Rewild our trashed hills

Patchwork of upland heather moorland on grouse shooting estate, northern Scotland, northern Scotland
Patchwork of upland heather moorland on grouse shooting estate, northern Scotland. Photo: scotlandbigpicture


I think anyone looking at the landscape above would be hard-pressed to call it ‘natural’. It is drained and burned – and it has tracks running all the way through it. It’s the burning that creates that patchwork of different colours – patches of heather that were burned in different years according to a strict plan.

Such management is done solely for the unsporting sport of shooting Red Grouse for fun. That’s the only reason for it. Burning has other consequences, mostly bad but some, as always, good, but it’s done so that a few people can shoot a lot, an awful lot, of Red Grouse.

It’s only in the ununited UK that the habitat of the Red Grouse/Willow Grouse/Willow Ptarmigan is manipulated to such an extreme so that a very few people can spend their money and free time shooting grouse for fun.

The land is drained because heather, the main food of the Red Grouse, likes relatively dry conditions, and the grouse moor manager wants lots of heather so that there can be lots of Red Grouse.

Wherever you see that pattern of land use (go on Google earth and have a look round the North York Moors, Yorkshire Dales, Durham Moors, Lammermuirs, Deeside and Donside) you can be pretty sure that a war is being waged against natural predators such as foxes, stoats, weasels, crows etc because each of these species might reduce the numbers of Red Grouse available for shooting after the 12 August (The Inglorious 12th).

And you can be pretty sure that there will be piles of medicated grit placed at hundreds of places across a view like this one – grit that the Red Grouse will eat to aid their grinding up of heather. Medication is added to the grit to kill off parasitic worms that infest the grouse at very high densities – and the grouse moor manager is aiming for very high densities so that paying clients will pay a lot, often thousands of pounds, for a day shooting.

And you can also be pretty sure, in a view like this, that there will be very few birds of prey such as eagles, falcons and harriers, because they eat Red Grouse too, and although every grouse moor may not be committing wildlife crimes there is enough illegal persecution of protected birds of prey to wipe them out from most grouse-moor dominated areas.

So that is what I see when I look at a view like the one above. It’s a thoroughly unnatural landscape – one that has been subjugated to just one aim; that of shooting a wild bird for fun.


Should we look to the concept of re-wilding for a better future for these uplands?  Now rewilding means different things to different people, but at the heart of it is letting nature do what it wants to do a lot more than we do at the moment. It’s an unfamiliar way of thinking to many, but one that is growing in standing all the time as we learn that the management we impose on habitats often has unintended and harmful consequences for wildlife, but also for us.

By Photo: Andreas Praefcke (Own work (own photograph)) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Andreas Praefcke, via Wikimedia Commons
Clearly another unnatural landscape, like this wheat field, has a very obvious and pretty useful product – food!  We all need to eat, and our food has to come from somewhere, and that’s what agriculture delivers for us. We ought to look at the means of food production to make them as efficient as possible but also as sustainable as possible. We need to test insecticides and herbicides, be wary of GM crops unless shown to be safe, reduce soil erosion, cut down on water pollution and reduce flood risk from overdrained or compacted soils. We ought to do all of that: we do some of that; but there clearly is a bit of a trade-off between causing harm and producing food. I’m one of the last people likely to let the farming and agrochenicals industries off the hook on environmental damage, but it would be unrealistic to think that there won’t be any at all. [And our unfortunate Brexit will open up the possibility of doing this much better ourselves – but will we take it?]

But go up into our hills, and look at a grouse moor and you are seeing a landscape intensively managed not for food but for the ‘fun’ of killing things.  There we ought to take a much harder line with any bad environmental consequences. And there are lots!  The intensive management necessary to produce ridiculously high numbers of Red Grouse for shooting also causes increased greenhouse gas emissions, increased flood risk, increased water treatment costs and reduced aquatic biodiversity.  And, of course,  less wildlife in the shape of anything with a hooked beak!  And you tell me if those geometric shapes caused by burning look pretty to you.

So on grouse moors we have a ‘sport’, killing birds for fun, which causes environmental damage. Surely there is a better way forward?

And that’s where rewilding comes in. If we did far less burning, less drainage and less killing of predators then we could shoot fewer grouse – but how many grouse have you ever shot? And how many have you ever eaten?  No, it wouldn’t harm your life much would it?

