The red grouse and medicated grit scandal: it’s hard to swallow

Just when you thought that all the detrimental environmental and health hazards associated with driven grouse moor management had been exposed, and just when you thought you understood the extent of corruption and/or incompetence by the government agencies responsible for preventing the detrimental environmental and health hazards associated with driven grouse moor management, along comes something else to make your jaw drop.

This time it’s medicated grit.

First, some background about medicated grit: what it is, why it’s used etc., for those who may be new to this.

The red grouse’s diet is predominantly heather. Heather can be quite fibrous and tough so the grouse ingest grit that can be found naturally on grouse moors to help digest their food. All perfectly natural. Red grouse also suffer from infestations of the parasitic Strongyle worm, which live in the gut and can cause cyclical ‘population crashes’ of red grouse every 4-5 years. Again, all perfectly natural. However, these cyclical population crashes are not very popular on intensively-managed driven grouse moors because they result in less red grouse available to kill. When your business model depends on a high density of red grouse to shoot, you want to avoid these natural population crashes at all costs. So in the 1980s the grouse shooting industry came up with a brilliant wheeze: they worked out that if they added a pharmaceutical wormer drug to the grit, they could ‘medicate’ the grouse without too much effort and halt the population crashes. Genius, eh?

The original drug used in medicated grit was Fenbendazole and this grit was placed in piles at regular intervals across grouse moors so the red grouse could eat it with easy access. The amount of grit put out depended on the density of grouse so sometimes these grit piles would be placed as frequently as every 75 m. The use of this grit was quite successful in that it reduced worm burdens in red grouse by an average of 44% and, more importantly to the grouse moor manager, increased grouse productivity by 40%. Great! More grouse available to kill! However, the drug and the fat used to bind the drug to the grit were temperature-sensitive, which meant that if there was an unseasonably mild spring, the drug would melt too soon and thus attempts to medicate the grouse during the crucial period would fail.

Not to worry, though. In 2007 the industry came up with a solution – switch to another wormer drug (Flubendazole) and another fat with a weather-resistant coating. This new grit contained 5% Flubendazole, the maximum strength permitted (licensed) for use in the UK. Tests showed that this new medicated grit would persist in the environment for much longer: 70% of the active drug remaining after nine months of being laid out, and 50-60% remaining after 18 months.

To comply with the law (which states that this drug must be withdrawn from use no later than 28 days before the start of the grouse-shooting season on 12th August to ensure the drug doesn’t find its way in to the food chain), some (but not all) grouse moor managers started to use ‘medicated grit boxes’ which comprise two compartments, separated by either a hinged or a sliding door. One compartment holds the medicated grit and the other compartment contains non-medicated grit. This allows the moorland gamekeeper to simply close off the medicated grit compartment at the appropriate time, assuming the gamekeeper is diligent and isn’t tempted to leave out the medicated grit for longer than the law allows.

Photo: medicated grit box. Image by Richard Webb.

Medicated grit tray by Richard Webb Lammermuirs

Not every moor uses specialist grit boxes though. Some moors use a home-made version:

Photo: breeze block grit dispenser. Image by Phil Champion.

Medicated grit Phil Champion

And some moors place the grit directly on to cut pieces of turf:

Photo: grit on cut turf. Image by Richard Webb.

Medicated grit upturned turf Richard Webb

Whilst the use of medicated grit boxes might seem a very good idea, they are not without their problems. When red grouse use the boxes, they can sometimes scrat around for quite some time while they choose which piece of grit they want to pick up. This can result in large amounts of faecal matter being deposited inside the box which in turn can spread disease to other grouse using the box. The ‘best practice guidelines’ issued by GWCT encourages the regular removal of all these faeces but it’s apparent that this isn’t happening on all moors. This may well explain the recent increase in the highly contagious ‘Bulgy Eye’ disease in red grouse that’s being reported on moors in northern England as well as Scotland.

Photo: grit box contaminated with grouse faeces. Image by Ruth Tingay.

IMG_5207 (3) - Copy

Although some grouse moor managers were using double strength medicated grit, they still weren’t satisfied with performance so a new ‘super-strength’ medicated grit has been developed which is ten times the strength (and according to grouse moor management ‘guru’ Mark Osborne, can be twenty times the strength). The ten times strength grit contains a suspension of 50% Flubendazole, which is far greater than the 5% limit permitted for use in the UK. The manufacturers get around this by using a Special Import Certificate.

In addition to the use of medicated grit, some grouse moor managers are also using direct-dosing methods whereby the grouse are caught in the middle of the night and have a tube shoved down their throats to deliver a few mls of an anthelmintic drug.

