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.

2. Background, terms of reference and context

The Red Grouse flying fast and low over open moorland is the ultimate test of a hunter’s skills and reactions. From the mid-19th century onwards it became the most prized quarry for those who shoot game and, for the season opening on 12th August (the Glorious 12th), continues to attract many visitors each year to Scotland from other parts of the UK and abroad. Red Grouse are not ‘produced’ under the rear-and-release system used for lowland game birds. Accordingly, grouse moors are managed to raise grouse densities to a level that will yield a ‘sustainable surplus’ for shooting. This involves heather burning, predator control, disease management using medicated grit, and tracks for improved access; in the past, it also involved land drainage. In recent years, the sport of grouse shooting has attracted an increasingly polarised debate. Some claim that grouse moors provide a significant contribution to the rural economy, providing both employment and income in areas where alternatives are scarce. Others identify a link between raptor persecution and grouse moors and claim that the associated land management practices are environmentally damaging. Less contentious are the various benefits that arise from protecting open heather moorland including the associated biodiversity, evidenced by some moorland birds and other mammals.

Why the need for a review?

For many years conservation groups have reported the number of raptors over grouse moors to be lower than expected. It was inferred that in at least some estates predator control included the illegal killing of raptors. This inference is supported by the frequent finding of poisoned baits and poisoned birds, traps and other signs of illegal activity. Some of the land management practices necessary to sustain a viable grouse shoot – in particular muirburn and the use of medicated grit – have also been challenged as being potentially damaging to the environment and in the latter case, possibly affecting the food chain. Shooting of large numbers of hares on some estates has also received much attention in the media. The actual definition of a ‘viable’ grouse shoot has also been debated, and there is widespread acknowledgment of substantial investment of private income in ‘driven’ grouse shooting.

In May 2017, following the publication of SNH’s report Analyses of the fates of satellite tracked Golden Eagles in Scotland, (Whitfield & Fielding, 2017) which recorded that 40 out of 131 young Golden Eagles had disappeared in suspicious circumstances between 2004 and 2016, mostly in areas of grouse moors, the 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. She confirmed that, in response to a request from the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee, the group would also advise on the option of licensing grouse shooting businesses. In the same ministerial statement the Cabinet Secretary announced that she would commission research into the costs and benefits of large shooting estates to Scotland’s economy and biodiversity. This research has since been reported in the Scottish Government’s Socio-economic and biodiversity impacts of driven grouse moors in Scotland (Thomson, McMorran & Glass, 2018). The Review Group much regrets the delay in commissioning phase 2 of this research anticipated to produce more authoritative and precise estimates of the socio-economic benefits of driven grouse moors. As a result, the task of balancing the issue of tackling wildlife crime with the contribution that grouse moor management makes to the rural economy has proved very difficult.

In January 2018 an expert group was set up comprising:

  • Professor Alan Werritty, University of Dundee (Chair)
  • Professor Alison Hester, James Hutton Institute
  • Mr Alexander Jameson, independent consultant
  • Professor Ian Newton, formerly Centre for Hydrology and Ecology
  • Mr Mark Oddy, independent consultant, Chair of the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project
  • Professor Colin Reid, University of Dundee

The expert group, subsequently referred to as the Review Group, was assisted by the following Specialist Advisers:

  • Ms Susan Davies
  • Mr Calum MacDonald
  • Dr Adam Smith
  • Professor Des Thompson

The Specialist Advisers were appointed on the basis of their knowledge and expertise on issues arising from the Review Group’s remit. In undertaking this task, they should not be seen as reflecting the views of their present or past employers.

Secretarial and administrative support for the work of the Group was provided by Ms Karen Rentoul (SNH).

Terms of reference

The terms of reference for the Review Group were:

To examine the environmental impact of grouse moor management practices such as muirburn, the use of medicated grit and mountain hare culls and advise on the option of licensing grouse shooting businesses. In doing so it will look at what can be done to balance the Government's commitment to tackling wildlife crime with grouse moor management practices, so that this form of management continues to contribute to our rural economy, while being sustainable and compliant with the law.

