Grouse Moor Licensing?: Our thoughts on the forthcoming ’Werritty Review‘

The forthcoming ’Werritty Review‘ of grouse moor management is a major opportunity to build a sustainable – and entirely legal - future for Scotland’s moorlands

Grouse Moor Licensing?: Our thoughts on the forthcoming ’Werritty Review‘ 

As Logan Steele has reminded us in an earlier guest blog, it was a petition from the Scottish Raptor Study Group  to the Scottish Parliament, headed up by Logan himself, that played a major part in securing the creation of the Grouse Moor Group (aka the ‘Werritty Review’). This group is commissioned by the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, Climate Change and Rural Affairs to provide an independent insight into how Scotland’s grouse moors can be managed both legally and sustainably in the long term. We expect to see the outcome from this very soon.

We certainly agree that a thorough review is overdue. There is increasingly obvious harm to various public interests by ever more intensive grouse moor management. Not least of these harms is the chronic and well-documented spectre of illegal bird of prey killing. It is entirely appropriate that the Scottish Government now intervenes to protect the public interest. Many decades of discussions and voluntary approaches have not worked.

We believe that the Werritty Review provides a chance to set a clear, progressive agenda. It is an opportunity for a holistic and inclusive approach to the management of large parts of the Scottish uplands. It is a chance to incorporate both public and private land management objectives. It is a chance to diversify land use away from heather monoculture and its associated practices, at present designed to deliver large grouse bags for sporting clients. It is a chance to reduce conflicts with other legitimate stakeholders. It will also help meet the Scottish Government’s wider public policy objectives: climate change mitigation; native woodland expansion; flood prevention; the delivery of other eco-system services. We hope that the recommendations of the Werritty Review will pursue these aims and then be fully endorsed and implemented by Scottish Government. We will be pressing for this to happen as a priority.

 aerial image of muirburn
Angus Glen Muirburn, Credit: Google Earth

The Werritty Review report will be with the Scottish Government in the next month or so and will be published shortly after that. We do not yet know what the Review will say, but we know enough about the issues to commission, from our former Head of Policy, that examines the likely options the Scottish Government will face when framing its response. You can view that report here: 0876.1830.6545.3731.7028.8816.Grouse moor licensing - Where Next - Report by Lloyd Austin for RSPB Mar 2019.pdf

With the grouse moor industry seemingly unable to show any effective leadership by way of self-regulation in curbing the poor environmental – and very often just plain illegal – practices associated with driven grouse moors, the Scottish Government appears to us to have five options:

  1. Do nothing at all
  2. Carry out a few, piecemeal bits of regulation tightening
  3. Develop a coherent regulatory system for the existing industry - a ‘licensing scheme’
  4. Seek comprehensive reform of the entire hunting culture/system and its entire legal framework
  5. Instigate some form of complete ban of grouse shooting – at least in its highly intensive ‘driven’ form.

The idea that the status quo - option 1 - is acceptable to Government, or indeed most stakeholders, seems so unlikely that we won’t give it much discussion here. But it is one of the options! We do accept that the current wider political situation may develop in a way that pushes grouse moor reform a long way down the agenda for action, so a temporary adoption of option 1, so to speak, is possible. However, being forced to delay action by circumstances and simply refusing to act are not really the same things.

In many ways, option 2 is also a continuation of the status quo. This is, pretty much, the approach already used by successive administrations over successive decades. They have acknowledged the seriousness of the situation, and the need to act, but responded with a bit of legal tweaking here, a bit of regulatory improvement there. Some of this has been useful and some of it less so. None of it has dealt permanently with the underlying chronic issues. So doing more of the same, while marginally better than doing nothing at all, would be a wasted opportunity and, on the basis of the evidence so far, would not bring about meaningful permanent improvement.

Option 3 provides the more holistic approach we would advocate. More about that below.