So, with all these pharmaceutical wormer drugs being given to red grouse, you might expect a high level of monitoring by the statutory agencies to ensure that these drugs are not entering the food chain when people are eating shot red grouse, right? Pretty much all other meat destined for human consumption is subject to rigorous testing so red grouse shouldn’t be any different, right?


You may remember back in July we blogged a little bit about the use of medicated grit on driven grouse moors, in response to a ludicrous claim by SNH that red grouse are ‘healthy’ and ‘natural’ to eat (see here). We said we were interested in the testing regime and had read that the Food Standards Agency was responsible for testing shot red grouse as well as for randomly sampling medicated grit boxes.

So an FoI was sent to the FSA to ask them for the following information:

  1. How many individual birds (red grouse) were tested in England and Scotland in each of the following years: 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014? Please provide a breakdown of each country in each year.
  2. From how many geographically separate grouse moors did these birds originate? Please provide a breakdown of county for each year.
  3. On what dates were these birds tested? Please provide a breakdown for each county in each year.
  4. How many of the birds tested in each year were found to contain the presence of illegal residues of Flubendazole? Please provide a breakdown of each county in each year.
  5. If illegal residues were detected in any bird, what action, if any, was taken?
  6. How many individual grouse moors in England and Scotland were randomly visited in each of the following years (2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014) to test the contents of grit boxes for the presence of Flubendazole? Please provide a breakdown for each country in each year.
  7. How many grit boxes were inspected on each grouse moor of each year in each country? Please provide a breakdown of each moor, in each country, in each year.
  8. On which dates were these inspections made? Please provide a breakdown of each moor, in each country and in each year.
  9. How many of the inspected grit boxes were found to contain Flubendazole? Please provide a breakdown of each moor, in each country, in each year.
  10. If any illegal residues were detected in any grit box, what action, if any, was taken?

The FSA said they didn’t hold the information and recommended contacting the Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD) at DEFRA who should be able to help. It turns out that ‘the VMD are the competent authority for the National Surveillance Programme which is carried out in accordance with EU Directive 96/23/EC. This is implemented nationally under The Animal and Animal Products (Examination for Residues and Maximum Residue Limits) (England and Scotland) Regulations 2015 and The Animal and Animal Products (Examination for Residues and Maximum Residue Limits) Regulations 1997 as amended’.

So the same FOI was sent to the VMD. Their response was as follows:

“The VMD’s Residues Team haven’t taken any red grouse samples under the National Surveillance Scheme (NSS) in the years you cite, nor in any other year. We don’t therefore have the information you request”.

A further FoI was sent to the VMD to ask why they hadn’t collected any samples from any red grouse, ever. This was their response:

“The legislation does allow us to sample red grouse, but the issue is that we do not have any details of abattoirs processing this species. We continue to sample partridge and pheasants at abattoirs – these are from game shoots and taken to abattoirs to be gutted and cleaned. The abattoirs have to hold a licence to be able to do so.

In accordance with the Legislation, we must take samples at the primary production point – on farm or at abattoirs. But as we do not have any details of abattoirs processing red grouse, we have been unable to carry out any sampling under the surveillance programme.

If you do have concerns that there is use of an unauthorised substance or the withdrawal period is not being observed you should contact the Local Authority”.

Wed 6 May - CopyWe were fascinated by the idea of gamebirds being sent to “abattoirs” to be gutted and cleaned. We’d never heard of that, although we did know that some gamebirds are sent to game processing plants to be plucked etc. One such plant is Yorkshire Game, which we also knew processed red grouse. So another FoI was sent to the VMD to ask for a list of all “abattoirs” and processing facilities they had visited in the last five years to sample pheasant and partridge, as we were keen to see whether Yorkshire Game appeared on their list. Surely, if we, as ordinary members of the public, knew that Yorkshire Game processed red grouse, then the specialist team from the VMD would also know that….it’s kind of their job to know! We also asked why, if the legislation states that samples must be taken at the primary production point (“on farms or at abattoirs”) no samples had been taken at any red grouse ‘farms’ (grouse moors)?

This was their response:

“Under the programme samples are taken at abattoirs and some of these abattoirs also act as a processing facility.  Attached is a list of all game samples taken including the abattoir from 2011 to date. [Ed: this list did indeed include Yorkshire Game, as well as a number of other processing facilities in England and Scotland].

Samples taken on farms are from animals in a managed environment and the animals are usually housed to allow the sampling officer to target a specific animal to be sampled.  The practicalities of taking a sample from birds that are roaming free would be more difficult and take up additional resources.

