Now Scotland is outraged about a trophy hunter shooting goats, let’s talk about grouse

Up to a fifth of Scotland is managed for grouse shooting, an equally perverse form of trophy hunting with far more serious environmental consequences.  

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The easiest way to get up close and personal to a goat is to open a bag of crisps within earshot, and then sit and wait for the goat’s curiosity and greed to get the better of it. You can snap a quick selfie whilst the goat munches its salty treat before both going your separate ways.

Alternatively, you could dress yourself in head-to-toe camouflage, arm yourself with a high-calibre rifle and pit your wits against this ferocious creature, shoot its brains out from a distance and then brag about your “hard core huntress” status by posing triumphantly next to the corpse, impressing your social media followers and your shooting industry sponsors. Once you’ve demonstrated your prowess against this fearless predator, you can move on to the more challenging target of a black-faced ram.

American TV presenter and “world-renowned hunter” Larysa Switlyk took the second option after recently visiting Islay in Scotland for what she described as “a fun hunt”, which has resulted in a Twitter storm of both rage and ridicule under the hashtag #Goatgate. Such was the fury and intensity of the public’s response, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon made an announcement that the government would be “reviewing the current situation” (of trophy hunting) and “considering whether changes to the law are required”.

It’s a shame the Scottish government hasn’t acted so quickly to address another equally perverse form of trophy hunting, the shooting of red grouse, which has far more serious environmental consequences than the shooting of a goat and a ram.

Up to a fifth of Scotland is managed for grouse shooting, predominantly on large, private estates whose wealthy owners include members of the British establishment, including royalty and politicians, as well as many foreign landowners whose identity is obscured in offshore accounts.

“Driven” grouse shooting – where “beaters” flush (drive) the terrified grouse towards a static line of armed hunters dressed head-to-toe in tweed and hiding inside grouse butts – is no less obscene as Ms Switlyk’s activities. The “glory” is defined by the number of red grouse shot (the more the better) and the “guns” often pose with the corpses at the end of the day, congratulating themselves on their potency.

Driven grouse shooting relies on the availability of high numbers of grouse to shoot. To achieve this surplus grouse moor managers incorporate three core elements of management.

The first is habitat manipulation (rotational burning of heather) to produce a mosaic of nutritious young heather for grouse to eat and older heather to provide nesting cover and protection from predators. The second is parasite control, which includes medicating the grouse with a veterinary drug dispensed via medicated grit and direct dosing, and also the mass culling of mountain hares that host some parasites. The third is lethal predator control – typically of foxes, weasels, stoats, crows, but some grouse moor managers are also involved with the illegal persecution of birds of prey.

These management practices have intensified in recent years, as grouse moor owners chase an ever-increasing “bag size”, the lingo used to describe the size of the kill. But intensification can also cause significant and widespread environmental damage.

The increased frequency and intensity of heather burning, especially over deep peat, can have negative impacts on the cycle of nutrients, water quality, soil erosion, air pollution, biodiversity, and of most concern, can contribute to the long-term loss of the carbon store.

Red grouse are now maintained at such artificially high densities that they are badly affected by a disease (Cryptosporidiosis) usually associated with high density flocks of captive poultry. This disease, which spreads via the communal use of medicated grit trays, threatens not only the red grouse but also species of high conservation concern that inhabit grouse moors, e.g. black grouse.

The killing of predators on driven grouse moors is a relentless, year-round slaughter. The number of animals killed is unknown, as there is no statutory requirement for reporting, but the annual toll on predators must number in the hundreds of thousands, at least. Mountain hares are killed to such an extent (almost 38,000 reported in 2017 alone) that this protected species has suffered a catastrophic decline on grouse moors in the Eastern Highlands, including inside the Cairngorms National Park.

In addition to legal predator control, birds of prey continue to be illegally persecuted on some driven grouse moors, to such an extent it is causing population-level effects on iconic species such as golden eagles, hen harriers, red kites and peregrines.

The Scottish government is well aware of this environmental desecration but so far has been unwilling to implement effective regulation and enforcement measures.

Dr Ruth Tingay is a raptor ecologist and writes the Raptor Persecution UK blog.