‘How licensing grouse estates can end a national disgrace’

Max Wiszniewski, the campaign manager for Revive, the coalition for grouse moor reform, had this article published in The National last week, timed to coincide with the opening day of the grouse-shooting season.

TODAY marks the opening of the controversial grouse shooting season. But is it still the “glorious twelfth”?

Polling has previously shown that seven in 10 Scots are against the so-called sport. The common association between grouse moors and the illegal persecution of Scotland’s protected birds of prey has been ruining the industry’s reputation for decades. As far back as 1998, Donald Dewar called it a “national disgrace” and it remains so today, more than 20 years later.

For this reason the Scottish Government has committed to introduce licences on grouse shooting estates, despite protestations from industry lobbyists. The fact that a licence has never been required to manage shooting estates will be shocking to some, but the Government recognises that the failure of self-regulation has left the industry with no-one to blame but themselves.

Put simply, a licence would mean that if the law is broken or if the terms of a grouse moor licence is not adhered to then an estate could lose that licence.

The REVIVE coalition believes there is a circle of destruction that surrounds grouse shooting which goes well beyond potential illegality and the more people that know about it, the more they will question why it is allowed to continue.

More than 100,000 foxes, stoats, weasels, crows and non-target species like hedgehogs are (legally) snared, trapped and killed in Scotland each year on grouse moors. Grouse, a wild animal, are medicated en masse by tens of thousands of toxic chemical grit stations to keep their numbers unnaturally high.

Meanwhile, in the year we host COP26, much of Scotland’s uplands are still subjected to heather burning which threatens the environment, our vital peatlands, restricts biodiversity and reinforces barren monocultures. Scotland’s peat contains much more carbon than all the UK’s forests put together and yet the burning continues. Tons of lead shot is sprayed across the uplands while bulldozed hill tracks scar the landscape and remain unregulated.

All of this and more takes place to make sure that a few more grouse can be shot by a few people for sport over huge swathes of Scotland. The terms of the grouse moor licence will be key and must address these wider issues.

Grouse are an iconic Scottish bird yet shooting them out of the sky as part of driven grouse shooting – the most unsustainable kind of shooting that depends the most on “high bag numbers” – is a blood sport that goes back to Victorian times. But the economic benefits to the public for maintaining this frivolous pursuit is not as high as many might think.

Grouse moor management in Scotland takes place over an area around half the size of Wales – and brings in about £23 million to Scotland’s economy – 0.02% of the economy. To put this another way, if Scotland’s economy was the height of Ben Nevis grouse shooting’s contribution would be the height of a bottle of Irn Bru.

Wildlife tourism, a burgeoning industry that sometimes involves shooting animals with cameras instead of guns, already brings in about five times more to our economy. Forestry and its associated industries also bring in many times more to the economy. The point is that while there is no silver bullet, a mosaic of more environmentally friendly alternatives to grouse shooting are available now benefit our people and our wildlife as well.

The Scottish Government should have nothing to be afraid of despite a powerful grouse shooting lobby. Within the Scottish National Party REVIVE, The Coalition for Grouse Moor Reform’s aims are immensely popular. A member’s resolution to end the circle of destruction of grouse shooting was the most backed motion submitted for the last SNP conference. It was signed by more than 25 party branches and MSPs. The Scottish Greens and Scottish Labour are also keen to meet this ambition so the only thing in the way of the Government seems to be political will.

REVIVE represents the middle ground in this debate. We are not calling for a full ban on all grouse shooting but for an end to all the unsustainable activities that take place to make sure there are more grouse to shoot for sport. Driven grouse shooting likely depends on these unsustainable practices but it’s up to the industry to prove that it does not.

If driven or any other type of grouse shooting depends on muirburn, mass chemical medication, unregulated bulldozed hill tracks and the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of animals to sustain it, then perhaps it doesn’t deserve to exist. Licensing should be used to end the circle of destruction and to help make huge swathes of Scotland sustainable again.

In a time of climate and biodiversity crisis we must urgently move towards better land uses via a just transition. If we don’t act on this then how can we expect to transition away from far bigger industries like oil?

If we do act, then unsustainable grouse moor estates will no longer represent the peak of what’s possible in the rural areas they occupy. By unlocking our land’s potential, in tandem with greater land reform, we can open the door to thousands more jobs across rural Scotland than are currently allowed to exist.

