‘Scotland’s grouse shooting estates waging a war on wildlife’ – opinion piece in Scotsman

Following the recent publication of a new report from the Revive coalition documenting the extent of wildlife-killing on Scottish grouse moors (up to a quarter of a million animals killed in traps and snares each year – see here), there’s an opinion piece in today’s Scotsman from Robbie Marsland, Director of the League Against Cruel Sports (Scotland) and a member of the Revive coalition.

Over 15 months, a professional surveyor spent 128 days walking 404 square kilometres of land on seven Scottish shooting estates. As he walked, he counted, photographed and recorded the GPS position of traps and snares that were deployed to kill foxes, stoats and weasels. The data from the survey was [sic] sent to a recently retired professor of environmental science at Bristol University for analysis.

The analysis revealed that between 120,000 and 260,000 animals are killed each year by these devices in Scotland alone. The analysis also revealed that the more an estate was intensively managed for the shooting of grouse, the more intensive was the killing.

The Scottish Government has a chance to show that they want to end this killing when they respond to a report from the Grouse Moor Management Review Group. Due in the autumn, this response will be able to reference the results of our survey and announce what steps it plans to make to end the circle of destruction that surrounds grouse moors, including the killing of hundreds of thousands of animals so that more grouse can be shot for “sport”.

The League Against Cruel Sports Scotland commissioned the survey and published the analysis of the data and a summary report, ‘Calculating Cruelty’. The Scottish Gamekeepers Association reacted to the report with scurrilous attacks on the professor who did the analysis, describing, without any explanation, his work as “back of fag-packet calculations and wild extrapolations”.

The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), advisers to the shooting industry, had a more measured response. They pointed out that a new type of trap had recently been introduced that made our report “out of date”. They also said that the wide range of management practises on shooting estates made extrapolations “questionable”. Finally, they denied that the purpose of all the killing was for the benefit of increasing numbers of grouse to be shot.

There is a circle of environmental, social and wildlife destruction that surrounds Scottish grouse moors. For an extremely modest return of around £23 million a year, vast swathes of Scotland are managed to produce a surplus of grouse to be shot for sport in the four months after 12 August.

“Managed” in this context mainly involves destruction. The heather is burned, often on deep peat, to provide better habitat for the grouse. Medicated grit is left out in the open in the hope that it will protect the grouse from worms. No one knows what impact the medication has on other flora or fauna. Unplanned tracks and roads scar the landscape and make it easier for the shooters to get about. An average of 26,000 mountain hares are shot each year because it is thought that this protects the grouse from ticks (although there is no science to back this up). Anything that threatens the grouse is described as a pest and destroyed. Hence the huge deployment of effort against foxes, stoats and weasels.

So, what of those comments by the GWCT? Firstly, the introduction of a new type of trap is immaterial. A better way of killing hundreds of thousands of animals so there can be more grouse to shoot is not a solution. It is a distraction from the main event. So too is the suggestion that the variety of levels of management intensity make extrapolation “questionable”.

Of the seven estates surveyed, they ranged from one highly intensively managed estate all the way down to two that were practically unmanaged for grouse. And finally, the suggestion that the circle of destruction surrounding grouse moors is done for the benefit of all ground-nesting birds, and not just to increase grouse numbers, tests credulity.

The survey reveals that around 40 per cent of the animals found in traps and snares were “non target”, such as hedgehogs, thrushes and dippers. This could be described as “collateral damage”. If so, the impact on other ground-nesting birds could be described as a “collateral benefit”. It is no surprise that when you manage land to increase the number of grouse, a ground-nesting bird, other ground-nesting birds also do well.

But do they? It looks like we are heading into the third “poor year for grouse shooting” in a row. Weather conditions are said to have been bad for the grouse and “sporting bag numbers” (the numbers of grouse shot) are feared to be very low this season. Before this survey was done, no one knew the extent of predator control on Scottish shooting estates. But we did know that it had all the chances of being a “free for all” because there is no duty on anyone to report to anybody on the number of animals being killed. Our 15-month survey was the first quantitative study of a very sizable proportion and range of shooting estates. We may not have the resources of the shooting industry but we have this [sic] data. It seems strange that they try to cast doubt on our survey but they cannot come up with their own number of animals being killed each year.

