Grouse Moors - Benign Tradition or Eco Disaster?

© Scottish Land and Estates

Can grouse shooting ever be compatible with 21st Century environmental concerns? We've asked an opponent of the industry and an advocate for grouse moors to each state their case.

The grouse shooting industry accounts for huge areas of Britain, its characteristic open heather moorland symbolic of the upland landscape. But grouse estates are under the spotlight as never before, implicated in controversies around animal welfare and wildlife crime, and blamed for environmental ills such as biodiversity loss, downstream flooding, upland fires and the spreading rash of unplanned estate tracks.

Grouse on the Alvie Estate  © Perth Picture Agency
Grouse on the Alvie Estate
© Perth Picture Agency

While a recent report for the Scottish Government stopped short of recommending the sport be brought under a licensing system, that measure remains an active possibility north of the border. Across the UK campaigners are calling ever more loudly for stricter regulation, and even an outright ban. Yet this is a land use of long tradition, with a conservation story of its own, and an industry that supports scarce rural jobs. In the face of wildlife crime and environmental concerns, advocates of grouse moors favour a collaborative approach over legislation which, they fear, could eventually throttle the sector.

The debate is often muddied by notions of class conflict and the culture war between urban and rural. But at its heart, above all, is an unresolved question as to the purpose of upland conservation. Should our landscape aesthetic favour continuity, and the protection of a tradition? Or, at a time of ecological crisis, must our priority be the restoration of a thriving and biodiverse natural ecology in place of all that heather?

Farmers and gamekeepers fight a fire at Wimberry  © Craig Hannah
Farmers and gamekeepers fight a fire at Wimberry
© Craig Hannah

Are we faced with a zero sum decision between shooting and conservation, heather or woods, grouse versus the rest of nature, or is there still room for pragmatic balance? Can grouse moors play a positive ecological role in modern Britain, or are their days numbered?

We've asked a representative from each side of the debate to make their case.

Robbie Marsland head shot  © Robbie Marsland

Robbie Marsland is Director of the League Against Cruel Sports Scotland, a coalition partner of REVIVE. Recently established, REVIVE is a coalition of like minded organisations working for grouse moor reform in Scotland.

Recent increased scrutiny is revealing the vast scale of the circle of destruction that surrounds grouse moors

No one really seems to know exactly, but land managed for shooting grouse seems to occupy somewhere between 10% and 18% of Scotland. Huge areas of northern England are given over to it, too. Whatever it is – it's a lot of land. It's also land that is very far from being "natural".

These vast swathes are managed to encourage as many red grouse as possible. The success of a grouse shooting estate is measured by its "bag" – the number of grouse shot in a season. The bigger the bag, the more prestigious the estate is perceived to be - by those who get their enjoyment from killing wild animals.

Far from being natural, grouse moors are a heavily managed, denuded landscape  © REVIVE
Far from being natural, grouse moors are a heavily managed, denuded landscape

The coalition of social justice, environmental and animal welfare organisations, Revive, describes this "management" as a circle of destruction that surrounds Scotland's grouse moors.

There are several ways to ensure that there are as many grouse as possible. One approach is to try to make sure they don't get ill before they can be shot. This is done in two ways. Firstly, medication is liberally scattered and placed across the moors in a bid to stop the grouse from getting worms which can kill them. No one knows what impact this medication has on other flora and fauna, but it is known that up to 3,000 medication stations can be found on one estate. They are often in medicated grit trays (grouse use grit to aid their digestion) but there is a worryingly high incidence of the grit being simply scattered in piles. Ironically, there is also scientific evidence that these grit stations can actually aid disease transmission in grouse as they attract multiple birds to the same spot. A recent Government commissioned report from the Grouse Moor Management Review Group concluded that these grit stations need to be better regulated and their impact better understood.

