Red grouse (Lagopus lagopus scoticus) walking, Cairngorm National Park, Highlands, Scotland

Grouse shooting in the uplands

Management for grouse shooting began in the 1850s with large areas devoted to this land use by the early 1880s when driven-shooting became fashionable.

Overview

Fewer grouse are now shot and the area over which management for grouse has contracted since the early 1900s.

However, the intensity of management has increased markedly in some places, (for example, Central and East Highlands of Scotland and the Pennines) with significant environmental impacts.

Driven shooting involves a row of people (beaters) walking and pushing the grouse in front of them over a line of guns concealed in grouse butts. Throughout the first half of the 20th Century (with the exception of two periods of war), management produced good numbers of grouse. 

Following the Second World War, when grouse moor management recommenced, grouse numbers rose but then underwent a sustained decline during the 1970s. In response to the decline, large areas of grouse moor were sold off for forestry. Whilst grouse moor interests protected some of the best areas of upland bog and heath from afforestation, particularly in England, large areas were lost to forestry. 

Following a major campaign, extensive parts of the remaining open habitats were designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (under the Wildlife & Countryside Act) and later as Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protection Areas. 

Today, large areas of blanket bog and dwarf shrub heath (including on specially-protected sites), are managed, in places intensively, to maximise the number of grouse available for shooting across parts of the English and Scottish uplands. 

Driven-grouse shooting is almost unique in global terms in the way it is practiced - the big numbers of grouse required for driven-shooting are the product of intensive management practices – and the shooting itself operates within a weak regulatory environment. For further information, see a recent report on the biodiversity impacts of game bird hunting and associated management practices in Europe and North America.

The economics of grouse shooting

The RSPB acknowledges that some grouse moor owners and sporting tenants invest significantly in management practices and infrastructure in support of their shooting activity.

The management is undertaken by game keepers supported by other estate workers, some of whom may be employed on a part-time and/or seasonal basis. 

On the day, shooting activity is further supported by a wide range of seasonal/day employment activity. More widely, grouse shooting supports a range of jobs in the local economy and beyond.

More critically, we hear less about the associated environmental and economic costs of grouse moor management practices (eg the environmental cost of burning on deep peat and associated economic cost of water treatment to remove colour) and even less about the potential economic benefits of alternative forms of land use, including other grouse shooting styles less reliant on producing big numbers of grouse. 

It is often stated that high-input driven-grouse shooting is the only economically viable shooting style. In good years, the income generated may be sufficient to pay for management costs. In bad years, where no shooting is possible, most moors must operate at a significant loss. 

Whilst other styles of shooting may shoot fewer grouse and realise less income, the management costs and the costs to the environment may be considerably less.

We are unclear about the annual returns (from shooting incomes) from moors under different management regimes, and the overall return on investment made both annually and across the full range of moors and the amount of public funding committed to grouse moor interests.

Management practices

The production of sufficient numbers of grouse for driven-shooting is reliant on a range of intensive management practices.

These include vegetation burning and cutting, drainage, legal (and illegal) predator control, livestock grazing (mainly sheep), grouse medication, and the construction of butts and tracks and use of all terrain vehicles.

Vegetation burning is subject to a number of legal requirements, which are promoted via voluntary codes in England and Wales (the Heather and Grass Burning Code) and Scotland (the Muirburn Code).

Gamekeepers control grouse predators. The legal control of generalist predators such as foxes, weasels, stoats and crows is routine. However the illegal control of birds of prey and the questionable killing of mountain hares to control grouse disease is also practised on some estates.

The RSPB acknowledges there is growing evidence that legal generalist predator control plays an important role in the conservation of ground-nesting upland birds. That said we identify an urgent need to better understand why the numbers of some generalist predators (eg crows, foxes) are increasing and if there are associated or additional impacts of long-term changes in land use (eg afforestation, release of game birds).

For further details, see our recent RSPB report on the costs and benefits of grouse moor management to biodiversity and aspects of the wider environment. 

Our position

The RSPB has legitimate grounds to question how management for grouse shooting is conducted in the UK’s uplands, and whether the existing regulation is sufficient. 

We believe we should consider grouse shooting as we do any other land use in the UK’s uplands.

Grouse shooting is legal, popular amongst elements of the shooting community and of local economic importance. However, across the UK, grouse shooting is often practised in almost uniquely high input-high output styles with weak regulation. 

The lack of effective regulation has environmental consequences which range from unacceptable (eg illegal killing and disturbance of birds of prey) to highly questionable (on current evidence) management practices (eg intensive burning on deep peat soils, medicating grouse, construction of tracks, killing of mountain hares, removal of trees from moorland edge). 

In the absence of effective self-regulation, we believe grouse moor management and shooting practice must be more effectively regulated to ensure the public interest is served through securing favourable environmental outcomes. 

The introduction of a new law in Scotland on vicarious liability (where the landowner is responsible for the actions of those acting in his/her interest) sends a clear signal that the ongoing killing of birds of prey is wholly unacceptable.

The RSPB acknowledges that some aspects of management for grouse shooting, such as legal predator control and habitat management (eg restoration/management of dwarf shrub heath, restoration of blanket bog) confer some environmental benefits, and stand ready to work with progressive elements of the grouse shooting industry to further environmental goals in the UK uplands.

Muir burn (heather burning) on upland grouse moor. Management practiced to promote fresh growth for red grouse to feed on. Glenfeshie. Scotland.

Securing our vision for more sustainable uplands

In keeping with our desire to secure the delivery of multiple benefits from the uplands, we seek land use and management which delivers a range of ecosystem services and helps biodiversity recover and adapt to climate change. 

We challenge the grouse shooting community to address some of our concerns, to articulate how they propose to improve the environmental credentials of their business and to signpost how they propose to reduce their reliance on questionable management practices (eg burning on deep peat, killing of mountain hares to control grouse disease) and end the ongoing and illegal activities such as the disturbance and killing of birds of prey.

The different styles of grouse shooting evident today are underpinned by a continuum of management intensity – from those reliant on management practices of such intensity which they cause unacceptable and sometimes unlawful damage to species, habitats, and ecosystem services – through to those underpinned by management activity of a lesser level of intensity with fewer environmental impacts.

There is growing evidence that current management for driven-grouse shooting and, in particular, the drive to increase grouse bags on many moors, is unsustainable and at odds with the delivery of wider environmental and societal outcomes. 

We want to see:

  • Protected sites in favourable condition
  • An immediate end to the killing and disturbance of birds of prey on and in the immediate vicinity of grouse moors
  • A reduction in the intensity of managed vegetation burning, and a cessation of burning on deep peat soils (blanket bog) particularly on SSSIs and in drinking water catchments
  • The restoration of degraded blanket bog now dominated by heather.

We do not believe big-bag driven-grouse shooting will ever be viable without intensive programmes of predator control, grouse medication and intensive habitat management, making the attainment of the above outcomes highly unlikely without change. 

Abernethy Forest RSPB Reserve, Cairngorms National Park, Scotland