Grouse moor management - 150 years overdue for reform

Over three-quarters of a million hectares of moorland, especially in England and Scotland, are managed for the recreational shooting of red grouse.  To do this, gamekeepers burn vegetation, they trap, shoot or poison predators of grouse such as weasels, stoats, foxes and crows, as well as carriers of grouse disease such as mountain hares, and they chemically medicate the grouse themselves.   They do this in a bid to ensure exceptionally high and increasing (150-500 birds per km2) post-breeding densities of grouse which are then ‘driven’ (flushed) over static lines of shooters.

Lauded by its proponents as “traditional” land management, the creeping industrialisation of this 19th century land use has been insidious and its impacts severe. Just 30 years ago, grouse densities of 60 birds per km2 would have been considered acceptable for driven shooting, but no longer.  Following the introduction of medication, grouse numbers have risen to extraordinary densities.  In places, red grouse are now more abundant than at any time since the 1930s.  Burning is more frequent and has moved uphill to blanket bogs and other vulnerable habitats.  This then damages internationally important peatlands and risks huge stores of carbon stored as peat over millennia.  At the same time, gamekeeping intensity has increased.  The seemingly endless illegal killing of protected birds of prey, described by Scotland’s First Minister, Donald Dewar, in 1998 as a “national disgrace”, continues to stain the reputation of the industry, and species such as Golden Eagles, Hen Harriers and Peregrine Falcons continue to be excluded from huge areas managed for grouse. 

medicated gritRemarkably, despite industrial management practices that constitute grouse farming in all but name, the grouse shooting community continues to advocate further means, such as the brood management of hen harriers, to manage bird of prey populations.  This extreme intolerance of natural predation reveals a community still dominated by Victorian ‘big bag’ hunting values.   Calls by RSPB and many others for reform have met with hostility for decades. It has been known since research led by RSPB in the 1990s that grouse moors can have value in protecting heather moorland habitats as well as some wildlife fortunate enough not to be perceived as competing with the grouse interest.  However, this continues to be used as a smokescreen to obscure other drivers of upland biodiversity loss as well as the wider environmental damage being caused by grouse moor management practised unreformed since the 19th century and without meaningful regulation. Neither are grouse moor estates reliable custodians of our heather moorland habitats whose international importance they claim to safeguard.  For example, Langholm Moor, one of the most celebrated of Scottish grouse moors, lost three-quarters of its heather cover over 70 years since the late 1940s, despite being managed as a grouse moor for most of that time, and only a recent partnership with nature conservation organisations began to reverse those losses.

red grouse shot and hangingGrouse management could contribute to the wider conservation and environmentally sustainable management of our uplands, but not whilst it persists in combining a 19th century mindset with a 21st century arsenal of management tools used to treat our moorlands as factory floors for red grouse production. If grouse moors have any place in modern management of our uplands then this depends on a more sustainable approach which rids itself of the illegal killing of raptors and other damaging environmental practices associated with intensive, ‘driven shooting’ models of grouse management.  For this to happen, a fundamental shift in behaviours and practices is needed, informed by evidence, supported by public policy, and led by landowners committed to a sustainable future for grouse shooting. Alas, some of those who represent the wider shooting community all too often fail to provide the necessary leadership and courage to call out those who break the law, and to set out a more progressive pathway for gamebird shooting in the future.

The RSPB has not yet joined calls for driven grouse shooting to be banned.  Rather, we have called for the introduction of a proportionate and effective means of regulating grouse moor management practices, via the introduction of a licensing system underpinned by rigorous monitoring and enforcement, and we have given evidence to this effect to the ongoing Grouse Moor Management Review in Scotland.  This would bring an end to practices which continue with no regard for the law and would better support those who are prepared to lead by example and to observe and encourage legal and environmentally sustainable management.

In the 1930s, Aldo Leopold, a founding father of the science of wildlife management, observed that game management for recreational shooting should “grow natural species in an environment not greatly altered for the purpose in hand”, and that the recreational value of a head of game is inverse to the artificiality of its origin, and hence to the intensiveness of the system of game management which produced it.  Today, much driven grouse moor management is a stranger to such principles of sustainability, but they would serve well to guide the fundamental reform and rehabilitation that is urgently necessary to make grouse moor management fit to continue in the 21st century.  Were he with us today, Aldo Leopold would be awaiting the outcomes of Scotland’s Grouse Moor Management Review with keen interest.

Header Image: Muirburn (Copyright Ian Francis)

  • I don't think that this statement is strong enough.  It is not just the illegal persecution of birds of prey but the unregulated killing of Mountain and Brown Hares, under the false pretext that they are a zoonosis for the tick infections caused by the over-population of Red Grouse. it does not cover the unmonitored slaughter of mammalian predators, Corvids and any other creature that the industry deems a problem.  It does not deal with the barbarity of the traps and snares in use by the industry and its failure to prevent killing of non-target species: essentially, they don't care about killing anything that isn't a Red Grouse, until the 12th August when they start slaughtering them.

  • "The RSPB has not yet joined calls for driven grouse shooting to be banned." I assume that, along with myself, if the illegal slaughter of birds of prey were stopped, together with stopping burning of blanket bog, the RSPB would be satisfied. There are absolutely no signs that these practices are likely to end. Please join the calls for driven grouse shooting to be banned.