The Group was also invited to consider other topics relevant to grouse moor management, referred to it by Government, or raised by the Chair. At its first meeting the Group reviewed its terms of reference and explored whether or not to expand them to include the draining of grouse moors and the expansion of tracks across grouse moors. It was agreed that the original terms of reference were appropriate and that extending them further ran the risk of diluting the primary focus of the review.

During its deliberations, the Group took evidence from key stakeholders from various organisations and conducted a questionnaire survey to canvass the opinions and experience of a wide range of interested parties. The Group also visited a number of grouse moors to see their management at first hand. A more detailed account of these activities, and of how the Group undertook the review, is given in Annex 2.

Organisation of review and structure of the report

The report is organised into seven sections with one appendix and four annexes:

1. Executive Summary

2. Background, context and terms of reference

3. Options for regulation

4. Summaries of scientific evidence on raptor persecution and predation, muirburn, Mountain Hares, and use of medicated grit

5. Recommendations

6. Increased control of specified activities and associated recommendations

7. Recommendations: consolidated list

Appendix –

1. Licensing grouse shooting: arguments in favour and against

Annexes –

1. List of published sources

2. Account of how the review was conducted

3. List of abbreviations

4. Glossary

Having explored the context for the review, the remainder of this introductory section examines a number of key issues explored in more detail during the review process:

  • Definition of a grouse moor
  • Extent of illegal practices
  • Impact of wider changes in land use and habitat
  • A ‘natural’ landscape?
  • Complexity
  • Conflict
  • Inconsistency
  • Need for clarity and focus
  • Fragmentation

The succeeding sections (3 to 6) are ordered in a sequence that moves from examining options for regulation, through the science needed to underpin regulation, to specific recommendations on new forms of regulation and ways in which these recommendations might be enacted.

Section 3 explores a wide range of regulatory approaches for grouse shooting businesses ranging from education and persuasion through to licensing and permitting systems. Options considered later in the report are then outlined: no change to existing legal regulation; improving the effectiveness of existing law; direct prohibition; Codes of Practice; financial incentives and licensing. Section 4 then summarises four areas of science specifically related to our remit: raptors and predation, muirburn, the management of Mountain Hares and the use of medicated grit. The summaries of the scientific evidence in these areas, coupled with our evaluation of a wide range of regulatory options, underpin the main recommendations of the Group itemised in Section 5. Selected recommendations in the report relating to muirburn, the management of Mountain Hares and the use of medicated grit are then examined in greater detail in Section 6. This section concludes with recommendations on the use of traps and training for estate managers and their staff. Section 7 provides a summary itemising all the recommendations.

As noted in Section 4, the Group relied on a wide range of materials in compiling its evidence-base including written sources. For stylistic reasons and to ease reading the report, it was decided generally not to quote references in the text but to list them, itemised under appropriate headings, in Annex 1. In accordance with normal practice, legal sources (both national and international) are not referenced as these are readily accessible via the internet. Throughout the report we have adopted the convention to capitalise the names of individual species (e.g. Red Grouse), but to use lower case when the reference is generic (e.g. grouse populations).

Context for the review


From the 1750s onwards the sport of ‘walked-up shooting’ emerged. Grouse were flushed, often by dogs, and shot using muzzle-loading guns providing both food for the table and outdoor exercise – a form of grouse shooting that with modern guns continues to this day. In 1831 the Game Act confirmed the landowner’s exclusive right to take grouse and other game on their land, thereby incentivising management with the aim of enhancing habitat, reducing disease and predation pressure and thus producing sustainable and more consistent bags. From the 1850s onwards, with the invention of the breech-loading double-barrelled shotgun, the manner in which Red Grouse could be shot changed radically. Now the shooters could fire at more frequent intervals as the birds were driven towards the stationary shooters in a line of butts, thereby giving rise to ‘driven grouse shooting’. This is now the dominant mode of grouse shooting and, with appropriate management, yields more consistent and sustainable bags than had previously been possible.