However, since my last e-mail the VMD have now successfully identified a number of abattoirs where red grouse is processed.  As a result the National Surveillance Programme for 2016 will include sampling from red grouse and full results will continue to be published on”.

So, it turns out that the VMD had been sampling pheasants and partridge at Yorkshire Game (and other game processing plants known by us to process red grouse), but were apparently unaware that red grouse were also available to sample there. That’s kind of hard to believe, isn’t it?

Their response to why they haven’t sampled red grouse directly at grouse moors is also hard to believe. They state that sampling free-flying birds would be difficult (yep, that would be true) but don’t say anything about why they haven’t sampled dead (shot) birds at the end of a day’s shooting.

It’s good to hear that this ‘specialist’ team “has now successfully identified a number of abattoirs where red grouse are processed” and we look forward to seeing the results of extensive sampling that should begin in 2016.

But the VMD still hadn’t answered the question about testing medicated grit boxes on grouse moors, to see whether the anthelmintic drug had actually been withdrawn within the statutory withdrawal period or whether it was still freely available to the grouse at the on-set of the shooting season. So, another FoI was submitted to ask how many grit boxes on grouse moors had been tested over the last five years. This was their response:

“The prescribing of wormers in grouse grit is permitted under the rules of the prescribing cascade in the Veterinary Medicines Regulations 2013. Use of medicines in animals under the cascade is down to the professional judgement of the prescribing veterinary surgeon, taking into consideration the impact on the animals concerned, in response to a specific animal welfare need. Therefore, the VMD does not specifically monitor such use.

A statutory withdrawal period when using medicines under the cascade has to be applied and that means that the medicated grit must be removed from the grouse moors at least 28 days prior to the shooting of the birds.  The Legislation referred to in my previous e-mail sets out that primary products of animal origin should be sampled and grit is not included in the programme. Samples of red grouse muscle will be taken as part of the 2016 programme”.

Amazing! So a pharmaceutical drug of at least ten times the licensed strength permitted (twenty times the strength if you believe Mark Osborne) is being used on grouse moors without ANY statutory monitoring whatsoever! Isn’t that astonishing? Do you think that the public would accept other meat industries (e.g. dairy farmers) getting away with this lack of regulation and scrutiny? No, of course they wouldn’t, so how come the grouse shooting industry is exempt?

The grouse shooting industry will probably argue that they have ‘best practice guidelines’ for the use of medicated grit – and indeed they do – but who will believe that they’re adhering to these guidelines? We don’t. This is an industry that routinely breaks the law so we’d fully expect them to ignore ‘best practice guidelines’, especially if they know the authorities aren’t checking.

Anyone still fancy eating a ‘natural’ and ‘healthy’ red grouse? Go on, it’s good for you – as well as all that toxic lead, there’s free, high-dosage wormer included too! Yum!

And what about the environmental consequences of using this high persistence pharmaceutical drug in an open landscape of supposed high conservation value? What short and long-term effect is it having and how does it impact on other species? Nobody knows. Is anyone researching this or is it yet another case of turning a blind eye to the actions of the grouse shooting industry?

An argument could easily be made that shot red grouse is actually ‘hazardous waste’. The HSE’s definition of hazardous waste is this:

‘Waste is considered ‘hazardous’ under environmental legislation when it contains substances or has properties that might make it harmful to human health or the environment. This does not necessarily mean it is an immediate risk to human health, although some waste can be’.

It’s time driven grouse shooting was banned. Please sign the petition HERE

UPDATE 3 March 2017: Are red grouse safe to eat? Don’t rely on Government testing to tell you (see here).

UPDATE 1 January 2018: High risk of eating contaminated red grouse after inadequate safety checks (here)

UPDATE 12 July 2018: High risk of eating contaminated red grouse as inadequate safety checks continue (here)

61 thoughts on “The red grouse and medicated grit scandal: it’s hard to swallow”

  1. I am unable to read the FOI replies as I cannot see the print. Are you able to improve the images please? This is a fascinating subject and one I had no idea about.

      1. RPS, it’s the white background which makes it difficult. When you first used it in the quote from Alan Law
        in your post ‘Natural England to issue guidance on deployment of gas guns on grouse moors’ i thought it was a redacted document with nothing to read. It was only later that i saw that with a different screen angle there was some feint type. I use Firefox.

  2. Brilliant, RPS – you may have started to close another loophole that the industry squirms through.

    I look forward to seeing the results of the 2016 testing. I hope this aspect of the perils of eating grouse gets some publicity.

