Gamebird hunting and raptors in Norway

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Will Hayward, RSPB

Gamebird hunting and raptors in Norway

In May 2019 I was very fortunate to travel to Norway to attend a study course developed by ARCH, funded through the Erasmus+ programme and hosted by The Inland University of Applied Sciences, Evenstad Campus. Through a varied program of lectures, meetings, site visits and walks we covered a range of subjects pertinent to land management, forestry, nature conservation and research. This report looks at how gamebird monitoring informs hunting management, as well some background on hunting culture, raptor persecution and the use of GPS tracking devices on carnivores in Norway.

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Capercaillie habitat on the slopes of Tronkberget near Evenstad.

The cultural importance of outdoor life to Norwegians quickly became apparent on our trip and this was reinforced by our visit to the fantastic Norwegian Forest Museum in Elverum (https://skogmus.no/en). The museum provides a thorough overview of the history of hunting, trapping, fishing and forestry in Norway, and is one of the largest museums in the country, attracting over 100,000 visitors per year. The section on hunting is vast, reflecting how strongly it is ingrained in Norwegian culture. In 2017/18 there were over 141,000 active hunters, with moose, red deer, roe deer and small game (especially willow ptarmigan, rock ptarmigan and wood pigeon) the main quarry. Hunting is for meat, rather than for sport, though there is often a strong social element, especially for the autumn moose hunt, which is a key event in rural communities. Hunters must pass a test before they can obtain a licence. This aims to promote ethical awareness and knowledge about safe and correct hunting procedures. Licences are renewed annually, and as part of this process each hunter must submit data on the type and number of game shot in the previous year.

Co-operation

In Norway all grouse species are hunted. Willow grouse are by far the most numerous with around 140,000 shot per year followed by rock ptarmigan, black grouse and capercaillie (in order of declining bag size). Grouse hunting takes the form of ‘rough shooting’ or ‘walked-up’ shooting where one or two hunters cover the ground on foot, usually working a dog, and shooting at birds that are flushed. This method demands a detailed knowledge of the local landscape as well as a high standard of shooting skill. Across Norway the grouse population density is generally fairly low with roughly 10-15 willow grouse per km2. Densities of over 20 birds per km2 are considered good for hunting.

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Part of the “Rough Shooting’ display at the Norwegian Forest Museum.

Though ‘walked-up’ shooting is practiced on some estates in Scotland, the predominant form is driven grouse shooting. This requires intensive land management, including heather burning, the provision of medicated grit to reduce parasite burdens on grouse, and predator control (carried out both legally and illegally) to produce massively unnatural densities of red grouse (up to 200 or 300 per km2). On shoot days these birds are driven by beaters towards a line of guns. The sport shooting industry in the UK also supports the large scale rearing and shooting of pheasants and red-legged partridges – introduced non-native gamebird species. In Norway this type as shooting does not occur at all as only native species can be hunted.

Unlike in Scotland, no land in Norway is directly managed to increase gamebird numbers. As such, it has long been recognised that it is in both the interest of the authorities and the hunters to ensure only a sustainable number of birds are taken each year. Grouse numbers, particularly of willow grouse, have been monitored to some degree since the 1950s with the main survey method involving line transects to record counts of adults and chicks. An updated survey design was introduced in the 1990s featuring input from Hedmark University and the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research (NINA). This involved surveyors using distance sampling and pointing dogs. With this data and others suggesting grouse numbers were declining there was a need for more rigorous and up to date population information on grouse, which could be integrated with the needs of researchers, landowners, administrators and hunters. This resulted in the introduction of the “Honsefugl Portalen” (http://honsefugl.nina.no) in 2013, a web-based portal for monitoring grouse. This is owned and operated by NINA but developed in collaboration with other researchers (including the Inland Norway University of Applied Science and Nord University), state bodies and private landowner organisations.

