How glorious? The illegality at the heart of grouse shooting.

Today is the traditional start of the grouse shooting season – the Glorious 12th.

Few red grouse will be shot today, but between now and the 10 December the season will be on, and guns will be willing to pay upwards of £1500 a day for shooting their share of 200,000 red grouse shot in the average year.  But bird conservationists are concerned about how many protected species may have been shot or poisoned before the sport begins.

The science shows a couple of pretty much incontrovertible and inconvenient truths – that birds of prey, particularly hen harriers, eat grouse too and that someone is bumping off lots of harriers in a totally illegal manner.

The Langholm study, carried out at the Langholm estate of the Buccleugh family, showed that if there are lots of hen harrier living on your grouse moor they may eat so many red grouse before the start of the shooting season that there aren’t enough left for the guns.  There is no getting around it – hen harriers are pests of grouse moors.

And there is no getting around the fact that on grouse moors, hen harriers, although having full legal protection since 1954, are treated as pests and are surreptitiously killed in such a routine manner that large areas of the country that would otherwise be suitable for hen harriers lack them almost completely. So much so, that about 2000 pairs of our hen harriers are missing.

Killing hen harriers is illegal but happens; harriers eating grouse is legal but unhelpful to the grouse moor manager who has invested in the management of his moor; killing harriers is entirely logical, but entirely illegal.  This is the crux of the war of words over grouse moor management.

Is there a way out? Better brains than mine have looked for an answer without much progress having been made.  One of the problems is that much of the shooting community denies the fact that hen harrier killing is common despite the fact that so many hen harriers are missing from the hills according to the science of organisations as close to them as the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust.

You can’t expect individuals whose staff are breaking the law to come out and say publicly ‘yes, we are killing hen harriers on our shooting estate’ – few criminals do that, and in this case it might well be that the moor owner is unaware of what happens on his ground in the early morning as a shot rings out on a remote piece of moorland.  But we should expect that more effort from those organisations trusted and integral to the shooting community (The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, the Moorland Association, the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation, the British Association for Shooting and Conservation) should be put into acknowledging that conservationists are right that there is a real  problem of illegal raptor killing and that it really has to stop.

I’ll be interested to see comments here, including from those organisations mentioned above, on whether it is accepted that illegal raptor killing is rife on grouse moors as a whole.   Do Raptor Study Groups, nature conservationists, gamekeepers and grouse moor managers all accept the premise that there is too much illegal killing in the heather? I won’t yet publish comments on other aspects of grouse shooting as we will move on to other subjects as time goes on.

Sunday’s blog will move on to supplementary and diversionary feeding as a potential solution to this conflict


37 Replies to “How glorious? The illegality at the heart of grouse shooting.”

  1. Are you saying that it is now generally accepted that there is an incompatibility between maintaining moorland for grouse, and hen harriers? I thought that the RSPB and others were still saying they can co-exist.

    What do you feel are the conservation benefits of managing a moor for grouse shooting?

    1. Xtoph – a warm welcome to you! I would hope that grouse shooting and harriers could coexist – I will discuss diversionary feeding on Sunday – but it seems that grouse moor managers don’t believe it and don’t let it happen. How many moors would be like Langholm? If the answer is all of them then harriers and grouse shooting can’t coexist and, the consequence of that is, that viable driven grouse shooting depends on a high level of illegality. If not all moors would be like Langholm then it must surely be in moor managers interests to show that that is the case. Not many are doing that so it would be fair to assume that the grouse shooting community as a whole (not just a few bad apples) really is happy that the law is routinely broken. The hundreds of missing pairs of hen harriers show that to be the case.

  2. One of the problems that arise from this is that people keep calling them ‘grouse’ moors not Red Grouse moors as the majority of the land managed is not any use for Black Grouse. Look at the distribution map for the area of Red Grouse moors and try and see where the blacks fit in. If this land was for Black Grouse the two maps should over lap exactly.
    Secondly the only reason for the Hen Harrier being a ‘pest’ on Red Grouse moors is that Natural England and Scottish Natural Heritage have allowed shooting estates to destroy the SSSI, SPA and any other nomination this land has been given by dominating the area with heather. This ‘mono’ culture does not allow harriers or any other species to feed away from the heather and especially after a breeding season the only species found in the heather is Red Grouse. Many ‘ring tailed’ harriers are killed in winter due to this reason.
    New management at Geltsdale removing all sheep and returning cattle will help to brake up this heather dominance and bring back both trees and grassland offering a wide choice of prey species.

