Breeding and shooting at 'live' targets

In the North of England and Scotland, the shooting of game birds and mammals is widespread. Habitat and 'predator management' are undertaken to increase game abundance and hunting bags and thus profits.

The Grouse moor managers and Gamekeepers claim major conservation benefits as a result of traditional and 'sympathetic' moorland management. They say if the control of generalist predators by gamekeepers ceased, lapwing and golden plover numbers would drop by 81% and curlew by 47% within 10 years.

So what is really happening?

Red Grouse

Red Grouse is a subspecies of Willow Ptarmigan, a species with low breeding densities (0.1 to 10 pairs per km2) across northern Europe, northern Eurasia and North America.  However, in the UK - where intensive habitat management, predator control and routine medication are used on Grouse Moors - there is an exceptionally high population of 150 to 500 birds per km2 (post-breeding densities).

The Red Grouse are bred to be driven or flushed over static lines of shooters, for sport, for fun and for profit. 

The management of British Grouse Moors takes place in an environment in which landowners set their own bag (Kill) limits and establish the management to deliver these targets, with the Government only regulating quarry species, hunting season and permitted hunting methods. There is no statutory requirement for hunters to report their bags, although records are collected by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), whose links to the shooting and hunting groups are well reported. 

This combination of intensive shooting practice and weak regulation is unique to the UK and highlights the issues that arise from weak regulation and monitoring.

Red Grouse Shooting

The Red Grouse season that runs from 12th August until 10th December annually is considered the prestige event in the shooting calendar. Grouse are driven by lines of ‘beaters’ to fly over a row of shooters who expect to kill more grouse in a day (30 to 40 each) than on a ‘walked-up’ shoot, where hunters walk in line using dogs to “flush" grouse to ‘the guns’. Most of this shooting takes place on private land and large fees are expected. 

A ‘Shooting area' of approximately 850,000 hectares (Douglas et al., 2015) and a dramatic increase in Red Grouse population - 90% increase from 171 per km2 (1991 to 1994) to 325 per km2 (2010 to 2014) in England and a 74% increase from 81 to 141 per km2 over the same period in Scotland - has resulted in increased disease. Red Grouse are vulnerable to strongylosis, a disease caused by the gastrointestinal nematode Trichostrongylustenuis which depresses body condition, may cause death and can reduce brood sizes and population densities (Redpath et al., 2006). Red Grouse are also susceptible to louping ill, a virus causing encephalomyelitis in sheep that is also carried by wild mammals such as hares and deer; it is transmitted by the tick (Ixodes ricinus (Watson & Moss, 2008)).

Predator Control

Gamekeepers openly kill predators of grouse to maximise the shootable surplus. Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes), Stoat (Mustela erminea) Weasel (Mustela nivalis) and various corvid species are shot and trapped legally. However, illegal trapping, shooting, snaring and poisoning of protected birds of prey, such as Hen Harriers and protected mammals also takes place. To reduce the infection risk from louping ill, some gamekeepers routinely shoot Mountain Hares and Red Deer (Cervus elaphus (Watson & Moss, 2008, Newborn & Baines, 2012)).

There is no evidence that culling Mountain Hares and Red Deer reduces the risk as both ticks and louping ill virus persists even when tick hosts occur at very low densities (Gilbert et al., 2001, Harrison et al., 2010), so the scientific case for culling Mountain Hares is weak (Werritty et al., 2015).

The illegal killing of Raptors, especially Hen Harriers has raised awareness of the issues of grouse hunting and we are supporting Mark Avery and Chris Packham highlighting the industries desire to kill Raptors to protect their investment in Red Grouse. 

The illegal use of poisons to kill predators is a regular practice for Gamekeepers who actively manage moors for grouse shooting (Whitfield et al., 2003). Hen Harriers are almost entirely absent from driven grouse moors across the UK. Golden Eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) and Red Kites (Milvus milvus) have been illegally killed in Scotland, predominantly in areas managed for grouse shooting (Whitfield et al., 2006 & 2007, Smart et al., 2010). The breeding performance of Peregrines (Falco peregrinusis) is lower on grouse moors than any other habitats in the UK, with 66% of pairs failing to produce any young, even though clutch and brood sizes of successful nests do not differ between grouse moors and other habitats (Amar et al., 2012).

Mark Avery, former RSPB Director said; ”Grouse shooting is all about killing wildlife. The point is to kill lots of Red Grouse for fun and depends on the killing of huge numbers of foxes, stoats, weasels, crows etc. Too often, protected species are killed too because they eat Red Grouse. 2600 pairs of Hen Harriers should nest in the UK but there are only circa 600 because of illegal persecution by grouse shooting interests".

