Anne McCall, Director of RSPB Scotland, and Duncan Orr-Ewing, RSPB Scotland Head of Species and Land Management, share the outcomes of the RSPB gamebird shooting and associated land management policy review and what it means in Scotland.

The RSPB gamebird shooting and associated land management policy review: what it means in Scotland

For the past year the RSPB has been undertaking a review of its policies on gamebird shooting and associated land management, and the results were announced at our AGM over the weekend.

The review has been looking at the two most intensive forms of gamebird shooting – both of which  occur in Scotland, “driven” grouse shooting, and to a lesser extent, large scale rear and release of gamebirds (such as pheasants and red-legged partridges) – and the impacts they have on the environment. Prior to the review the RSPB policy called for “driven” grouse shooting to be licenced, but there was no formal policy in relation to large scale rear and release of gamebirds.

Less intensive forms of gamebird shooting were not part of the review. The RSPB’s position on these is that “walked up” grouse shooting and farm pheasant shoots, have much lower negative environmental impacts. Indeed, we fully recognise that they can often deliver many benefits to conservation such as the positive management of heathland and bogs, shelterbelts, hedgerows, as well as the provision of ‘game cover crops’ and other important landscape features for wildlife, which are often typical on these types of shoots.

The review process

The review process has been comprehensive. Our Centre for Conservation Science carried out an updated evidence review on the environmental impacts of “driven” grouse shooting and its associated land management practices, and a new literature review has looked at the evidence of damage to native wildlife and their habitats caused by large scale rear and release of pheasants. We have compared notes on the latter with BASC and Natural England following their parallel evidence reviews and appear to have come to similar conclusions. We will also be sharing the details of this review with NatureScot and Scottish Government in due course.

Following the review of the scientific evidence, the RSPB then developed seven principles of sustainable gamebird shooting. These cover regulation, target species, impacts on non-target species, lethal legal species control, protection of habitats, environmental impacts, as well as government and scientific standards.  

These principles were then put to consultation with our members, our staff and volunteers, organisational stakeholders, and the wider public. We received many responses; thanks to everyone who took part in this. Through this exercise it was clear that there was a high level of support for the sustainable gamebird shooting principles we were putting forward.

Interestingly, the response from Scotland showed that many here felt they had a good knowledge of the issues involved, as well as being very concerned about certain aspects of intensive gamebird shooting.

The evidence review, seven principles, and the responses from the consultation were then used to guide the review outcome and new RSPB gamebird shooting policies.

The review outcomes

As announced at the AGM our future policy for all types of gamebird shooting across the UK is that the RSPB supports:

  • immediate action to end the illegal killing of birds of prey and other protected species
  • the cessation of burning on peat soils of over 30cm in depth in order to protect vital carbon stores to alleviate the impacts of climate change
  • a ban on the use of lead ammunition which is toxic to both humans and wildlife

These forms of sporting land management and associated practices have no place in the twenty-first century, especially with the climate and nature emergency we are facing.

In Scotland, our main concern is addressing the systematic illegal killing of birds of prey on grouse moors, as well as the linked unsustainable land management activities. RSPB Scotland has been working for decades to tackle the illegal killing of birds of prey, and the Scottish Government has led the way in the UK in trying to stamp out wildlife crime. However, such crimes continue unabated. Sadly, the well intentioned piecemeal Scottish Government reforms have simply not been enough to tackle the particular excesses of “driven” grouse shooting and a step change is now urgently required.

Self-regulation of the “driven” grouse sector has failed. We have been advocating that a robust, effective licensing system to be introduced immediately. We’re currently awaiting the response of the Scottish Government to the Grouse Moor Management Review Group which recommended the introduction of such a system, though with a five-year moratorium.

However, as part of our new policy announced at the weekend, we are now setting our own time limit on an effective licencing system being put in place; 2025 is our very reasonable deadline for substantive progress on this issue. If there is no progress, or Scottish Government’s licensing scheme is patently inadequate to deal with the scale of the problem, or grouse moor managers find ways to circumvent this process, then we are clear that our position will change to advocating for a ban on “driven” grouse shooting.

Over the next five years we will work with Scottish Government and support them in attempts to put in place an effective licensing scheme for driven grouse shooting without delay. RSPB Scotland will report annually and objectively on progress against the key outcomes required for sustainable gamebird shooting in Scotland.

However, we will not be deterred by the foot dragging and denial from some in the grouse moor sector who have shown little willingness over a long period of time to address deep seated cultural prejudices towards birds of prey and other protected predators; whilst also intensifying damaging land management practices such as muirburn on sensitive peatland soils; and targeting other vulnerable species like mountain hares for mass population culls (and based on the misguided view that they are having an impact on grouse populations by spreading disease).

For us an effective licensing scheme must have adequate sanctions to act as a real deterrent to wildlife crime, including the ability to remove the licence to operate for those grouse moor managers who routinely break wildlife protection laws and do not deliver sustainable moorland management practices. This licensing scheme must be properly monitored, resourced, and then enforced by the public bodies.

We look to those who own and manage driven grouse moors to positively support and engage with this process. No grouse moor owner should have anything to fear from a licensing scheme if they uphold wildlife protection laws and support other sustainable land management practices. Like all other land uses, ‘driven’ grouse shooting  must respond to the needs of the nature and climate emergency and operate within the law. The RSPB’s new policy draws our very clear line in the sand.

  • Well done RSPB: that's the easy part done! Whatever the final outcome - regulation or licensing - the effect will depend totally on enforcement as it does today. And this, as we all know, is woefully unsatisfactory from the point of view of the wildlife. The problem is that the wildlife has no 'protector' or 'champion' on the shooting estates where the Gamekeeper and his team - supported by local knowledge, community and sophisticated surveillance systems - can do what they want with impunity. The only way to change the situation for the better would be to get the wardens on the shooting estates to 'change sides' and work for the state, not the estate, on behalf of the wildlife. Driven shooting and muirburn would have to be banned with shoots limited to the way they used to be done plus clay pigeon shoots for the shooters who can't live without shooting at something from time to time. The cost of running the 'state wardens' - let's call them Rangers - could be paid for by taxation or by proceeds from a new national lottery - 'The Wildlife Lottery', say - which would have the benefit of getting the country behind the initiative before it's all too late. There are details to be worked out but anything less than this - with someone local, on the ground protecting the wildlife - will only result in the continued slaughter and decline of our wonderful wildlife.

  • What about the release of gamebirds.Surely this has to be stopped now.

  • I agree with Mr Lintott... 5 years is an excessive amount of time for the licensing.

  • I simply don’t understand why the RSPB is content that this should take 5 years. For example the ELMS in England is projected to be rolled out in 4 years with the pilot scheme currently ongoing. The licensing regime could be brought into force in a fraction of this time.