At the end of the day, I think it is unconscionable to kill just one animal to make sure that there are more other animals to kill for “sport”. It’s important to remember that our reports only looked at traps and snares. We still don’t know how many other foxes and crows are shot each year. I was on a grouse moor the week before the start of the season and the ground was routinely littered with spent shotgun cartridges – each representing a dead animal.

Fag packets and wild extrapolations aside, it seems clear to me that there is a war against wildlife going on in our highlands and the Scottish Government now has the chance to stop it.


Robbie was recently in conversation with Chris Packham about the future of Scotland’s grouse moors. If you missed it, you can watch it here:

26 thoughts on “‘Scotland’s grouse shooting estates waging a war on wildlife’ – opinion piece in Scotsman”

    1. It would be seen as a massive betrayal of”their” people if the Windsors stopped hunting & shooting. They dare not stop the hideous blood ritual

  1. That report is absolute gold, and worth every penny and every (hard) mile trekked. The beauty is all of the traps and snares are logged and can thus be monitored by an independant body. And this process can be repeated on any other Estates to show that in general on almost all Estates, predator control by keepers is inherantly reckless and bares no comparison to Game Conservancy (GWCT) best practice fantasy-land.

  2. The truth is that we are struggling with a power so great it intimidates the Government of our country. How else can the responses of Government be understood given the hard science surrounding the excesses and criminality which are widespread on our Driven Grouse Moors. Keep up the exposes, on the ground and in the bureaucratic system that are being subordinated to wealthy, but minority, interests which, by en large, remain out of sight. Public opinion is THE battlefield which can alter the outcome in the interests of a healthy environment which would host a vibrant ecology.

  3. Whilst the killing of any wildlife sickens me, and I find the use of traps and snares cruel and barbaric, I do think we need to take a holistic view when considering wildlife, and wildlife management.
    Many ground nesting birds such as Curlew, Lapwing and Hen Harrier are on the red list when it comes to their conservation status in the UK.

    I have read that these birds have lost much of their natural habitat through urban sprawl and the industrialisation of agricultural. The agrochemical industry has further contributed to their decline, through the wide spread use of pesticides, and herbicides which have diminished their natural food sources. Vast expanses of mono culture in the countryside can not be good for the environment or wildlife.
    As such I understand these birds are now predominantly found on moorland, and grouse moors.
    The concentration of these ground nesting birds on such moorland must surely be a magnet for their natural predators such as foxes and stoats? Which have also suffered habitat and food source loss across so much of the countryside. (Foxes are at least able to adapt and have moved quite successfully into urban areas.)

    Has our mismanagement of the environment and land created the perfect storm for so much wildlife, which now has to compete for survival on tiny pockets of upland, much of which which is managed as grouse moors?

    If it wasn’t for some form of predator control, would these vulnerable ground nesting birds face extinction?
    At what point does predator control on grouse moors become “predator persecution” and eradication?

    Do we really know what the balance should be between predator numbers and ground nesting bird numbers, and how do we effectively and humanly manage this?

    Whilst there can be no excuse to set traps simply to increase grouse numbers for a fee paying clientele to blast out of the sky- do we not need some effective form of predator control to ensure the survival of some of our most endangered birds?

    Can we talk about banning traps without having a discussion on how we reform farming and increase habitat for these birds right across the countryside, so that their survival can be ensured without necessity of brutal predator control on small pockets of upland moor? (If we think the shooting lobby have entrenched ideas, how much more entrenched could the agricultural industry be? How long ago was it that “Silent Spring” was published and how far forward have really come since then? Just look at what happened when the government proposed to ban neonicotinoids.)

    Have we simply come too far and lost too much natural habitat, so that what is left will constantly require management to ensure that no one species can wipe out another?

    Personally I would like to see gamekeepers become conservation wardens, where the focus is on managing a balance of all species through ethical conservation, and not simply to produce an over population of grouse to be shot.
    But what is the natural balance? Who is going to pay for this? And will it still require the use of traps?

    Please, shoot me down if my arguments are wrong, or you have solutions to these dilemmas.

    1. The truth is, John, that “balance” doesn’t actually exist. All populations are in a constant state of flux around a central tendency. That said, some, of course, as a result of human activity, are at a level below which they can absorb predation.
      As for gamekeepers becoming wardens, I’d rather those posts were filled by real conservationists, not plastic ones.

      P.S. I respect your well presented views, so please don’t think I’m having a pop at you.