Each area covered by the survey contains a total of 70km of transects, broken down into individual transects which are 2-4km long and positioned at least 1km apart. Volunteer surveyors (generally the hunters themselves) walk these routes with a dog and estimate the distance at which grouse flush relative to the transect. The co-ordinates of every bird flushed are recorded which allows for analysis at a local scale, for example to look at the relationships between vegetation data and grouse numbers. Providing training for fieldworkers is a key component of the scheme to ensure survey effort is consistent across Norway. The project has been popular and improved iterations of the web-based system have been introduced as it develops. Buy-in by hunting administrators is not compulsory, but an increasing number of municipalities (roughly 80 now) are becoming involved. Currently the public are able to access survey results for fieldwork carried out on common land only, but promoting and increasing the availability and transparency of the data are key aims of the scheme. The ability to view and interrogate their own data is popular with users. Landowners are able to pay for data to be analysed and reported back to them to enable sustainable hunting quotas to be set whilst at the same time researchers can use the data to produce regional and national population trends.

By using data from this survey authorities are able to regulate gamebird shooting by permitting and stipulating annual quotas. By participating in the survey and reporting bag numbers the hunters themselves are key figures in game management. Due to the vastly different cultural heritage of hunting in Norway, where hunting is much more a way of life than an elite hobby, divides between shooting and conservation communities simply do not exist as they do in the UK. However it is inspiring to see what can be achieved when all parties recognise the requirement for robust and contemporary population data and work together to ensure gamebird hunting is carried out at a sustainable level each year.

Illegal persecution

As land is not managed intensively for gamebird shooting in Norway, thankfully raptor persecution does not occur at anything like the level found in the UK. The informative displays at the Norwegian Forest Museum show that this was not always the case however. As in much of Europe, the killing of raptors was commonplace and legal in the nineteenth century. In 1845 a new law promoting the killing of predators added golden and white-tailed eagles, eagle owls and goshawks to a bounty list resulting in subsequent declines to the populations of all these species. Thanks to the payment of these premiums, good records were kept of the numbers of birds killed so we know that between 1845 and 1900 over 88,000 golden and white-tailed eagles were killed in Norway, a staggering figure. Bounties were paid for much smaller numbers of eagles as recently as the 1960s but eventually the state withdrew its support for this policy. Since 1968-72 all raptors and owls have been protected by law. Further wildlife protection legislation in 1981 banned the use of poisons and some metal traps.

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Examples of raptor traps previously used in Norway (now illegal!) from the raptor persecution display at the Norwegian Forest Museum.

One area where conservation and land management come into conflict in Norway is the effects of predators on sheep and reindeer farming. This is largely focussed on the actions of large carnivores, though golden eagles are implicated as well. The conflict is an economic issue and farmers receive compensation per animal killed – however the documentation for these claims is problematic and it is thought they are often exaggerated with the reputation of golden eagles and other predators suffering as a result. In other Scandinavian countries there is a system of monetary compensation in reindeer farming areas with payment given per occupied/breeding golden eagle territory. This has not been possible in Norway as it would require much more comprehensive monitoring of eagle populations.

As an interesting aside, we learnt that peer-reviewed scientific studies have shown that illegal poaching makes up 40-60% of mortality in Scandinavian carnivores. This is due to both their actual and perceived impact on hunting (particularly moose hunting) and on sheep and reindeer farming. This is despite the availability of a range of conservation interventions, with some examples including compensation payments, the removal of individual problem carnivores and later releases of livestock in the spring. We also heard that carnivore movements have been well studied in recent years with GPS technology employed to track and monitor a range of species. Researchers have found some examples of these devices suddenly stopping after previously functioning reliably. This is regularly seen with raptors fitted with satellite tags in the UK and is indicative of human interference. In Scotland there have been a number of high profile incidents where bodies of golden eagles and red kites fitted with these tags have been located and subsequently found to have been poisoned. Given that this technology can increase the detection of such crimes, it is likely to have had some degree of deterrent effect on those leaving out poison baits in the hills. Similarly it was thought possible that GPS devices may be having a deterrent effect on the poaching of large carnivores in Norway, but it is difficult to measure.

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