Option 4, a root and branch reform of hunting and shooting culture, is perhaps the rational, optimal answer. There are examples from other countries that have an advanced and sophisticated game shooting culture far more integrated with the wider culture of the general population. This requires, at minimum, integration of various different sporting interests – for example deer, salmon, game birds, hares, and so forth - within a single coherent framework. It also probably requires significant land reform and cultural change that cannot easily be legislated for. Its scope stretches beyond RSPB Scotland’s formal areas of interest. We think there are good reasons to initiate a wider debate about this type of approach but cannot see it as a politically practical response to the immediate Werritty Review output. This idea should nevertheless remain on the longer-term agenda.

Option 5 – banning the ‘driven’ shooting of grouse – has the obvious merit of targeting the specific activity that is persistently associated with the illegal killing of raptors. In our view, it also seems likely that the disappearance of the ever more intensive driven style of red grouse hunting would follow naturally from a root and branch reform of wider hunting culture, i.e. option 4. So it is possible to see option 5 as an inextricable part of option 4 rather than an option on its own. There have certainly been calls for a ban by campaigners in England, with widespread public support (demonstrated by sign up to public petitions), but with the Westminster Government refusing point blank to consider the measure. Given the utterly dire situation faced by species such as hen harrier south of the border, these calls are very understandable. The RSPB has not adopted a ban on driven grouse shooting as its policy. We would still prefer a policy of much stricter, targeted, enforceable regulation. We would also like to see grouse moor regulation dealing with a much wider range of issues than a simple ban of one form of shooting. Therefore, we might argue that a ban is just yet another bit of piecemeal reform, i.e. more of an option 2 approach. But there is no escaping the fact that the writing is on the wall for those grouse moor managers who see the law as an inconvenient obstacle to their pursuits and who are determined to flout it come what may. There is a very real possibility that a future Scottish administration will decide that enough is enough and pursue a ban, with or without any more holistic regulation of moor management.

Our report discusses these various options in more depth. It also includes a worked-up system of licensing – as per option 3 above – that we offer as model for others to consider. Although the report goes into considerable detail, the licensing system proposed is intended as indicative rather than definitive. Any competently drafted system that provided the same suite of measures would be acceptable. It would be a considerable advantage if any licensing approach that was adopted was also capable of being integrated into some future consideration of option 4.

We anticipate, indeed we are already aware of, substantial opposition from the shooting industry to any licensing scheme. From many quarters of the industry there is opposition to any reform of grouse moor management at all. The industry has a tendency to view any initiative for reform as an assault on the whole edifice of game shooting itself and to adopt an entrenched defensive position. It is possible to see this as a self-fulfilling prophecy with an increasing number of commentators amongst the wider public responding by adopting an increasingly vocal position that does indeed advocate an absolutist anti-shooting position. We would suggest that no law-abiding grouse moor manager has anything to fear from a proportionately conceived licensing system. By definition, such a system would be designed only to make life difficult only for those intent on continued law-breaking and environmental mismanagement.

Credit: Ian Thomson

Considering just one of the issues associated with bad moorland management, the negative impact on our birds of prey, we must also acknowledge that the fortunes of some of Scotland’s raptors have been on the up over the last few decades. Ospreys now have a robust breeding population, now extending into England and Wales, after a slow start (and a fair bit of human help). Buzzards have recolonised large swathes of eastern and southern Scotland (in fact of Britain as a whole), almost certainly in response to a reduction in illegal killing across many lowland areas. White-tailed eagles have been the epitome of a successful reintroduction project, though that was a long and difficult process, especially in the early decades. Human persecution of birds of prey is no longer routine on most land managed purely for farming. Lowland game shoots – with a few unfortunate exceptions - no longer routinely use poison baits to kill unwanted (but legally protected) predators. But little or none of this improvement is associated with grouse moors. From a personal perspective, looking back at over 30 years of direct experience – sometimes at very close quarters – of illegal raptor killing, I am very aware of a slow but steady improvement for many species and many areas of the country. But as soon as we come to the upland areas that are predominantly managed for grouse shooting, there is little evidence of gradually improving practice. Quite the opposite, in fact, with hen harriers removed from former strongholds and golden eagles slowly pushed out of former parts of their range that they once routinely occupied. The time is now right to change this for good, for the benefit of Scotland’s wildlife and its people. Let us hope that Scottish Ministers have the strength of purpose and the foresight to grasp that opportunity.