  3. Talk about throwing a grenade into the room and then locking the door, once you are outside! Let us have a little balance in the discussion?
    Grouse moor management is fantastic for habitat and upland birds; there are few others, who manage the Uplands for its own sake without grouse management?
    The debate always starts with ‘they kill raptors illegally and by the way until they stop we will not engage with them’.
    That creates confrontation and sterility.
    The basis for any solution is knowledge and then understanding. The vocal critics of grouse shooting [ie those involved with th emanagement [grouse moor owners, Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, the Moorland Association, the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation, the British Association for Shooting and Conservation] conveniently forget that there is another view of the value of managing heather moorland for sporting? Would it not be an idea to understand the issues before throwing the grenade and damaging the one group who are managing heather moorland properly? The problem will not solved until it is demonstrated that the critics are prepared to understand the reality of moorland management and its huge value.

    1. Birdseye – could you expand on your point please? What is the huge value of moorland management for driven grouse shooting please? IS that economic value? ecological value? cultural value? Maybe all three and more?

      Yes killing raptors is illegal, whether in upper or lower case, but it is also rife – or do you disagree. And, therefore, the vocal critics of grouse shooting start from the premise of trying to reduce the amount of criminal activity associated with this economically valuable pastime.

  4. I can’t see any reason for the shooting community to acknowledge that there is a ‘real problem of illegal raptor killing’, why should they. The Hen Harrier issue has gone on for years and despite the pressure applied by Raptor Study Groups, the RSPB, Scottish Natural Heritage, English Nature, MP’s, MSP’s etc, etc, things are pretty much as bad as they have ever been.
    A recent case in Scotland against a gamekeeper who had an enormous amount of the illegal pesticide Carbofuran, only resulted in a fine for illegal possession. Despite the fact that several dead birds of prey were found on his estate, poisoned by the same type of illegal pesticide, he escaped severe sentencing and kept his job! The very same man had previously made a press statement blaming the RSPB for planting dead birds, “I would say it is our friends at the RSPB. There has been a few incidents before where stuff has turned up. They are doing it for publicity. The more publicity they get, the more money they get.”
    I think the above example is a sad but accurate portrayal of the current state of affairs. The simple fact is that despite the almighty weight of evidence against gamekeepers, it is nigh on impossible to secure a meaningful prosecution for the crimes committed.
    Hen Harriers will always be attracted to Red Grouse moors because the moors are managed ‘purely’ to produce artificially high numbers of grouse, and gamekeepers will continue to kill them for purely financial reasons for as long as they can get away with it. In the Isle of Man there is a large, healthy and naturally fluctuating population of around 50 pairs of Hen Harriers, despite there being relatively few grouse. Why? – There is no driven grouse shooting!!!!

    1. Mal – thanks for raising the IoM situation – quite instructive I guess. Are there foxes on the IoM?

  5. I met a team of men out for a walked-up day of grouse shooting this morning and saw curlew, meadow pipits and a hen harrier, oh and lots of grouse and lovely purple heather. The team had traveled from afar and were spending two nights in a local pub. All looked pretty win-win to me.

    1. Barnacle Bill – welcome and thank you. Walked up shooting is a very different kettle of fish from driven grouse shooting, isn’t it? No reliance on huge bags.

  6. Over a decade ago I remember reading the buzzwords ”Conflict Resolution” and ”Stakeholders”. At the time these words filled me with hope that a workable solution may eventually be found. Sadly this was not to be and the dramatic decline of the harrier on managed grouse moors continued.
    Let’s be honest about the current stalemate, estates no longer have a problem with harriers on managed grouse moors. They aren’t going to wake up one morning and feel guilty about this and change their policy.
    I’ve got a gut feeling that we may have let this conflict rumble on for far too long and not even a compromise will change the fortunes of this magnificent raptor. On this point I sincerely hope I’m wrong!!!

