RSPB Scotland's Duncan Orr-Ewing discusses the recent incident of a poisoned sea eagle found in Strathdon, the Werritty review and why we can not delay the licensing of grouse moors.

Licensing of grouse moors can't wait five years - it must happen now

The recent appalling incident of a poisoned sea eagle found in Strathdon should be a further “wake up call” as to why we need licensing of driven grouse shooting, and sooner rather than later. The flagship East of Scotland Sea Eagle Project, supported by Scottish Government, continues to be undermined largely by the activities of wildlife criminals operating on grouse moors. The Cairngorms golden eagle population also remains at one third of its potential breeding population in terms of occupied traditional home ranges according to the last national survey in 2015, and in locations where golden eagles should be at their most productive due to abundant natural prey in terms of red grouse and mountain hares.     

poisoned golden eagle  

The Grouse Moor Review Group (The Werritty Review) was unanimous in its support for the introduction of licensing of grouse shooting in Scotland. We wholeheartedly support this. Unfortunately, it came with a big “if”. The Review goes on to say that licensing should only happen “if, within 5 years of the Scottish Government publishing its report, there is no marked improvement in the ecological sustainability of grouse moor management, as evidenced by the populations of breeding golden eagles, hen harriers and peregrines on or within the vicinity of grouse moors being in favourable conservation condition”.

It looks as though some of Scotland’s most senior politicians agree with us, Scotland’s First Minister stated during First Minister’s questions, on the Scottish Government’s response to the Werritty recommendations;  “I want to be very clear that part of that consideration will be looking at whether we move to regulation on a much quicker time-frame”. The Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, Climate Change and Rural Affairs, Roseanna Cunningham MSP, made a similar statement.

So, why do we consider that a five-year moratorium for bringing in licensing of grouse shooting in Scotland is both unnecessary and far too slow?

  1. We are experiencing a climate and a nature emergency. This implies a need for urgent action to tackle the acknowledged and various harms that grouse shooting is causing to our environment, including the long-standing issue of the illegal killing of Scotland’s native birds of prey.
  2. Grouse moor managers have had decades to get their house in order. This includes repeated warnings from successive Scottish Governments that if this does not happen stronger sanctions will follow. Even during the course of the Werritty Review, when licensing of grouse shooting was being considered, crimes against our birds of prey continued unabated. The illegal poisoning of this white-tailed eagle is just one, more recent example.
  3. A five-year moratorium on implementing licensing of grouse shooting means in effect a further 5 years of inactivity, with an expected 8-10 year delay in implementing this measure once legislative time-frames are considered. During this period many more raptors are likely to die unnecessarily and other environmental harms will go unregulated.
  4. The culture of law breaking in grouse shooting, especially the most intensive form of driven grouse shooting, is so entrenched that it will not be easily resolved. The grouse sector will use the five-year moratorium to obfuscate (as they have done for decades), in an effort to persuade our politicians that failed voluntary approaches should be given more time to work. They may also be waiting for what they perceive to be a more benign and sympathetic Government and therefore “minding the gap”.
  5. “Favourable conservation status” as a concept has its origins from the European Union Birds Directive, and despite best efforts it has proved very hard to define in practice. This wiggle room gives further scope for grouse moor interests to prevaricate.
  6. Five years may not be an adequate time to show a biological and measurable response from the cessation of human killing to birds with low reproductive rates such as golden eagles. We know with regards hen harriers this might be possible, as previously it has been estimated that the hen harrier population could increase by 13% per annum1 if freed from the impacts of illegal killing. However, none of the raptors mentioned by the Werritty Review will respect estate boundaries and travel widely and are therefore vulnerable to be illegally killed on another property even if where they are nesting is safe.
  7. The Werritty Review proposals for measuring improvements in key moorland raptor populations would rely on intense and probably costly monitoring. Many of these areas are currently covered by volunteers from the Scottish Raptor Study Group who are thinly spread. This is why most of these raptor species are normally monitored on a 10 year cycle, and often not by full surveys, rather a sample-based approach.
  8. Privately, some grouse moor managers and their representative bodies are also telling us that they cannot see how the proposed 5-year moratorium can be delivered, and freely acknowledge some of the concerns that we are also raising.

Licensing of grouse shooting does not mean an end to all grouse shooting. It simply puts it within a framework which respects the public as well as the private interests. We think that it is also possible to devise a licensing scheme which does not incur significant regulatory costs, or indeed costs to sporting estates. A licensing scheme would provide protection to those grouse shooting estates who want to work within the law. Almost all equivalent European countries already have some form of licensing of hunting or sport shooting. On this basis, there should be no more delay and the Scottish Government should bring in a licensing scheme as soon as possible.   

1. Etheridge, B., Summers, R. W. & Green. R. E., 1997. The Effects of Illegal Killing and Destruction of Nests by Humans on the Population Dynamics of the Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus in Scotland.  Journal of Applied Ecology 34(4), 1081-1105

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