To take the second approach it's necessary to put any science behind you and (according to Government figures) kill an average of 26,000 mountain hares each year in the belief that they can either transmit disease to the grouse or that they "over-graze the heather" so there's not enough left for all the grouse. The Grouse Moor Management Review Group could find no scientific basis for these beliefs. Once again, no one really knows for sure but it's beginning to be clear that Scotland's iconic Mountain Hare is in danger of becoming an endangered species.

When you look out on the bare majesty of a grouse moor, remember this is an entirely manufactured environment absent of trees and much of its wildlife

Hedgehog in a trap  © REVIVE
Hedgehog in a trap

Another approach to ensuring that there as many grouse as possible is to attempt to eradicate any predator that would reduce grouse numbers. Foxes, stoats, weasels, crows and ravens are ruthlessly and legally targeted with traps and snares. Under a "General License" applied for online and with little or no scrutiny an estate can wage a military-like strategy against these animals.

"Stink pits" of dead and rotting animals are used to attract animals to a ring of snares that surround the pit. Snares are wire devices intended to trap but not kill their targets – foxes. The snare is designed to hold the fox around the neck until an estate worker comes along and shoots it. It is legal for the fox to be in a snare for up to 24 hours. Foxes have been found almost cut in two around their middle and due to the indiscriminate nature of this device protected animals like badgers and even pet cats have been found in snares.

Stoats and weasels are targeted by an array of spring traps which are supposed to kill outright. They are often placed on polls laid over water courses that provide a useful but deadly bridge. They are supposed to be instantly lethal but again there is evidence that they are not. They can be found every hundred or so meters on some estates.

Many walkers will be familiar with large wood and wire mesh Crow Cage Traps. These large contraptions are designed to hold one or more decoy birds that will attract crows to enter the trap from above. The decoys can have their flight feathers removed to make doubly certain that they don't leave the cage. The cage is designed in such a way that crows can get in but can't get out. Estate staff then have the job of checking the traps and killing the crows inside them.

It is illegal to kill other animals that predate on grouse. Golden eagles, hen harriers and the like are all protected, and it is an offence to kill them. But maps showing the position of dead birds of prey or the point where satellite tags stopped working repeatedly show a correlation between these points and shooting estates. The mysterious absence of protected birds and the suspicious disappearance of satellite tagged birds was one of the driving forces behind the Scottish Government commissioning the Grouse Moor Management Review Group.

There are also environmental impacts within the circle of destruction that surrounds Scotland's grouse moors. To encourage higher grouse numbers by providing them with optimum conditions enormous areas of Scotland are set on fire each year. This burning results in soil loss, increased carbon emissions, loss of soil nutrients, soil productivity and acidification of rivers. It is also one of the major factors in the absence of trees on grouse moors. Trees get in the way of shooters and provide convenient look out positions for birds of prey. When anyone looks out on the bare majesty of a Scottish grouse moor, they need to remember that they are looking at an entirely manufactured environment absent of trees and much of its wildlife.

Hill tracks crisscross the grouse moors, unaffected by the planning system  © REVIVE
Hill tracks crisscross the grouse moors, unaffected by the planning system

On top of this unregulated tracks, roads and quarries scar the landscape. New roads need planning permission, but estates can quarry stone and create new tracks without the need for any red tape. The purpose of the tracks is to make it easier for those shooting the grouse to move from one set of shooting positions to another. The shooting itself leaves tons of poisonous lead shot on the ground.

The environment is further disturbed by gas guns and "scary man bird scarers" that blight land otherwise used for peaceful recreation.

Another impact of grouse moor management is that visitors don't seem to be welcome. Scottish legislation allows us all "responsible access" to the land. But all too often walkers find themselves facing a volley of questions from estate staff about who they are and why they are there.