In return we would have fewer homes flooded (and so we would all pay lower home insurance), less water treatment costs (which would lead to many of us paying lower water bills to Yorkshire Water, United Utilities, Severn Trent etc), there would be more fish in the rivers (so you could go fishing) and we could thrill at the sight of Golden Eagles in England as well as much more of Scotland (remember, Scotland and England/Wales/NI will be separate countries soon – you didn’t dream it – you’ve got to get that thought straight in your head).

And what would this rewilded landscape look like? Quite like Scandinavia where they don’t go in for this ‘intensive grouse shooting for fun’ pastime. There would be undamaged blanket bogs laying down peat and storing carbon, blocked up drainage channels so that flash floods were reduced, more trees would spread up the valleys and onto the moors and there would be a much more varied selection of wildlife for you to enjoy. And there would be plenty of Red Grouse too – but they wouldn’t be the dominant species.  Now that doesn’t sound scary does it?

Why are our National Parks completely dominated by grouse shooting with all the environmental damage it causes?  Why can’t you see a rewilded Peak District or a rewilded North York Moors?  The long list of damaging consequences of intensive grouse shooting should make every decision-maker, every water customer, everyone living downstream of a grouse moor and every environmentalist keen on rewilding and demanding that we shift the balance from grouse shooting for fun for the few, towards rewilding for the benefit of the many.

Here’s one way to do that – please sign this e-petition to ask for a debate over the future of driven grouse shooting. Over 45,000 people have already signed up – they’re really wild about it!

Red Grouse (Lagopus lagopus scoticus) adult male calling - close-up portrait. Scotland.
Red Grouse (Lagopus lagopus scoticus) adult male calling – close-up portrait. Scotland. Photo: scotlandbigpicture




12 Replies to “Rewild our trashed hills”

  1. Richard Murphy on Twitter: “The gov’t pays grouse moor owners to …
    29 Dec 2015 – Richard Murphy · @RichardJMurphy …. The gov’t pays grouse moor owners to drain their glorified chicken runs. It’s proles downstream who get …

    Is Murphy coming over the horizon on this one? Perhaps he’s already arrived?

  2. I asked about this at Mark’s talk in Oxford in what now seems like the far distant past. I’m generally in favour of rewilding (and I certainly don’t think much of grouse shooting!) but I’m not sure how we transition into this glorious future of wild uplands.

    The primary driver behind driven grouse shooting and all that comes with it is financial, ie you make a lot of money from letting people shoot stuff on your land. I can’t imagine that the people who run these businesses are going to say “Well I guess I’ll just stop trying to make a profit of this land and charitably turn it over to the conservationists who stopped me making my money”. On top of that the flagrant disregard for wildlife law would suggest to the cynical (myself included) that a part of the problem here is an underlying lack of respect for the environment.

    My non-rhetorical question therefore becomes: how do we go from ex-grouse moors to well managed uplands, and how do we ensure the owners don’t continue wildlife persecution just because they feel it’s their right to?

    Whilst I am in principle in favour of a ban (and have signed the petition) it does seem to me that this might be more successfully achieved through licencing – if that can be assumed to come with the required levels of enforcement. This might at least allow current practices to be killed off before trying to progress to a better, more natural, future.

    All in all, a very nice vision, I just fear it won’t be achieved without a change in the mindset of the owners in addition to any other measures.

  3. BUT and this is a huge but that almost everyone, including the conservation sector are trying to ignore land is not just about food (or grouse). In fact, much of our land has far higher economic values for other uses, currently widely ignored, most obvious and pressingly water management, especially flooding. The single minded belief in food production is a key factor behind flooding our cities – as, of course, is stripping the uplands of vegetation. But beyond that is the added problem that most people – led by economists – have great difficulty with the idea that one piece of land can do more than one thing at a time – for example, providing ecosystem services, a place for wildlife and for recreation, with primary production – timber, wheat, even game birds – as subsidiary but valuable values. I am amazed that, in contrast to re-wildling, the work of the Natural Capital Committee goes virtually unreported in the conservation media. A game changer when published, it has suddenly become hugely important as the triple lock the CAP imposed on our farmed landscape (all 70% of the total country) is broken.

    And, as for the uplands, where does the money come from ? Well, that is simple – as Inglorious points out public subsidy paid on Grouse moors theoretically for farming roughly equals the total economic benefit of Grouse shooting. its not commercial, its a welfare payment and you are paying for it ! For much of upland farming the subsidy is greater than the farms take home income. What that means quite simply is that if farmers stopped farming (rewildling) they could actually earn more real money from less taxpayers money.

