Does driven grouse shooting rely on criminal activity?

Photo: Tim Melling
Photo: Tim Melling

There are many reasons to be opposed to the intensive management of our uplands to provide high-cost days shooting.  But let us set aside the arguments on water quality, destruction of blanket blogs, carbon loss and the scale of legal killing of wildlife, and think only of the illegal killing of birds of prey – most particularly Hen Harriers, Golden Eagles and Peregrine Falcons.

Nobody seriously denies that the scale of illegal killing is immense, that’s what the science says, and it’s what quite a lot of shooters say too – although, wisely, they always say it’s someone else not themselves.  And it may be to a large extent. With Hen Harriers, because of their biology (being more like soup than mashed potato) it doesn’t take everyone to be killing these birds for nobody to have them on their land – when you take the plug out of the bath all of it empties, not just the column of water above the plughole.

And that is the answer to the question about why the RSPB doesn’t have Hen Harriers on their land in northern England, or the National Trust, or Natural England – it’s because practically nobody does because there aren’t any left! It’s not a very difficult question to answer really is it?

With Golden Eagles, the grouse managers of northern England are behind a ‘firewall’ of grouse shooting estates in eastern and southern Scotland.  It is on those moors that wandering eagles meet their end and so it really must be very rarely that Golden Eagles are killed on English grouse moors – they just don’t reach them very often, even though the habitat would be suitable for a few pairs.

Peregrines, however, are a different matter and most English grouse moors that don’t now have Peregrines using traditional nesting sites have to be strong candidates for estates that are breaking the law. Strong candidates, I say.

The removal of protected birds of prey from our uplands is illegal but not illogical.  If your aim is to provide lots of Red Grouse for you and your friends and paying clients to shoot then it isn’t illogical to want to remove their natural predators. That’s why there is such legal carnage of predators such as stoats, crows and foxes on grouse moors, and why some ground-nesting species benefit, but it’s also why there is such a great deal of criminal killing of protected wildlife including raptors but also badgers and hedgehogs too.

Photo: Tim Melling
Photo: Tim Melling

Gamekeepers have rightly taken the view ‘If they eat it, we can’t shoot it’ for decades and they are right.  The Joint Raptor Study at Langholm showed that there is a real problem for driven grouse shooting if a grouse moor sees a big build-up of raptor numbers – at Langholm it was a terminal problem – shooting in the form of driven grouse shooting with big bags became unviable.

Langholm 1 ended 17 years ago. Maybe we nature conservationists should have taken a harder line from the start – but we are wishy washy liberals and therefore are always looking for a middle ground compromise.  Maybe we should have realised that the biology of the situation, combined with the vested interests involved, meant that there would never be a move to the middle ground.  The middle ground was seen to be substitute feeding –  a technique that has been shown to work at Langholm 2 and for which there was plenty of evidence of efficacy after Langholm 1.  But it has always been the nature conservationists, the wishy washy liberals, who have been keenest on testing these methods whilst grouse moor managers have intensified the management of moors and the numbers of raptors has fallen.

Now at Langholm the head keeper seems to have buzzards in his sights.  And, of course, we are always told that raptors flying across a shoot will ruin the day too.

Maybe we should simply accept the fact, that I believe shooting organisations have done, that you can’t maintain driven grouse shooting without breaking the law. Of course, they don’t say that – but their members behave like that. And we should respect their decision – they are probably right.  You probably can’t have driven grouse shooting and remain within the law.

So, if driven grouse shooting had lots of other public benefits we would have a difficult decision to make, but since it doesn”t then we don’t.  If you can’t have a profitable driven grouse shoot without breaking the law yourself, or relying on someone else to break the law for you, then let’s not have driven grouse shooting at all.