The popularity of grouse shooting and associated bags has varied markedly since the 1850s reflecting changing demand and the profitability of alternative land uses, notably sheep-grazing or plantation forestry. Bag sizes per unit area peaked in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, declining during the First and Second World Wars when gamekeepers were away on war service. Recovery to 1974 was followed by a decline from which some moors have more recently returned to bag sizes at late 19th century levels. But in general, since the late 19th century, the area of moorland managed for shooting grouse has declined. Where this has occurred, heather has tended to give way to grass under more intensive sheep-grazing and to new tree plantations. An example of the significant decline in the number of grouse moors is in South West Scotland where the more than 100 properties that shot grouse before 1914 were reduced to a handful by 2019. Similar pressures resulted in the complete disappearance of driven grouse shooting in Wales. By contrast, the Northern Pennines grouse moors have long reported much larger bags than in Scotland. Where there is still open land, heather restoration is possible if grazing is restricted, but as the Langholm Moor experiment has demonstrated, this can be an expensive and lengthy operation, especially if the aim is to re-establish a functioning grouse moor. The range contraction of 11% for Red Grouse in Scotland reported by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) between 1970 and 1990 is attributed to increased grazing pressure, tree-planting, reduction in the numbers of gamekeepers and an increase in the numbers of predators. As a consequence of these pressures, for estates that continue to provide driven grouse shooting, a pre-shooting target of at least 150 to 200 grouse per km2 is considered desirable. This can only be achieved by actively managing grouse and their habitat as a sustainable wild bird ecosystem.


Uplands cover around two thirds of Scotland’s land area, with almost 15% of the land area being heather-dominated moorland – the ideal habitat for grouse and a EU priority habitat of which 75% is found in the UK. The Scottish Moorland Group estimates that less than 7% of Scotland’s land area has some component of grouse moor management. Grouse moors are typically found on hills on which heather grows well on the drier flanks but less well on the blanket peat and wetter summits. The dominant easterly distribution of grouse moors in Scotland reflects the optimal combination of hills with a climate and geology that favour both heather and grouse. Effective predator control is an integral part of grouse management. This practice can also benefit some other species – most notably waders such as Curlew, Golden Plover and Lapwing which can be locally abundant; and Mountain Hares, for which the combination of predator control, good food source (young heather shoots) and cover (older heather) is considered highly beneficial. Black Grouse and ground-nesting raptors (Hen Harriers and Merlins) can also benefit. Predator control can have agricultural benefits where lamb losses are reduced; but predator control on isolated grouse moors can be more difficult on account of the continuing influx of predators from surrounding areas where the predators are largely left undisturbed. Other management activities associated with grouse moors also impact on the ecology of these and neighbouring areas, as detailed later in the report.

Socio-economic impacts and alternative land uses

Obtaining robust and reliable estimates of the contribution made by grouse shooting to the rural economy has proved difficult. The most recent and detailed summary of past research to date is the Scottish Government’s report Socio-economic and biodiversity impacts of driven grouse moors in Scotland (Thomson, McMorran, & Glass, 2018). However, the authors urge caution in interpreting their key findings as they are derived from a narrow evidence-base in which data collection was inconsistent. In addition, the lack of a definitive data set based on a representative sample of estates engaged in grouse moor management makes it impossible to extrapolate the findings to the whole sector. Despite these qualifications, the report states that, on the basis of the existing database, in 2009 the grouse moor sector supported around 2,640 FTE jobs (both direct and indirect) with £14.5 million spent on wages, grouse moor management and support services. This yields a total Gross Value Added £23 million contribution to the Scottish economy annually, concentrated in rural areas where there are considered to be few other economic opportunities. More recent data collected by the Scottish Moorland Group suggests that more intensively managed estates have an average annual wage bill of £210,000 and support suppliers (often rurally located) with around £515,000 of annual expenditure. Income from grouse shooting varies greatly reflecting the mix of private versus commercial shooting and whether the shooting is walked-up or driven. Active moorland management practices can increase the annual grouse bag enhancing the capital value of the estate (£5,000 per brace in capital terms). In assessing the socio-economic contribution of grouse shooting to the rural economy it must be recognised that grouse moor management and shooting are often only one part of a much more diversified and closely integrated business enterprise. Differing land management activities may be undertaken on the same piece of ground and staff also partially deployed elsewhere for activities unrelated to grouse shooting.