    But will it happen ? Iain Duncan-Smith was asked about all that money going to the NHS from our European money. Will it all go he was asked ? Well most of it he said, but there’ll be a bit for agriculture. On present form that isn’t a bit – its at least a third and – this is beyond belief – According to George Monbiot Duncan-Smith’s family receives a cool £150,000 a year from CAP. maybe that should be capped – £50,000 perhaps ? A kings ransom to most who voted leave. Or £40,000, the Tory limit on child benefit ? Or perhaps £20,000, the upper limit on welfare benefits ? Unfair, arbitrary ? Well Iain would know all about that.

    1. Roderick – yes indeed. More on this from me later today and also later this week. But i agree with you.

  4. RSPB Request

    Mark, like me and many other readers of this blog, you will have just received the latest request for funding.
    For those that haven’t, I’m referring to the Landfill Communities Fund which allows them to turn every £1 you give into £10.
    It’s a good one. Who of us would not be tempted into giving a little knowing that it can be turned into a lot for wildlife.
    The letter is signed by Martin Harper.
    Maybe this is a good time for members to ask the RSPB to do more for our upland wildlife.
    Since blackmail has now been made legal in this country by our dear Chancellor, should we be sending donations on the proviso that the RSPB do a little for us?

    If you are thinking of donating to this worthy cause, may I suggest that you also include a letter to Martin Harper asking him to promote the DGS e-petition.

    ‘Together we can do 10 times more for nature’

  5. I think ‘rewilding’ is a bit of a misnomer as we are not going to go back to a primordial wilderness anywhere in the UK. However re introducing natural processes and mimicking others can obviously be a valid conservation tool. I do this in my little woodland by using the hunting action of dogs on deer to mimic some of the natural effect of wolves.

    Monbiot’s charity Trees for life are doing something similar – but using people. Obviously dogs are gong to mimic wolves better than people.

    1. I think both George Monbiot and Alan Watson Featherstone, the latter being the founder of Trees for Life (not George) would like the charity to be associated with the activities that it carries out, and not with any one person.

      Using dogs to disturb deer could be considered illegal under the Hunting Act 2004 and Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002, and that is probably why TfL use humans to substitute for the ecological function of wolves.

  6. Of course Moor Burning could be used in some circumstances as a ‘rewilding’ tool because upland landscapes would naturally burn from time to time.

  7. What a rewilded upland landscape would – or should – look like depends on the type of soil. On peat soils there would indeed need to be blanket bog and appropriate vegetation. But on the non-peat (mineral) soils which cover much of our uplands, there would be an opportunity to recreate upland native forest or (at higher altitude) montane scrub – so much ecologically richer than the “pink desert” of heather monoculture (actually a brown desert for much of the year).
    There are a number of such initiatives, particularly in Scotland, including the wonderful Carrifran project.
    There remains the issue of who pays for this and the local economy, but as your previous correspondent pointed out, there is the issue of the very valuable ecosystem services that uplands provide and which intensive management can undermine. Currrently, for instance, water companies are paying tens of millions of pounds annually to remove the brown discolouration from drinking water that the eroded peat caused by burning and drainage brings about.
    But how do you capture that value and distribute it where it’s needed?

  8. Hi mark and all the other contributors to this thread. I believe the simplest route to achieve an end to the driven grouse / raptor persecution conundrum and start rewilding is reallocation of subsidy payments from paying tenant farmers to keep livestock ie sheep, to only paying them not to keep any livestock. Now I know there would be problems with this approach and doesn’t prevent burning but without grazing valleys would wood themselves relatively quickly, also heather without consistent nibbling would grow ranker quicker and need burning more regularly driving up shoot management costs and making driven grouse shoots less financially viable. This approach has two major advantages, it needs no change in the law (introducing a ban on DGS would be very hard there are lots of vested interests in both the commons and lords), and it could be trialled on a relatively small scale (20,000 acres)outside of national parks in say the North Pennines ANOB. Deer overpopulation would be a problem but lets deal with one thing at a time and currently sheep numbers vastly outweigh deer on managed grouse moors. What do you guys think am I being overly simplistic? I would love to get some thoughts, cheers Ed Parsons

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