All this damage is done in an attempt to increase the number of grouse for "recreational shooting". Advocates of that pastime claim that the economic reward outweighs the detrimental impacts – what Revive calls the circle of destruction. They point out that driven grouse shooting contributes £26 million per annum to the Scottish economy. £26 million sounds like a lot of money but it is a drop in the ocean when compared to the entire Scottish economy. It comes in at 0.04% of the total economic value of Scotland. As one of the speakers at a well-attended Revive reception in the Scottish Parliament said, "If Ben Nevis represented the Scottish economy, then grouse shooting would be the size of a banjo…"

On grouse moors Scotland's public access rights run up against estate management  © REVIVE
On grouse moors Scotland's public access rights run up against estate management

The grouse shooting industry is also keen to point out that their management techniques (the circle of destruction) is good for all ground nesting birds. The grouse is a ground nesting bird so it's no surprise that other such birds benefit from the grim results of burning, trapping and snaring.

And it's not as if there aren't better ways to manage the land that would benefit biodiversity (including ground nesting birds), climate change and local communities. The devastating impact of centuries of mistreatment of this land can be reversed. A transition to a more wooded landscape would start to bring the land back into good health, providing benefits for both people and the environment.

Transforming heavily managed grouse moors into a rich diversity of wooded and open habitats would reduce flood risk and reduce landslides. It would increase biodiversity of wildlife and productive soils and protect a vital store of carbon that is locked up in Scotland's peatlands. It would improve the health and productive capacity of the land and bring the potential for new ways of providing sustainable incomes for rural communities.

Politically, grouse shooting estates have never been under more scrutiny. If Independence is the first priority for the SNP Government, Land Reform is not far behind it. No one is sure exactly how much of Scotland is a grouse moor and who owns them can be a bigger mystery.

Big Moor Peak District under evening light  © roger grounsell
Big Moor Peak District under evening light
© roger grounsell, Feb 2019

People were cleared from the land in the 1850s to make way for sheep and when that industry collapsed the depleted landscape became the playground of those who killed grouse for recreation. In recent years the mysterious absence of endangered birds of prey in their skies led the Scottish Government to commission a review of their management. That review went beyond the question of what's happening to birds of prey. It called for more regulation of the burning of the heather and the use of medicated grit and it called into question the need to continue killing mountain hares.

But the Review spectacularly ducked the central question of licensing shooting estates. The creation of such licences would imply the opportunity for such licences could be withdrawn if there was continuing evidence of the killing of birds of prey or damaging management practises. The chair of the Review, Professor Alan Werritty, couldn't have been clearer that he was thwarted in his wish to use his casting vote in favour of licensing. In his preface to the report he wrote:

"The Group was evenly split on whether or not to license grouse shooting. When, as chair, I sought to exercise a casting vote on the immediate introduction of licensing, this was contested by two members of the Group. In order to have a unanimous recommendation on this key issue with the authority that implies, the Group proposes a five-year probationary period for specified raptors on or near grouse shooting estates to recover to a "favourable" conservation status."

But in an equally clear appeal to the Scottish Government for help, he also wrote:

"Ultimately, whether and when to license grouse shooting are political decisions that rest with the Scottish Government. I hope this report will contribute to and inform that decision."

The official Government response is awaited but Professor Werritty's appeal for help seems to have been heard by the First Minister when she commented that her Government might want to consider licensing before the five-year period suggested by the Group.

In my experience, the majority of people who walk on Scotland's uplands know something about the background to the way the land is managed. However, recent increased scrutiny is revealing the vast scale of the circle of destruction that surrounds grouse moors.

The Revive coalition is only just over a year old but it has produced four reports, hosted thronged meetings at political party conferences, organised a sell-out national conference and has a petition calling for reform of Scottish grouse moors signed by over 15,000 people. And its website is becoming a central resource for anyone wanting to know what really goes on in our uplands.

Whatever your view about shooting grouse for entertainment, Revive invites you to consider the circle of destruction surrounding shooting estates the next time you take a walk in the Scottish uplands.

Rebekah Strong head shot  © Scottish Land and Estates

Rebekah Strong is Environment Assistant at Scottish Land & Estates. This is a membership organisation open to all landowners and land-based businesses. They represent members' views to politicians and other decision makers, to identify future opportunities and risks for land based businesses, to celebrate rural successes, and to provide support to those with a stake in land and property in rural Scotland.