As part of our evidence gathering activities, the Group undertook its own survey of the economic impact of grouse shooting based on 16 estates, 13 driven and 3 walked-up. We had access to very detailed account information for which we thank the participants. The key findings were:

  • Only one grouse enterprise made a small profit; all the rest were loss-making and reliant on substantial private investment;
  • The average investment (revenue and capital) was £183 per ha across the estates. This compares with a typical sheep farming business of £50 per ha, but which includes approximately £25 per ha of public subsidy;
  • On the 16 grouse moor estates that provided information, the average labour unit was 1 FTE gamekeeper per 704 ha, compared one FTE shepherd per 4,046 ha;
  • Capital expenditure, often high in the first 5-10 years, can make significant contributions to the local economy;
  • On driven grouse moors, the employment of casual labour to help with the shooting activities can be significant to the local economy, often employing up to 100 casual staff over the whole season with approximately 30 employed on each day of shooting throughout an average season.

Finally, analysis shows that post-breeding grouse density on driven grouse moors is less than half on Scottish moors compared with those in England. The last five-year averages were 143.4 grouse/per 100 ha Scotland, 316.4 grouse /per 100 ha England (2014-18).

Several recent attempts have been made to quantify the socio-economic impacts of alternative land uses on moorland areas. On some estates, these focus on re-wilding and conservation measures largely underwritten by funds provided by the landowner or by the members of environmental NGOs. In order to be economically viable, other alternatives, such as farming, forestry and renewables often rely heavily on public payments in the form of grants or subsidies. For these alternative land uses other factors such as biophysical constraints (e.g. for farming, forestry and woodland management, wind energy and housing) and regulatory controls (e.g. for wind farms, forestry and woodland management) mean they can only be developed where they are either permitted (planning and related controls) or viable (biophysical constraints). Extrapolation of the value of these alternative land uses across Scotland’s moorland requires careful regard to be given to these various constraints. At present, as a result of grants or subsidies, the afforestation of moorland, where feasible, is more profitable for the owner than retaining the moorland for Red Grouse. The majority of grouse moor enterprises are not profitable but still contribute significantly to the local economy even in a season when there is no shooting. Grouse shooting is seasonally inconsistent and generally loss making and as a result is more vulnerable than other more profitable land uses to any negative changes in the natural or regulatory environment.

As a result of the delayed Phase 2 Report on alternative land use options, the Group cannot definitively compare alternative land uses to grouse moor management. However, the economic contribution from grouse moors undoubtedly makes a valuable contribution to some remote local communities. The long-term private investment attracted by grouse moors, and willingness to bear financial losses, is unlikely to be repeated for other activities. Unlike other upland land uses, neither grouse shooting nor deer stalking are subsidised from the public purse. According to some members of the Group, if grouse shooting were subject to a licensing scheme, it may become fragile and face an uncertain long-term future. Re-wilding can make a useful contribution, but in terms of geographic coverage or national economic contribution this is not currently considered to be a realistic alternative, at least in the short-term. But this could change based on the current growth in this type of activity in Scotland.

Key issues underpinning the review

Definition of a grouse moor

A major challenge in undertaking this review was the lack of definition of a ‘grouse moor’ and the absence of official information on the number of estates on which grouse shooting occurs. We estimate that the current number of grouse shooting estates in Scotland is around 120 but note that this includes great diversity in both the size and level of investment in individual grouse shooting businesses. We welcome the publication of grouse butts density maps in the Socio-economic and biodiversity impacts of driven grouse moors in Scotland part 3 report (Matthews, Miller, Mell & Aalders, 2018). These maps derived by a GIS analysis of the presence of shooting butts provide the first spatially referenced record of intensity (but not area) of driven grouse shooting across Scotland. We note that the strip muirburn maps produced by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) also provide an important indicator of the extensive presence of grouse moors (driven and to a lesser degree, walked-up). The lack of accessible records of grouse shooting enterprises continues to hinder the collection of key statistics on both their environmental footprint and their contribution to local and national economies.