46 Replies to “Does driven grouse shooting rely on criminal activity?”

  1. land doesn’t owe us a living; if people can’t make a living off land without destroying it then they’ll have to use it in some other way or give it up

    1. M Parry – seems sensible to me – coupled with Stella’s suggestion that we buy it off them.

  2. Having left the RSPB and become unshackled from a corporate ‘viewpoint’, seen the real world and wonderfully realised that if you want a nail to hold 2 bits of wood together you need a hammer, being polite to the nail doesn’t work, I wonder if you might consider putting yourself forward as CEO of the RSPB? You appear to have achieved more on the subject of raptor persecution as an individual than the RSPB have achieved with all their staff and a million or so members! I’m so proud of you!

    Great piece in the Times yesterday which hopefully will boost the petition signatures. Good piece in Birdwatch – did you see the letter with photo of dead Ring Ousel in a rail trap [whatever that is] – not for rails I hope.

    I have one probably mad suggestion – the government should buy all the uplands, set up a FC type Uplands Commission and manage it for the benefit of everyone with a strong emphasis on wildlife. Some might say the nation couldn’t afford to do this – I don’t agree. The cost to the nation [both government & individuals] of the mismanagement of the uplands [water, co2, wildlife etc] is rising and ongoing. There does come a point where the needs of the nation outweigh a selfish greedy minority and lets face it, at the moment the uplands are only worth money because of their economic value to that minority. As they are they have little intrinsic value of their own.

    1. Stella – you are both very kind (to me) and very wise. What a great lady you seem to be!

  3. My local patch includes a driven grouse. It is a wildlife desert. Nothing but grouse, a few meadow pipits, a few lapwing and a few curlew and that’s it.

  4. What a lovely compliment from Stella.”She is so proud of you”for how you have tirelessly campaigned on behalf of the Hen Harrier.
    I can but agree entirely.

  5. The key thing here is not whether driven grouse shooting needs to persecute raptors to create the appropriate grouse numbers but the fact that on the basis of their behaviour the majority of moor owners believe it. When we had harriers in the Dales (68-71, 80, 92-96 and 2000-2007) each time up to 60% of adults disappeared during the season, whilst the level you would expect is 1-2%.
    To give some idea of the attrition in the main area where there are 4 ownerships all grouse moors, only one of which is a commercial moor.
    93 3 nests, 2 females disappeared during incubation other reared 3 young
    94 1 nest, both birds disappeared half way through incubation
    95 Displaying male only
    96 1 nest, pair and contents disappeared after hatching
    97 a male seen food carrying but no further sightings
    00 Pair present March/April then disappeared
    01 Food pass seen from road ( Foot and mouth year) but no subsequent sightings
    02 Pair reared 6 young with estate co-operation, but the keeper prevented neighbouring estate keepers from looking for the nest with dogs.
    03 1 female disappeared before nesting, 3 nests failed when males disappeared. two nests of a bigamous male reared 7 young.
    04 9 different birds in area in April but no nests found
    05 pair reared 4 young
    06 3 females and 2 males disappeared after two females started to nest build
    07 1 pair disappeared during incubation, A second pair, male disappeared but still reared one young due to supplementary feeding.

    Its nearly soul destroying to be involved in monitoring harriers , you need a great deal of resolve and be prepared for disaster. In the same period the Yorkshire Dales has not had a successful Peregrine nest on a grouse moor since 1998, our Goshawks have gone and Short Eared Owls have become as rare has hens teeth.
    On at least two moors in Nidderdale known raptor workers are followed by keepers. I once asked the head keeper on the main harrier nesting moor what sort of season we would have (it was february) he comment really says it all ” Nowt, you know what my instructions are as well as I do”
    Between 1970 and about 2000 about a dozen young golden Eagles have wintered in the Dales, mainly in Nidderdale, on discussing them with a grouse keeper who despite his job I got on with he said ” they come here for the winter and most never leave that is why there is still only one pair in the Lakes.”
    Persecution is routine on an industrial level the only rule is do not get caught, but the keeper takes the wrap if caught the owner, tenant or manager who instructs the keeper gets away scot free.
    We need to end this NOW.

  6. Stella ,that is a great idea you have come up with and i agree with all that you say,the one flaw is that it is the governments cronies that own the land and shoot on it,and they want it for their silly little traditional so called sport called grouse shooting,and its bugger the rest of us and what we want,we dont matter.

