Safety fears over drug residues in grouse after watchdog fails to test Scottish birds 5

Safety fears over drug residues in grouse after watchdog fails to test Scottish birds

No birds have been tested for dangerous drug residues in the last two years, despite calls for better regulation of animal medicines used by Scottish shooting estates to treat red grouse.

Without proper monitoring or research critics fear that drug residues may damage the environment or find their way into the human food chain. 

According to figures provided by the UK Government agency responsible for monitoring drug residues in food, the Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD), no red grouse were tested for medicine residues in Scottish slaughter houses in 2022 and 2023. 

Separate data provided by the VMD via a freedom of information request suggests no red grouse actually harvested in Scotland has been tested in the last three years. 

As a consequence, critics have called for the Scottish Government to place an immediate moratorium on the use of de-worming medicines used by gamekeepers until their safety can be established. 

They claim to have evidence that land managers in Scotland are not following a code of practice designed to prevent the medicines harming wildlife and human health. 

In 2019, a Scottish Government expert working group on the management of grouse moors called for better monitoring of the use of medicated grit containing an anti-parasitic drug called Flubendazole. 

Medicated grit photagraphed in the Lammermuirs
Medicated grit on Lammermuir Hills, East Lothian

Data shows that in subsequent years official monitoring actually declined. 

The special grit is fed to grouse by gamekeepers who normally place a supply of the medicine in special trays placed across moors where the grouse live. 

The drug is used to stop periodic population crashes among grouse that are caused by a worm that lives in the gut of the game birds.

The medication is commonly regarded as being safe to use provided best practice is followed. 

The grit must be removed from the moors 28 days before any shooting starts, so that culled birds are not a risk to human health if they are eaten. 

But a recent survey commissioned by the League Against Cruel Sports Scotland and campaign group, Wild Justice, found that medicated grit was made available on some estates at times of the year when guidelines say it ought to be withdrawn. 

And despite expert calls for better monitoring of game birds that have been exposed to medicated grit, the VMD has not tested a single red grouse processed for human consumption in Scotland in the last two years. 

The VMD is the public body charged with monitoring human food for drug residues throughout the country. If it finds any animals with dangerous amounts of drugs in the food chain, it is supposed to alert Food Standards Scotland (FSS), which will consider what action needs to be taken to keep people safe. 

Additionally, a 2020 Scottish Government pledge that it would set up a new expert group to consider how best to monitor compliance with the code of practice governing medicated grit use has never been fulfilled, officials confirmed.

Calls for moratorium on grouse grit

Dr Ruth Tingay, a director of Wild Justice, also co-authored a report into the use of medicated grit in 2018 for environmental campaign group, Revive. She said in light of the recent findings, the Scottish Government “should be imposing a moratorium on the use of medicated grit until the potential damage to the environment is established.” 

“As far as I’m aware, no assessment has been made of the environmental impacts of this drug on UK grouse moors,” she added. 

Campaign groups also found evidence that the medicated grit guidance was being broken in other ways. 

Drugged feed was being left “strewn on the ground” or put in trays with drainage holes in. On some land holdings the dosage was two and a half times higher than necessary, it was claimed.  

These further breaches of the guidelines risk the medicine getting into local water courses, or becoming locally concentrated in the ground, where it is feared it could harm wildlife, they warn. 

“It turns out that tonnes of medicated grit litter the Scottish landscape at levels of up to 2.5 times the recommended dose,” Robbie Marsland, director of League Against Cruel Sports Scotland, said in a blog post summarising his group’s work with Wild Justice. 

“We found the chemical at times when we would have expected it to have been withdrawn under statutory requirements and we found it both in trays with drainage holes or directly strewn on the ground.”

A spokesperson for the VMD said: “The prescribing of veterinary medicines for use in grouse grit is only permitted under specific rules, using expert clinical judgements from veterinary surgeons and taking animal welfare into account.”

It confirmed that the UK Government agency works to a “National Residues Control Plan” that only requires the testing of 10 red grouse liver samples per year across the entire UK.

According to figures provided by the VMD, in 2021, samples were collected from slaughterhouses in Scotland, England and Wales. But in 2022 and 2023 samples were collected from England and Wales only.

A Red Grouse near Braemar, Aberdeenshire. Image thanks to caroline legg. Licence: CC BY 2.0 DEED

When asked whether it had confidence that Scottish Red Grouse was safe for human consumption, a spokesperson for the Scottish food safety agency, Food Standards Scotland (FSS) said: “FSS has not received any incident case evidencing that the levels of flubendazole in grouse meat exceeded the permitted maximum residues levels.”

It also emphasised that food retailers are responsible for the safety of the food they sell. 

FSS added: “Ultimately it is the food business operator’s responsibility to satisfy themselves that the product is safe by carrying out whatever tests are necessary to secure that.

“If there are concerns by VMD’s absence of testing, a decision taken on a risk basis, then these should be addressed to VMD.

“The Scottish Government is drawing up a Wildlife Management & Muirburn Bill which will include tighter controls on the use of medicated grit and the introduction of a licensing regime for grouse moors.”

The FSS spokesperson continued:  “Although the approval of medication to dose wild birds is a reserved issue to the Westminster government, the use of medicated grit will be subject to greater regulation in Scotland under the new codes of practice being drawn up to support the Wildlife Management & Muirburn Bill.

 “Any breach of any of the codes of practice could result in an estate’s grouse shooting licence being revoked.”

Ross Ewing, director of moorland at Scottish Land and Estates, said: “The use of medicated grit is stringently regulated by veterinarians who must be satisfied of the need to use the medication in the first place. This involves in-depth analysis of the worm burden in red grouse, which must be above a certain threshold to warrant intervention.

“Following this, the veterinarian will prescribe the relevant dose and provide advice on how it should be administered. This involves consideration of pairs of red grouse holding territory across a moor.

Responding to the report by Wild Justice and The League Against Cruel Sports Scotland, he added: “The findings of this report are being weaponised as a Bill making changes to the regulation of moorland management nears its conclusion. There is absolutely no evidence that it is adversely impacting on public health or the environment.  

“It is worth highlighting that flubendazole use was considered by the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency in 2020, who determined that flubendazole “presented a low environmental risk”. Best practice guidance on the use of medicated grit has also just been updated by a coalition of moorland management stakeholders, including environmental NGOs.”

1 comment
  1. Saying that there’s no evidence for something is meaningless when there has been no search for evidence! It also seems ludicrous that the dosing of wild birds with chemicals is reserved to Westminster. Why should Scotland have to put up with another country making the rules on something that affects Scots.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Hi! You can login using the form below.
Not registered yet?
Having trouble logging in? Try here.