Earlier this month, Les Wallace launched a Government petition calling for an independent review of the economics of driven grouse moors. Our Head of Nature Policy Gareth Cunningham explains why we are calling for a full independent inquiry that not only looks at the economics of grouse moor management but also the role of regulation in the industry.

Les Wallace’s petition raises interesting questions. It requests that benefits such as ecotourism and flood alleviation are fully considered against the economic benefits provided by driven grouse moor management practices. We agree that most previous studies of grouse moor economics have generally only measured economic benefits, whilst the costs or public contribution through Single Farm Payments and agri-environment support are usually disregarded.

It would be helpful if these wider issues could now be considered to allow a properly informed debate. Like other forms of land use, grouse moor management, should be held to account for the way in which it operates, and from our perspective we will challenge any unsustainable and environmentally damaging management practices.

The petition comes at a time when there is increased scrutiny around the way we manage our land, and, in particular, the way that driven grouse moors are managed. Scottish Government has recently set up its own independent inquiry into grouse moor management to look at how this particular land use can be managed both more sustainably and within the law, including options for regulation. The inquiry should report its findings in spring 2019.

The RSPB supports the regulation of “driven” grouse moors to ensure that public interests are safeguarded, including the protection of birds of prey and peatland habitats. The Scottish Government has also commissioned independent research on the impact of large shooting estates on Scotland’s economy and biodiversity. More recently, the Westminster Labour shadow environment secretary Sue Hayman has called for an end for rotational heather burning and an independent review into the economic, environmental and wildlife impacts of driven grouse moors.

These calls for action are, in theory at least, underpinned by the direction and mood of Government. For example, the UK Government’s recently published 25 year plan for the environment provides some clear and bold plans to improve England’s environment. This includes using and managing our land sustainably, with a recognition that a new environmental land management system is needed.

The Environment secretary, Michael Gove MP, has begun to outline the economics of delivering this ambition, calling for public money to deliver public goods. Clearly indicating that those who receive Government subsidies to manage land are expected to deliver clear and tangible benefits to the wider public.

But while most agree we should be using our natural environment sustainably, and ensuring there are benefits for wildlife, there is not always agreement around the need for regulation. In contrast, most other forms of land use involving natural resources management, apart from gamebird hunting, are generally regulated in some form. Wild deer and fish, water management, and forestry are all covered by regulations which define clear public standards required for sustainable management.

Despite this, the UK still lags behind nations in Europe and North America in having no system of regulation for hunting, instead relying heavily on voluntary and self-regulatory codes of practice to encourage compliance with legislation. In the face of increasing intensification of driven grouse shooting management, this approach is failing to deliver both sustainable management of natural resources and the UK’s commitments to halt biodiversity loss. Despite repeated warnings by environmental NGOs, and now the Scottish Government, for the need to stop bad practices, we maintain that grouse moor owners have failed to deliver, and therefore self- regulation has failed. In these circumstances it is now time for the Government to intervene.

We recommend that the UK Government should now follow Scottish Government’s example and launch a full independent inquiry that considers not only the economic benefits of grouse moor management, but also takes account of the use of public funding to supporting existing management practices and the public costs. It is our view that any inquiry should also look into the role of regulation as part of its remit. In so doing the UK Government can take a meaningful step towards delivering the ambitions of the 25 Year Environment Plan, particularly in relation to delivering biodiversity conservation in our internationally important upland landscapes. On this basis, we support this petition and hope this study comes to fruition as part of a wider debate as to how our uplands can be better managed for conservation and in the public interest.