Numerous scientific reports demonstrate the conservation and biodiversity benefits of moorland management

The purple heather-clad moorlands of Scotland are a cherished view for hillwalkers enjoying the sights and sounds of some of Scotland's most iconic landscapes. These are timeless settings which are awe inspiring to many. However, these landscapes are not wild, they are managed year-round by dedicated land managers.

As we all know, the way our moorlands are managed is the subject of intense debate and passionate views. I would like to address some of the key issues facing the grouse shooting sector.

The area of Scotland which is used for grouse shooting is one of the issues which has been under scrutiny in recent years. The most reliable figures suggest that approximately 10% of Scotland's land is used for some form of grouse shooting. There are approximately 120 grouse moors in total.

Grouse - what it's all about  © Scottish Land and Estates
Grouse - what it's all about
© Scottish Land and Estates

It is worth bearing in mind that grouse shooting only happens during 16 weeks between August and December each year. But in some years no grouse shooting takes place at all and often there are significant variations from region to region. Grouse are not taken unless there is a sustainable surplus.

Country sports is a very significant rural business sector in Scotland accounting for thousands of jobs and seasonal work. The value of the game and country sports sector to the Scottish economy is valued at £350 million per annum, while the value of grouse shooting to small local businesses is approximately £23 million each year across Scotland.

The nesting density of curlews on managed moors is double that of unmanaged moors; while nesting success is around three times as high. Similarly, lapwing, golden plover, red grouse and meadow pipit all benefit from predator removal by moorland gamekeepers.

The most recent sector snapshot shows that there is a continued and enduring demand for grouse shooting from national and international visitors. Despite some wet and windy weather in recent seasons the demand is there – bird numbers may be unpredictable but the desire to come to Scotland to shoot continues to rise.

The suggestion that managed moorland is a monoculture is not borne out by the evidence. There is no need to take the word of landowners on this – numerous scientific reports demonstrate the conservation and biodiversity benefits of moorland management.

As an example, the UK is number one in the world for curlew recovery. More than a quarter of the world's breeding pairs of curlew – around 16,000 – are found in the UK, with the majority of these in Scotland. Curlews prefer to nest on moorlands, as the tussocky rough ground provides their ideal habitat. The nesting density of curlews on managed moors is double that of unmanaged moors; while nesting success is around three times as high.

Similarly, lapwing, golden plover, red grouse and meadow pipit all benefit from predator removal by moorland gamekeepers. The abundance and breeding success of these species is significantly improved by management of predators.

In Strathbraan, Perthshire, a 20-year programme of woodland planting, grazing reduction, rotational heather burning, predator and bracken control has seen black grouse rise from very low numbers to around 50 black grouse at the last recorded count in 2018. The UK has around 5,100 black grouse in total, while in many other parts of Europe the population has dwindled to just a handful of birds.

Other conservation programmes, including Heads Up for Hen Harriers and the various golden eagle monitoring programmes are all bearing fruit. The UK is estimated to have around 500 pairs of golden eagles, with the majority in Scotland.

Wildlife Estates Scotland's latest annual report showed that 11 accredited estates reported the presence of golden eagles, with seven of these reporting 19 pairs. Eleven estates also recorded sightings of hen harriers with four reporting 18 breeding pairs. Buzzards were also reported on 20 estates, with a total estimated population of over 920 birds.

On habitat conservation, moorland managers are absolutely committed to peatland restoration. The peatland restoration work undertaken on Scottish estates over the past 10 years is playing a major part in efforts to capture carbon and restore habitats.

Peatlands across Scotland store an estimated 1.6 billion tonnes of carbon and estates in many areas are taking part in programmes which will enable carbon sequestration, habitat improvement and restoration of severely eroded areas of upland, amid some of Scotland's most wild and beautiful landscapes.

