2. Policy Background
Grouse shooting in Scotland
The sport of shooting red grouse on heather moorlands is unique to the UK and has occurred since the mid-19th century. A ground nesting bird, the red grouse is fast and agile, and is considered to provide a testing game shooting opportunity. Today, productive grouse moors are mainly found in Scotland and the North of England, where moorlands are actively managed at different intensities by gamekeepers to provide these wild birds with favourable breeding and rearing habitats. Specific management activities include muirburn, predator control and the use of medicated grit to improve grouse health (Moorland Working Group, 2002).
There are three types of grouse shooting: driven, walked-up, and over pointers. Driven grouse shooting is the most intensive form and accounts for the majority of commercial grouse shooting in Scotland. The grouse shooting season runs from 12th August to 10th December each year. Unlike some other game birds, red grouse cannot be reared in captivity, meaning their numbers vary considerably between years, with weather, habitat, disease and predators all having potential impacts on numbers. Successful grouse rearing years provide greater opportunity to engage in shooting activities.
Multiple benefits from moorlands
Scotland's Land Use Strategy promotes an integrated approach to land management, with woodland regeneration, biodiversity conservation, carbon sequestration and recreation encouraged in moorland areas alongside traditional sporting activities (Scottish Government, 2016). Therefore, there is increasing pressure on land managers to deliver multiple benefits from moorlands, including the public benefits that these areas provide.
There have been questions raised about the positive and negative impacts of grouse shooting on biodiversity and other public benefits. While grouse moor managers and collaborators are taking active steps to reverse the decline of wading birds in Scotland, concerns generally focus on large-scale culls of mountain hares on grouse moors, muirburn and the persecution of raptors. It is particularly the latter that has generated emotive reactions from the general public, conservation organisations and campaigners, and led to increasing pressure on politicians to address the issue.
There has been a growing public and political concern relating to the disappearance of golden eagles in Scotland. In 2016, the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform asked Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) to report on the issue. In May 2017, SNH published a commissioned report that studied the movements of 131 young golden eagles over a 12-year period, finding that more than 40 had disappeared in suspicious circumstances. The majority of cases were found to have occurred on or near to (within 2km) land that was managed for driven grouse shooting (Whitfield and Fielding, 2017). Indeed, in summer 2019, further, significant attention was brought to the disappearance of two golden eagles in Perthshire, with more calls being made for political action to regulate grouse moor management.
When the SNH report was published, the Scottish Government specified the intention to establish a group (the Grouse Moor Management Group – GMMG), with a remit to look at "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" (Scottish Government, 2018). In the same month, the Cabinet Secretary also announced commissioning of research into the costs and benefits of large shooting estates to Scotland's economy and biodiversity. A related Programme for Government commitment (2017-2018) also confirmed that a research project would be commissioned on the topic, alongside "work in relation to protecting gamekeepers' employment and other rights" (Scottish Government, 2017).
These announcements by the Cabinet Secretary focused specifically on driven grouse shooting. The GMMG, chaired by Professor Alan Werritty, began its work in November 2017 to "ensure grouse moor management [driven and walked-up] continues to contribute to the rural economy while being environmentally sustainable and compliant with the law". During the working life of the GMMG, 'Phase 1' of this research into the socio-economic and biodiversity impacts of driven grouse (Brooker et al., 2018a) was completed and the GMMG considered the results. The GMMG's final report and recommendations to Scottish Ministers was published in December 2019 (GMMG, 2019).
This 'Phase 2' of the socio-economic and biodiversity impacts research, along with the study of gamekeepers' rights, provides new evidence that addresses some of the knowledge gaps identified during the Phase 1 research and in the evidence collated by the GMMG.