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

Last year we wrote a blog called The red grouse and medicated grit scandal: it’s hard to swallow (here). The opening paragraph of that blog went like this:

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‘.

The blog was about the unregulated and unlicensed use by grouse moor managers of super-strength medicated grit (used to treat red grouse against infestations of the parasitic Strongyle worm) and how the Government agencies responsible for food safety were not testing to see whether the active drug (Flubendazole) was reaching the human food chain because those agencies ‘didn’t know where to find red grouse for testing’. Unbelievable, literally.

Well, it doesn’t end there. We’ve now uncovered another potential health hazard associated with eating driven red grouse and this time it’s pesticides.

Last month a blog reader (thank you) sent us this clipping from the April 2016 edition of Countryman’s Weekly:

Countrymans Weekly April 2016 - Copy

This young lad works on the Cabrach Estate in NE Scotland. In the article he talks about how busy he’d been in April, catching up red grouse at night to force a tube down their throats to administer a powerful veterinary drug (Levamisole hydrochloride) to kill the parasitic strongyle worm.

Amazingly, catching up grouse at night to administer medication is legal in Scotland throughout the year (except between 16 April – 31 July) under an SNH General Licence. Interestingly, it is only permissible in England during the grouse-shooting season (12 August – 10 December), although this raises serious concerns about the high probability of the drug entering the human food chain via shot birds (see here). It is NOT permissible to catch up red grouse to administer medication during the closed season in England, according to recent advice from Natural England. This is important – we’ll come back to it.

Now, back to the article. What we’re particularly interested in is the last three sentences. These are not direct quotes from the young trainee gamekeeper, but have been inserted by the article’s author who we believe was someone called Linda Mellor. Linda Mellor is a professional freelance writer, specialising in writing articles for the game-shooting industry, so we might expect her to know what’s going on on the ground:

Two go out on a quad at night; the passenger uses a net to catch up the grouse, typically females first, and ties a pesticide leg band onto the bird. This protects her directly and indirectly protects her chicks as they acquire some pesticide while brooding. There has been a marked increase in grouse survival rates through this type of tick prevention‘.

Eh? Leg bands impregnated with pesticides are being attached to the legs of female red grouse (in Scotland) to protect them and their chicks from ticks which can transmit Louping Ill Virus (and thus enhancing grouse productivity)? Really? That’s astonishing!

Acarcidal leg band GWCT 2008 - Copy

What type of pesticide is being used? What strength of pesticide is being used? For how long does the pesticide last? What is the effect on predators that may ingest a pesticide-treated red grouse? Is the pesticide licensed for use on wild birds that will later enter the human food chain? What about the statutory 28-day withdrawal period of all veterinary drugs prior to an animal entering the human food chain? Remember, the General Licence in Scotland does not permit the catching-up of red grouse until after 31st July, but the grouse-shooting season opens on 12th August. That means that these pesticide leg bands will not be removed in time to comply with the statutory 28-day withdrawal period. That makes the use of these pesticide leg bands illegal.

We’d not heard of this particular aspect of grouse moor management (perhaps it’s one of those that the GWCT is so keen to ‘keep under the radar‘) so we did a bit of digging. It turns out that several years ago various trials took place (in Scotland) to test the efficacy of this technique, some by independent researchers (e.g. see: Mougeot et al 2008 acarcide leg bands) and some by the GWCT.

There’s a useful article in the GWCT’s 2008 Annual Review (here – see pages 48-49), that concluded these pesticide leg bands did appear to reduce the tick burden of grouse chicks but that further research was required to confirm the findings.

There’s also a fascinating published thesis on the subject, that explains, among other things, how the active drug (in this case Permethrin, commonly used as an insect repellent and also used to treat scabies and pubic lice!) circulates through the body of the grouse via the bloodstream and how Permethrin-impregnated wing tags have also been trialled. It concludes that further research is required to test the effectiveness of these pesticide leg bands on the productivity of large scale grouse populations: Thesis 2011 acaricidal treatment red grouse

Now, all this research took place several years ago so we were interested in what ‘advice’ the GWCT may be giving out about the use of pesticide leg bands in 2016. Here’s what we found (downloaded from the GWCT website on 14th April 2016):

GWCT advice pesticide leg bands_website14April2016 - Copy

So, GWCT acknowledges that pesticide leg bands are not currently licensed for use on red grouse, but they suggest that grouse moor managers can adapt ‘existing products which require an off-label prescription from a veterinary surgeon’. In other words, find yourself a tame vet and do what you like, in exactly the same way grouse moor managers get around the licensing restrictions of using super-strength medicated grit (see here).

