Driven Grouse Shooting – what's the cost?

In today's blog Pat Thompson, RSPB Senior Uplands Policy Officer, writes on regulation for the driven grouse shooting and associated management practices and highlights the findings of a recent report on the economic and social impacts on the future options for grouse moor management.

The RSPB have long called for driven grouse shooting and associated management practices to be properly regulated, largely because some driven grouse shooting estates have a long history of killing birds of prey and managing land too intensively. The need to tackle the dual climate and nature emergencies have made the need for reform ever more urgent. Whilst the number of grouse moors may have declined since the early 1900s, many of those that remain are managed intensively, with predators killed, fire used to manage heather and grouse treated with veterinary medicines. These management practices have boosted grouse numbers, with post-breeding numbers and the number of grouse shot at a modern day high until the last 3 years, when numbers fell.

Despite statements to the contrary, grouse shooting (and associated management) is weakly regulated, with no statutory reporting of the number of grouse shot, ineffective detection and prosecution of wildlife crimes and a lack of transparency regarding the use of veterinary medicines with largely unknown environmental consequences. The lack of basic data on the number of grouse shot and the amount of veterinary medicine prescribed for use is telling.

Proponents of driven grouse shooting argue that voluntary approaches work best and that the introduction of tighter regulation, in the form of licensing, would impose unnecessary costs on the sector, with likely negative consequences on those species reliant on the predator control undertaken by grouse moor managers. They further argue that licensing would impact on the economic performance of grouse shooting interests, with a loss of jobs and wider impacts on the rural economy, particularly in those areas where grouse shooting is the main economic activity. Interestingly, though the evidence suggests otherwise, the same people also state that grouse moors also deliver a range of ecosystem services that are currently unrewarded, and that future delivery is dependent on sustaining economically viable shooting.

In November 2021, the RSPB commissioned Matt Rayment (an independent consultant) to write a report on the economic and social impacts on the future options for grouse moor management. The report (linked here), which is supported by 7 case studies and informed by meetings with key stakeholders, reviews the available evidence on the size and financial performance of the grouse shooting sector before considering it’s socio-economic and environmental impacts. The report then considers current policy before introducing three future policy options (business as usual (broadly no change), introduction of licensing and imposition of a ban) and assessing the likely impacts of these policy options on administrative and compliance costs, land use and management, economics, social outcomes, biodiversity, climate and ecosystem services. Previous reports on the economics of grouse shooting (e.g. see Public and Corporate Economic Consultants 2006, 2014) have largely only considered the economic benefits of shooting and have largely failed to account for any external costs associated with grouse moor management practices (so called negative externalities).

There is much to learn in this report. As is customary in a report of this type, the author identifies several constraints, evidence gaps (including basic data), uncertainties and instances where the evidence base has been interpreted by different interests in different ways. Despite these recognised deficiencies in the evidence, the report author has sought to provide a balanced and independent analysis of current and future policy options. This is precisely what we need to understand (as best we can) the likely impact of business as usual (no change), banning driven grouse shooting and the introduction of new regulation in the form of a licensing system.

Given that we want to end the sometime illegal and unsustainable management practices associated with driven grouse shooting, as currently practiced on many intensively managed driven moors, I don’t intend to say much about the maintenance of the status quo (business as usual). This is surely not a credible option.

Red Grouse, Tom Marshall (RSPB Images) 

Whereas licensing of grouse shooting should not require major changes in practice for those grouse moors that are currently compliant with existing legislation and various codes of practice on species protection and moorland management, the conditions of a licence may provide an additional means of ensuring compliance with legislation protecting species and designated sites and regulating heather and grass burning. The introduction of licensing would incur administrative and operational costs (with exemptions for those shooting small numbers of grouse) whilst the process of applying for a licence (or annual reporting) could provide a means of collecting and reporting important data on the size of the sector, grouse bags, management practices and potentially socio-economic factors such as numbers of employees. Interestingly, many of the areas identified as knowledge gaps in this report are commonly used in other similar countries in Europe to inform the sustainable management of hunting. The report concludes that whilst the current pattern of land management would continue as before under licensing, some change would be expected, with some moor owners switching to other land uses including forestry, carbon and natural capital management with reductions in gamekeeper employment offset by new land management jobs. Overall, improved compliance with the various regulations, coupled with investment in biodiversity and ecosystem recovery, could enhance the public image of the sector.

Though there is no suggestion that either the Scottish Government or the Westminster Government are considering banning driven grouse shooting, the report notes that a ban would have an immediate and negative impact on employment (on driven grouse moors and in supply chain), land and species management and local communities, particularly in those areas where driven grouse shooting is the primary economic activity. However, the report also notes that the cessation of driven grouse shooting may bring wider economic benefits, for example, a ban would have positive effects on carbon, water quality and flood management and lead to a more varied upland landscape with some studies noting that the benefits of a change in land management in tandem with ecosystem restoration (subject to ongoing investment) could potentially dwarf the local economic effects of driven grouse shooting.

What happens next? On the 21st of March, the Scottish Government published the Wildlife Management and Muirburn (Scotland) Bill which aims to ensure that the management of grouse moors and related activities are carried out in an environmentally sustainable way. The RSPB is calling for a similar approach to be adopted in England. Whilst the introduction of new regulation may not be universally welcomed, we believe that it offers a genuine opportunity for those that want to change, to better balance their demand for grouse shooting with the wider delivery of key ecosystem services, particularly those central to tackling the increasingly urgent climate and nature emergencies. If grouse shooting is to continue, leaders in the community must take all necessary steps to improve the environmental performance of the sector, thus demonstrating they are fit for the 21st Century.

We are grateful to Matt Rayment for producing such a comprehensive and considered report and to those who contributed to discussions and the production of the case studies.

Further Reading

2350.4403.7506.2148.7103.Economics of driven grouse shooting - Briefing.pdf

2425.3480.2308.1856.5811.Economics of driven grouse shooting - Report.pdf