There is currently a petition initiated by Ed Hutchings to establish a system of licensing of driven grouse shooting in England.  While the case for reform is being made down south, I thought it would be timely to provide an update on what is happening north of the border. I have therefore asked my colleague, Duncan Orr-Ewing who is Head of Species and Land Management for RSPB Scotland, to provide an overview of what is happening and what we are doing in Scotland to achieve reform of driven grouse shooting.  As Duncan explains, welcome progress is being made which is why I would encourage you to support Ed Hutchings’ petition to raise political pressure to secure similar action in England. 

Image by kind permission of Gary Woodburn


In 1998 the Secretary of State for Scotland, the late Donald Dewar MSP, called the illegal killing of birds of prey in the country “a national disgrace”. Following the establishment of the Scottish Parliament shortly afterwards all political parties in power in Scotland up until the present day have taken a welcome and consistent approach towards combatting the illegal killing of birds of prey and other wildlife.

It seems to be clearly understood by politicians north of the border that prevailing levels of wildlife crime are unacceptable and tarnish the country’s international reputation. As a result, new innovative measures have been brought in to tackle the perpetrators of these crimes and to act as a meaningful deterrent. For example, in the Wildlife and Natural Environment Act (Scotland) 2011, a measure called “vicarious liability” was introduced for crimes against birds of prey. In essence, this law allows landowners to be prosecuted for the actions of their employees unless they can prove systems of due diligence and that preventative steps have been taken. The Scottish Parliament now considers a report from the Scottish Government on wildlife crime annually, and scrutinises progress by the Police and Crown Office with prosecuting offences, in further recognition of widespread public concerns about this issue.

However, despite these best efforts of Scotland’s Ministers over several decades, crimes against birds of prey in Scotland have been repeatedly shown to be occurring at high levels, impacting the populations of a number of our raptor species including golden eagles, hen harriers and peregrines. There is now overwhelming evidence to show that these crimes are primarily occurring on land managed for “driven” grouse shooting, and predominantly in the eastern Highlands and Southern Uplands. Indeed, sadly it would seem that illegal practices have become an entrenched part of many of these grouse moor estates’ “business model” in order to produce seemingly ever increasing grouse bags for clients to shoot. The work of RSPB Scotland’s Investigations and Conservation Science teams, and the efforts of voluntary Scottish Raptor Study Group fieldworkers, have been central to providing hard evidence of the scale and impact of wildlife crimes against our native raptor populations.

Image courtesy of Tim Melling

In May 1999, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) published a report entitled “Analyses of the fate of satellite tracked golden eagles in Scotland”, which revealed the shocking statistic that 41 out of 131 (31%) marked birds had disappeared in suspicious circumstances.  Previously Scottish Natural Heritage’s Scientific Advisory Committee had also conducted a “Review of Sustainable Moorland Management” in 2015, which assessed the evidence behind impacts of raptor persecution and also other intensive management practices being deployed on “driven” grouse moors, including muirburn on peatland areas; the medication of wild red grouse; and the mass culling of mountain hares. The Scottish Parliament’s Environment Committee further scrutinised these issues in 2016 prompted by a public petition by the Scottish Raptor Study Groups calling for “a state regulated system of licensing of gamebird hunting”, supported by RSPB Scotland.         

In response to growing public concerns, and the failure of the “driven” grouse moor landowners to self-regulate and bear down on criminal behaviours within its midst, the Cabinet Secretary for the Environment Climate Change and Land Reform, Roseanna Cunningham MSP, commissioned an independent enquiry at the end of May 2017 to “look at managing grouse moors sustainably and within the law” and “to recommend options for regulation including licensing and other measures which could be put in place without new primary legislation”. This independent enquiry panel is now meeting and expects to make its recommendations in mid-2019. The panel includes experts from legal, regulatory, land management, scientific, and nature conservation backgrounds. We hope to be called to give evidence to this enquiry in due course.

The RSPB’s Council’s policy is to support  licensing of “driven” grouse moors to ensure that both the private and public interests in the way such land is managed are respected, and we will be advocating this approach to the independent grouse moor enquiry. Most other similar countries in Europe licence gamebird hunting in some form and we consider that this is a proportionate response to resolving current public concerns about the way “driven” grouse shooting in Scotland is being managed.  

We can perhaps learn from the experiences of implementing licensing systems for gamebird hunting in other European countries, whilst also creating a bespoke system for Scottish circumstances. Other natural resources in Scotland, such as water, wild fisheries and deer are already managed within regulated systems, which can provide further helpful context.

For us though, any effective licensing system for “driven” grouse shooting must provide sufficient and workable powers to SNH or Scottish Government officials to revoke grouse moor licences if there is clear evidence to the public authorities of criminal practice.

Image by kind permission of Duncan Orr-Ewing

Alongside such powers, the environmental and other public standards required by grouse moor managers could be set out in a statutory and updatable Code of Best Practice, informed by best science, and implemented through grouse moor management plans approved by SNH. An allied and fundamental part of most other country’s licensing systems for gamebird hunting is that gamebag returns are made to state nature conservation agencies, which in turn inform hunting quotas. Finally, we will also suggest that licence fees should be set at a level which makes the system self-financing and therefore does not incur costs to the public purse. 

In most other European countries effective licensing systems protect the legitimate sporting interests of those many private landowners who currently respect wildlife protection laws, and there is no reason why this should not be the case in Scotland as well. 

In summary, there has been a growing feeling in Scotland in recent years that current voluntary approaches promoted up until now by grouse moor managers are simply inadequate to curb the excesses of those who continue to break wildlife protection laws and manage our sensitive upland habitats unsustainably. The landowners who permit or promote wildlife crime have had repeated warnings by successive Scottish Ministers to either get their house in order or to expect firm action. The Scottish Government has rightly responded to public opinion by commissioning an independent enquiry which will look at how regulation of “driven” grouse moors can be implemented.

Much is now expected from the eventual recommendations of the independent review of grouse moor management in Scotland.  A modern and transparent system of licensing of “driven” grouse shooting is now a genuine prospect in Scotland, and in our view would command significant public support. Other parts of the UK will hopefully look at progress in Scotland and follow in our footsteps in due course. 

  • Excellent blog Martin, It is heartening that at least the Scottish Government seems to be taking the issue of wild life crime seriously and are, hopefully, prepared to do something positive towards drastically reducing it it in the coming months.

    I also thought that following an SNP Party assembly late last year that a vote was passed to make it now official SNP policy to introduce the licensing of, at least, driven grouse moors

    In all of this It is important to always remember too that it is no just birds of prey that are illegally killed but many other forms of wildlife are killed as well such as mountain hares. On top of all this the ecology of the moorland is often trashed in the name of driven grouse shooting.

    Very well done RSPB, keep up the good work behind the scenes in Scotland. While the final “proof of the pudding will be in the eating”, the Scottish Government’s approach to wildlife protection, at least to date, seems positive and quite frankly, makes the English Government’s lack of any significant measures towards stemming wildlife crime down South look shameful..