Reflecting on moorland management

The ‘Glorious Twelfth’ is here – which gives us a chance to reflect on the impacts of two management activities that accompany the driven grouse business in Scotland, burning heather (muirburn) and culling mountain hares.

The Trust’s recently published Land Stewardship Policy highlights the challenge of getting the balance right between supporting the rural economy through this intensively managed field sport and minimising the effects on wildlife, the environment, and the public interest.


The main form of land management on grouse moors is muirburn, burning strips of older heather so it regenerates and provides fresh shoots for grouse to eat. If you take a drive over the Drumochter summit on the A9, you will clearly see that the hills on either side are a patchwork of burned / unburned heather with a scattering of hill tracks – this man-made landscape characterises driven grouse moors and is seen in many of Scotland’s glens.

Muirburn © Lairich Rig, CC BY_SA 2.0

Although the Muirburn Code explains how moorland managers can reduce the environmental damage of muirburn, by not burning on deep peat, avoiding steep slopes used by hen harriers and peregrines for breeding, and avoiding burning on short rotations which prevents the formation of the ‘leggy’ heather that is ideal nesting ground for hen harriers, problems arise where this voluntary code is not followed.

Even the Scottish Gamekeepers Association in their evidence to the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee admitted that they hope their members are adhering to the code but don’t know for sure. They went on to state that ‘SNH or whoever’ [sic] should look to some form of enforcement to ensure the Code is complied with.

Mountain hares

Large scale culling of mountain hares – an Annex V protected species under European law – is also perceived as an essential activity by some grouse moor managers. Although scientific evidence does not support the notion that getting rid of mountain hares on grouse moors will reduce looping ill infection (a virus carried by ticks that reduces grouse chick survival) in grouse, large scale culling of mountain hares is still going on despite the Scottish Government’s opposition to  large scale culls.

Mountain hare © Steve Gardner

Under European law, mountain hares can be controlled, but only at levels that don’t cause damage to the conservation status of the species. Currently there is no effective way of measuring the total population of mountain hare in Scotland and whether it is going up or down, so we can’t be sure of the effects of mass local culls on the national conservation status of this charismatic species. If large scale culling is affecting the conservation status of this species then Scotland would be in breach of EC Habitats Regulations.

Moorland licencing

So what’s the solution? The Trust, like others, believe the best way to better protect the environment and wildlife while allowing driven grouse shooting to continue, is to introduce a licensing system for the most intensive forms of management of grouse – including driven grouse moors, where land owners and managers have to comply with codes of best practice as well as legislation that protects raptors and other wildlife from persecution.

It’s really pretty simple – those who won’t comply would get their licence revoked.

Such a system is gathering support in the Scottish Parliament and the Trust welcomes the Cabinet Secretary’s recent agreement to set up a group to look at options for ensuring that grouse moor management works to best practice standards, including the option of a licensing system.

Maggie Keegan, Head of Policy

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The ‘Glorious Twelfth’ is here – which gives us a chance to reflect on the impacts of two management activities that accompany the driven grouse business in Scotland, burning heather …

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