  7. What a great summary and coming at it from yet another angle to point out the undeniable truth.
    Yes we lost three golden eagles in Cumbria in the mid 1980’s to a keepered pheasant shoot as opposed to a grouse moor. The chances now of restocking from Southern Scotland is remote and a lonely male can only live out his days in hope!
    Can I echo the previous comments of gratitude to the tireless effort you put in, for your broad shouldered acceptance of the flack you get. Not enough of us are voicing that praise and gratitude but hopefully many of us are spreading the word, putting the petition under noses, setting aside the 10th August and getting into a good read of Martha.

    1. Mike – thank you. I need no thanks – it’s quite a lot of fun, really. But we can only make a difference, together, if there are lots of people doing their own thing, as you say, to spread the word etc. And you are – which is fantastic.

    1. Peter – very good. Although I have the trappings of a classical education I had to look that up. Very good indeed.

  8. Geltsdale had a Red Grouse shoot. Every year a syndicate would shoot Red Grouse unless numbers dropped so small it was not worth shooting and this only happened once in my time due to disease not predation. Over the years I was there the number of bops increased. In 1988 the Hen Harrier turned up to breed and produced 5 young. None of the local keepers were aware of this. In 1989 2 pairs tried to breed and sadly what happened is now history. Harriers were killed and even terriers put into a nest to kill the young to make it look like a fox. It is 25 years this year since that happened! The shoot carried on and shot Red Grouse until the RSPB bought out the shooting. The presence of bops played a big part in keeping the shooting going as disease was manageable. Now chemically treated grit is used to kill the worms responsible making no Red Grouse ‘Organic’. With game shops selling the Red Grouse do they tell the customer what they are eating with this chemical inside them?

    1. “Harriers were killed and even terriers put into a nest to kill the young to make it look like a fox.”. That’s an interesting comment – how do we know it wasn’t a fox? are there dna samples or some other evidence?

  9. Owners of the uplands constantly talk about making their land pay it’s way. Well instead of shooting grouse why not convert them to nature reserves and run them on a private basis. Charge people to visit,open visitor centres and cafes and conduct guided tours. I’m sure there are enough potential customers to make it viable.

    In the meantime please stop killing birds of prey. I like to watch them when they head over to my part of the country in the East Midlands during the winter.

  10. I like Chris Green’s remarks (above) about turning upland shoots into nature reserves. I have thought for some time that, with the huge increase in wildlife watchers that there has been, that this makes a lot of sense. Good keepers and stalkers need not be sacked, just retrained. I remember a couple of top-class men from the days I worked for The Nature Conservancy who had been redeployed as Wardens and they did wonderful work. There would still be need for some predator control in any case, as well as continuing management. The focus of the latter would of course be changed!

  11. Mark – Are you seriously maintaining that the reason there aren’t any successful harrier nests at Geltsdale is “because there aren’t any left!”?

    There are 11 active nests at Langholm this year. Langholm is only about 20-25 miles from Geltsdale. According to your former colleague Blánaid Denman the reserve at Geltsdale is “an area of prime hen harrier habitat” ( And yet not one of these harriers chose to nest there. Will you acknowledge that that’s not due to persecution? Isn’t it more likely to be attributable to the fact that the predation pressure from foxes in particular is pretty high at Geltsdale, certainly compared to Langholm? And isn’t it also likely to be due to the fact that, as we know, the hen harrier is a colonial bird, and so if a certain number have established themselves at one site, others are likely to follow? It’s certainly what we saw in Langholm 1, and historically it has lain behind the concerns of certain upland gamekeepers and grouse moor managers.

    Yes, the early results of diversionary feeding at Langholm – it was a very brief trial – were reasonably promising, although significantly it did not result in an increase in the number of grouse. And yes, the findings of the current demonstration project would suggest that diversionary feeding might be a useful management tool in mitigating the impact of harrier predation on grouse. As you know, it features as one of the provisions in Defra’s draft Recovery Plan, which I note you can’t bring yourself to refer to here.

