Grouse moor licensing: An update following the Werritty Review publication

Scottish Ministers will shortly decide whether to require licences for grouse shooting. Grouse moors are closely associated with the illegal killing of our magnificent birds of prey, including golden eagles and hen harriers , but this land use is currently largely unregulated. This is a key moment which could help safeguard some of Scotland’s most spectacular wildlife. Please help secure a better future for Scotland’s wildlife by emailing or writing to your MSPs and asking them to encourage the Scottish Government to make grouse shooting, both legal and more sustainable through a licencing system for grouse moors.  You can find contact details for your MSPs by entering your postcode on the “Find Your MSP” tool on the Scottish Parliament website here:  If you live outwith Scotland, please contact Scottish Ministers at  Duncan Orr Ewing, RSPB Scotland’s Head of Species and Land Management has provided a more detailed update below.

Grouse moor licensing: An update following the Werritty Review publication

In December 2019, we welcomed the publication of the long awaited Werritty Review that examined how grouse moors can be managed sustainably and within the law. We had previously submitted evidence to the Review proposing a comprehensive strengthening of regulation for grouse moors, especially those involved with super-intensive ‘driven’ shooting, requiring very large numbers of grouse. We recommended a bespoke licensing system. It is worth remembering that the Werritty Review was published on the back of a damning report, published by SNH in May 2019, on the fate of satellite tagged golden eagles. A third of 140 marked eagles had gone missing in illegal or otherwise suspicious circumstances in the previous 12 years.

We note that the primary recommendation of the Werritty Review is indeed the licensing of grouse moors. However, it also suggests a five-year delay to licensing to allow grouse moor managers to get their house in order. In our response to the Review’s publication, we rejected the premise of a five-year moratorium and proposed that officials should start preparing draft licensing legislation immediately. Many decades of discussions and voluntary approaches have very clearly not worked. Delivering the proposed assessment of grouse moor progress (including improvement of conservation status of key raptor species on grouse moors) after the suggested five years, would be very complicated, expensive to measure to a high scientific standard and likely to generate another round of obfuscation, prevarication and denial from supporters of the status quo. We think that it would also be potentially unfair in practice since a wide range of environmental and other factors would be involved, some out of the control of land managers, especially given that raptors’ territories do not respect estate boundaries. Interestingly, some grouse moor managers that I have discussed this matter with have come to a similar conclusion! It would also mean an actual delay of perhaps up to ten years, rather than five, to bring in any required changes.

spring trap
A spring trap, illegally set on a post

We now await the Scottish Government’s formal response to The Werritty Review, currently expected in April 2020. We welcome initial statements by Scotland’s First Minister and by the Cabinet Secretary for the Environment that they are prepared to look at options and to consider bringing in a licensing system for grouse moors earlier than suggested by the Werritty Review. We highlight also that the imperative for reform of grouse moors has grown even stronger with the recent announcement by Scotland’s First Minister of the climate emergency. We consider that ‘nature-based solutions’ in our uplands can play a significant role in tackling climate change, including on the estimated 15-20% of Scotland’s land area currently managed as grouse moors. We will simply not deliver much needed native woodland expansion, ensure that valuable peatland carbon stores are protected from harmful burning, or protect the public investment in restoring peatlands unless a robust framework is put in place to help deliver these urgent public outcomes.

In a previous blog, we set out what we believe to be the five options now open to Scottish Government and in response to the Werritty Review:

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

We have indicated previously that we think it unlikely for the reasons above that Option 1 will be acceptable to Government, or indeed to the wide range of public stakeholders and communities now calling for grouse moor reform. In many ways, Option 2 is simply a continuation of the status quo, which to our way of thinking has proved inadequate to tackle the deeply entrenched cultural excesses of driven grouse shooting. Option 3 provides the more holistic approach, which we strongly support, as above. Option 4 would require a root and branch reform of hunting and shooting culture. That is perhaps the rational, longer term answer, but would require very significant changes to current Scottish sporting traditions, as well as integration with other forms of hunting and fishing – for example deer, salmon, hares - within a single coherent framework. It also probably requires significant land reform and cultural change that cannot easily be legislated for. We think there are good reasons to initiate a wider debate about this type of approach, and for it to stay on the longer-term agenda (e.g. thorough SNH’s Wildlife Management Framework) but cannot see it as a politically practical response to the immediate Werritty Review output. 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. The RSPB has not adopted a ban on driven grouse shooting as its policy. We prefer a policy of much improved, targeted, enforceable regulation, dealing also with a much wider range of issues than a simple ban of one form of shooting.

posioned golden eaglePoisoned golden eagle

But we do believe that the time is up for driven grouse shooting in its current form in Scotland. It needs to adapt to modern day expectations and help to address public land use priorities. In our view licensing of driven grouse shooting is a proportionate approach to addressing both the systematic illegal killing of birds of prey and associated land use concerns. Licensing could also be delivered through several existing mechanisms, legally available to Government, to ensure that the administrative costs are not high either to the public or to those landowners being licensed. However, we are very clear that any effective system of licensing must include measures to withdraw the right to shoot grouse when wildlife protection or other laws are broken. We see this as the only meaningful deterrent to drive change in current poor land management practices on driven grouse moors. By definition, a licensing system would be designed to make life difficult only for those intent on continued law-breaking and environmental mismanagement. It would not stop the legitimate, sustainable shooting of grouse.