    2. Hi John, just some thoughts on keepers as conservationists. I used to labour under these hopes too, but sadly that bird has flown. Things have gone and are still going very much the wrong way. The keeper in the mould of, say – Ian Grindy, is becoming an endangered species. Regards grouse moors, as each ever greedier cohort of Owners comes along they sponsor an ever more intolerant, and fanatical cohort of young keepers jostling to out do one another in their ability to slay small birds and mammals. This system nurtures the “best” / ie worst among them to rise to Headkeepers, whereby they indentify new youngsters even more fanatical than themselves…and thus it continues to spiral to the point where these folk are good for one thing – killing things, and useless at all else. These guys are not phychologically equipped to appreciate even the most basic values of conservation, and will never change. They are barely equipped to even function in any normal job, which is quite often proven. Such a shame.

    3. John L,

      whilst being broadly in agreement with your thoughts, there are a couple of points worthy of further comment;
      The greatest burden which our non-game-bird species have to contend with are the predators who would naturally prey upon them – – I’ve yet to understand quite how those creatures which we attempt to ward off – those who would predate upon our precious and seemingly protected wildlife, don’t ever seem to be in need protection themselves – they do very nicely thank you, despite the best efforts of man!
      As you say, with the concentration of game and what we’ll refer to as non-vermin, so as areas contain a ready food supply so a vacuum is formed.

      ‘Has our mismanagement of the environment ……..’ – I wonder if you would see this comment as being an historic or a current view. The herbicides and pesticides used now are very carefully monitored and licensed, or so we might hope, but the problem is that without such control, food would be at a cost which would be unaffordable for many – – it’s a long and arguable debate, I agree, and one which could easily involve the question of why we’re supporting the production of food via the SFP, when in reality, we’re supporting the life styles of those who produce our food, but whilst that isn’t our current concern, perhaps, the bottom line is that food has to be affordable, and that is only achieved by the production of chemicals with which, in turn we shield our products.

      Back to our ground nesting birds which appears to concern everyone. The bottom line, and with the best will in the world, without controlling predators, we won’t have the planned for imbalance. …….. Yes, planned for. With no control there will be a balance, which will be very little wildlife, both predator and victim.
      Do we want to increase the number of Lapwings and Curlew? There’s only one way to achieve that – control those creatures which feed upon them. Sadly, there are those who are either unable or unwilling, to grasp the simple fact that the decline in our native ground-dependant wildlife is in no small way, linked to our apparent refusal to limit those creatures which prey upon them.
      The numbers of our native Brown Hares has declined just as the numbers of our Buzzards, nationally, has increased exponentially and is clearly linked to the decline in our hare numbers. Lapwings and Curlew are also struggling in places and are now resigned to (largely) areas of moorland – moorlands being on the less-favoured list of Buzzards and Kites too.

      You would like to see ‘keepers become Conservation Wardens? They already are, NOT by intent I accept, but by default, and the shooting world provides the near perfect environment for all wildlife – that which we would promote and that which is reliant upon what we’d protect – – and were this not the case, then there would be no discussion because we’d have little in the way of wildlife to argue over, be that predator or prey! Q.E.D!

      We so often hear others arguing over the question of ‘The Balance of Nature’ …….. balance – here in the UK, is only achieved by man’s intervention. These islands are too heavily populated and man has encroached upon just about any and all aspects of our available earth and to an extent where the situation is irreversible.

      We have a conscience, a conscience which we need, it’s just a question of whether we consider that our rural world has evolved and needs protection and guidance, or whether we throw everything away and sit back and watch the eventual and logical decline.

      I enjoyed your post, greatly, it was one of those which made me think.

      1. Can you provide some evidence, please, in support of your contention that the decline of brown hares is ‘clearly linked’ to the increase in buzzards? As far as I understand it the brown hare has also declined in other European countries that have not necessarily experienced similar changes in buzzard numbers. I believe that changes in agricultural practices such as the switch from hay to silage production are a much more significant factor in the decline which was steepest in the 1960s and 70s.

        You were perhaps using the word loosely and figuratively but I would also challenge your assertion that buzzard numbers have increased ‘exponentially’. The graphs I have seen of buzzard population levels do not remotely fit an exponential curve.

      2. Oh dear, Alec. I hope thats not a chronic case you have there. My own recovery from the same condition began slowly in my mid-twenties and took a lot of years to fully complete. Difficult as it was, at least once fully clear one is immune for life and better still can spot the symptoms in others instantly. Best of luck to you, from an ex-fellow sufferer of wilful self-delusion.

