Grouse Moor Management Group: report

Report to the Scottish Government from the independent Grouse Moor Management Group which looks at the environmental impact of grouse moor management practices and advises on the option of licensing grouse shooting businesses.

1. Executive summary

In May 2017 the Scottish Government’s Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, Roseanna Cunningham, announced the setting up of an expert group to look at managing grouse moors sustainably and within the law. This had been triggered by the publication of Analyses of the fates of satellite tracked Golden Eagles in Scotland (Whitfield & Fielding, 2017) a report by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), which recorded that 40 out of 131 young Golden Eagles had disappeared in suspicious circumstances over the period 2004-16, mostly in locations on or adjacent to grouse moors.

Our report represents the findings of that expert group on grouse moor management. It is divided into seven sections with one appendix and four annexes. Following an Executive Summary (Section 1), the main body of the report comprises background and context (Section 2), options for regulation (Section 3), summaries of scientific evidence (Section 4), recommendations (Section 5), proposals for the increased control of specified activities and associated recommendations (Section 6), and ends with an itemised list of all the recommendations (Section 7). An Appendix lists the arguments in favour and against licensing the shooting of grouse and four Annexes provide a list of published sources used in compiling the report, an account of how the review was conducted, a list of abbreviations used throughout the report, and a glossary.

The Review Group comprised six experts reflecting a broad and relevant set of interests – grouse shooting and estate management and academic research. This core membership was augmented by four Specialist Advisers chosen to widen the Group’s overall competence. The Group met on eighteen occasions between January 2018 and July 2019, mainly at the Royal Society of Edinburgh, but also took evidence in the field from a variety of grouse shooting estates and one estate managed by a conservation charity. Evidence was gathered from specialist knowledge provided within the Group and its Specialist Advisers and augmented by contributions (both written and oral) from outside specialists. This was designed to gather as wide-ranging and balanced a view as possible on the key issues. Responses to a questionnaire circulated to key stakeholders provided further evidence, as did oral hearings with nine experts who collectively represented a wide spectrum of views on grouse shooting. In compiling the report we became very aware of significant gaps in key data: most notably the relationship between the recorded and actual number of incidents of illegal killing of raptors, current numbers and population trends of Mountain Hares and the socio-economic impacts of grouse shooting. The last issue is the subject of a separate Scottish Government study whose phase 1 findings we have noted.

Key findings from the review

1. Range of available regulatory systems

A wide range of regulatory mechanisms is available for improving the management of grouse moors. These range from self-regulation, financial measures and prohibition, through to licensing or permitting systems often involving Codes of Practice. Such measures are not mutually exclusive and can be adopted in a variety of combinations depending on the level of intervention sought and the practicalities of their implementation. Ideally any newly introduced regulation should accord with the principles of Better Regulation and be transparent, accountable, consistent, proportionate, accessible, effective and targeted only where needed. In addition to regulation, better management can be promoted by accreditation schemes in which, rather than punishing bad behaviour, good behaviour is rewarded. Codes of Practice are already used in the management of grouse moors as a guide to best practice but with few legal sanctions for non-compliance. If such Codes are to ‘have teeth’, they need to be better integrated with one another and incorporate legal controls to the limits of acceptable behaviour beyond which sanctions can be applied.

2. Scientific evidence underpinning greater regulation

Raptor predation and persecution

Raptor numbers across Britain were greatly reduced in the 19th-early 20th centuries with five species eliminated altogether. Over recent decades numbers have substantially increased but most species still do not fully occupy their potential range. This is locally attributed to illegal killing, especially in some grouse moor areas. The major predators on grouse (Fox, Stoat, Weasel and Carrion/Hooded Crow) are routinely and legally killed on grouse moors leaving birds of prey as the principal remaining predators. The Joint Raptor Study on Langholm Moor showed that, in sufficient numbers, Hen Harriers can reduce the densities of grouse to such low levels that driven grouse shooting is impracticable. This may also to be true for Peregrines in some areas. During the subsequent Langholm Moor Demonstration Project, with mammalian predators and diseases controlled, 82% of the grouse kills found were attributed to raptor predation or scavenging. After nine years, the project was terminated as the grouse did not achieve sufficient numbers to be shot on a commercial driven basis. In an attempt to reduce grouse predation by raptors we are not convinced that, applied on a wide scale, diversionary feeding is a cost-effective management tool as the known and potential disadvantages out-weigh the advantages, although others disagree.


A favoured management tool for centuries, muirburn comprises the controlled burning of vegetation to provide young, more nutritious shoots for grouse and other species, and to destroy regenerating trees, thereby maintaining open moorland. Muirburn is currently regulated by the Scottish Government’s Muirburn Code designed to promote best practice and minimise the likelihood of detrimental impacts. Given the absence of a robust system of monitoring compliance, it is not currently possible to assess the effectiveness of the Code which has few statutory provisions. In addition to the above impacts, muirburn affects biodiversity, soil stability and hydrology. Both positive and negative effects on all these components of the system have been recorded – in general terms most positive effects of muirburn have been recorded in dry heathlands and most detrimental effects in wet heaths and peatlands. Fires of greater intensity appear more likely to have detrimental effects, but there is much disagreement in the literature and many knowledge-gaps. The relationships between muirburn and wildfires are also poorly understood and the subject of current scrutiny. Given the increased risk of intense, damaging wildfires under climate change, it is critically important to introduce comprehensive muirburn monitoring and ensure compliance with best practice, underpinned by robust scientific evidence, to minimise risk of damaging effects and address potential benefits such as the reduction of fuel loads.