    Oh, as regards buzzards at Langholm, it is not just the head keeper who is concerned about their possible impact (and not in terms of disturbance, incidentally). The directors of the project, which include the RSPB, and the Scientific & Technical Advisory Group, which comprises some of our finest (and independent) raptor ecologists, have agreed that there is merit in testing whether buzzards are disproportionately responsible for winter losses in the grouse population. Don’t you agree it makes sense to undertake such research now, for the sake of completeness, rather than leaving an unanswered question which respective parties would doubtless argue about once the project is finished?

    Mark, you were party to the decision that the RSPB should support Langholm 2. I’m sure you haven’t forgotten that one of its key objectives was to assist in the conflict resolution process. Notwithstanding the dismissive tone of your post, that remains as true today as it did when you signed up to it; it will obviously have been a factor in the deliberations that have led to Defra’s draft Hen Harrier Recovery Plan, (which the RSPB contributed to). Do you personally still commend the Langholm demonstration project, or do you now regard it as having been an error on the part of wishy washy liberal conservationists who were somehow fooled by (as you see them) the hard nosed lawbreakers of the shooting community?

    1. Lazywell – with three pairs of Hen Harrier in England this year, I am told, there are so many places that don’t have Hen Harriers compared with how many that do, that yes, it must be partly a matter of luck. Geltsdale was one of the last places to have Hen Harriers in England a few years back I can remember those days: dead hen harriers being found by RSPB investigation team nearby, film of a man in a balaclava shooting at Hen Harriers on land adjacent to the RSPB reserve (and missing) which led to a police investigation, poisoned Starlings being placed on the boundary fence… When persecution eases off, for whatever reason, then we will see how the Hen Harriers choose to fill up the vast areas of potentially suitable nesting habitat. If they don’t choose Geltsdale then you will be able to crow – to the RSPB not to me (remember, I don’t work there any more) – but then we’ll all be happy, won’t we? As we all love the Hen Harrier so much.

      Yes, I was very keen the RSPB should engage in Langholm 2 – and I’m glad that we did and they do.

      I have a book in draft – do you like it? It may be a bit difficult for you to say because it’s not finished, not agreed and you haven’t seen it.

  12. Delighted to hear that you still support Langholm 2, one of the express objectives of which is to restore it as a commercially viable driven grouse moor. How do you square that with your relentless campaign to ban driven grouse shooting?

    You imply you don’t know what’s in Defra’s Hen Harrier Recovery Plan, even though it has been well canvassed by the GWCT (eg and Martin Harper of the RSPB ( Indeed I see you have felt able to comment on the matter on his blog.

    But if you really want to see it, the remedy is simple; just sign this petition:

    1. Lazywell – you are such a card! Last I heard Langholm was in Scotland last I saw my e-petition applied to England. Do try to keep up, please! I’d like to see the results of Langholm 2 and I’d like to see driven grouse shooting banned. I suspect that I may see the former before the latter – but who knows? Just checked, and the e-petition is on 9391 – that’s pretty good isn’t it? What odds it’ll reach 10k by hen harrier day or the inglorious 12th?

      I’m sure you want to see my new book – but it isn’t finished, agreed or released yet so you’ll have to make do with A Message from Martha – do you have your copy yet? I can contain my excitement at the non-joint joint plan until it is agreed and released rather than leaked. It’s so difficult to rely on leaks. Then I’m sure I’ll have a view but I’d like to read it first.

      1. So are you against banning driven shooting in Scotland but in favour of it in England? That would seem a strange stance to take.

        “can contain my excitement at the non-joint joint plan until it is agreed and released rather than leaked. It’s so difficult to rely on leaks.”. I thought the petition was for defra to release the non joint non plan not leak it?

        Also I may not be understanding this properly but if there are only three breeding pairs in England – what percentage of our uplands are actually used for driven grouse shooting? If it was only say half then surely getting rid of driven shooting might not make a particularly big difference.