  7. As somebody who loves harriers but also loves grouse moors and has beaten on them in the past, shot grouse once ( not badly much to the surprise of the keeper whose gun I used) and spends much of my birding time on grouse moors. Firstly things have changed much for the worse since I stopped beating twelve years ago. Persecution of not just harriers has got much worse, here in the Yorkshire Dales Short Eared Owls are now so scarce it is a red letter day when you see one, they used to be common, peregrines have not successfully nested on grouse moors here for years and years, harriers have tried to colonise these moors since 1969 we did in one year have 6 may be 7 attepts but we have never had more than two successes in a year and attepts for the last four seasons, there is no tolerance at all, even on none commercial shoots. Privately there is an admission of huge levels of persecution and not just of harriers, A friend was told by a shoot manager that they killed 1 raptor per 100 acres per year, that is a huge toll of the commoner species as well. If grouse moors have other wildlife benefits and we may well debate those in the future the price our legally protected and iconic raptors pay is far far too high. attitudes are very difficult to shift at all and peer pressure prevents it. The conflict resolution process via the Environment Council is very slow and moves at a pace dictated by a total failure of a large section of the game lobby to embrace any compromise or change in any meaningful way. Frankly it is all hugely disheartening but we the raptor workers and allies cannot and must not allow ours selves to be deflected from confronting this routine illegality until it is largely gone and it will take years and years to be gone. Driven grouse shootiong in many ways is entirely dependent on illegality so why should it have any future they have had years to put their house in order, shoots must be licenced , keepers should need licences to operate and should they fall short of the standards set those licences should be forfeit, we also need very tough vicarious liability for owners and agents currently its the keeper who carries the can not his manager who gives the instructions. Incidentally as many moors are SPAs or SSSIs it is time that NE managers bit the bullet instead of praising them ( Helen Phillips recently) and threatened to ban shooting on SSSIs as a damaging act rather than giving them grants and public money under wildlife enhancement or HLS schemes. Currently that money could be seen as aiding and abetting willife crime. Remember in England less than ten pairs of harriers none on grouse moors where there should be 300+.

  8. Seriously Mark, you’re suggesting that if only shooting would agree with you that the problem is “rife” (is that a scientific term or a political one?) then progress would follow? How exactly?

    All the shooting organisations already publicly condemn illegal killing without hesitation, and work in various ways to find a solution to the conflict. RSPB etc are hung up on talking up the scale of the problem (not forgetting a snide dig at the “rich” shooters), driving a wedge between the interested parties and making progress all but impossible. This looks increasingly like a political campaign rather than an conservation one.

    Since you appear to have all the “science” at your fingertips, I’d be really interested to know the precise acreage (I guess that’s hectare-age these days) managed as driven grouse moor, cf walked-up grouse moor, cf non-shooting moorland, the number of hen harriers (breeding and non-breeding) on each of those areas, and in total, and the number of harriers you estimate are being killed each year by grouse shooting interests. Presumably even a gamekeeper can only kill a harrier once, so if 2000 are “missing” they’re not there to be killed?


    1. “Presumably even a gamekeeper can only kill a harrier once, so if 2000 are “missing” they’re not there to be killed?”

      Surely James that is bit like saying there used to be lots of tigers, but there are now only a few left; however we can’t be causing a problem because only a few are now shot each year.

      I don’t fully agree with how Mark has worded this but the only way forward is to agree that a problem exists, what that problem is and how it is dealt with. Problem solving is not about looking for the answer it is about looking for the correct question and hopefully the answer follows.

    2. JamesM – welcome to this blog, I was hoping you might burst into life here.

      If ‘shooting’ agreed that there was a problem and committed itself to doing something about it then it might find that conservation organisations, for which I can no longer speak even a little, would move on. My experience was that BASC was the best organisation to acknowledge that there is an issue here, but even they were very quiet about it publicly. In contrast the Countryside Alliance seems to be allowed to act as though it is the voice of the shooting community and to deny the scale of the problem. We all know, and I think you know James, that some of those most prominently and profitably involved in illegal killing of birds of prey are influential in the organisations funded by the shooting community. Wouldn’t you agree? And wouldn’t you agree that leaves a bad smell around all those who may be behaving better?