      3. Dear Oh dear, the greatest declines in Brown Hares have taken place in those areas with most intensive agriculture, which also happen to have the lowest densities of Common Buzzards. Yes Buzzards sometimes take leverets but that is an entirely natural phenomenon and has probably been happening ever since Adam was a lad. This is one of the great problems of the gamekeepers are needed arguments, for most of recorded time wildlife has been doing very well without them. The reason Lapwings and Curlew to a lesser extent ( because moorland type habitat ie blanket bog has always been home to Curlew) have gravitated to Moorland is simply habitat destruction. The islands of suitable habitat in the agri-environment are generally so small that they do not provide the extensive areas required by healthy wader populations and act as sinks/honey pot sites for predators. Moorlands also attract high predator densities because of the high densities of Grouse on them and often Pheasants on the fringing land. There would in the long term be no need for the keeper killing predators if that high prey density was not there to attract the predators in the first place. Prey numbers control the number of predators is an oft ignored truth.
        Moorland would be more diverse and its wildlife more sustainable of much of it were rewetted and grouse numbers at a natural level and there were no non-native Pheasants. We don’t need keepers under those circumstances and the idea they are anything other than professional wildlife killers is a joke. Balance as Coop says is an oscillation about a norm and not something we impose with our value judgements. Finally what the hell did all our wildlife do before the advent of the keeper, which is a mere recent blip on the time continuum.

      4. I think that the hares have declined due to shotguns rather than buzzards and as for keepers being conservation wardens!!

        1. …. and with a genuine offer of respect – did you actually think through what you were typing?

          **Balance as Coop says is an oscillation about a norm and not something we impose with our value judgements.**

          With such attempts at bamboozling those who attempt to find a course of reason, might I suggest that you think, and before you pick up your crayon?

          Rarely would I be intentionally rude to others, it isn’t in my nature but those who throw lunacy in to the debate, and none which makes any sense – it would seem to me, are only interested in their own ambitions and not, in the further promotion of conservation.

          1. Alec I thought I was entirely reasonable and respectful. That you find the above otherwise says far more about you than me. I could have been much less so but chose not to be.

            1. This individual’s initially smarmy attempts at garnering sympathy for those who abuse our natural heritage, brings to mind the story of Rudolph Hess’s 1941 visit to Scotland, allegedly to negotiate a peace with Britain. Even by that stage in the war it was too late for Hess and his bosses to weedle their way out of the mire of their own making; just as it’s too late for Alec to con the readers of this blog into believing that real conservationists have anything in common with those who abuse wild animals for their own degenerate amusement. Every year, 3-400,000 Brown hares are shot for fun, yet Alec has the brass face to suggest that he’s concerned with the species’ conservation, and laughably that predation by Buzzards is responsible for declines in it’s population. Is he taking the piss or what?
              His predictable ignorance (or is it simply dishonesty), is only exceeded by his arrogance, which is apparent in his risible attempts to lecture the readers with such worn out, long discredited, half-baked theories regarding predator/prey dynamics (for which he continually fails to provide supporting evidence). He pretends to be respectful and polite, but in truth he insults the intelligence of everyone who has taken the time to educate themselves on the issue, with a cynical bad faith argument. He even tries to “bamboozle” us with his claim of “exponential” increase, which as Jonathan points out is simply without basis. I suggest that he doesn’t really know what the term means, but misuses in his fondness for hyperbole.
              The game is well and truly up. And all the posturing from Alec and his pals no longer fools anyone that a flat hat and tweed jacket equate with the slightest credibility. Nature never has, and never will conform to his self-important idea of “balance”.

            2. I’m late to this, and out of my comfort zone. But I believe the removal of top predators has an effect further down the pyramid, in reducing numbers or moderating ranges of smaller predators. Could anyone comment, please?

              For could this influence numbers of lapwings, etc?

                1. Firstly, thank you for every ones replies. Some interesting comments.
                  The conclusion I am starting to draw is that if we want to seen a proper increase in some of our most endangered ground nesting birds, such as Curlew and Lapwing, then we need to increase natural habitat right across the countryside so that there isn’t over concentration on moorland. Which appears to put too much pressure on species competing for survival.
                  I suspect this will require a complete re thinking about how we manage our countryside and land use. Perhaps this is the line of thinking behind the governments reform of agricultural subsidies and the proposal to pay farmers for “doing good”?
                  If this were to happen, then as some of the most vulnerable species develop greater habitat range and start to recover in number, then there should be less requirement for human interference, other than to ensure habitats are properly protected from human destruction? Hopefully this would result in there being no argument for the use of traps and snares – which was the initial topic of the blog !!

