Driven grouse shooting

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Gamekeeper (left) with a shooter on a driven grouse shoot in the Scottish Highlands (1922)

Driven grouse shooting is the hunting of the red grouse, a field sport of the United Kingdom. The grouse shooting season extends from 12 August, often called the "Glorious Twelfth", to 10 December each year.

Shooting takes place on grouse moors, areas of moorland in Scotland, northern England, and Wales. These areas, some 16,763 square kilometres, about 8% of the combined area of England and Scotland, form an artificial habitat. They are managed by regular burning to provide a constant supply of young heather and to remove trees and grass, and by killing predators and mountain hares.[1] British grouse moors are intensively managed, and have been described as not just precluding birds of prey, but also preventing wildness, natural landscapes, and ecotourism.[2]:167


The name "driven grouse shooting" refers to the way in which the grouse are driven towards the hunters (otherwise known as 'Guns')[3] by beaters. A shooting party usually includes 8–10 Guns who stand in a line in the butts—hides for shooting spaced some 20–30 m (66–98 ft) apart, screened by a turf or stone wall and usually sunken into the ground to minimise their profile—to shoot the grouse in flight.[4] A code of conduct governs behaviour on the grouse moor for both safety and etiquette.

Grouse shooting can also be undertaken by 'walking up' grouse over pointers, or by flushing the birds with other dogs.[5] In southern Sweden, this form of hunting is called "fjalljakt"; the corresponding biome is not managed by burning, but consists of a wooded mosaic, with heather, trees, lakes and bogland.[6] Its management by, in particular, large wild herbivores such as moose maintains this mosaic as a stable condition, with modest populations of grouse (often hidden from predators in willow thickets) and a rich variety of other species.[2]:171–173

Shooting grouse

Red grouse
Shooting butts on Scottish grouse moor

The red grouse is a medium-sized bird of the grouse family or subfamily which is found in heather moorland in Great Britain and Ireland. It is usually classified as a subspecies of the willow grouse, but is sometimes considered to be a separate species Lagopus scoticus. It is also known as the moorfowl or moorbird. Grouse can fly at up to 130 km/h (81 mph).[7] They make difficult targets, but on a specially managed moor where they are driven in large numbers over prepared butts, amateur shooters can kill large numbers. Grouse moors have been described as "the ultimate trophy asset... one of the ultimate playthings, for which people will pay well over the asset value."[8]

Moorland management: burning heather for grouse

To support a large population of grouse, gamekeepers burn heather, usually in the month of April. A burned patch of heather allows fresh shoots to come through which are ideal nutrition for grouse. Burning also kills tree and grass regrowth. Burning is done in patches so that there is a variety of heather heights, on a rotation of between 8 and 12 years. While the short new shoots provide food, the taller, older heather provides cover and shelter for the grouse. Heather moorland is an unusual habitat worldwide, almost all un-natural, and 75% of it is found in the UK as a result of management by burning for grouse.[9][10] 60% of all England's upland Sites of Special Scientific Interest are managed for grouse shooting. UK moorlands are a carbon sink and burning heather releases this carbon.[11]

The EMBER (Effects of Moorland Burning on the Ecohydrology of River basins) project has shown that heather burning on moorland, which is practised predominantly to support red grouse populations for gun sports, has significant negative impacts on peat hydrology, peat chemistry and physical properties, river water chemistry and river ecology.[12] Moor burning reduces Sphagnum moss growth and the density of macroinvertebrates which play a vital role in aquatic food webs by feeding on algae, microbes and detritus at the base of food chains before they themselves are consumed by birds, fish and amphibians. Burning also reduces the water content of the upper layers of peat, so the peat is less able to retain minerals which are important for plant growth and resist acid rain. The study found that rivers draining burned catchments were characterised by lower calcium concentrations and lower pH, relative to rivers draining unburned catchments, and had higher concentrations of silica, manganese, iron and aluminium.[13]

To minimize the damage, some moorland estates managed for grouse shooting have agreed not to burn over protected blanket bogs, where fires dry and burn the peat. However, some burning of these areas continues.[1] If a moorland is not burned over for several years, large stands of rank and woody heather build up, posing a risk of major fires due to the large fuel loads. Larger wildfires burn with greater intensity and may be more likely to burn the peat beneath.[11] This risk is limited to long-established, unnatural heather moorland that is actively burned; wildfires are very rare in the corresponding mosaic biome of southern Sweden.[2]:165

Moorland management: killing predators and other wildlife

Grouse moors have a near-200 year history of killing large numbers of predators, including many species that are now protected. Records from the 6,500 acre Glengarry estate in Scotland list the following mammals killed between the years 1837 and 1840: stoat (Mustela erminea) and weasel (Mustela nivalis) 301, pine marten (Martes martes), 246, wildcat (Felis silvestris) 198, polecat (Mustela putorius) 106, house cat (Felis catus) 78, badger (Meles meles) 67, otter (Lutra lutra) 48 and red fox (Vulpes vulpes) 11. Birds killed in the same period were: hooded crow (Corvus cornix) 1431, raven (Corvus corax) 475, kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) 462, buzzard (Buteo buteo) 285, red kite (Milvus milvus) 275, goshawk (Accipiter gentilis) 63, hen harrier (Circus cyaneus) 63, white-tailed eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) 27, osprey (Pandion haliaetus) 18, golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) 15 and magpie (Pica pica) 2.[14] Burning and predator control correlate with higher densities of red grouse, and also of a few other species that are able to thrive on open heather moors; golden plover, curlew, lapwing, redshank and ring ouzel.[15][9][16]