Extent of illegal practice

In undertaking our review a key issue was whether or not criminal practices are widespread across grouse shooting estates. Against the general background of regulation that applies more widely, including the killing, injuring and disturbance of raptors, specific activities which are illegal are undertaking muirburn outwith the designated season or without giving due notice to neighbouring estates, and using medicated grit contrary to the Veterinary Medicines Regulations 2013. At present few convictions arise from these actions prohibited by law on account of difficulties in obtaining the necessary evidence to support a prosecution. This is especially true for the illegal killing of raptors. Although the number of convictions has declined since the turn of the century, there are strong grounds for inferring higher levels of persecution than is apparent from the current number of convictions. The number of detected poisoning incidents has declined, but it is alleged that offenders are resorting to shooting, especially at night (aided by improved and readily available night-vision equipment) and being more thorough in the disposal of carcasses and other evidence.

Impact of wider changes in land use and habitat

The Red Grouse is one of many key species on Scotland’s moorlands whose population level is subject to wider changes in land use and habitat. Major drivers for such change include government policy and the impacts of climate change. In terms of the former, Scotland’s forest area is projected to increase to 21% by 2032 (by planting an additional 15,000 ha per year) and it is planned to restore 250,000 ha of degraded peatland by 2030. Both targets are likely to generate significant changes in moorland use and habitat with effects on the numbers and coverage of grouse moors. Other policies potentially impacting to a lesser extent on grouse populations are the Scottish Government’s land reform agenda, progress towards biodiversity Aichi targets and encouragement of more outdoor recreation. Climate change (higher temperatures in summer and winter, increased winter rainfall but decreased summer rainfall, and more frequent and more extreme rainfall events) is already impacting on Scotland’s moorlands and wildlife. Likely effects specifically on grouse populations include:

  • Direct impacts of severe wet weather on grouse clutches and broods and indirect effects resulting from reduced foraging time;
  • Loss of plant and invertebrate food if blanket bog and other habitats dry out in the drier summers;
  • Increased risk of wildfires adversely affecting vegetation and peat soils;
  • Loss of some moorland edge areas as changing climate conditions permit their more intensive agricultural use;
  • Greater risks of some wildlife diseases notably helminths and vector-borne diseases transmitted by increasing populations of ticks.

A ‘natural’ landscape?

Heather moorland – admired by tourists in high summer when the hills appear to be covered in a purple haze – is not the natural vegetation on much of Scotland’s hill country. Within the climatic ‘forest zone’, much of Scotland’s heather moorland is the product of centuries of burning and other management, initially through deforestation and fire (some of it natural), and then for the grazing of livestock (sheep, cattle and goats) and, since the mid-19th century, also for the shooting of grouse. Relaxation of this active management, allowing the vegetation to revert to natural forest would likely yield a different landscape over much of Scotland from that of today’s open moorland. In some locations natural regeneration of the native woodland up to the former tree line is already well under way with consequent gains and losses for species diversity dependent on different habitats. The moorland landscape associated with grouse shooting is thus largely a ‘cultural’ landscape in which muirburn alongside other management activities are essential for its perpetuation.


Against this complex background, the increased public awareness of certain management practices – predator control, culling of Mountain Hares, building or upgrading tracks to improve access and the introduction of medicated grit – and especially the associations made between raptor persecution and grouse moor areas, combine to result in the debates over the benefits or otherwise of grouse shooting being highly contested. In terms of ecology, many species in addition to grouse (notably waders) benefit from prevailing management practices, while predators do not; but many smaller impacts are less well understood. The paucity of robust, scientific evidence on the environmental and socio-economic impacts of many of these management activities has been one of the most striking findings in this review. Given this imperfect understanding of key factors that determine the impacts of grouse shooting – in ecological, economic, social and cultural terms – it comes as no surprise that this complexity makes for an often highly heated debate, in common with debates over the impacts of many land management practices or extractive uses of natural resources (e.g. fishing). Overlaying this is the issue of ‘values’ – what is deemed environmentally unacceptable to some is viewed as beneficial to others. Values set the tone and fabric of much of the debate around the evidence-base, and we are mindful of this. What is environmentally sustainable can depend on the values attached to ‘nature’ and biological science and the elements within economic and socio-cultural appraisals.


