Grouse moors | licencing slaughter

We’ve covered the iniquities of the grouse shooting industry many times on this website. Too many for a full recap, perhaps, but here are links to our main criticisms of what amounts to the slaughter of over half a million grouse a year, the destruction of countless native predators in traps and snares, illegal raptor persecution and poison baits, and the burning of internationally-scarce habitats. All so that a few people can spend the day in the uplands and in our national parks ‘enjoying’ a hobby that epitomises an outdated mindset and is ethically inexcusable.

All of which is a prelude to a short discussion on the current fashion amongst some campaigners and conservationists for ‘licencing’ grouse moors.

List of dead Hen Harriers. Copyright David Mitchell (aka Mr Carbo)

Licencing? Licencing is touted as a way of controlling all this chaos and dead wildlife. It would, apparently, involve a shoot obtaining an operational licence from a regulator which would, at minimum, have conditions attached mandating the shoot follows wildlife and environmental protection codes of practice and laws. Where there is evidence suggesting that a shoot has failed to follow those conditions the licence can be withdrawn, even if the evidence pointing to criminality is less than sufficient to merit criminal proceeding. So the idea is that shoot operators would be granted licences which can be revoked in the event of wildlife crime or ecological damage.

Which sounds sort of reasonable, but let’s think about it for a moment. The grouse shooting industry has turned vast areas of the uplands into grouse farms from where they sell Red Grouse to shooters. Virtually no other wildlife survives in these treeless monocultures. Conservationists that back licencing are essentially saying that’s okay, and that it’s okay to kill up to 750,000 wild birds (Red Grouse) for ‘sport’. At the same time they are legitimising the ‘legal’ killing of countless numbers of foxes, corvids, stoats/weasels, and other animals to support that ‘sport’. And importantly they’re saying that having killed millions upon millions of grouse and other native animals, having committed wildlife crime for decades, trashed SSSis and burnt internationally-scarce habitats, estate owners shouldn’t be stopped but offered licences to keep going? Offered something that not only permits all this slaughter and habitat destruction but makes it bloody official!

This way (in our opinion anyway) lies madness. What negotiator goes into a discussion with people who avowedly dislike and disrespect them offering a reward and asking for the lowest possible outcome from the outset? Because where on earth do you go once you’ve offered the entire grouse industry a permit you will never be able to take off them again…


Red Grouse

Red Grouse are beautiful birds. They live and breed in the often harsh conditions of upland moorlands. Grouse are not ‘farmed’ in the traditional sense by the grouse industry, but they are treated much like farmed animals: tallied up as ‘units’, fed medication to stop the illnesses of over-crowding, and sold off when they’re a few months old. There is no recognition of sentience, they have no moral status, they’re simply feathered targets that bring in the money.

This is a point we have argued with the likes of the RSPB on many occasions: how does licencing grouse shooting protect grouse?

Hundreds of thousands of grouse will be shot in a ‘good season’ (not our words, that’s how the industry describes so much blood-letting). Don’t they count? Don’t they warrant protection? Conservation organisations argue that they don’t have the resources to protect all species, just ones of conservation concern. That’s an argument we fundamentally disagree with anyway, but what additional resources would it take to allow Red Grouse to breed in relative peace on the moors they’ve bred on in relative peace for thousands of years? If the moorland habitat changes because it’s not torched every year, if chicks are taken by predators, if grouse numbers decline – well, that’s nature, that’s natural. It’s normal. Simply ignoring the shooting of over half a million Red Grouse because they’re not rare enough is not a position we can support.

Grouse shooting is simply not ethical. Why on earth would would we offer it a licence to continue rather than fight to close it down?


Wildlife crime

Grouse moors have been breaking the law for decades. The Protection of Birds Act (which protects birds including birds of prey, but not so-called ‘game birds’, because, you know, why would you want to ban shooting birds like Red Grouse), was passed in 1954. The illegality is so widespread that Dr Mark Avery was able to say in his book ‘Inglorious’ that the grouse industry is ‘underpinned by wildlife crime’ without being sued. Many of us have repeated the phrase (we use it often, see here for example) without being sued. For all we know the doyens of the grouse industry now use it themselves as an ironic nod to how they’ve been getting away with it for decades.

Wildlife crime is so endemic to grouse shooting that everyone recognises that it takes place. Studies show that 72% of young satellite-tagged Hen Harriers (birds fitted with lightweight satellite tags used to track their movements) will disappear in ‘suspicious circumstances’ (essentially legalese code for ‘killed’) on grouse moors in northern England, for example. In July this year the RSPB published a well-timed article (as in, it was near the start of the grouse ‘season’ and a wandering immature Bearded Bulture had drawn huge numbers of birders to the area) describing, without exaggeration, a ‘catalogue of bird crimes in the Peak District National Park’. Even the under-resourced and normally rather docile National Wildlife Crime Unit recognises that “intelligence continues to indicate a strong association between raptor persecution and grouse moor management”.

All of this happens with legislation already in place. The industry isn’t put off because they know enforcement is lax in some places and almost impossible in others. Crimes take place in remote areas out of view of the public, cameras, and monitors. There is an omerta of silence amongst gamekeepers. And even if a crime is uncovered, the appeals process can be made remarkably convoluted by the industry’s lawyers who will typically first deny any crime, then dispute how evidence of wrongdoing was collected and whether persecution actually took place on the estate under question anyway (maybe the dead raptor flew in from next door on its broken wing before dropping dead). If the evidence is incontrovertible estates will scapegoat a gamekeeper before shuttling them off to a mate or allowing them to sneak back before the end of the season (in a recent clear-cut case involving the shooting of a Goshawk, ‘action’ was taken against three gamekeepers: one ‘worked his notice‘ before resigning, the other two were ‘reinstated following their colleague’s resignation and ahead of the start of the grouse season’). It will take years to remove a licence or shut down an estate if it can be done at all.