  13. It would be a great idea to buy up the land for reserves, rewilding, or sanctuaries, the problem is that the land is priced at market rates and it may not be possible for the public to raise the necessary funds. There is a pot of money in Scotland but I believe it stands at £6m which wouldn’t buy much. I’ll be very interested in the purchase of Saddleback to see if the public get that.
    I too am full of admiration for the people who have monitored this for years and watched this drawing out, it must be very difficult, but social media is your friend.
    My problem with Lazywell is that there is a basic assumption that we SHOULD have grouse shooting and we must therefore work to a compromise.
    The big thing Mark is doing – with some success – is creating a movement from the mass of us who had no idea this was happening and showing the government, private organisations and others that as a nation we do not want driven shooting on the land, and the idea that you can do whatever you want on the land if you own it – including break the law – is an idea that has had its time and is coming to an end.
    Thanks to Mark and others we now know the natural web is deep and complex. You cannot pick and remove pieces (and the landowners and gamekeepers know this) you either wipe out the species or live with the take.
    We can identify the dodgy science and bad decisions (badgers, raptors, beavers) and more and more people are realising we could have a much enriched environment.
    We all need to tell our rulers that we expect shooting to live with the take or be banned. Looks like the latter as we cannot bring them to the law. They really have had long enough.
    I am optimistic, although its easy for me because I am not picking up dead birds regularly and talking to people who have to poison, trap and snare to make a living.
    There is a grass roots movement now, slow to start but picking up momentum, across climate change, species endangerment and protection and environmental protection. The public are better informed, nature and birding reserves ever more popular and the press seem to be coming on board.
    I think driven shooting is in its death throes, I think the vast majority who have not been raised to believe this is a right, are making their voice heard.

      1. “land is priced at market rates”

        I wonder how much lead per hectare is allowed before land is declared contaminated. That might affect the tradeable value.

        Ways and means – Al Capone was jailed for tax evasion, remember

    1. The policy would of course be first to reduce the value of the land by legislating to make the existing businesses unprofitable and then to take the land.

    2. Eileen, it’s not just me that thinks we should retain driven grouse shooting (and I declare a personal interest, as I’ve never sought to hide). But the demonstration project at Langholm that I raised with Mark has been supported not just by those from the broader shooting community. Thanks to Mark’s involvement, the RSPB is a key funder and director of the project. And the British taxpayer has a direct interest too: in Scotland via Scottish Natural Heritage, and in England via Natural England.

      All these parties recognise the broader conservation and economic benefits that sustainable management for driven grouse shooting can bring, and in turn believe that the Langholm project can make a valuable contribution to the conflict resolution process.

      Yes, as Mark helpfully observed, Langholm is in Scotland, but the principles the project is exploring are applicable in England too and will have fed into the Defra plan, which, as no one has sought to deny incidentally, would result in a significant increase in hen harriers nationally. To have viable driven grouse moors AND more hen harriers must represent a win-win solution. The consequences of a complete ban on driven grouse shooting for our upland ecology and biodiversity would be devastating. Although Mark pooh-poohs it, the science is quite clear on that.

  14. Personally if we are going down the turn grouse moors into nature reserves, an idea I like as long as it’s not my local wildlife trust managing them ( that@s another story) Why pay for them just nationalise them with no compensation.

    Oh and I’ve looked at the plan Lazywell and the harrier density allowed before brood management is way way too low ( much lower than a natural density) and more to the point much much lower than the original work by Steve Redpath’s team at Aberdeen suggested could be supported without damage, so why should we accept it?. Also if this deal is to be a compromise why oh why must the conservation side accept a no damage to grouse shooting deal?
    If you want a real deal for the sake of good will lets see the designated number of pairs in the Bowland and North Pennine SPAs breeding successfully and unmolested in the next 3 years 7 and 11 respectively.
    If GWCT and BASC want to keep the idea that they are the good guys in shooting it is time that both came out and admitted that persecution is absolutely rife on grouse moors and must stop, otherwise they are in danger of becoming apologists for criminals like the CA, MA and NGO already are.

    1. Well indeed – and if the government wants to build a motorway where your property is – or a wind farm – or a nature reserve or some other perceived public good then why pay you the value of it? Why not just take it from you? If such behaviour was ok for the likes of Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot why should it not be acceptable here? People have after all appealed against personal purchase orders on the basis of the Human Rights Act – just taking their property away from them without giving them anything in return would certainly get around that problem.