Golden plover, Invercauld Estate  © Steven Rennie
Golden plover, Invercauld Estate
© Steven Rennie

One restoration project covers more than 3,700 acres of land in the Monadhliaths and the other involves over 1,200 acres in the Cairngorms National Park. The estates taking part in the restoration projects include Garrogie, Alvie, Pitmain, Farr and Glenmazeran in the Monadhliaths and Invercauld, Candacraig, Mar and Glenfeshie in the Cairngorms. The process of peatland restoration will take around seven years but the estates involved are committed to the process; every year there will be careful management and progress reports by gamekeepers.

Peatland restoration involves, amongst a number of things, restoring the surface hydrology of the peat – so that it develops and maintains a high and stable water-table through most of the year. Well-maintained moorlands retain water and prevent excessive run-off in periods of heavy rainfall. In these conditions, species such as cotton-grasses, bog mosses and a few other plants able to grow in nutrient-poor environments will prosper.

Peatland restoration will help store carbon and play a vital role in helping the Scottish Government hit its target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2032 and to restore 40% of Scotland's peatland (618,000 acres) by 2030.

The significant progress that has been made in Scotland in terms of habitat conservation and improved biodiversity is underpinned by close collaboration between wildlife organisations, the public sector and landowners.

The heather landscape we know today owes its existence to moorland management  © Scottish Land and Estates
The heather landscape we know today owes its existence to moorland management
© Scottish Land and Estates

The shooting community is fully cognisant of the divergence in views between ourselves and those who oppose country sports. Recent publications from campaigners such as Revive claim that grouse moors could be planted with trees or rewilded as an alternative land use. However, a Scottish Government commissioned report released in March 2019 has already looked at alternative uses for grouse moorland and found that the land capability for both agriculture and forestry on grouse moors is 'typically low' – especially on deep peat where tree planting is forbidden. A government commissioned report is also currently being compiled on the economic value of grouse moors in some of our least populous rural areas. The recent Revive report provides no detail on how their land management aims would grow this economic benefit.

While it is difficult to remain confident that we will be able to establish common ground among all factions, we believe that it is abundantly clear that cooperation and collaboration are reaping rewards and delivering results for rare native species on Scotland's moors and in order to keep this fantastic landscape in optimum condition, muirburn is one of the tools employed.

Muirburn is the intentional burning of moorland to remove the top layer of vegetation. Burning targets tall, woody patches of heather to allow for new growth. All land managers comply with the Muirburn Code, established in 2017 by the Scottish government. Burning takes place in cycles of up to 20 years, with small patches burnt at different times then left to regenerate. This creates the patchwork hillsides we see around Scotland, providing food and shelter for game and moorland birds, helping improve the wild populations.

The practice of muirburn has been carried out for generations by knowledgeable gamekeepers. Time and again it is demonstrated that the fire breaks created by muirburn will help to stop a wildfire spreading across a large upland area.

Muirburn also significantly reduces the fuel load because there is less old, dry vegetation to fuel the fire. We know from experience that major wildfires will stop when they reach a properly managed grouse moor. In April 2019 the Scottish Fire & Rescue Service announced that it would introduce a controlled burning approach for the first time to tackle the problem of wildfires on moorland, which were a serious concern in 2019.

Gamekeepers have for many years worked directly with the Scottish Fire & Rescue Service to share knowledge in techniques which help to limit the spread of wildfires. This endorsement was a vindication of the knowledge and expertise of Scotland's gamekeepers.

The Glorious 12th  © Graeme Hart, Perth Picture Agency
The Glorious 12th
© Graeme Hart, Perth Picture Agency

Managing moorland can be a tricky undertaking and many estates have hill tracks, to help in this task. These tracks have often attracted controversy, particularly amongst those who campaign against grouse moors. However, the reality is hill tracks are a vital component to many rural businesses on a working landscape – including those involved in farming, forestry and field sports.

Over and above their use for essential management purposes, tracks also assist mountain rescue teams in an emergency situation.