What’s also interesting about this GWCT advice is that it doesn’t make any reference to the restrictions of catching up grouse in England outside of the shooting season. Therefore their advice implies that it’s ok to do this in England, despite clear warning from Natural England that catching up grouse to administer medication between 11 Dec – 11 August is illegal (see here).

So, on the day when Marks and Spencer announced they’re preparing to sell red grouse in their stores this year (see here and here), on the advice of the GWCT(!), here are some of the ‘healthy’ things M&S can tell their customers they’ll be consuming as they tuck in to their ‘healthy and natural’ M&S red grouse:

  • Excessive amounts of toxic poisonous lead (over 100 times the lead levels that would be legal for other meat – see here)
  • Unknown quantities of the veterinary drug Flubendazole (see here)
  • Unknown quantities of the veterinary drug Levamisole hydrochloride (also used in chemotherapy treatment for humans with colon cancer – see here)
  • Unknown quantities of the pesticide Permethrin (used topically to treat scabies and pubic lice; probably not that great to ingest)
  • They should also know that their red grouse may also be diseased with Cryptosporidiosis (see here).


And then there’s all the environmentally-damaging effects of driven grouse moor management, as well as all the associated wildlife slaughter, both legal and illegal, but this blog is long enough already.

Ban driven grouse shooting: please sign the petition HERE

UPDATE 13 May 2016: Update on pesticide leg bands being attached to red grouse here

26 thoughts on “The red grouse and pesticide scandal: it’s hard to swallow”

  1. We’re forever being told that Hen Harriers need grouse moors to survive, and that various raptor species are causing havoc on grouse moors, so would this not count as reckless disturbance for any Schedule 1A species?

  2. Just tried to have a meaningful conversation with SNH.
    You must have the patience of a saint

    When was the last time anyone saw a stoat?

  3. Just a small technical correction, although, in my view, it underlines an even more worrying aspect of the whole RG medication thing. The general licence (GL) you link to does indeed permit catching out of season RG to administer vet medicines but the reason the GL is needed is that it legalises the METHOD of capture – ie lamping – rather than the taking (and medicating) per se. There was already – and this is the more worrying bit I refer to – an absolute statutory right to take RG all year round for medication purposes. This comes from s.2(3C) of the Wildlife and Countryside Act (WCA) (Scottish version only). This amendment to the WCA appeared late on in the Wildlife and Natural Environment Act bill process. It was slipped in late at the behest of the GWCT with little or no consultation – a craven sop to game shooting interests (a bit like the even more disastrous absolute right to release infinite numbers of pheasants and RL partridges which comes from the same legislation). However it turned out, not surprising given its last-minute nature, that the Scottish Government made a balls-up of the amendment and forgot to also include a right to use lamping for capture, a method otherwise outlawed by the Birds Directive (and therefore the WCA). That’s why the GL had to be introduced. Perhaps we should be grateful for the small mercy that in bringing in the GL they also decided in retrospect to include some degree of seasonal restriction. A curious afterthought that has not been explained. Actually, we shouldn’t be grateful about anything. This is another piece of truly dreadful legislation displaying the Scottish Government’s cavalier approach to human health and the natural environment.

  4. This should go out on a public web page so that everybody can see what these stalwarts of the countryside get up to. One things for certain, driven Red Grouse shooting should be banned as soon as possible for the welfare of the environment, the welfare of the wildlife and the personal health of members of the public who come into contact with these dangerous chemicals either through the food chain or via direct contamination.

    1. I agree, at the moment its just not reaching and /or persuading enough people to influence the hoi poloi. I have signed and shared each of Mark Avery’s petitions, and while the numbers are increasing, clearly not sufficient people care enough to want it stopped. It needs a much bigger audience than just us and our social networking friends.
      It is VERY dispiriting.

  5. Another good article and I am beginning to get the idea that you do not like grouse shooting. If the highly resourced RSPB could pay some serious attention “to the money” “our money” ie the public CAP subsidies that underpin this nonsense we might all start to get somewhere.

  6. Interesting, thank you for the research, as you say….. Yummy. Not exactly organic, is it though.

    And, if the grouse are being handled, treated, medicated and fed like this, kept and raised in an entirely artificial ‘field’ are they still ‘wild’ ? or ‘farmed’

    I do wonder if M & S have to legally list all the ingredients on the packaging ?