      On the question of how many hen harriers are bumped off each year – if you had signed up to my newsblast earlier then that would have provided you with an out-of-date answer to that question (I’ll send it to you separately). In a published paper in 1997 the estimated number of female hen harriers killed in Scotland was around 60 per annum. I remember the response of many in informed parts of the shooting community at the time was ‘I bet it’s more than that!’. And these days, given that the hen harrier population on grouse moors has declined and that away from grouse moors has increased, the number is probably higher. It takes quite a lot of effort to clear those moors of this species every spring.

      There are about 1700 ‘missing’ pairs -but of course that doesn’t mean that 3400 birds are killed each year – it just means that if those 100+ (my guess) killed hen harriers were allowed to settle on grouse moors some of them would raise young, some would return and they would be joined by another 100 birds initially emanating from the non-grouse moor population. Given time, grouse moors would be colonised, but they aren’t.

      1. Hi Mark, I’d be a lot more vocal but the new job is proving very time consuming!

        There’s a gap in perception here. Shooting people accept there’s a problem, no one knows the exact scale. Most I speak to would like to engage in discussions about a solution, but it seems that conservationists are demanding we don sackcloth and ashes, and wear a sign reading ‘Criminal’ around our necks, as a precondition. That’s downright offensive to someone like me, who loves walked-up grouse shooting and harriers, and has never harmed a bird of prey in his life.

        Shooting organisations (quite properly) work to present the best possible image of shooting in the media. They are hardly likely to follow your suggestion and put out a press release saying that persecution of birds of prey is “rife”, even if they believed it was true. Why place this impossible obstacle in the way of progress?

        1. JamesM – I don’t recall any conservationist I have met having a problem with walked up grouse shooting. It always seems to me that it is the driven grouse shooters who have that problem.

          You ‘good’ shooters could maybe do a better job of hanging the ‘criminal’ sign around the right people’s necks – although i know that you, personally, have done your bit. I would be a lot more impressed by the shooting ‘community’ if it behaved as though it wanted to exclude the bad guys from the ‘community’ rather than succour them and hide them in your midst. If you act like the bad guys are in the same gang as you then you can’t expect that conservationists will be able to tell the difference.

          1. Interesting this perception that we’re encouraging and protecting the ‘bad guys’. As we all know, witnessing and proving illegal killing is virtually impossible, and an individual is hardly likely to brag to his shooting friends about it, so what exactly can we do? This is not like shopping your local drug dealer – it’s a crime known only to the perpetrator.
            Personally I feel that shooting generally suffers from a bit of a bunker mentality, but then with everyone from LACS to RSPB taking every opportunity to criticise and misrepresent them, that’s entirely understandable. Less strident criticism (or even acknowledgement of the benefits) would make it easier for shooting to be more open about what could be achieved.

          2. JamesM – I see the problem but the RSPB could give you quite a long list I suspect. And I have had conversations where people have appeard to know who was at it too. And I think that you would agree (would you?) that there are at least a few grouse moor managers who are renowned for their ‘zero tolerance’ approach to birds of prey? These are people who are making money, and quite a lot of money I would guess, out of nudge-nudge, wink-wink, predator control. Start with them.

          3. Mark, I know exactly who/what you’re referring to, and it’s all hearsay and supposition. No-one in shooting or outside it has evidence one way or the other, nor are they likely to get it. How exactly should one ‘start with them’?

          4. JamesM – I thought you would know exactly who/what I meant – which says it all really, as so would lots of others. Speak to ex-keepers, sacked keepers, current keepers, disgruntled keepers? There must be people who have had disagreements with whoever/whatever we are talking about. Enough info being fed to the police would help. Or – just peer pressure – it’s not as though whoever/whatever/whenever/however we are talking about is shunned by the shooting community and the organisations who claim to represent it? How many cold shoulders are shown? You are closer to this than I am so you tell me – either as a comment on this blog or as an email privately. Good to have you here commenting – thank you.

