50 for the Future – Licence driven grouse moors

Our recent publication, 50 for the Future, lists 50 things that we believe should happen in Scotland over the next 50 years to benefit both people and wildlife. In this week's 50 for the Future article, Stuart Housden, Director of RSPB Scotland, discusses how introducing a licencing system for driven grouse shooting in the uplands could bring about many conservation benefits.


Number 5: Introduce a licensing system for driven grouse shooting to ensure the recovery of a mosaic of heathlands, peatlands, scrub and woodland


Over many decades the RSPB and other conservation charities like the Scottish Wildlife Trust have worked hard to improve the way our uplands are managed. At the RSPB, we base our views on sound science and practical understanding of land management, we have advocated change to secure a sustainable future for these wonderful areas. This has involved demonstration of best practice land management on our nature reserves, as well as engagement with the main policy drivers of agriculture, forestry and sporting management. Sadly though, many of our important upland species and habitats continue to decline, and we believe that a new approach is now needed if we are to improve these landscapes as a legacy for future generations.

The iconic Scottish uplands cover about 70% of our land area. These mountain and hill areas are critical for delivering a range of public goods and services including carbon storage, clean drinking water and large protected areas for wildlife, as well as recreation and tourism opportunities. Of particular importance are the large areas of deep peat, which lock up carbon, thereby providing resilience against climate change. But our upland habitats are not in good heart. They may look beautiful, but inquire more deeply and it is clear all is not well. According to Scottish Natural Heritage’s (SNH) National Peatland Plan, about 70% of our blanket bog is considered damaged; the Forestry Commission Scotland's Native Woodland Survey highlights how many of our upland woodlands have become fragmented and have declined in both quality and extent; and finally, RSPB Scotland’s Illegal Killing of Birds of Prey in Scotland 1994-2014; A Review shows that illegal killing of birds of prey is still prevalent, particularly in core areas managed for “driven” grouse shooting.   

A red grouse on heather moorland. © John WinderCreative Commons

RSPB Scotland and the Scottish Wildlife Trust are both promoting an alternative view to the way our uplands are managed, set out in RSPB Scotland’s document The Uplands Time to Change and the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s Living Landscapes in the Scottish Uplands. As part of a wider package of measures to improve the health of our uplands, and because so much of our upland landscape is given over to hunting in its various forms, we believe that fundamental changes are required to the way that sporting enterprises are managed and regulated to protect the public interest. The recent reform of deer management systems in Scotland, to promote delivery of the wider public interest, as well as sport management, highlights a way forward for other types of hunting activity. Better regulation of deer management, which matches the need to protect sensitive habitats, agriculture and forestry with the number of deer, is the direction of travel now signaled. Accordingly, SNH may request deer cull information from estates and require the production or amendment of Deer Management Plans to increase deer culls to prevent overgrazing of sensitive habitats in the public interest.

However, in respect of gamebird hunting of red grouse and released non-native pheasants and red-legged partridges, research by the James Hutton Institute (Mustin et al. 2012) has shown that the UK and Scotland have some of the most intensive and least regulated hunting systems in Europe and North America. In other countries it is usual for gamebird and other hunting to be regulated by the state, often with bag limits set for huntable species; requirements to make bag returns to the authorities to inform sustainable management practices; conservation measures put in place for declining populations of huntable species; and control of certain land management practices.

SNH’s Scientific Advisory Committee has recently concluded a review of moorland management in Scotland and published its report. This review was conducted in response to concerns that have been raised about a number of management practices that are carried out, largely to promote driven red grouse shooting on large upland moorland areas in Scotland. This includes the regular rotational burning of areas of blanket bog and heath, including native woodland regeneration areas; the large scale culling of mountain hares and wild deer ostensibly to prevent the spread of tick and thus control grouse diseases; and the illegal killing of protected birds of prey and predatory mammals to prevent the predation of grouse. Following a wildlife crime debate in the Scotland Parliament, the Environment Minister commissioned a review of gamebird hunting licensing systems in other parts of the Europe, which might inform the next steps here. In addition, a petition has been lodged with the Scottish Parliament by the Scottish Raptor Study Groups calling for the introduction of a state regulated system for gamebird hunting in Scotland. I would encourage people to support this petition by signing up on the Scottish Parliament website.

Burning for grouse habitat management typically takes place on a rotational basis, the aim being to provide a range of vegetation ages to provide food and shelter for grouse. © Lairich RigCreative Commons

Along with other conservation NGOs, RSPB Scotland believes that Scottish sporting estates, particularly those involved with “driven” grouse shooting and large scale pheasant and red-legged partridge releases should be better regulated to protect the public interest and to promote best practice management standards. Such regulation should also provide meaningful sanctions, such as the removal of hunting rights, permissions to control predators under the Open General Licence, and firearms certificates where laws relating to protected species are violated. It is evident that self regulation by the gamebird hunting industry has patently failed, despite public concerns voiced over many decades about wildlife crime and other unsustainable management practices. Well managed estates that work within the law, and which adopt best practice have nothing to fear. It is those that flaunt the law by persecuting protected species, or damaging peatlands, SSSI’s or sensitive habitats who would be caught by such a system.

Some commentators have become so exasperated by the failure of sporting estates to meet public expectations that they are calling for a ban on driven grouse shooting, believing the estates are never going to change their ways. This is not the RSPB’s preferred option, for we believe a well managed estate can contribute much towards the conservation of habitats and species at a landscape scale. But action to stop the illegal killing of birds of prey, or the damage to natural features in the uplands is long overdue. Improved regulation via a licensing system offers the way forward.

Let us know your thoughts by emailing thefuture@scottishwildlifetrust.org.uk or Tweet @ScotWildlife using #50fortheFuture.

Stuart Housden OBE is the Director of RSPB Scotland.

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In this week's 50 for the Future article, Stuart Housden discusses how introducing a licencing system for driven grouse shooting in the uplands could bring about many conservation benefits.

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