    The biggest obscenity, is just how many of our wild mammals and protected raptors have to die, in order to force up the grouse numbers ??

    Wonder if I could use the same bonkers regulations, in order to breed and release 50 million ? stoats/weasels/pine martins…… might be a game changer. ( irony )

    1. Did you see Bill Oddie’s wobbly commentary on snares published on the Ecologist ( Assuming he was representing LACS’ ban snares campaign (he links to the petition – I signed anway), I wonder what audience he was aiming at on that publication, yet with bizarrely inaccurate natural history allusions? Seemed a bit of an own goal to me. Tempted to ask LACS if that’s really the best use of his celebrity endorsement.

  7. You mention in passing the potential impact on predators eating these RG and I know the article is focusing on the human food chain.
    Are vets etc who are doing post mortems on Raptors aware of these practices and are they currently testing for these pesticides?

  8. Not to mention the damage done by driving around on a quad at night whilst birds are incubating

  9. Forgotten as much as anything in all this is that the Red Grouse is a wild bird – is there any other wild bird which is treated as a commodity to be used and abused and nothing else? And how do these people get away with introducing potentially dangerous pesticides into the environment at all, never mind ones that have not been legally approved for such usage? It’s time the RSPB got its founding spirit back, and campaigned ultimately for all wild birds to be protected and cherished.

    1. Exactly, Jack Snipe, couldn’t agree more.

      How do they get away with it? It can only be that as the grouse killing business makes money, blind eyes in government departments and other bodies who should be responsible are constantly turned on the multiple damage done. The evidence is building up, thanks to the watchful eyes of RPUK, other conservation groups and concerned individuals, but it appears that we’re all ignored or fobbed off with platitudes and assurances that they care.

      They don’t – all they care about is money. It’s totally immoral.
      Sorry for the rant.

  10. The problem is getting the message out there , we all know that the BBC is in the pocket of the government but surely some investigative journalist somewhere could highlight this criminality. I’ve lost the will to live when a petition by a woman asked to wear high heels (which I agree is wrong) get 66.000 signatures in a couple of days and its all over TV and radio news instantly and we cant get these scandals aired to a wider audience . Surely somebody, RSPB ,anybody could finance a high profile PR push , then we would really see the signatures rising.

  11. Hi, In case your follower didn’t let you know the following, we’d like to point out that we printed a correction to the article above in our edition of April 20 (we are a weekly title), which stated that the shoot “does not use pesticides in their dosing process”.

  12. As I read the General License I am astonished just how SNH appear to be bending over backwards to please those that have shooting interests, whatever the cost to the environment and those NATIVE species which SHOULD be thriving out there on those Scottish hills. Here is an example; A legal crow cage/multi cage trap I found recently. It is tagged, inside there is water, food, a perch and an upturned bucket with a hole in it for shelter. All which is required by law. Inside this cage were two magpies, both had had their tail feathers cut right off as well as their flight feathers. They were grounded. A crow was also in the cage. It had not been mutilated like the magpies as far as I could see and flew around in the cage. Here are my points: The two wild magpies almost certainly suffered as they had their tails and flight feathers cut off before being placed into the crow cage trap, after probably being caught in another cage elsewhere, possibly a larson trap. They will suffer stress from the fear of predation as they cannot fly and get up off the ground. The regulations state that a decoy bird must have access to an adequate perch but these birds cannot get up to the perch and even if they could some how manage to hop up, their tail feathers have been hacked off and so they would have difficulty balancing on the perch anyway. The crow, it was established, was also a decoy. There is nowhere in the license which prevents operators of these traps to use more than one live decoy bird in the same cage or mix species of listed decoy birds, possibly being forced to live together in such a restricted space for weeks, where there will be a risk of conflict and injury as well as the stress of being so close together with nowhere to escape to. Nowhere in the license also does it state that it is OK to mutilate a decoys flight and tail feathers, but nowhere does is say that it is not ok. It appears that the cage operators just do it and get away with it because they can. Finally, apart from the welfare implications of mixing different corvid species together and forcing them to live with one another in a cage for possibly weeks, there is no chance that in harsh conditions, such as the snow blizzards we had in some parts of Scotland recently and when I discovered this particular trap, that all three birds would share the single shelter that was provided. I sort advice on the welfare status of these birds but I was informed that there was nothing that could be done.

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