Ahead of the Glorious Twelfth the Scottish Raptor Study Group has produced a ‘Moorland Myths Busters Guide’ for six of the most popular myths held within the driven grouse shooting sector.
- ‘Game bird licensing is unnecessary
The failure of the intensive end of the game shooting industry to operate within the law over 60 years has led the Scottish Government to propose that game bird shooting licensing should be considered, along with other measures in an effort to eradicate the illegal, endemic and widespread killing of raptors. Licensing would set out clear standards required for this land use in the public interest, as applies also in other areas of natural resource management such as for water, wild fisheries and deer management in Scotland. No industry should rely on law-breaking to exist. Self-regulation has been given more than a chance to succeed and has not delivered and in the circumstances it is right that the Scottish Government should act in the public interest. . The concept is simple, if shooting estates abide by the law then no one has anything to fear, break the law and you stand to lose your licence to shoot. The only threat to livelihoods is from those individuals who are willing to take a chance and break the law. Any suggestion that a dead raptor or illegal trap could be ‘planted’ by a third party to make an estate lose a licence is simply scaremongering – there would have to be a clear evidential link to estate employees being responsible for any offences before a licence withdrawal could be considered.
- ‘Incidents of illegal killing are declining’
The number of confirmed cases of persecution fluctuates markedly from year to year so comparing results between years is statistically invalid, particularly when the number of cases found will represent only a small but variable proportion of the actual number of crimes being carried out – the ‘tip of the iceberg’. A more robust means of identifying trends in persecution is to look at regional or national population studies of birds of prey, where a significant weight of peer-reviewed science reveals a more accurate picture. For example, recently published scientific reports on red kite, peregrine, hen harrier and golden eagle all provide clear evidence of populations constrained well below natural levels in areas where red grouse shooting is the predominant land use. The recently-published study on satellite-tagged golden eagles, commissioned by the Scottish Government, showed a similar pattern to recent raptor persecution cases, with a third of young tagged golden eagles disappearing on, or close to, land managed for intensive grouse shooting. Few of these birds were found, so they will not appear in any published statistics.
- ‘Grouse moor management is good for a wide range of bird species’
In much of eastern and southern Scotland, heather moorland is intensively managed to maintain a patchwork of a variety of ages of heather to help create the ideal habitat for red grouse. However, most driven grouse moors are managed with the sole purpose of producing an unnaturally high abundance of grouse to be shot, and on many of them any species which is perceived to pose a threat to this is removed. Potential predators are killed, either legally (e.g. stoats, weasels, foxes, crows and magpies), or illegally, protected birds of prey. While legal predator control can undoubtedly protect a variety of ground-nesting bird species, such as curlew and golden plover, the overall bird and mammal fauna present is often impoverished. However, with some estates now employing methods, such as the use of gas guns, to deter ground nesting birds of prey, it is likely that wader species will equally be deterred from nesting.
- ‘Raptor populations are increasing’
In the last 30 years or so, several raptor species have enjoyed a recovery in their fortunes following decades of persecution. These include buzzards, now common in the lowlands, and ospreys that have seen significant investments in nest protection schemes. Other species have been aided by reintroduction programmes, such as red kite and white-tailed eagle. On driven grouse moor areas, however, hen harrier, peregrine and golden eagle remain well below optimum numbers, and in some areas are now regionally extinct, with persecution being the main cause. The Scottish hen harrier population declined by 22% between 2004 & 2010, and by a further 9% between 2010 & 2016.
- ‘Conservationists want to bring an end to bird shooting’
So long as game bird shooting remains a legitimate activity i.e. it is conducted within the law and sustainable environmental management practices are employed, there is no conservation reason to stop it. What clearly needs to end is the illegal activity and environmental destruction apparently deemed necessary to maintain the intensive driven grouse shooting industry, and this is at the heart of the so-called ‘grouse/raptor’ controversy. Environmental damage includes the bulldozing of hill tracks; the burning of heather on active blanket bog and deep peat deposits which releases carbon into the atmosphere; the drainage of blanket bog habitats to promote heather growth which dries out peat and increases run-off after periods of heavy rain, risking flooding elsewhere in the river catchment area; and the unregulated slaughter of the mountain hare. An aspect rarely mentioned is the ‘accidental’ by-catch in traps of song birds and mammals such as wildcat and pine marten. Similarly, the widespread use of lead, long since banned in petrol, and paint, but still widely utilised in shotgun ammunition, creates environmental pollution and detrimental sub-lethal effects in scavenging birds and mammals.
- ‘Jobs are at threat’
There is no reason why legally undertaken jobs should be threatened by licensing grouse moors and if shooting estates really believe that livelihoods are at risk because of adherence to the law then the question arises: ‘is the business sustainable’ either legally, financially or morally? In a speech to the Scottish Raptor Study Group’s conference in February 2017 the Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform made the point that predation of grouse is a business risk that must be accepted and managed within the law. The strongest foundation for a secure and thriving rural economy in the future is a broad-based approach to land use, which optimises all of its natural assets, including birds of prey. The illegal killing of birds of prey and other unsustainable management practices prevents other rural development opportunities from being explored and realised, including wildlife based tourism, and selfishly denies local communities and visitors alike the right to enjoy seeing birds of prey in the Scottish countryside. Licensing grouse moors is an important step towards eradicating illegal persecution of birds of prey and creating a more balanced and healthy natural environment, with all the recreational and economic opportunities for Scotland that could arise from this.