    Will the Scottish media take this up? Foody magazines etc? I doubt it.

  3. Absolutely brilliant journalism RPS.
    You and Mark Avery need medals. It would be great to see some kind of e-magazine with contributions from Mark, RPS and others or perhaps that defeats the purpose of blogs.

    1. Hear, Hear. Also the Raptor Politics blog. These three blogs have given me so much information. Really proud of you all. Thanks for all the hard work.

  4. Nicely summarised. There is a further issue, but even more difficult to quantify. Once ingested by the grouse, a high proportion of the active medicine is simply passed through the bird’s digestive system and excreted into the wider environment. I understand that this can be up to 90%. One wonders what the wider environmental implications of this are, e.g. for watercourses. (And it perhaps it goes some way to explain the enthusiasm to use ever higher concentrations of active substance in the grit).

    Keith Morton

  5. Congratulations on an excellent piece of investigative journalism. Perhaps some hotshot academic will apply for a grant to study the metabolic and ecological pathways of this drug. It could make their reputation!

  6. This has a parallel in the situation regarding areas contaminated by radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl disaster. In areas of Wales, northern England and southern Scotland where contaminated sheep are still prevented from entering the food chain to this day, almost thirty years on, the legislation does not apply to wild game such as Red Deer, which are known to be even more heavily contaminated. I wonder, seriously, if Red Grouse from the same moors are fit for human consumption? The reason the deer have higher levels is because heather absorbs the radioactive substance from the soil more effectively than grass, and deer consume more heather than sheep. What do grouse feed on?

  7. I do think that all those shoppers at Iceland really ought to know the bonus ingredients of the red grouse they purchase!

  8. Recent review on Trip Advisor re Rules Restaurant, London.

    “We decided to bring my parents here to celebrate their wedding anniversary. They have never been before & I’m pleased to say they loved it as much as we always do!
    The food is outstanding & totally delicious. My husband opted for the whole grouse, & was delighted to discover the lead shot ! My parents both chose fish & they enjoyed every mouthful ”

    Are they (allegedly ) ignorant, sad, laughable or maybe even discerning? Can’t decide!

  9. I’m interested to know if the cyclical crashes in grouse numbers due to strongyle worm are caused in the first place by the unnaturally high grouse numbers. Do grouse living at a lower density in natural situations for instance in Norway go through this or is it another symptom of intensive grouse moor management that reduces the difference between it and factory farming.

    1. Not sure about that, Les. But confident that maintenance of artificially high grouse densities, coupled with extensive use of high dose wormer drug, will result in drug-resistant Strongyle worms = disaster waiting to happen.

    2. Les – several species of grouse and ptarmigan show cycles in numbers, even in parts of the world where strongyles are not a problem to them. The academic jargon for this tendency of grouse to cycle is “unstable population dynamics”. In short, cycles can occur without strongyles.

      Grouse and ptarmigan are northern birds adapted to long snowy winters. Strongyles become a problem only in relatively mild parts of their range, such as grouse moors in the British Isles. Here, outbreaks of grouse disease (“trichostrongylosis”) in red grouse are one of the causes of cycles. Disease breaks out when the birds transmit worms to each other at a high rate.

      A high worm transmission rate is caused by high grouse densities and wet summer weather. So artificially high densities do contribute to the cycles caused by grouse disease. A competent grouse manager, however, will arrange to shoot so many birds that such high densities are not reached, so avoiding this aspect of the problem. This is not as easy as it sounds. Also, even the best manager cannot arrange for dry summer weather. So he puts out medicated grit. This helps to reduce the incidence of disease outbreaks but brings other problems in its train.

  10. Brilliant work as always RPS. The responses are mind boggling to say the least. How about asking Jimmy Doherty and Chris Packham to do an investigatory TV documentary on this matter? The general public needs to know what is and isn’t happening. Reminds me of the start of the Vultures/diclofenac fiasco.

  11. Can a pharmaceutical be administered to a “wild bird” in the same way that it can be provided to livestock or quasi livestock such as pheasants and partridges during their rearing stage?

  12. I dont think this will make any difference to those who choose to eat grouse, think about it, actually how few of the human population has ever tasted grouse, most would not like it and think it was too gamey and tasted like heather, and then think about this, every sheep in the Country is dosed with fluke and wormer twice a year and, every cow dosed the same way, chicken food contains antibiotics , salmon farming adds something to make the flesh pink, turkeys are given a wormer and even Horses are dosed for worms, its just the way it is.
    If grouse were in their natural low numbers, in a countryside with all their natural predators, then I dont think worms in them would be an issue. Lead shot is easy to pick out whilst eating game.
    Very well done rps for being so persistent, I think the end is nigh.

