Red grouse, (c) Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)
Last June we published our Time for Change report setting out why we believe driven grouse shooting needs to be licensed to create thriving uplands for all and to tackle the scourge of raptor persecution. Here, we revisit why we think licensing is the most pragmatic option, reflect on our ongoing concerns with the most intensive form of grouse shooting, namely driven shooting and associated management practices, and consider what progress has been made towards the introduction of licensing.
Research has shown that when land is managed for driven grouse shooting to produce very large grouse bags, it often involves intensive and sometimes illegal management practices that can be environmentally damaging (e.g. the illegal killing of birds of prey and increased burning of peatland vegetation). Since the mid-1990s, novel practices like the use of medicated grit (to treat Red Grouse disease) have been deployed alongside predator control and heather burning to boost Red Grouse numbers. Red Grouse stocks responded positively with post-breeding counts of at least 275 Grouse per km2 (275-370 per km2) over a run of 10 years recorded between 2010 to 2019. Between 2004 and 2016, there was a 62% increase in the number of Red Grouse shot (Aebischer 2019). These exceptionally high densities of Red Grouse, largely attributed to the use of medicated grit, have not been sustained in recent years, with a number of shooting estates reporting poor numbers.
Grouse moor management dominates large parts of the northern English and Scottish uplands. Upland habitats are in poor condition rendering peat vulnerable to drying out and loss of carbon and some of our most special wildlife is missing, largely because of illegal practices. Whilst some species like Curlew and Golden Plover may fare better on moors where intensive predator control is practiced, it is apparent that across the uplands as a whole, upland specialist bird species are declining. The recent publication of UK Government wild bird indicators revealed that upland specialists declined by 20% between 1994 and 2022, with declining species including Whinchat, Curlew, Ring Ouzel and Black Grouse. In the shorter term (2017 to 2022) upland specialists declined by 7% with Ring Ouzel, Meadow Pipit, Whinchat and Golden Plover showing weak declines and Red Grouse declining strongly.
It is our view that current practices are entirely incompatible with the imperative to address the nature and climate emergency, and the evidence strongly suggests that self-regulation by the shooting community has failed to address the environmental impacts adequately. For this reason, we are calling on governments to take action. Voluntary approaches are rarely, if ever, an effective substitute for regulatory measures.
As an organisation we are neutral on the ethics of gamebird shooting as a sport. We believe that licensing as opposed to a ban would be the best method to encourage grouse moor managers to adopt more sustainable practices and to effect change at pace.
(c) RSPB (rspb-images.com)
We are working to secure an effective licensing scheme for driven grouse shooting in England and Scotland with a view to ending associated unsustainable and sometimes illegal land management practices intended to produce very large grouse bags for sporting clients to shoot. In England, with the exception of the introduction of new legislation in May 2021 that prohibits burning (except under licence) on peat greater than 40cm deep within a protected site (Heather and Grass etc. Burning (England) Regulations 2021), progress towards this aim is slow. However, in Scotland there has been welcome progress, with the Wildlife Management and Muirburn Bill currently progressing through the Scottish Parliament. We congratulate this firm response. This Bill is intended to address raptor persecution and poor burning practices on peatlands and to ensure that the management of grouse moors and related activities are carried out sustainably by introducing effective licensing schemes, and meaningful sanctions for licence removal licences as a meaningful deterrent to illegal killing of birds of prey and bad land management practices.
When this legislation comes into force, we will closely monitor its implementation and effectiveness over the coming years. Though there is still much to do before the enactment of the new Bill, we are hopeful that its eventual successful introduction and implementation will help demonstrate the value of better regulation both for the environment and for the shooting community.
A brighter future?
We accept that land well managed for shooting can have meaningful wildlife benefits, for example by providing habitat that can benefit species of conservation concern. We have common ground with many who run well-managed shoots and already work together in partnership projects to improve the conservation prospects of threatened species and habitats.
There are people in the shooting community who support change and see that the intensity of management and illegal practices as carried out by some, is unsustainable and is undermining the reputation of shooting industry. We recognise that it can be difficult for individuals to put their heads above the parapet, but we would encourage those who support the use of sustainable practices to step forward to be at the forefront of change and work together to lead this change.
Licensing would not mean an end to grouse moor management or shooting. Law-abiding shooters and associated businesses have nothing to fear from this legislation. Licensing will drive a move towards higher standards and more sustainable approaches to gamebird shooting in line with the approach adopted in most other European countries, and benefit nature and shooters alike.
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