Mountain Hares

Mountain Hares are fairly widespread in Scotland and strongly associated with heather moorland, including areas managed for driven grouse shooting where their populations are sometimes harvested and controlled. The number of hares shot during the open season is not regulated, but land managers are expected to exercise restraint, in view of obligations under the EC Habitats Directive. The Mountain Hare is on the Scottish Biodiversity List with the UK Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) report to the EU for 2013-18 reporting Mountain Hares as being in an “unfavourable-inadequate” conservation status. The current lack of a standardised method for counting Mountain Hares, coupled with no mandatory formal monitoring of populations, makes determining the conservation status of Mountain Hares problematic. All published estimates of Mountain Hare numbers in Scotland to date are at least partially based on ancillary data and primarily non-hare-specific surveys. In terms of the impact of sport shooting on hare populations, it is widely assumed that the numbers of hares killed for sport shooting probably have a limited effect on Mountain Hare conservation status – an assumption that cannot currently be tested on the very limited evidence available. There is no substantive evidence to support the population control of Mountain Hares as part of tick and/or Louping Ill virus control to benefit Red Grouse.

Medicated grit

Cyclical fluctuations in grouse numbers with peaks every 6-9 years caused by the presence of the strongyle worm in the gut can be suppressed by the use of quartz grit coated with the wormer flubendazole. Introduced in 2007, this medication enables grouse numbers to be maintained at a consistently higher level than hitherto. The use of medicated grit is controlled by the Veterinary Medicines Regulations 2013 with Guidance Note 13 on the use of Cascade and the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981. When used correctly, flubendazole has proved highly effective in reducing endemic strongyle worm levels in grouse guts with residues in food for human consumption presenting a very low risk. The dosage supplied to birds must be determined by a veterinary prescription reflecting the current worm burden in the grouse in terms of health and breeding success. Not all estates routinely determine worm burdens: some use medicated grit as an insurance and others continue to treat worms against perceived wider risks to the grouse population from weather, predators and tick-borne disease. Land managers must also ensure that no drug is ingested 28 days before the grouse are harvested. There is some evidence that prescription levels are too high, that gritting holidays are not always observed, and that grit may not always be withdrawn from grouse at least 28 days before Red Grouse enter the food chain. At present there is little evidence of a resistance problem with the use of medicated grit, but there is some evidence that flubendazole is toxic to aquatic organisms.

3. Option of licensing grouse shooting

Licensing is widely seen as an option for regulating grouse shooting and is specifically included in the remit for the review. The lack of an agreed definition of the term ‘grouse shooting businesses’ as referenced in our remit means that, should licensing be introduced, a clear target must be identified. Licensing can be used to control specific activities such as muirburn to control their potential adverse impacts, or to provide wider oversight of the activity of grouse shooting, which is a driver for these specific management activities and for illegal killing of raptors. In promoting the more sustainable management of grouse moors, licensing schemes represent one possible approach for stronger regulation of muirburn, the management of Mountain Hares and the use of medicated grit. If licensing were to be introduced, SNH should be the licensing authority using procedures allowing for both individual and general licences (as currently used for the control of corvids) and with scope for any initial licensing scheme to be amended as required in response to changing conditions, behaviour, knowledge and understanding of risk. In terms of enforcement options, SNH should have powers comparable to those available to the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) which provide fixed or variable monetary penalties to be imposed as an initial response, but with the potential to escalate to criminal prosecution in the event of serious, deliberate or persistent breaches of the law.

4. Recommendations

All recommendations on licensing are based on scientific evidence and with due regard to the contribution that grouse shooting makes to the rural economy in sparsely populated areas. On whether or not to introduce licensing for the activity of shooting grouse, the Group was evenly split (with arguments for and against detailed in Appendix 1). In light of this, and with the Chair choosing not to exercise a casting vote, we unanimously recommend that a licensing scheme be introduced for the shooting of grouse if, within five years from the Scottish Government publishing this report, there is no marked improvement in the ecological sustainability of grouse moor management, as evidenced by the populations of breeding Golden Eagles, Hen Harriers and Peregrines . This recommendation, whilst science-based, also reflects values and opinions that differ across members of the Group. Ultimately, whether or not to license the shooting of grouse is a political decision. We further recommend additional regulation for the land management practices of muirburn, managing Mountain Hares and the use of medicated grit. For muirburn we propose licensing; for the management of Mountain Hares we propose increased legal regulation; and for the use of medicated grit we propose a voluntary Code of Practice. Should the proposals on Mountain Hares and medicated grit prove ineffective, we further recommend that all three land management practices be licensed. Should the above recommendations on licensing be accepted by the Scottish Government, the resulting SNH register of grouse shooting activity would fill a major evidence gap.

In addition to the specific recommendations on licensing and increased regulation, we make a wide range of other recommendations arising directly from the summaries of scientific evidence (Section 4) and other information gathered during the review. Issues covered in these recommendations include new and enhanced Codes of Practice, training for land managers on relevant land management activities and the promotion of best practice via an accreditation scheme. In terms of incentives, we recommend that a wider range of moorland management activities become eligible for Rural Payments and Inspections Division (RPID) support. The illegal killing of raptors is targeted via a series of recommendations which include: more thorough regulation of the fitting and use of satellite tags coupled with more expeditious sharing of information; and enactment of proposals in the 2015 Wildlife Penalties Review Group on levels of fines and custodial sentences, alternative penalties and sentencing guidelines. To support our specific recommendations on the use of muirburn, management of Mountain Hares and the use of medicated grit, in Section 6 we also explore in detail how these recommendations might be made operational.

A consolidated list of our recommendations is provided in Section 7.



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