A year ago today, Environment Minister Mairi Gougeon MSP stood up on the floor of the Scottish Parliament to announce the Scottish Government’s response to the Werritty Review of grouse moor management.
That review, published in December 2019, had accepted the need for the protection of mountain hares, and for better regulation of both muirburn and medicated grit used to prevent disease in grouse. The review also recommended the implementation of a licensing system for grouse moors, unless within five years of the review’s publication there was a “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 condition”.
RSPB and others argued strongly that the grouse shooting industry should not be given another five years to sort itself out – it had already been given decades and had demonstrably failed to implement widespread sustainable management or to root out a criminal element that appeared determined to continue the illegal killing of some of our rarest and most iconic species.
On 26th November 2020, it seemed that, after considering Professor Werritty’s report for almost a year, the Scottish Government had reached the same conclusion, after a year in which despite COVID lockdowns, eagles, hen harriers, short-eared owls and a host of other species were again killed illegally on Scotland’s grouse moors.
In her Holyrood statement, Ms Gougeon said: “The key recommendation put forward in the Werritty report – is that a ‘licensing scheme be introduced for the shooting of grouse’. This is a recommendation that I accept.”
In noting the recommendation to delay this for five years, she commented “I believe that the Government needs to act sooner than this and begin developing a licensing scheme now.”
She went on “Since 2007, the Scottish Government has undertaken a range of measures to tackle wildlife crime, including: the introduction of vicarious liability; a poisons disposal scheme and restrictions on licences for those operating on land where it is suspected that wildlife crime has taken place.”
“The fact that raptor persecution continues in spite of all these measures suggests that, while regulation from within the grouse shooting industry can be an important factor in driving behavioural change, self-regulation alone will not be enough to end the illegal killing of raptors, and further intervention is now required.”
This announcement was warmly welcomed by RSPB Scotland, and across the conservation community in Scotland and further afield. Predictably, however, organisations representing grouse moor owners and managers were less than enthusiastic, apparently disregarding the fact that businesses operating within the law have nothing to fear from a licensing scheme.
However, we are now one year on, and the world is still tackling the COVID pandemic; we are coming to terms with what was agreed, or not agreed, at the recent COP26 meetings in Glasgow; and, of course, in May we had Scottish Parliamentary elections. Given these issues, it is understandable that grouse moor licensing did not feature in the Scottish Government’s legislative programme for 2021-22.
We hope, however, that it does feature in that for 2022-23. The damage caused to Scotland’s wildlife and habitats by intensive grouse moor management practices or criminal activity in our uplands did not stop in November 2020. Far from it.
In March 2021, a golden eagle was found dead, poisoned, next to a mountain hare bait on a Deeside grouse moor, in the Aberdeenshire part of the Cairngorms National Park. This appalling crime took place within three miles of where a young eagle was photographed caught in a trap in 2019, and a line of illegal traps targeting birds of prey was found set across the hill in 2016.
Ravens continue to be illegally killed on grouse moors with a dead bird found in April, hidden under rocks below its nest high up a hill on a Perthshire estate that had no licence to control them. The post-mortem report indicated that it had been shot, and -previously recovered from its wounds.
The day it was killed, it was again shot, but again this was not immediately fatal. According to the SRUC vet’s report, it then suffered “severe, mostly blunt trauma characterised by broken beak, crushed cranium, fracture-dislocation of the neck, ...fracture of the left wing at four sites, fracture of the left leg and massive internal haemorrhage.” As it flapped around on the ground, it appears that the person who shot this bird then stamped on it repeatedly.
Elsewhere, another raven was seen tumbling to the ground after being shot as it mobbed an eagle owl that had been tethered to a post on another moor in February.
Traps continue to be deployed with little regard to either the law or the welfare of the birds or animals caught in or by them. Muirburn is still occurring in areas of woodland expansion, on steep rocky slopes or close to bird of prey nest sites, all with the aim of creating habitat for grouse.
Meanwhile, a buzzard was shot in the Angus glens in May, and in July, a young Goshawk was found shot, hanging dead from a tree branch in a public forest next to an intensively-managed moor in Inverness-shire.
Meanwhile satellite-tagged raptors continue to “disappear”, almost exclusively on grouse moors. Perhaps the most depressing such incident was that of a young white-tailed eagle, whose tag was functioning normally, until it suddenly vanished while over a Nairnshire moor in July, never to be seen or heard from again.
Hatching in a nest in the east of Scotland in 2020, this young eagle had its origins in the East Scotland Sea Eagles reintroduction project, strongly supported by the Scottish Government. Sadly, however, it was the fifth young eagle, out of six that have fledged from that particular nest since 2013, to have disappeared suspiciously on a Scottish grouse moor.
The appalling toll that persecution by criminals on Scotland’s grouse moors continues to have on our protected birds of prey proves, again, that regulation of that industry cannot come soon enough.
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