1. Livestock grazing is an important form of land use across the globe and changes in grazing pressure can have profound effects on vertebrate populations.
2. In Scotland, over the last decade sheep numbers in many areas have declined from historically high levels, providing an opportunity to explore the implications of these declines for biodiversity.
3. The hen harrier Circus cyaneus is a bird of high conservation importance in the UK, and a species that may be heavily influenced by the indirect effects of sheep on habitat and prey. The hen harrier population on the Orkney Islands in Scotland has been monitored since 1975 and represents an ideal case study for considering the impact of sheep de-stocking on a key predator.
4. Declines in the harrier population were associated with a doubling in sheep numbers between the early 1980s and the late 1990s. Subsequently, as sheep numbers have fallen the harrier population has recovered. These changes indicate an association but no clear mechanism, so we tested whether reductions in sheep numbers have led to increases in harrier prey or preferred foraging habitat. We then tested whether breeding output over the last 33 years correlates with sheep stocking levels or variation in weather conditions (rainfall and temperature).
5. Orkney sheep numbers declined by about 20% between 1998 and 2008. Surveys in 1999/2000 and repeated in 2008 showed increases in rough grassland, the preferred harrier foraging habitat, and increases in a key prey species, the Orkney vole Microtus arvalis orcadensis.
6. Overall, hen harrier breeding output over the last 33 years was significantly negatively correlated to both sheep abundance and spring rainfall.
7. Synthesis and application. This study provides strong evidence for the consequences of changes in sheep numbers on a top predator. Our results indicate that reductions in sheep numbers are likely to prove beneficial for some upland species, particularly small mammals and their predators.