Licencing is essentially wiping the slate clean, because as things stand no matter what an estate has done or is suspected to have done, they will be given a licence if a scheme is implemented (if anyone has evidence to suggest that’s not the case, please let us know). It’s an acknowledgement that the system we have so far has utterly failed. Instead of tightening up the law to remove loopholes, launching an unequivocal public information programme or social media awareness campaign that would make wildlife crime as unacceptable as mugging or drug dealing, breaking the wall of silence that protects gamekeepers rather than wildlife, persuading landowners to move tenants onto to short-term leases immediately, demonstrating that the economic arguments for grouse shooting could never outweigh the loss of biodiversity and nature, the answer is to give estates a licence they can ignore as well?


Trapping and snaring

What licencing will also do is legitimise the (currently legal) persecution of countless numbers of animals that estate owners say will dent their profits. No-one knows exactly how many foxes, mustelids, and corvids are trapped and snared on the UK’s grouse moors because – remarkably – there is no obligation whatsoever to record the numbers. No obligation to carry out ecological assessments. No checks and balances. Predators are simply assumed to impact profits which is why moorlands are run the way they are (and why illegal raptor persecution is so widespread).

We wrote recently about a new report by League Against Cruel Sports Scotland titled ‘Calculating Cruelty‘ (download the report here) which attempted to estimate just how many animals might be being killed on Scotland’s grouse moors by extrapolating data gathered between June 2018 and September 2019 by an experienced surveyor walking numerous shooting estates. The report suggested that:

  • 57,000 killing devices [ie traps and snares] are deployed each day in Scotland representing the equivalent of over 10,000,000 active trapping and snaring days per year,
  • up to a quarter of a million animals are killed every year to maintain high numbers of grouse for sport shooting,
  • and nearly half of these are non target species (including hedgehogs and moorland birds).

That is a huge number of wild, sentient animals being killed to support the shooting industry. Rather than say this unwarranted killing should stop, surely what licencing does is to say, ‘Carry on’?


Is this how to negotiate?

We’d be the first to admit that we haven’t read every book or article written about the art of negotiating, but what we can all be certain of is that each side should be employing their own tactics in an effort to reach maximum or best results. You can go in hard, or you can try to persuade, but you don’t open negotiations by setting the bar low. And licencing is a low bar.

Negotiation is a game, and everyone knows the rules. You don’t go into your boss to get, say, a 10% pay rise and start off by asking for a 10% pay rise. You’ll end up with 5% every time. No, you say you’re worth 20%. He or she knows what you really want is 10% and – if you’re worth it and your boss values your work and wants to keep you – they’ll maybe let you dangle for a while, offer you 5%, but eventually you’ll shake hands on something you both recognise as fair.

Now imagine going in to talk to your boss, knowing that he/she has ignored the law for decades, has no respect for you or your work, and has no intention of negotiating with someone they routinely denounce as an ‘animal rights extremist’ anyway. The shooting industry has shown itself – repeatedly – to be intransigent, impolite, and unyielding. It always aims to drag its ‘opponents’ across to its position. The shooting industry doesn’t open talks with concessions. It will never knowingly concede ground: whether that’s in the use of toxic lead shot, the species it’s ‘allowed’ to shoot, where it’s ‘allowed’ to shoot them, the periods (or ‘seasons’) it’s allowed to shoot them, and the measures it thinks will ensure all of the above takes place as profitably as possible.

It might be different if licencing was being negotiated outside of the shooting industry in recognition that it had been too lawless and unethical for far too long to warrant inclusion. But so far that’s not been the case.

In Scotland, for example, the much-anticipated Werritty Review into grouse shooting consisted of six ‘experts’ charged with examining “the environmental impact of grouse moor management practices”. The group was asked to “advise on the option of licensing grouse shooting businesses” in order to tackle illegal raptor persecution. Based on the evidence it was gathering, the Werritty Report was expected to deliver an immediate call for licencing, but according to an article in The Ferret titled ‘Eagles at risk as landowning lobby delays move to license grouse shooting‘, two members blocked the immediate introduction: the Duke of Buccleuch’s consultant and former estate manager, Mark Oddy; and Alexander Jameson, a chartered surveyor with 30 years experience of upland estate management. As we wrote at the time, “The Scottish Government has finally released the ‘independent’ (can a panel containing representatives of the grouse shooting industry truly be described as independent?) Werritty Review into the future of grouse shooting in Scotland. After much delay, the report recommends – more delay.”

Look up the definition of ‘delaying tactics’ and you’ll find, “an action or strategy designed to defer or postpone something in order to gain an advantage for oneself“. That’s how the shooting industry negotiates – one attempt to gain the advantage after another. Surely after years of pointless negotiating with an industry that refuses to listen or change, the only choice – assuming you actually want to save raptors, protect Red Grouse, and do something about the millions of animals needlessly killed in snares and traps – is to go in with a demand for a damn sight more game-changing than licencing.


Assuming that you do actually want to protect wildlife – all wildlife – that is. If not, if sticking with a version of what you’ve already got is what you really want, then sure, start with licencing, and accept the inevitable delaying tactics, the ad hominem attacks across social media, the sly winks, and the piles of dead animals.

Just don’t expect all of us to smile and thank you while you do it…