Red-legged partridge, Suffolk | The RSPB

Impacts of gamebird shooting

The big issues: illegal persecution of raptors, the use of lead ammunition, the burning of valuable peat bogs, and the introduction of millions of non-native birds.

The RSPB has been looking carefully at the issues surrounding intensively-managed gamebird shooting.

After a review of all of the evidence, we urgently want to see new regulation and better enforcement of existing laws for the most intensive forms of gamebird shooting in the UK, namely driven grouse shooting, and the practice of releasing tens of millions of non-native pheasants and red-legged partridges into the countryside each year.

We propose the introduction of a system of licensing for driven grouse shooting. This would set minimum environmental standards which, if breached, would result in losing the right to shoot. We will provide an annual assessment of progress and review our position within five years. Failure to deliver effective reform will result in the RSPB calling for a ban on driven grouse shooting.

We will also support further regulation for medium and large-scale rear and release gamebird shoots (over 3000 birds), unless a plan for substantial environmental improvements can be delivered within the next 18 months.

We are also asking for unsustainable practices to end, and for damaged land to be restored and managed in a manner that benefits wildlife and people.

Red grouse standing in heather | The RSPB

We asked for your views

Gamebird shooting inspires passions on both sides of the debate. As a science-led organisation, the RSPB has based the outcome of this review on the direct evidence of impacts, but it was also very important for us to hear many different viewpoints on the issue, particularly from our members.

In early 2020, surveys were sent out online to a representative sample of RSPB members and to staff and volunteers. Many different organisations and groups with an interest in nature conservation, animal welfare, land management and the shooting industry were also given the opportunity to have their say.

The response was:

  • 5265 RSPB members sent in full survey responses
  • 2,847 RSPB staff and volunteers sent in survey responses
  • 663 additional comments were received
  • 60 individuals involved in shooting took part through confidential conversations
  • 23 separate organisations also sent responses

The views expressed reflected different values, motivations and long-held positions. RSPB members, staff and volunteers were clearly knowledgeable about the issues, and broadly supported the reasons for the review. 14% expressed a desire for some sort of ban on shooting. The views expressed by the organisations ranged from those who valued shooting, through to those who considered it unnecessary and harmful. The consultation responses helped us to agree seven conservation principles for gamebird shooting and associated land management. 

Gamebird review - heath burning | The RSPB

The facts about intensively-managed gamebird shooting

The RSPB is neutral on the ethics of shooting, but we can and do speak out if the practices associated with shooting are found to be causing serious harm to wildlife and to the environment.

For many years, we have been concerned with the impacts of two of the most intensive forms of shooting: driven grouse, and high-density lowland gamebird releases. Our studies have identified that various key practices are causing particular ecological harm, with implications for both biodiversity and the climate emergency.

These impacts include:

  • The systematic illegal killing of birds of prey and other protected species
  • The release of tens of millions of gamebirds into the countryside each year
  • The unnecessary killing of mountain hares in some parts of our uplands
  • The use of lead ammunition
  • The burning of vegetation on our upland peatlands
  • The treatment of wild red grouse with veterinary medicines

Not all shoots or forms of shooting are harmful in these ways, and without doubt, some management practices do  benefit other wildlife. However, we believe it is now time for effective regulation of the gamebird shooting industry to ensure that it is not having a disproportionate impact on the UK’s environmental obligations.


Public statement on the outcomes of the review

PDF, 500 KB

Conservation principles

PDF, 194 KB

Policy position – driven grouse shooting

PDF, 558 KB

Policy position – rear and release of gamebirds

PDF, 557 KB

How licensing could work

PDF, 358 KB
Uplands - view east from summit of Cairngorm | The RSPB

The potential of our uplands

Our moors, mountains, hills and valleys are collectively called: the uplands. These often remote and wild landscapes are found across the UK and are home to a broad range of wildlife, like mountain hares, golden eagles, ring ouzels, and pine martens. They also perform hidden tasks that benefit people and communities, collectively known as ecosystem services.

Peat bogs, formed over thousands of years, capture rainwater and then hold on to it, filtering it through layers of moss, before releasing it slowly into streams and rivers. This process helps prevent flooding in communities downstream, but it also produces clear water for us to drink. These peat bogs hold onto carbon too, locking it away and helping us in the face of a growing climate emergency.

Our uplands may be out of sight for many of us, but if they are poorly managed, it has a massive impact not only on wildlife, but on our wider environment, our global climate obligations, and even the very water that we drink. We know that restoring our uplands can have wide-ranging benefits: the RSPB has been carrying out this work on our nature reserves for decades. Now we are calling on everyone who looks after these special landscapes, to work together to ensure they stay special for generations to come.

Flames engulf heathland along the North York Moors near Goathland, Yorkshire | The RSPB

The damage done to our wildest places

It can be tempting to focus concerns about environmental degradation on places like the Amazon Rainforest, and on dramatic events, such as the Australian wildfires. But the truth is that here in the UK, our own precious habitats are under attack. This is having a massive effect on both our wildlife and on the greenhouse gases that we emit across our four nations. Perhaps surprisingly, our rural industries, can be just as harmful as those associated with built-up areas.

For example, large parts of our uplands are managed for driven grouse shooting. Red grouse are wild birds, but their numbers are kept at unnaturally high levels on estates to ensure large numbers are available for shooters. This involves a high level of land and wildlife management.

The grouse favour different heights of vegetation, so regular burning takes place to encourage fresh growth and restrict the height of plants. These areas can be beneficial to some species for a short period but over time a monoculture of heather forms that isn’t good for wildlife.  

Worryingly this burning also emits carbon, but a bigger problem is that it damages the surface of underlying peat bogs, which then dry out, degrade, and emit even more carbon. Many of these areas have been locked into a continuous cycle of burning for many decades, and have been left scarred and impoverished. Burning at a landscape scale also has a bad effect on the way these areas hold water, so that rainwater rushes over the bog surface and off the hills, turning rivers brown and increasing flood risks downstream.

This type of damage may not be as dramatic as clear-felling a rainforest, but it is having a long-term, serious impact on our environment and our wildlife. With climate change likely to bring wetter winters and drier summers, these issues are only likely to become more severe over time.


Ending peatland burning

PDF, 562 KB

Policy on lead ammunition

PDF, 562 KB

Grouse moor evidence review

PDF, 795 KB

Gamebird evidence review

PDF, 4.3 MB

What is “rear and released” gamebird shooting?

PDF, 145 KB
Peregrine falcon | The RSPB

The shame of bird crime

Birds of prey should be thriving in our uplands. Species like golden eagles, peregrines, hen harriers, goshawks, and short-eared owls are hunters that love big open spaces. Here, they scavenge and catch a variety of prey, from tiny voles through to hares and even deer.

In Victorian times, as the fashion for hunting grew, these birds were seen as a threat to game numbers and became a target. As top predators, birds of prey breed slowly, and as scavengers, they are also extremely vulnerable to poisoning. Populations plummeted, and some species were driven to local extinction.

It’s been illegal to kill any bird of prey in the UK for many decades, and the species that we lost are now recovering through careful conservation programmes. But sadly, many dozens of our birds of prey are still found shot, poisoned or trapped each year, often on land managed intensively for grouse shooting. Many that are tagged for scientific reasons, simply disappear without trace. As these places are remote, it is likely that the numbers found are just the tip of the iceberg, and we know that these areas should be supporting far higher populations of birds of prey.

Without these top predators, our uplands are poorer places, lacking ecological balance. But we are also much poorer for not having these birds in our lives and in our landscapes.  Surely it is time for the illegal killing of these special species to stop.