      1. Comparing the

        The rest of this comment has been deleted as the ‘person’ making it was using a false email address.

          1. Murder is against the law. If people are murdering people they should be prosecuted for murder. Accusing people of crime without being able to prove it and then using state power to strip them and those around them of their assets is downright wrong. A lot of people thing travelling people commit lots of crime, others say the same thing about black people or muslims however as a civilised country we do not take action against groups of people on the basis of prejudice. If any one from any of those groups or any other group can be shown to have committed a crime they should be prosecuted but to lump everyone together on the basis of the actions of some is discrimination.

            Sorry to be such a liberal fuddy duddy but these things are important.

  15. In many many cases grouse moor owners have had huge payments through HLS as SSSI’s. In a sense we have al;ready paid them for their moors, much better than continuing to pay them to illegally kill protected wildlife, which it feels we’re doing currently.

    1. Paul the Government isn’t paying anybody to kill protected species. That’s blatant nonsense. Why can’t you argue on the facts rather than coming out with complete garbage?

      1. Sometimes Giles I do wonder about you. I did not say the gov’t were paying moor owners to persecute. However many of them get huge subsidies from the public purse (which were designed to support agriculture not shooting)
        The fact that they get these subsidies coupled with the facts, which suggest that most persecute protected raptors, I said it FEELS LIKE we are paying them to persecute. Not the same thing at all.
        As to taking the land off them may be we should use the proceeds of crime act.
        A friend once ( actually several times) told the story of trespassing whilst birding and being accosted by the landowner. They asked the landowner how he came to own all the land? He answered that his ancestors had fought for it. At which point one of the birders took his coat off and said “in that case I’ll fight you for it now.”
        I’ve had keepers and landowners threaten me with violence, slashing my car tyres, being shot by mistake, telling me I did not have access to a piece of land which was nothing to do with them when I did have permission and been followed on and off moors by vehicles full menacing characters so if I’m less than sympathetic to paying for their moors perhaps you will understand.

  16. “Why pay for them just nationalise them with no compensation.”

    “Of course the grouse moors and hill farms should be removed from the criminals that currently run them and it would be completely wrong for the taxpayer to have to spend even one penny to achieve this”</i?

    Anti's in not understanding principles of Article 1 Protocol 1 EHCR Shocker….

    1. I’m not comparing it to genocide that would be absurd but these people are basically fascists. The principle is quite clear – we have laws but we can’t prove that rouse moor owners are breaking them. if we could do then we could and should prosecute them. That’s how the rule of law and liberal democracy is meant to work. So what do we do? Simple – label an entire group of people ‘criminals’ – they aren’t and try and get the government to forcefully remove their property and clear them from large swathes of the country. If the government actually did that it would be an act of civil war.

      And what is it Mark and his lunatic friends in LACS want me not to do? I don’t kill deer, foxes nor hen harriers or any other bird of prey, I’ve never burnt or drained any moorland however it is crucially important that when I drive deer out of woods I MUST kill them all and if I drive grouse out of heather I must not shoot them but I can walk a grouse up.

      Stuff that! If this law gets passed I will personally head up to the moors and get someone to drive a grouse towards me and have a pop at it. I’ll report myself to Mark and he can try and persuade the police how the fact that someone drove the grouse towards me means that a hen harrier has died or whatever it is.

      My bet is that the police will just ignore both him and me.

      With laws as idiotic as these wildlife crime becomes more that a right – it becomes a duty.

      1. giles – I don’t know about my lunatic friends, but sometimes I wish you’d just shut up!

        1. That’s because you are intelligent enough to know when I have a point Mark and you don’t like it.

          I really will break your law 🙂

          1. giles – you flatter yourself. Your opinions splurge over this blog in a tide of ‘and here’s another thing’ – I doubt many people read them all because of that. I have to.

          2. No doubt a

            The rest of this comment has been deleted as the ‘person’ making it was using a false email address.

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