If Scotland is to become a modern 21st century nation, moving away from unnecessary and harmful archaic practices like driven grouse shooting is essential. When we show the political will to do it, this will be to the benefit of all our people, our wildlife and crucially, the environment.


9 thoughts on “‘How licensing grouse estates can end a national disgrace’”

  1. I’d go for a full ban. Leave any wriggle room at all and you can be sure the Laird and his army of lawyers, pliant officials, friendly uniformed top brass will both chip away at the legislation behind the scene and wage a full scare war on any schemes to oversee it effectively. Over time wealth will have it’s way. I am afraid that I see this as a black and white situation with no middle road as their utter contempt at any effort to reign in the illegalities portends badly for everything except the very immediate future.
    What this has shown up is the grouse industry’s central weakness … sustained publicitity and the engagement of the individual on the street and, more importantly in today’s world, online. If we can knock them off the top of the hill, so to speak, then it might well be the first of many victories for our beleaguered countryside and all in it.

    1. All I can say is to beware of Pyrrhic victories. The vast majority of hen harriers are hatched on managed grouse moors. The vast majority of hen harriers live on managed grouse moors.

      For all that bodies such as the RSPB can bore for England (and Wales, Scotland etc) for hours on the subject of conservation and how best to do it, the actual figures around the matter do not lie: the RSPB reserves fledge very hen harriers indeed, and the managed grouse moors produce the overwhelming majority.

      Beware also licencing a thing out of existence.

      A licencing policy which manifestly does not do what it is claimed it should be doing, that is to say maximising the numbers of raptors, will surely be discarded amid politicians being held up to ridicule.

      1. Dan, the vast majority of (illegally killed) hen harriers die on driven grouse moors. Don’t worry though, licensing will not put DGS ‘out of existence’, it will protect it for years to come.

      2. Dan, mate, are you aware of Orkney? Many more Hen Harriers fledge from the RSPB reserves and managed land on Orkney than any grouse moors.

      3. Since you’re making such a strong assertion about RSPB reserves being less successful than ‘managed’ grouse moors as far as helping hen harriers goes then could you please provide us with actual numbers – you know those things that they use in basic counting and mathematics – and if you can breakdown how much moorland is under the management of the RSPB compared with grouse moor so we can see how successful they are per unit of land for a truly fair comparison. There have been RSPB reserves where hen harriers do not do as well as we’d expect, but typically they are surrounded by grouse moors and the extreme keenness with which some try to sell the idea that they are better off on grouse moors may indicate the reason why RSPB hen harriers ‘disappear’ almost to order it seems.

    2. Agreed George. A campaign for the licensing of driven grouse shooting will deliver exactly that: driven grouse shooting.

  2. I concur with George M (August 17 @ 2:29pm)

    Licencing is primarily a contrivance that is being primed, by the Sc. Gov., as a gambit that will be pedalled as a heroic step in stopping the omnipresent wildlife crime that pervades the game shooting world.

    Before a licencing system fails, as it surely will, it will take forever and a decade (part of the SG plan?) to implement by the time it meanders through a maze of committees, consultations, working parties and tangled webs that lead to another debacle.

    When licencing fails the first cry from the Holyrood scrum will be that we must give it time. ‘Give it time’ and ‘lessons will be learned’ are favoured and unimaginative cliches that are frequently trotted out by those that polish seats in government.

    Whilst there are fundamental practical problems of actually constructing a licencing system the root cause of why wildlife persecution is rife does not lie there. It lies in the disgraceful chronic position of the Sc. Gov. They like to talk of addressing the crime, but their long term record of failing to deal with the criminals is overwhelming evidence of where their true aims lie.

  3. Okay Dan, do talk me through it, please. Let us say an Estate is caught red-handed beyond any doubt nailing even the SEO’s * (a nice video of this on RSPB’s You Tube channel). You are saying that penalising that Estate under a Licensing system would make things even worse for the ‘protected’ birds still alive on the Estate? Please explain.

    *and if a given Estate is nailing SEO’s it generally means they have already worked down the priority list from the top, wiping out the real problem birds first e.g.Harriers, Goshawks.

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