Many walkers, cyclists and horse riders make good use of the roads and tracks which have been put in for management purposes. Responsible access and enjoyment of the Scottish countryside is actively encouraged, with many estates putting up moorland boards at the entrance to their estate, welcoming visitors and providing information on habitat and wildlife management.

The recent passage of the Planning Bill through the Scottish Parliament saw amendments brought forward to require full planning permission for hill tracks – but only targeted against sporting businesses. This was rejected by parliament as an unwanted measure within the bill. That said, we fully agree that tracks should be constructed in a manner that befits their surroundings, in line with the SNH guidance on constructed tracks in the Scottish uplands. Land managers work hard to ensure that high standards of hill track construction are being met through the prior notification and approval process, a measure which was implemented in 2014.

We recognise the need to continue to maintain and improve high standards and that is why we welcome the opportunity to contribute to the review on how the current system is working.

Another key part of managing these landscapes is predator control (foxes, corvids etc), which is regulated by strict protocols.

As far as mountain hares are concerned, they are only managed when their numbers spiral out of control. On managed driven grouse moors, mountain hare populations are up to 35 times higher than on unmanaged moors. A key part of the debate has related to accurate assessment of the number of hares.

The sector has taken a coordinated approach to resolving this issue by adopting a consistent methodology for counting hares – established by Scottish Natural Heritage, the James Hutton Institute and the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust. Already 58 estates in Scotland have trained their staff to enable them to use the new counting methodology twice a year between September and December.

In addition, a new app has been developed by scientists from the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust which uses the EpiCollect5 platform developed by Imperial College London. The app enables instant recording of population data and seamless sharing with conservation bodies. The app is being rolled out to Scottish estates to allow collection of hare population statistics which can be evaluated and inform expert advice on levels of hare management.

Perhaps the most troubling issue for the grouse shooting sector is raptor persecution. Organisations that campaign for alternative land uses assert that the problem is far more serious than is reported. To be absolutely clear, raptor persecution is totally unacceptable. In recent decades there has been a sea change in the whole sector approach to this issue. The advent of a significant change in culture and very stringent legislation has resulted in the lowest rates of raptor persecution ever recorded.

Due to this issue, the grouse shooting sector is under constant scrutiny. The recent report commissioned by the Scottish government, authored by Professor Alan Werritty has suggested measures which will result in massive changes to the sector.

Our view is that legislation has its place. However, given the importance of the rural business sector, it is essential to take people with you. The recent examples of improved practice and innovative techniques to benefit conservation of species have resulted in a sector which is sustainable. We shouldn't allow over-regulation to the point where grouse shooting becomes unworkable.

Working together we can safeguard our precious moorlands for generations to come.

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3 Feb, 2020

Was nice to read a balanced article on the topic. Liked the closing comment.

Every games keeper iv bumped into whilst walking or cycling has been very friendly and helpful.

3 Feb, 2020

Reading the SLE contribution takes me back to Uni Critical evaluation tutorials.......

'The advent of a significant change in culture and very stringent legislation has resulted in the lowest rates of raptor persecution ever recorded.'

Oh look a false-hood (i.e. blatant lie); see -

There are plenty of others.....................maybe we can collectively make a list!

3 Feb, 2020

Be careful with the use of the term 'balanced'.

Giving two opposing views equal weight doesn't necessarily give a fair representation of either the scientific status or public perception of the subject.

3 Feb, 2020

For depressing reports of Hen Harrier persecution this is worth a trawl through:

Went bouldering to the Bull Stones in May last year and the RSPB were out in force protecting Hen Harrier nests. Isn't it a sad indictment of grouse shooting and gamekeepers that this is necessary?

3 Feb, 2020

Quite clearly its option B 'Eco Disaster'. There doesn't seem to be much credible evidence to counter that. When the grouse moor lobby offers evidence claiming to refute this it is often heavily spun, cherry picked and ambiguously worded.

The question then is not whether grouse moors are an environmental disaster but whether they can be justified by the economic arguments for them.

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