When I accepted the invitation from the Scottish Government to lead an expert review on grouse shooting, I had not fully appreciated the complexity of the issues involved, the passion with which contrasting views were held nor the length of time the review would require. In responding to that invitation two years later I owe a significant debt to the other five members of the Grouse Moor Management Group (Alison Hester, Alex Jameson, Ian Newton, Mark Oddy and Colin Reid), the four Specialist Advisers (Susan Davies, Calum MacDonald, Adam Smith and Des Thompson) and the Secretary to the Group (Karen Rentoul). All these individuals contributed to lively and robust discussions that informed my thinking and helped draft much of this report. I thank each of these individuals for their energy and commitment to this challenging task.
Grappling with the evidence in terms of raptor and upland ecology, environmental law, wildlife law and related police and judicial procedures, veterinary science, the socio-economics of Scotland’s moorland, and much more besides, has proved a major challenge. But the opportunity to assemble a robust evidence-base on the key issues via written and oral evidence from many of the leading authorities and individuals working in this area has exposed me to a whole new literature which I have found both stimulating and thought-provoking. As a geographer and field scientist, I especially enjoyed and valued the opportunity to visit a variety of estates where grouse shooting occurs and, in one case, where re-wilding is under way.
In retrospect, although we have attempted throughout to be evidence-led, it is striking how many significant evidence gaps remain and how much of the fundamental science is contested. Especially problematic has been the tension between the ‘expert’ knowledge of scientists reported in peer-reviewed sources and ‘local’ knowledge held by practitioners based in the field. Even projects designed to clarify the position, such as those at Langholm, have left a contested legacy. Our remit invited us to make recommendations to reduce the illegal killing of raptors but at the same time to give due regard to the socio-economic contribution that grouse shooting makes to Scotland’s rural economy. Both topics have proved complex and problematic. Confirming the scale of the illegal killing of raptors is challenging and such criminal activity admits to no easy resolution. The socio-economic contribution to the rural economy of grouse shooting in isolation is very poorly understood, as are the consequences of any potential changes in land use.
In terms of proposing more sustainable land management practices that underpin the shooting of grouse (muirburn, managing Mountain Hares and using medicated grit) evidence-based recommendations are both more readily available and more robust. For each of these land management practices, we are agreed on enhanced or new regulation which we see as transparent, accountable, consistent, proportionate and targeted only where needed. These properties underpin other recommendations in the report.
But our main recommendation on the licensing of grouse shooting proved more contentious. Because the evidence-base is so heavily contested, reaching a unanimous recommendation was fraught – personal opinions and values intervened. But we did agree that any decision on licensing is ultimately a political one in which wider societal views also need to be taken into account.
The Group was evenly split on whether or not to license grouse shooting. When, as Chair, I sought to exercise a casting vote in favour of the immediate introduction of licensing, this was contested by two members of the Group. In order to have a unanimous recommendation on this key issue with the authority that implies, the Group proposes a five year probationary period for specified raptors on or near grouse shooting estates to recover to a ‘favourable’ conservation status. Should this target fail to be achieved, then licensing should immediately be introduced. In that situation we all agree that licensing is the only way forward – a significant advance in terms of the debate given the wide spectrum of views within the Group and beyond. Ultimately, whether and when to licence grouse shooting are political decisions that rest with the Scottish Government. I hope this report will contribute to and inform that decision.
Chair: Grouse Moor Management Group