem. Sir John said: “Currently, good sheep management is about the only thing being done to counter the countrywide rise in tick numbers; this is a real concern, particularly in light of the increasing cases of Lyme disease, which is transmitted by the parasites and is a very unpleasant illness for humans.”
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