                  To answer your question.
                  My knowledge on this topic is based on the experience of Yellowstone National Park- It was only when wolves were re introduced did we start to see some sort natural order start to be re-established. I understand deer populations had become too large, which caused over grazing of the wood used by beavers to build dams, which in turn effected what happened in water courses, which in turn effected other species as the landscape was had changed from its original pre- human meddled state.
                  I am not suggesting the re-introduction of wolves, but clearly predator numbers affect what happens further down the food chain pyramid. But its a very completed picture, and not something I think current scientific knowledge fully understands.

                  I have had it explained to me that the natural world is a bit like a vast game of Jenga. Ever increasing human population and the strain this is putting on the planet has resulted in the almost constant removal of Jenga pieces from this natural Jenga pile – one small piece at a time. Whilst the Jenga pile looks big, at times a little shaky, humans go on pulling out one small piece after another, some thinking they will re-stabilise the pile, others out of pure exploitation and greed. And then we remove one piece too many- and “bang” the whole pile collapses.
                  I suspect even despite all the scientific knowledge humans have amassed, we don’t really understand the intricacies of the natural world. It’s probably a bit like trying to understand infinity- something that is beyond the concept of the human mind- but something we like to fool ourselves that we can understand!

                2. Yes of course. Certainly if the apex predators were as they were a few hundred years ago, the balance would be better, thats where the argument is for those who just like to kill stuff justify to their slaughter. But when you consider the general public appetite for anything larger than a stoat roaming the countryside killing sheep, and small children, or Red kites carrying of lapdogs, that balance will not be there. You remember the lynx that escaped a couple of years ago. It was shot by the authorities, just in case it may have caused a threat. A lynx for goodness sake. Absolutely no justification, and there go the hopes of any re-wilding projects bringing anything back. Look at the beavers now. I guess the natural balance had sorted itself out to a large degree, as these top predators have been gone for a long time, perhaps when there were fewer of us around depleting the resources and space for ourselves, and now not only the habitat declining due to our expansion and overpopulation reducing numbers of wildlife, but huge numbers are killed for fun, and without control of or policing of numbers killed.

                3. Hi Sog, just anecdotal from spending time in an area that has transformed from unkeepered to intense within a few years, the problem is the first stage ie removal of foxes, causes a boom in rabbits. If the rabbits arent killed off at this point, then the whole predator-prey ecosystem is screwed for years.

    4. Seriously? Do you think that the only way to protect a subset of endemic species nationally is to kill off a subset of endemic predators nationally?

      “If it wasn’t for some form of predator control, would these vulnerable ground nesting birds face extinction?”

      Makes you wonder how ground nesting birds ever managed to appear.

      Killing endemic predators works only in isolated situations, with rare species which warrant such limited drastic action. Killing artificially introduced predators is another thing but also usually requires (a degree of) isolation.

      Provide the landscape/habitat and the birds will come. Unfortunately, we are currently building on/changing more and more of that landscape whilst simultaneously changing the climate. No amount of predator control will ameliorate the ensuing mass extinction.

  4. The current state of affairs suggests that Holyrood either lacks the courage to confront the landowners concerned or has decided to support them.
    Both of these situations are reprehensible.

  5. “The numbers of our native Brown Hares has declined just as the numbers of our Buzzards, nationally, has increased exponentially and is clearly linked to the decline in our hare numbers.”

    “Do we want to increase the number of Lapwings and Curlew? There’s only one way to achieve that – control those creatures which feed upon them.”

    Yet more unsupported opinion and shameless hypocrisy from the plastics.

  6. There is only one solution to this. Ban all grouse shooting. Maybe then the entitled sadists who get their jollies from killing animals will get it. The justifications offered are frankly an insult to intelligence. They like to fall back on the old fashioned notion of custodianship of the land because most of the rural population defers to this almost instinctively. There was once a time in Scottish history when people were cleared from the land by the ancestors of current custodians because they were economically superfluous. Maybe time now to replace those pretending to be responsible custodians with something more ecologically sensible. My piss boils daily.

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