Problems of social justice and animal welfare trump any number of positives about grouse shooting, writes Robbie Marsland.
Best estimates suggest that almost 20 per cent of Scotland is a grouse moor. In recent years, these moors have come under increasing scrutiny.
The scale of wildlife crime, most notably the killing of eagles and hen harriers, has led a concerned Scottish Government to set up the Werrity Commission to review the activities on grouse moors and how this interacts with the environment and local communities.
The Commission’s brief is wider than raptor persecution and covers many of the issues of concern to Revive – a unique coalition of environmental, animal welfare and social justice organisations questioning the role grouse moors play in 21st century Scotland.
The Werrity report is expected “in the spring” and we await their conclusions with some interest. Another Government-commissioned report into the “Socio-Economic and Biodiversity Impacts of Grouse Moors” was released at the beginning of this month, produced by the James Hutton Institute and others.
As with most issues to do with grouse moors, the report laments the lack of independent publicly available data to back up any findings. It also notes much of the data that is available is “self-selected” by the grouse shooting industry and has a “self-reporting bias”.
Some of that data doesn’t exactly help the grouse shooter’s cause. It was thought – again using industry figures – that the average wage of the 2,500 or so people working on grouse moors was around £11,500a year – less than the minimum wage.
However, the new Government-commissioned report says that only £14.5 million is spent on wages. That’s equivalent of a lamentable £5,800 a year.
If the workers are being poorly paid, the report points out that land agents estimate that each additional brace of grouse shot on an estate increases the capital value of the estate owner’s land by £5,000.
So the more grouse that can be raised and shot has a direct bearing on estate values. This confirms the Revive coalition’s opinion that the intensification of grouse moor management is aimed at maximising the numbers of grouse to be shot. This can lead to grouse population densities at around 100 times their natural state. This is achieved by the removal of anything that threatens the grouse – except of course, the people who pay to shoot them for entertainment. Foxes, stoats, weasels, and crows are ruthlessly targeted with snares and traps. Medication is left out in the open in the hope it will protect the grouse from worms. Lead shot litters the countryside and protected birds of prey continue to mysteriously disappear.
And an average of 26,000 mountain hares are killed each year. Those who shoot the mountain hares say they need to because they either spread disease to the grouse or they “over graze” the heather that is the staple food of the grouse.
There is no scientific data to support either reason and the Socio-Economic and Biodiversity report explicitly backs this up. The Scottish Government, at the highest level, has made it clear that it finds this annual killing repugnant and that it intends to stop it.
That was a year ago after Revive coalition members drew public attention to film of one such cull in the Cairngorms. Now that their own commissioned report confirms that it has no utility we look forward to swift Government protection of mountain hares.
Then we have the vexed issue of muir burn, where huge swathes of heather are set on fire to make life better for the grouse and so increase their numbers.
The Socio-Economic and Biodiversity report sits on the fence on this issue, mentioning “positive and negative impacts” and the lack of data on the impact the burning has beneath the ground.
The report also recommends more research into the levels of the heat intensity of the burning. It does, however, note that there are examples of grouse moors where muir burn is not practised and raises the question if it is needed at all.
Despite the report agreeing with the recent Common Weal report that grouse shooting provides a terrible return on investment – especially taking into account the scale of land used – it also casts doubt on possible alternatives. The Revive coalition contests those doubts.
In general, the report, as it should, looks at the “positives” and “negatives” and often declines to make a firm recommendation as there is not enough independent data.
From the Revive coalition perspective, there are two elements missing from the “negative” column. These are social justice and animal welfare. That almost 20 per cent of Scotland has such a tiny comparative benefit to local communities so that a small number can shoot wild birds for entertainment are two “negatives” that we believe should trump any number of positives.
And we are not alone. Benchmark polling commissioned by Revive in Scotland shows that there is already a close majority against grouse shooting and that only 0.25 per cent of Scots eat grouse more than two or three times a year.
Grouse moors are used to intensive management. Let’s see how they stand up to intensive scrutiny.
Robbie Marsland is director of the League Against Cruel Sports Scotland