Scotland's grouse shooting estates are waging a war on wildlife that must stop – Robbie Marsland

The Scottish Government now has the chance to stop the killings of vast numbers of animals – from foxes, stoats and mountain hares to hedgehogs and thrushes – carried out by the grouse shooting industry, writes Robbie Marsland.

Thousands of mountain hares are shot because it is thought they may spread ticks that affect grouse, says Robbie Marsland (Picture: Phil Wilkinson)
Thousands of mountain hares are shot because it is thought they may spread ticks that affect grouse, says Robbie Marsland (Picture: Phil Wilkinson)

Over 15 months, a professional surveyor spent 128 days walking 404 square kilometres of land on seven Scottish shooting estates. As he walked, he counted, photographed and recorded the GPS position of traps and snares that were deployed to kill foxes, stoats and weasels. The data from the survey was sent to a recently retired professor of environmental science at Bristol University for analysis.

The analysis revealed that between 120,000 and 260,000 animals are killed each year by these devices in Scotland alone. The analysis also revealed that the more an estate was intensively managed for the shooting of grouse, the more intensive was the killing.

The Scottish Government has a chance to show that they want to end this killing when they respond to a report from the Grouse Moor Management Review Group. Due in the autumn, this response will be able to reference the results of our survey and announce what steps it plans to make to end the circle of destruction that surrounds grouse moors, including the killing of hundreds of thousands of animals so that more grouse can be shot for “sport”.

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The League Against Cruel Sports Scotland commissioned the survey and published the analysis of the data and a summary report, ‘Calculating Cruelty’. The Scottish Gamekeepers Association reacted to the report with scurrilous attacks on the professor who did the analysis, describing, without any explanation, his work as “back of fag-packet calculations and wild extrapolations”.

The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), advisers to the shooting industry, had a more measured response. They pointed out that a new type of trap had recently been introduced that made our report “out of date”. They also said that the wide range of management practises on shooting estates made extrapolations “questionable”. Finally, they denied that the purpose of all the killing was for the benefit of increasing numbers of grouse to be shot.

Heather burned, hares shot, ‘pests’ destroyed

There is a circle of environmental, social and wildlife destruction that surrounds Scottish grouse moors. For an extremely modest return of around £23 million a year, vast swathes of Scotland are managed to produce a surplus of grouse to be shot for sport in the four months after 12 August.

“Managed” in this context mainly involves destruction. The heather is burned, often on deep peat, to provide better habitat for the grouse. Medicated grit is left out in the open in the hope that it will protect the grouse from worms. No one knows what impact the medication has on other flora or fauna. Unplanned tracks and roads scar the landscape and make it easier for the shooters to get about. An average of 26,000 mountain hares are shot each year because it is thought that this protects the grouse from ticks (although there is no science to back this up). Anything that threatens the grouse is described as a pest and destroyed. Hence the huge deployment of effort against foxes, stoats and weasels.

So, what of those comments by the GWCT? Firstly, the introduction of a new type of trap is immaterial. A better way of killing hundreds of thousands of animals so there can be more grouse to shoot is not a solution. It is a distraction from the main event. So too is the suggestion that the variety of levels of management intensity make extrapolation “questionable”.

Of the seven estates surveyed, they ranged from one highly intensively managed estate all the way down to two that were practically unmanaged for grouse. And finally, the suggestion that the circle of destruction surrounding grouse moors is done for the benefit of all ground-nesting birds, and not just to increase grouse numbers, tests credulity.

Hedgehogs and birds among the collateral damage

The survey reveals that around 40 per cent of the animals found in traps and snares were “non target”, such as hedgehogs, thrushes and dippers. This could be described as “collateral damage”. If so, the impact on other ground-nesting birds could be described as a “collateral benefit”. It is no surprise that when you manage land to increase the number of grouse, a ground-nesting bird, other ground-nesting birds also do well.

But do they? It looks like we are heading into the third “poor year for grouse shooting” in a row. Weather conditions are said to have been bad for the grouse and “sporting bag numbers” (the numbers of grouse shot) are feared to be very low this season. Before this survey was done, no one knew the extent of predator control on Scottish shooting estates. But we did know that it had all the chances of being a “free for all” because there is no duty on anyone to report to anybody on the number of animals being killed. Our 15-month survey was the first quantitative study of a very sizable proportion and range of shooting estates. We may not have the resources of the shooting industry but we have this data. It seems strange that they try to cast doubt on our survey but they cannot come up with their own number of animals being killed each year.

At the end of the day, I think it is unconscionable to kill just one animal to make sure that there are more other animals to kill for “sport”. It’s important to remember that our reports only looked at traps and snares. We still don’t know how many other foxes and crows are shot each year. I was on a grouse moor the week before the start of the season and the ground was routinely littered with spent shotgun cartridges – each representing a dead animal.

Fag packets and wild extrapolations aside, it seems clear to me that there is a war against wildlife going on in our highlands and the Scottish Government now has the chance to stop it.

Robbie Marsland is director of the League Against Cruel Sports Scotland

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