Grouse Moors - the case for reform

Almost a fifth of Scotland is a grouse moor. They're not natural. They have been managed to create a habitat entirely suitable for just one wild species so that the abundance of that species is far higher what it would be in the natural state. The species is, of course, the red grouse. The only reason their numbers are artificially increased is so that hundreds of thousands of them can be shot for entertainment between 12 August and 10 December each year.

Organisations like the League Against Cruel Sports firmly believe that killing or harming animals for entertainment should be consigned to the past. This view carries weight in the UK and particularly in Scotland, the first part of the UK to ban fox hunting in 2002. Whilst fox hunting is mostly contained to a comparatively small strip of the Borders, the grouse moors are endemic to upland Scotland.

The first time I looked properly at a grouse moor, I turned to my companion and said "I used to think that's what the uplands were supposed to look like." I'd just read a League commissioned report on "The intensification of grouse moor management in Scotland" and had started to realise what a barren, artificial and deprived landscape I was looking at.

These days it's not just Scottish animal welfare organisations like the League and Onekind that are asking why so much of Scotland is a grouse moor. Social advocacy organisations like Common Weal, environmental organisations like Friends of the Earth Scotland and conservation organisations like the UK Raptor Group are beginning to question if the present land use really benefits the people of Scotland, the Scottish environment and the preservation of animals both iconic and common.

If you owned an estate and wanted to ensure the biggest "game bag" i.e the largest number of birds shot - there are a number of steps you can take.

You must groom the mountain sides to ensure maximum distribution red grouse habitat - heather.  And you must periodically burn the heather to provide the birds with both food and cover. In doing so you are adding to the burden of carbon being released into the atmosphere.

You must attempt to eradicate any animal that might be able to kill a red grouse before the guns get their chance. This leads to distributing licensed traps and snares across the uplands that target foxes, stoats, weasels and crows. As these devices are indiscriminate (as well as primitive and cruel) they can and do capture, maim and kill domestic pets and protected species like pine martens.

Not content with placing these traps and snares in locations frequented by these animals, "stink pits" are created to lure them to high concentrations of the devises. A stink pit is just as repugnant as it sounds - it is a pile of dead and rotting animals that lures animals into the circle of snares and traps that surrounds it.

And there's no getting away from the fact that highly protected species like golden eagles and hen harriers are mysteriously absent from most grouse moors.

If you believe that mountain hares threaten the red grouse with either disease or by "over grazing", as many estates do, then over the winter you will kill your share of the 26,000 mountain hares that are killed each year on average in Scotland.  This is despite the lack of scientific confirmation that mountain hares have any impact on grouse numbers.

If you want to reduce the threat of ticks spreading disease to the red grouse then you might try dousing flocks of sheep with chemicals that will kill the ticks.  While it's unclear what impact the chemicals have on the sheep it is clear that the flocks themselves help attract financial grants as the land can be designated as "agricultural" thus attracting EU subsidies.

While you're at it, you'll want to make life easier for those with the guns by constructing a network of tracks and roads across the landscape so they can get between different areas of shooting with comfort.  Unlike elsewhere in Scotland these tracks and roads need no planning consent and often blight the land.

Once you've done all this you'll certainly have maximised the number of red grouse to be shot and you will be able to attract the highest fees for a day's shooting but at what cost and for whose benefit?

Like much land ownership, grouse moor ownership is, at best, opaque in Scotland.  It is also difficult to pin down how profitable or unprofitable they are. Of the few figures made available by the shooting industry it appears that the average industry wage is around £11,500 per year.  And while the industry proudly states that it contributes over £38 million to the Scottish economy each year this figure pales into insignificance when it is compared against the £1 billion tourism and another £1 billion forestries bring in annually.

And what thought has been given for better ways to use these huge swathes of Scotland?  Since the 19th century clearances not only have we become used to uplands barren of most animal life but we've also accepted that no one lives and works there any more.

Land reform has been a recent political clarion call in Scotland.  Once the political black hole of Brexit, which sucks in valuable parliamentary time, moves on it seems safe to say that the political mood in Holyrood will return to looking at how Scottish land benefits people, communities and businesses.  

There is already a Government Commission looking at grouse moors.  This Commission will be the beginning of a process. That process will be inevitably be slow, it will inevitably involve consultation and sides will be drawn. Each side will seize upon the facts that they say will support their case and much physical and digital print will be deployed.

This is why November 6 marks the launch of a new coalition of social advocacy, environmental and animal welfare organisations dedicated to ensuring that these enormous tracts of land truly benefit Scotland.

Revive - the coalition for grouse moor reform is being introduced in Edinburgh by television ecologist Chris Packham. The CEOs of the founding members - Common Weal, Friends of the Earth Scotland, League Against Cruel Sports Scotland, Onekind and the Raptor Persecution UK groups will be answering questions about this new venture at the event.  

Revive will then set about a multi year strategy aimed at encouraging a national dialogue about how these lands should be utilised.  We believe that a fresh look at how this land is used could lead to a better Scotland. Better for its economy, its people, its environment and its fauna.  We will invite those of you who also share our vision to make a public pledge to this end. This is the start of a journey and who knows where it will end.

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