  9. Mark – it sits uneasily with you to pretend ‘not to understand’. The value of management flowing from driven grouse shooting is clear and recognised by all who are academically tuned. Habitat managed, predation managed, TLC applied by the owners’ investment to be able to enjoy grouse.
    You suggest illegal persecution is rife – your previous employers spent £600000 last year [and are appealing for more] trying to stop persecution. Yet 2009 was the worst year for some time I wonder how you can balance that equation. I suggest a different approach is needed. It is no good banging on about criminal activity. Like recent happenings in London /Manchester there are underlying reasons and until they are addressed we are at risk; so it is with Upland management for grouse

    1. “The value of management flowing from driven grouse shooting is clear and recognised by all who are academically tuned. Habitat managed, predation managed, TLC applied by the owners’ investment to be able to enjoy grouse.”

      Birdseye how can you equate this with the following facts hen harriers should in England alone be at a population estimated and accepted by all at approx 330 pairs without damage to grouse, current population about 10 pairs ie. 3% of what should be there, average number of successes on grouse moors since 2000 is 1 nest per annum, talk about tokenism. This population level is static or possibly declining yet research shows that it should be growing in the absence of persecution by 13% per annum. All research shows the problem for harriers is persecution mainly on grouse moors outside the breeding season, this is accepted by all. Here in the Dales since 1993 we have had 26 known breeding attempts by harriers, all on grouse moors of which 8 have reared young, of the failures 60% of adults have mysteriously disappeared yet naturally less than 1% of breeding adults disappear. Incidentally because of a successful pair on a moor in 1993 the keeper was sacked for letting them get away. Half of all peregrine sites in the Dales are on grouse moors yet no grouse moor site has reared young for over ten years. Privately some keepers tell me what their instructions are, certain agent managed moors are even worse. Control of predation by legally controlleable predators is fine although nothing to do with good ecology. The much vaunted good for wildlife claims are just that claims, most waders are declining on moors due to drainage. You and I are expected to obey the law, it is one of our duties as good citizens and we should expect no less of those who manage grouse but what we have is routine law breaking on a large scale, that my friend in anyone’s book is crap management of places I care deeply about.

    2. Birdseye – I wasn’t pretending not to understand (I’m not that modest) but I was giving the likes of yourself the opportunity to spell out what those values are – no-one took the opportunity really.

  10. It always makes me laugh, in an embarrassed way, that we shoot the hell out of what is really our only endemic bird species. Those crazy Brits!

  11. I am not going to write on behalf of any particular organisation, but I am proud to declare my longstanding involvement with the GWCT (which is not a shooting organisation as such but a research and education charity, and therefore necessarily independent). Certainly the GWCT expressly condemns illegal persecution but is keen to assist in what it sees, as I do, as a genuine conservation conflict between the level of illegal persecution on the one hand and the economic and conservation benefits that management for grouse shooting brings on the other. Its peer-reviewed science on the subject is, I suggest, pretty unequivocal.

    As you well know, many of the conservationists who condemn persecution are engaged in a conflict resolution process. Yes, Paul, the Environment Council process is painfully slow, but at least there is now a consensus amongst all interested parties that there should be some degree of management or intervention, albeit at this stage non-lethal. But as the law currently stands even that would be “illegal” under the relevant European Directives.

    The reason why all the various “stakeholders” are still prepared to participate in this process is precisely because of their recognition of the economic and conservation benefits that Mark somewhat tendentiously goads us into identifying. Why can’t you acknowledge them publicly yourself, as you have been prepared to do privately? Your silence on the point in your own post (and in your exclusive Newsblast), not to mention your faux-ignorance in response to Birdseye are a trifle feeble from someone who used to participate in the relevant negotiations on behalf of the RSPB at the Environment Council and also in relation to Langholm 2. You say you were leaving it to others to spell out the benefits and no one has really taken the opportunity. But surely it behoves you in a balanced piece to identify all the material issues.

    Anyway, just to accept your challenge: for the economic benefits, see McGillivray (1995) and Fraser of Allander Institute (2010)

    And as regards conservation benefits, the following is a very brief summary: your former colleague Andy Tharme’s paper; the GWCT’s definitive work at Otterburn, and the startling differential between the wader numbers at Geltsdale as against managed grouse moors in the area. Furthermore, don’t forget that Langholm, with no keepers, became an ecological desert, with next to no grouse, waders or harriers.

    I conclude with a reference to a paper by some of the country’s leading raptor ecologists, and would urge you to heed their conclusion: “Importantly, progress requires that all sides in this debate consider alternative viewpoints, are prepared to maintain open and inclusive dialogue and not retreat too readily into their pre-existing positions.” Regrettably you don’t seem to have shifted an inch.