Grouse Moor Management

Red Grouse depend on moorland habitats comprising of blanket bog and heath beyond the limits of enclosed agriculture (Watson & Moss, 2008). These habitats and the breeding bird populations they support in the UK are of international conservation importance (Thompson et al., 1995), with large areas protected under national and international law. Moorlands also provide regulatory and cultural ecosystem services. That means the Estate owners are being subsidised by the UK taxpayer to maintain these vitally important habitats and eco-systems. 

Critically, these Moors provide 70% of drinking water in Britain, and support peatlands in England and Scotland that are the largest carbon store in the UK, amounting to almost 1800 Mt (Bonn et al., 2009, Chapman et al., 2009 & Alonso et al., 2012).

Burning and Vegetation control

Whilst Estate Managers claim traditional and sympathetic control of the land, Red Grouse need young, nutritious Heather shoot tips (Calluna vulgaris) and use older, deeper heather for nesting and protective cover. Vegetation is burned on rotation to create and maintain a mosaic of different ages of heather and other dwarf shrubs to benefit grouse (Hudson, 1992). Reductions in grazing densities of sheep and deer and control of Bracken (Pteridium aquiline) by herbicide spraying are also used to maintain heather dominance (Grant et al., 2012).

Burning reduces nesting cover for birds such as the Merlin (Falco columbarius), Hen Harrier and Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus). Dominant heather cover disfavours species associated with grassy moorland such as Skylark (Alauda arvensis) and Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis (Tharme et al., 2001, Pearce-Higgins & Grant, 2006)), and prevents successional recovery of scrub and woodland and its associated biodiversity (Watson & Moss, 2008). 

The intensive management of Moors for Grouse has seen burning rotations becoming much shorter, and the number of annual burns is increasing. Moorlands overlying deep peat soils - that often support blanket bog and wet heath - are routinely burned (Yallop et al., 2006, Douglas et al., 2015). This occurs in protected areas, despite government regulations (Scottish Government, 2011; see Appendix S1), and the fact that repeated burning of blanket bog is inconsistent with international responsibilities to maintain and restore blanket bog to favourable conservation status. As a result, only 14% of UK upland peatland habitats are in good condition (Committee on Climate Change, 2015) because burning of blanket bog and wet heath can lead to long-term loss of bog-forming Sphagnum mosses in favour of Heather (Glaves et al., 2013). The result is degradation or loss of peat formation and carbon sink conditions (Garnett et al., 2000, Ward et al., 2007).

Burning also impacts water supply with associated economic consequences. It causes DOC (dissolved organic carbon) and water discolouration. The Water companies have to clean the water and their customers bear the cost - (that’s you and me - Mr and Mrs Householder (Grayson et al., 2012)). 

The increase in floods in recent years is not a coincidence. The removal of surface vegetation also increases runoff so that in the most intense rainfall events, flow peaks downstream are exacerbated (Holden et al., 2015). 

The Grouse shooting industry make bold and exaggerated claims of the benefits it brings to UK Plc but these are weak and easily dismissed. 

UK taxpayers are paying to maintain a bio-diverse habitat, rich in flora and fauna, that is vital for our water supply and flood defences as well as local and international conservation importance. Yet it is being transformed into a sterile monoculture suitable for one species to suit a business venture based on the wholesale murder of Red Grouse for two months every year. And what becomes of those grouse? Most are so full of lead that they are dangerously toxic, they cannot be sold and are therefore buried in pits. 

Mark Avery’s concise summary condemns the Grouse shooting industry. 

”Grouse shooting is simply a hobby, a pastime. If train-spotting wrecked the ecology of the places it occurred then we’d ban it. Grouse shooting requires densities of Red Grouse way above natural levels which are produced by intense predator control, heather-burning and moorland drainage. This unsustainable land management to benefit Red Grouse – which are then shot for fun – short-changes the rest of us."

"Did you know that intensive grouse moor management increases greenhouse gas emissions (and was recently criticised by the Committee on Climate Change), increases water bills (increased water treatment costs are passed on to customers), increases flood risk (hills hold waterless well and flood risk and home insurance costs increase) and decreases aquatic biodiversity (bad news for fishermen downstream of grouse moors)?"

"Claims that shooting benefits the economy are terribly weak – the sums are exaggerated and ignore the costs of ecosystem damage, and so do not give a proper account. Your taxes subsidise the whole sorry activity too."

"Grouse shooting is all about killing wildlife. The point is to kill lots of Red Grouse for fun and depends on the legal killing of huge numbers of foxes, stoats, weasels, crows etc. Too often, protected species are killed too because they are unsporting enough to eat Red Grouse. 2600 pairs of Hen Harrier s should nest in the UK but there are only circus 600 because of illegal persecution by grouse shooting interests.

Further reading: Inglorious - Conflict in the uplands by Mark Avery