Eagles at risk as landowning lobby delays move to license grouse shooting

A proposal to curb the killing of birds of prey by licensing grouse shooting in Scotland has been blocked by the landowning lobby, according to a Scottish Government report. 

The government’s grouse management review group – chaired by professor Alan Werritty from the University of Dundee – was forced to weaken its recommendation to ministers because of opposition from members backing grouse-shooting landowners.

A proposal that the group should urge the immediate introduction of a licensing system to regulate grouse shooting was dropped in favour of a recommendation that licences only be brought in after five years if the illegal persecution of eagles, hen harriers and peregrines on grouse moors persists.

The group was “evenly split” and Werritty withdrew his casting vote in favour of immediate licensing in order to win a unanimous recommendation. Discussions on the issue were “contentious” and “fraught” because “personal opinions and values intervened”, he said.

The long-awaited Werritty report also recommends “increased legal regulation” of the mass killing of mountain hares on grouse moors, and the licensing of heather burning by moorland managers, a practice known as muirburn.

Campaigners have criticised the report for “kowtowing to powerful vested interests” and dismissed it as a “waste of time”. They are urging ministers to introduce licensing now to save birds of prey.

The environment secretary, Roseanna Cunningham, hinted she might overturn the recommended five-year delay. “I believe the option of a licensing scheme will need to be considered and – if required – implemented earlier than the five-year timeframe suggested by the review group,” she said.

Birds of prey killed or missing at grouse shooting estates

The report – published by the Scottish Government on 19 December after long delays – is the latest battleground in the age-old war between landowners and environmentalists over raptor persecution on grouse moors. Some sporting estates are accused of killing birds of prey to prevent them eating grouse so there’s more to be shot.

A report in 2017 from the government’s wildlife agency, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), said 40 out of 131 satellite-tracked young golden eagles had disappeared in “suspicious circumstances” between 2004 and 2016, mostly on or near to grouse moors.

This resulted in the Scottish Government asking Werritty to head a six-person expert group set up in January 2018 to examine “the environmental impact of grouse moor management practices”. The group was asked to “advise on the option of licensing grouse shooting businesses” in order to tackle illegal raptor persecution.

The group’s 94-page report to ministers reveals that its members ended up deeply divided. The main recommendation on the licensing of grouse shooting was “contentious”, Werritty says in his preface.

“Because the evidence-base is so heavily contested, reaching a unanimous recommendation was fraught – personal opinions and values intervened. But we did agree that any decision on licensing is ultimately a political one in which wider societal views also need to be taken into account.”

He added: “The group was evenly split on whether or not to license grouse shooting. When, as chair, I sought to exercise a casting vote in favour of the immediate introduction of licensing, this was contested by two members of the group.”

Werritty then decided not to use his casting vote “in order to have a unanimous recommendation on this key issue with the authority that implies”.

The report accordingly recommends that “a licensing scheme be introduced for the shooting of grouse if, within five years from the Scottish Government publishing this report, there is no marked improvement in the ecological sustainability of grouse moor management, as evidenced by the populations of breeding golden eagles, hen harriers and peregrines on or within the vicinity of grouse moors being in favourable condition.”

It adds: “The primary goal of such a recommendation is a decrease in the illegal killing of raptors on or within the vicinity of grouse moors, and a significant improvement in their conservation status in these areas.”

The report does not name the two members who blocked the immediate introduction of licensing. But The Ferret understands that it was the two who are closest to the grouse shooting industry: the Duke of Buccleuch’s consultant and former estate manager, Mark Oddy; and Alexander Jameson, a chartered surveyor with 30 years experience of upland estate management.

They pointed out that there had been a series of votes in which different members had taken different sides, and that three members ultimately voted against immediate licensing. “There was intensive examination of all grouse moor management issues and very healthy debate amongst the group,” said a statement on behalf of Oddy and Jameson.

“Any suggestion that our contribution to the group was purely on behalf of grouse shooting interests is categorically wrong and a gross distortion of our role as independent practitioners with experience in the sector. Various opinions were expressed at different times during our debate and it was agreed within the group that a unanimous recommendation was preferable.”

The other three members of the group are professor Alison Hester, a natural resource management scientist from the James Hutton Institute: professor Colin Reid, an environmental law specialist at the University of Dundee; and professor Ian Newton, a leading bird expert and emeritus fellow of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.

The group rejects an outright ban on grouse shooting, as some campaigners had wanted. “In accordance with our remit to ‘ensure that grouse moor management continues to contribute to the rural economy’ we do not recommend that grouse shooting be banned,” the report says.

Nearly 38,000 mountain hares killed in one season, new data reveals

It also recommends more controls on mountain hare culls, muirburn and the use of medicated grit to feed grouse to protect them against disease. “The shooting of mountain hares should be subject to increased legal regulation,” it says.

“Where the shooting of mountain hares is to be undertaken, land managers should be required to report annually to SNH the number of mountain hares present (using a standard counting method) and numbers shot on an area of land.”

It adds that hare shooting “should only be undertaken at the times licensed and in compliance with a code of practice.”

The report recommends that “muirburn should be unlawful unless carried out under a licence”. The use of medicated grit “should be subject to increased regulation,” it says.