    1. Lazywell – thanks for rising to the challenge of spelling out the benefits of grouse shooting. I wasn’t writing a book about grouse shooting so it’s fair that we share the work here, i think!

      Yes, you are right that there is an economic benefit of driven grouse shooting – but there are economic benefits that accrue from other activities that are illegal and of dubious morality. Drug trafficing and pimping could claim the same. Because driven grouse shooting depends on high red grouse densities the investment is up-front and high – all that keepering costs a lot of money and that investment is only recouped if there are big grouse days because that is what the paying customer wants. The low-input low-ouput alternative of walked up grouse shooting would require less investment but returns less money too, but would probably be far less reliant on illegality.

      The conservation benefits of grouse shooting need a bit of further investigation, I think. Yes, the densities of several declining wader species are higher, often much higher, on land managed for driven grouse shooting – the Pennines are the best example with wader densities that rate as high as anywhere (and much higher than most places). But given that those same Pennine moors are designated as Special Protection Areas under EU legislation for, amongst other things, their hen harrier populations of EU importance – and yet there are 200 missing pairs of harriers in northern England, it seems that grouse moor managers will claim the wader benefits but deny the raptor costs. Maybe we have to choose whether we want artificially high wader densities alongside artificially high red grouse densities and suffer artificially low raptor densities and artificially low black grouse densities too (not to mention artificially low fox and stoat densities, of course).

      And i wouldn’t go on so much about the RSPB reserve at Geltsdale if I were you. The SSSI is not all RSPB land by any means. Wader numbers have increased on the RSPB land and it is one of the only sites in the Pennines where black grouse are doing really well. But I may well be out of date – you’d have to ask the RSPB on that one.

      1. I’ve seen the breakdown of the Geltsdale SSSI with and without the RSPB reserve, and I’m afraid to say that the RSPB land is worse than the rest.

  12. One point that every one hates to admit is that if driven Red Grouse was banned the economics of the Red Grouse moor would not change as the same people would pay for walked up Red Grouse. [Well those that could actually walk!]

    1. Sorry John but it really doesn’t work like that. Different people, pursuing a very different activity and paying very different amounts of money.

  13. As a regular visitor to moorland managed for grouse shooting and moors managed rather differently, i feel that i have sufficient knowledge to see both sides of this ‘battle’ that exists between the game shooting industry and other conservation groups. I agree with what JamesM has said, walked up grouse shooting would never financially compare to driven grouse shooting. And without the money that is generated by selling driven grouse shooting the moorland, along with the local economy, would suffer.↲
    I personally do not see a resolution for the problem with BoP until both sides agree to work together to find a solution.↲
    As for the comments on the management of the Geltsdale Reserve; could i please ask if allowing the uncontrolled spreading of bracken, ignorance of a major tick problem and the apparent lack of any form of predator control is part of the ‘management strategy’?

  14. Hi. From “several visits” to moors those keepered do have less wader young than those correctly managed for conservation and grouse. I remember one trip where we were shown around by a keeper – he said there was a Ring Ouzel nest along the track – now amazingly the bird failed – but you wouldn’t be surprised with the amount of disturbance he gave the bird as we drove past the site with his gesticulations out of the window. As for the comments on the other thread. Yes, I used to beat as a kid. Woodcock are still shot, sometimes for the pin feather which is worth money for artists and fly fishermen. I’ve even seen them try to shoot at a Tawny Owl through poor ID!!! The only part of game keepering I agree with is the removal of non-native species such as Grey Squirrels.

  15. An interesting discussion and one (unfortunately) that we’ve all seen many times before. Can I introduce a new word to the discussion? Culture. Yes this is to do with socio-economics, but cultural tradition plays a significant role as perceptions and values are shaped by cultural tradition.
    And a question: Is this really about hen harriers or buzzards or peregrines? Or is it more about tribalism? Is the enemy the raptor or those who seek to protect it – organisations that are perceived to be a threat to a way of life? For me, no amount of law strengthening will address the root of the issue and let’s face it, the conservation community is pretty poor at managing relationships across divergent agendas. It’s not a Wildlife Crime Officer we need, it’s a social mediator.

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