A 2017 study commissioned by Scottish Natural Heritage into the fate of satellite-tracked golden eagles concluded that "Corroborative information points to the perpetrators of the persecution of tagged eagles being associated with some grouse moors in the central and eastern Highlands of Scotland," and that "[t]his illegal killing has such a marked effect on the survival rates of the young birds that the potential capacity for the breeding golden eagle population continues to be suppressed around where this persecution largely occurs."[17]

The Langholm Moor Demonstration Project prevented the persecution of raptors, especially hen harriers, and found that grouse would survive in the presence of a more natural number of predators. However, raptor predation at Langholm reduced autumn grouse abundance by 50%, making it unprofitable to organize driven grouse shooting.[18] A community land project now hopes to purchase much of the land in question.[19] The Langholm experiment suggests that, to be profitable, intensive grouse moors require predators to be persecuted.[2]:166

Shooting and poisoning are not the only methods of predator control. Snares placed to trap foxes have injured humans.[20][21] Illegal snares have been used to kill predators on grouse moors.[22]

Economics and employment

Grouse shooting scene in Yorkshire – 1836 painting by John Fearnley

Grouse shooting supports the equivalent of 2,592 full-time jobs in England, Wales and Scotland, some 1,772 actually managing moors.[2]:161 The Moorland Association estimates the total economic value of the grouse-shooting industry at some £67 million per year.[23] However, this is supported by millions of pounds in subsidies.[24][2]:162[25] The small village of Blanchland, Northumberland (population 140) is a centre for grouse shooting in England; 55 per cent of its inhabitants are either directly or indirectly involved in grouse shooting.[26][27]

The profitability of grouse shooting is under threat from both climate and disease. There has been a long-term decline in red grouse numbers.[28] Weather conditions in recent years have resulted in shortages of grouse, to the extent that grouse shooting has had to be cancelled in some locations.[29][30] This has led landowners in upland areas to substitute pheasant and partridge shooting for grouse shooting, with an increased risk of disease spreading from rear-and-release pheasants and partridge to nearby red grouse.[31]

Opposition to driven grouse shooting

The driven grouse shooting industry has been criticised by many conservation bodies for harming moorland habitats and for illegally persecuting predators, particularly the hen harrier, which preys on grouse chicks. The RSPB has called for shoots to be licensed,[32] and former RSPB Conservation Director Dr Mark Avery raised a petition calling for a ban on the practice.[33] By its closure on 21 September 2016 the petition had attracted 123,077 signatures,[34] triggering a parliamentary debate on the practice, held in Westminster Hall on 31 October 2016.[35] "Because most of our birds evolved in wooded mosaic habitats, grouse moors, being burned and treeless, with just a fraction of native food plants, stifle most wildlife – most of the time."[2]:167

Alternative land uses

The main alternatives proposed are:

Rewilding, with ecotourism

The Revive coalition describes Scotland's grouse moors as "impoverished" and suggests that an increase in woodland and scrub cover and reinstatement of functioning bogs could result in an upland landscape composed of a mosaic of different woodland, scrub and open habitats. This would support a greater abundance and diversity of wildlife, supply improved ecosystem services, be more resilient to environmental change, pests and diseases, and provide diverse resources and sources of income for local people.[36]

However, rewilding has been opposed by shooting organizations.[37] The chief executive of Scottish Land and Estates, which represents many grouse moor owners, said: “It is recommending a complete change in the landscape of Scotland. The bonnie purple heather will give way to an unmanaged vista of scrub and scarce wildlife.”[38]

In recent years a few large estates including grouse moors have been managed for the re-establishment of a more natural mosaic of habitats. Ecotourism is often a component, and ongoing shooting, especially of deer which prevent tree regrowth and in modern Britain have no natural predators, is often essential. The Mar Lodge Estate aims to regenerate woodland including Caledonian forest. Cairngorms Connect has a 200-year vision, to restore woodland to its natural limit, including high altitude montane woodlands; restore blanket bog and forest bogs, and restore natural processes to river floodplains. These restoration projects are intended to deliver benefits to people: reducing flood-risk, storing carbon, and providing homes for wildlife, as well as great places for people to visit.[39] Anders Holch Povlsen's "Wildland" plans for his Scottish estate, some 390 square kilometres in 2019, include restoring their parts of the Highlands "to their former magnificent natural state and repair the harm that man has inflicted on them". This vision includes not just the land itself, but also its many vulnerable buildings and communities. The Rothiemurchus Forest has not been managed for grouse and presents a patchwork of woods, bogs, and heather with rich wildlife.[2]:130–132 Alladale Wilderness Reserve, Creag Meagaidh, and Glen Affric are further examples of successful management of Scottish wildlife.[2]:132–134 Scottish Natural Heritage estimates that nature-based tourism in Scotland was worth £1.4 billion and supported 39,000 jobs in 2018.[40]

Intensive production of timber

Plantations of Sitka spruce are almost the only form of intensive forestry that are economically practical in much of upland Britain – though not on all of it. They support only very limited wildlife.

Minimal management, sheep grazing

A former grouse moor in Berwyn, Wales, was allowed to fall out of management in the 1990s. As the area was not managed to restore its natural rich mosaic of habitats, heather was replaced by rank, ungrazed grass, few species replaced the grouse, and predators (especially crows and foxes) flourished.[2]:169–170 The species specifically favoured by grouse moor management did particularly badly: within 20 years, lapwing became extinct at the site, golden plover declined by 90 per cent, and curlew declined by 79 per cent.[41]


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  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Macdonald, Benedict (2019). Rebirding: Rewilding Britain and its birds. Pelagic Publishing. ISBN 978-1-78427-187-9.
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External links

Media related to Grouse shooting at Wikimedia Commons

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