“Should the proposals on mountain hares and medicated grit prove ineffective, we further recommend that all three land management practices be licensed.”

The Scottish Government is expected to decide how to respond to Werritty’s recommendations next year. “It is important that we give careful consideration to the recommendations, alongside other evidence, before issuing a response,” said the minister responsible, Roseanna Cunningham.

“An important part of this will involve meeting key stakeholders to discuss the findings of the review, and we will publish a full response to the report in due course. At this early stage, however, I believe the option of a licensing scheme will need to be considered and – if required – implemented earlier than the five-year timeframe suggested by the review group.”

In response to questions in the Scottish Parliament, the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, also suggested that grouse moor licensing could be introduced before 2024. Ministers would consider “whether to move to regulation in a much quicker timeframe,” she said.

Professor Werritty said: “I had not fully appreciated the complexity of the issues involved, the passion with which contrasting views were held, or the length of time the review would require.

“Our remit invited us to make recommendations to reduce the illegal killing of raptors but at the same time to give due regard to the socio-economic contribution that grouse shooting makes to Scotland’s rural economy. Both topics have proved complex and problematic.”

The Scottish Greens attacked the report for caving in to the landowning lobby. “It was clearly watered down at the request of vested interests – what a waste of time,” said the party’s environment spokesperson, Mark Ruskell MSP.

“Up to a fifth of Scotland’s land has been kept barren and thousands of birds and mammals have been slaughtered to enable a cruel hobby of a very few people. This report is a weak washout that kow-tows to powerful vested interests.”

Landowners under attack over film of heather on fire

The Revive coalition of groups campaigning for grouse moor reform also reacted angrily. “We are deeply concerned that the Werritty commission has failed to recognise the severity of the damaging problems with grouse moor management in its current form, and has missed the single biggest opportunity in our generation to take significant action to reform Scotland’s grouse moors,” said campaign manager, Max Wiszniewski.

“Huge swathes of Scotland are grouse moors which, under intense management programmes result in barren landscapes devoid of the majority of naturally occurring flora and fauna. These moors instead are surrounded by a circle of destruction intended to wipe out anything which pose a threat to red grouse, which are effectively farmed to be shot for entertainment.”

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has given a “cautious welcome” to the report, but regrets it wasn’t “bold enough” to recommend the immediate licensing of grouse shooting. It will be urging ministers to introduce licensing “as soon as possible” to deter wildlife crime.

“We are concerned that more urgency is now needed to address the criminality and poor land management practices on Scottish grouse moors that have been highlighted for decades,” said RSPB Scotland’s, head of species and land management, Duncan Orr-Ewing.

“The illegal killing of Scotland’s birds of prey simply has to stop. Those perpetrating these criminal acts have shown no willingness over decades to change their criminal behaviours. Letting this issue languish for another half decade will not help, and we fully expect more prevarication.”

The Scottish animal charity, OneKind, was disappointed that the animal welfare implications of grouse shooting were omitted. “Tens of thousands of mountain hares are killed each year on driven grouse moors,” said campaigner, Eve Massie.

“While the report acknowledges that there is no substantive evidence to support gamekeepers’ claims that mountain hares spread disease to red grouse, the Werritty report has failed to address the welfare issues of these culls.”

Scottish Land and Estates, which represents landowners, described the report as a “real game changer” for moorland management. “Placing additional burdens on grouse moor management in this way will jeopardise the viability of many shooting enterprises,” warned chief executive, Sarah Jane Laing.

“It is a worrying direction of travel that will have far-reaching consequences for communities in remote parts of Scotland. At a time when the Scottish rural economy needs every bit of assistance, sporting estates face once again having to embrace more bureaucracy and legislation.”

She urged the Scottish Government to balance the interests of wildlife and rural communities. “The report’s recommendations coupled with the threat that full-scale licensing of grouse shooting could still be imposed in the future may well force shoots to give up,” she claimed.

Laing pointed out that her members supported increasing penalties for those who commit wildlife crime. “The last decade has seen significant progress in reducing these incidents and according to official statistics, they are now at an all-time low,” she said.

Scottish Land and Estates also issued a joint statement with British Association for Shooting and Conservation, Scottish Countryside Alliance, Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association and Scottish Association for Country Sports. “The recommendations of the Werritty review will mean a seismic change for grouse moors across Scotland,” they said.

“This report has recommended a barrage of measures that will leave the grouse shooting sector engulfed by legislation and red tape. On top of that, penalties for wildlife crime in Scotland are about to get much tougher.”

They added: “Grouse shooting plays a vital role in helping to sustain communities and delivers multiple social, economic and environmental benefits. It would be a tragedy if the massive private investment that underpins these benefits is put at risk by a package of regulatory measures that will herald fundamental change.”

The statement suggested that there had been “huge progress” in combating raptor persecution. “We are committed to playing our part to help eradicate the problem but are deeply concerned that law-abiding rural businesses will be buried under an avalanche of regulation and added costs as a result of this review,” it said.

“That may well force people out of business and put families’ livelihoods at risk.”

The Werritty report in full

Grouse Moor Management Review Group Report Scottish Government (Text)

This article was frequently updated as reactions came in on 19 December 2019.

Photo thanks to iStock/Gerdzhikov

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