Taking evidence from the published literature, plus answers to our stakeholder questionnaire and oral responses from invited experts, exposed us to the passion and conflicting views held by protagonists on both sides of the debate. This was vividly apparent in the rhetoric used by those who would ban grouse shooting outright and by those for whom the status quo with minor adjustments is considered to be all that is needed. Such language coupled with the use of social media has exacerbated commitment to entrenched positions on both sides of the debate. It has also inhibited the realisation that alternative views can be both credible and evidence-based. This stand-off also needs to be placed within the context of the perception of a lack of sympathy for the sector by successive governments post devolution.

As already noted, gaps in the scientific evidence and the contested nature of much that has been published – most notably the tension between the expert knowledge of scientists versus the local knowledge of gamekeepers and other land managers – further intensifies the debate. Another key issue is the apparent conflict between findings reported at a local/regional scale and those at the national scale. Thus, Golden Eagles, whilst recovering well at the national scale, are under-represented in those parts of their range containing grouse moors. Whilst we have sought to be as thorough as possible in our review of the available evidence (see Annex 1), significant gaps remain, as the science summaries below demonstrate. Throughout we have sought to make our recommendations evidence-led, but in places we have had to exercise collective ‘expert judgment’.


In taking evidence, we have also been aware of many inconsistencies, both at an individual and corporate level, that conflate key aspects of the debate. Thus, the impression is that the public’s view of different species may, for example, favour Hen Harriers on open moors, but have qualms about Sparrowhawks feeding at bird-tables. Within wildlife law there is internal inconsistency in the range and level of penalties that can be imposed and in relation to the need for corroboration, and further inconsistency when comparisons are made with the regulatory and enforcement structures available in other areas of environmental law, e.g. to SEPA. Under current EU support for farming, state financial aid for agriculture and forestry is both extensive and well established. By contrast, moorland estates have recently had only limited support for their farming activities via agricultural subsidies and Agri-Environment schemes. Regulation of the shooting of game birds should also be more sensitive to the contrasts between lowland shooting and grouse moor shooting. The former mainly involves the use of birds that have been reared in captivity, in some ways treated as an agricultural product. The latter involves managing land to produce a shooting surplus of wild birds each year, albeit with medication administered to these wild birds. Within conservation law, there can also be difficulties in responding when management of a species in need of protection poses a threat to other species in a more precarious position (e.g. Pine Martens predating on Capercaillie) or the increasing abundance of a formerly rare species gives rise to conflicts with other priorities.

Need for clarity and focus

As noted in SNH’s Review on Sustainable Moorland Management (Werritty, Pakeman, Shedden, Smith & Wilson, 2015, p. 4) “there is no shared vision or strategy for Scotland’s moorland, beyond that enshrined in legislation and Government policies, and there is a sense of stasis in thinking and ambition over how to develop a programme to sustain Scotland’s moorlands”. There is clearly a need to develop a shared vision collectively across key stakeholders, linking with other initiatives both general (e.g. land reform policy, forestry strategy) and specific (e.g. the forthcoming report of the Deer Working Group).


Fragmented provision of regulation bedevils the better management of grouse moors. Guidance in terms of Codes of Practice and Best Practice exist: specifically the Scottish Government’s Muirburn Code; Scotland’s Moorland Forum’s Moorland Management Best Practice which contains advice on Mountain Hare management and worm control; and a range of guides from the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) and the British Association for Shooting and Conservation. Much of this guidance is voluntary and includes very few actions prohibited by law. Because these codes are largely voluntary there are also no duties placed on a public body to monitor compliance. Co-ordinated Codes of Practice with clearly defined responsibilities on grouse shooting estates and a designated public body to monitor compliance is urgently needed. Where legal controls apply, they are again fragmented, with EU measures playing an important part in relation to wildlife and the legislation subject to many amendments over the years making it difficult to keep track of the current provisions.



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