    1. Keen birder, lead shot may be easy to pick out but there are, I am informed, lots of lead particles shed into the flesh when the shot passes through it, which are undetectable by the eater.

      “How much lead gets eaten along with wild-shot game? Enough to poison regular eaters of some wild birds, thanks to fragments of lead too small to be picked out during a meal.” From the New Scientist article mentioned below.
      As for other meat animals, there are regulations and testing in place. But not it seems for grouse.
      For more information :-

      Click to access Risk_assessment_for_lead_in_wild_game.pdf

  13. Just to follow up on circusmaxim I couldn’t help but notice the comment from Stephen Gibbs, Chairman of the Scottish Venison Partnership…

    “”We believe this is an isolated, rogue incident in an industry that has an exemplary record…”

    Sound familiar? Did to me.

  14. I can and can’t believe this is happening or is allowed to continue. In so many areas we are putting ourselves and our environment, the only one we have, in peril. You are to be commended for bring all this to light, as well as the plight of our amazing raptors.

  15. Might be worth asking the FSA or Food Standards Scotland if they have any information on Grouse tested for residues at retail or consumption level – that would be the responsibility of the local Trading Standards or Environmental Health services (depending on where you live) but FSA do have a national sampling record system as well. I suspect that no testing is carried out, but you never know.

    Some game birds are processed at abatoirs, usually where the abatoir is also a cutting or processing plant – there is a list on the FSA website of what each is licenced for.

  16. Peter, it is past time that all publishers realised that black type on white background is the easiest by far to read, for most people, various colours on various coloured backgrounds can look nice but not for actually reading especially where it changes across a page, white on black is one of the worst if not of high quality with a bold font.

  17. If only you knew what went on at food processing plants around the country and how some food was actually produced. Give me a medicated grouse any day at least it’s free range!
    You need to open your eyes and see that there are worse things in the world to worry about than this
    In some country’s the skin dogs alive boil monkeys alive and your getting irate about grouse production.

    Honestly get a grip.

      1. Honestly Wrote

        “If only you knew what went on at food processing plants around the country and how some food was actually produced. Give me a medicated grouse any day at least it’s free range!
        You need to open your eyes and see that there are worse things in the world to worry about than this
        In some country’s the skin dogs alive boil monkeys alive and your getting irate about grouse production.

        Honestly get a grip.”

        You’ve sat and pondered a reply and that is the best you can come up with, with that attitude we would still be raping and pillaging at every opportunity because it still goes on in other parts of the world. There is a difference between right and wrong, its honestly that simple

    1. We do know what goes on in in some food processing plants and production units – which is why we have the Animal Welfare inspectorate, other Regulatory bodies, NGO’s and all the other legal representation to curb (as much as possible) any of the grosser excesses. And likewise why regulations exist for the correct usage of prophylactic dosing in other livestock. I would hardly like to wish that any of your descendants are born with any congenital defects which could be traced back to the unregulated use of some chemical by a self-serving set of twerps dosing “free range” birds in such a cavalier manner as described in the article.
      Other countries do some strange and unpleasant things – we are not in a race to the bottom with this and throughout our country’s history we eventually rid ourselves of unacceptable social, moral and ethical behavior.
      Having said all that – it does appear that the regulatory bodies I alluded to are going to have to up their game on this one – “the wheels of God”, etc. etc.

  18. See — says that the ‘ it should be removed or buried 28 days before the start of the shooting season’.

    Surprised its allowed to be buried – it could easily leach into groundwater/watercourses. I’d suspect that this would be the easiest option for Gamekeepers, dig a few big holes and store it on the moor for next year – with a ready made excuse as its best practice as recommended by suppliers.

  19. Well done for highlighting this. Although I’ve never eaten grouse I would if I saw it for sale at a reasonable price. Now I’m not so sure.. ..
    Has anyone taken a supermarket grouse and actually tested for this substance or is this all just hypothetical?

  20. Another completely off topic subject for a site about raptor crime. Why not just change the site name to and have away with it,

  21. Birdman,
    Imagine if the shooting interests had acted responsibly with regards to raptors and the environment, a lot of this research might never have been done, I am quite sure that there wouldn’t be the same pressure that is building by the day.
    The laws are for all of us, they were made for a reason and shooting keeps proving that they are required today just as much as they were required back when they were implemented.

  22. Its not as if any of you townies ever eat grouse anyhow, I ken its not as sexy but shouldn’t you spending your time sorting out the food chain of real people

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