Seizing the moment?

Last week, the Wildlife Management and Muirburn (Scotland) Bill passed its final hurdle before becoming law. RSPB Senior Conservation Officer Pat Thompson looks at what this seismic change in Scottish policy means for grouse shooting in England … 

The Glorious Twelfth, the 12th of August, heralds the start of the red grouse shooting season with shots ringing out across the high, heather-dominated moors of Scotland and northern England.  Throughout the year, gamekeepers kill predators of the grouse, burn moorland vegetation (to create a mosaic of heather of different age and structure for the grouse) and treat the grouse with veterinary medicines to reduce grouse parasites.   

The aim is to increase grouse stocks for shooting.  On shoot days, a veritable army of people walk across the moor in a line, pushing (driving) the grouse forward and over lines of shooters concealed from view.  Large numbers of grouse may be shot on a single day and throughout the remainder of the shoot season which closes on 10th December.   Hundreds of thousands of grouse are shot in a good year with shooters paying thousands of pounds for a day’s driven shooting.   

Grouse have been shot for sport ever since driven grouse shooting became fashionable in Victorian times.  Alas, some of the habitat and species management practices first deployed to boost grouse numbers back in the 1800s are still practiced today, with protected birds of prey illegally trapped, poisoned, and shot and globally important carbon-rich peatland habitats compromised by repeated burning.  

New Laws in Scotland 

Last week, the Wildlife Management and Muirburn (Scotland) Bill passed its final hurdle before becoming law.  In line with the provisions set out in the two-part bill, landowners (and rights holders) in Scotland will now require a licence to permit the shooting of red grouse on their land and an additional licence to undertake muirburn (the burning of moorland vegetation) with limitations on burning on peatland.  The Bill will be supported by two new Codes of Practice intended to ensure that future management and practice is compliant with the Bill’s requirements.  

The passing of the Bill into law ushers in a new dawn for the future of the Scottish uplands and comes after decades of research and campaigning by the RSPB and others.  We must now confine the sometimes illegal and unsustainable practices associated with grouse moor management to the history books, embrace the spirit of the Bill and move to a place where we can all play our part in working together to tackle the increasing threat of climate change and declines in nature.   

The Scottish Government has stepped up, recognised the need for change, and brought people together to find solutions. While everyone does not welcome the outcome, it is a constructive middle ground that will drive up shooting standards while providing a way to root out illegal and unsustainable practices.   

We sincerely hope that all parties can now find ways to move forward progressively and that the passing of the Bill promises better days ahead for Scotland’s internationally acclaimed habitats and iconic species like the golden eagle. Of course, that will depend on how well the Bill, once passed, is implemented and enforced—rest assured, the RSPB will be amongst those watching this closely. 

What does this all mean for England? 

So what does this seismic change in Scottish policy mean for grouse shooting in England?  First, we should recognise that the problems identified in Scotland are not unique to Scotland.  Far from it.  There are parts of the English uplands, managed for grouse shooting, where birds of prey like the hen harrier continue to be persecuted, with birds dying and/or disappearing in suspicious circumstances.  See Birdcrime 2022 -  In addition, sensitive peatland habitats and species are threatened by years of repeated burning (and other activities).   

As in Scotland, the associated grouse moor management practices also impact downstream water quality and flows, on stocks of peat (and therefore of carbon) built up over millennia, and on the look and ‘way of life’ in those places where grouse shooting is practiced.  Many who shoot grouse, particularly driven grouse, are likely to have done so in Scotland and England.  Individuals who shoot grouse in both countries now have a unique role to play in sharing their experience of shooting under the terms of the new laws.  While some may lament perhaps smaller bags (the numbers of grouse shot on a shoot day), others may see an opportunity to reframe the activity they love in a more modern context.  Surely it would be better for us and nature if illegal and outdated practices were now confined to history.  

Arguments will no doubt persist about the merit and impacts of the introduction of new laws in Scotland, particularly on local communities and their economy.  While time will be the ultimate adjudicator, the impact is as likely to relate to how estate managers adjust their offer to shooting customers and/or are prepared to accept smaller bags.  Remember, grouse shooting has a long history of good and bad years, driven at least in part by natural processes (disease) and the weather.  While some initial adjustments will be required to operate within the terms of the new laws, experience from Europe and North America would suggest that improved regulations do not spell the end of grouse shooting.  Those who already operate within existing laws and within environmental limits have nothing to fear from this change.  

This is a landmark moment after decades of work and a moment for calm reflection.  It is also indeed time for the next Westminster Government, whatever their political persuasion, to step up and bring forward their proposals to better regulate grouse shooting in England.  With ongoing issues with the poor state of some of our most important sites and habitats, the killing of birds of prey, and the continued burning of carbon-rich peatland habitats, it is evident there is much to do in England to tackle the nature and climate emergencies.  

Way back in 1998, Donald Dewar, the then Scottish Secretary of State referred to the illegal persecution of Scotland’s birds of prey as a “national disgrace”.  Twenty-five years on, the Scottish Government has given us hope of better days ahead.  England must not be exempt from change.  We must now seize this moment and take the necessary steps to secure a brighter future for England’s uplands and the people and wildlife that rely on them.