So, it has been published at last! Having been two years and more in the making, with a remit “to make recommendations to reduce the illegal killing of raptors but at the same time to give due regard to the socio-economic contribution that grouse shooting makes to Scotland’s rural economy,” what does Werritty (finally) have to say? And just how should one give due regard to an industry’s socio-economic contribution if that industry is reliant on criminality?
The report’s tone is set early on as Professor Werritty observes that many of the facts remain contested, while he laments that “confirming the scale of the illegal killing of raptors is challenging and such criminal activity admits to no easy resolution.” Equally, he states that “the socio-economic contribution to the rural economy of grouse shooting in isolation is very poorly understood, as are the consequences of any potential changes in land use.” So, what progress has been made?
The review group, made up of academics and “independent consultants” to reflect a “broad and relevant set of interests”, managed to agree on recommendations for new or enhanced regulation for the use of muirburn, mountain hare management and the use of medicated grit, but these recommendations are modest in their ambition.
For the use of muirburn, which is currently regulated by the Muirburn code, the report notes that both positive and negative effects have been recorded, but that “given the absence of a robust system of monitoring compliance, it is not currently possible to assess the effectiveness of the Code which has few statutory provisions.”
The solution? The review ultimately recommends muirburn licensing is introduced with more “comprehensive muirburn monitoring” to “ensure compliance with best practice” (without anyone seemingly knowing for sure what that is, although “in general terms most positive effects of muirburn have been recorded in dry heathlands and most detrimental effects in wet heaths and peatlands.”)
For mountain hares the report reiterates the fact that there is “no substantive evidence to support the population control of Mountain Hares as part of tick and/or Louping Ill virus control to benefit Red Grouse.” But as we know, that hasn’t stopped grouse moor managers culling them and the report recommends increased legal regulation of this practice.
Regarding the use of medicated grit, which is used to treat some of the diseases which affect the densely supported grouse in the managed absence of most of their natural predators, the report dryly notes that there is “some evidence that prescription levels are too high, that gritting holidays are not always observed, and that grit may not always be withdrawn from grouse at least 28 days before Red Grouse enter the (human) food chain.” However, the report merely recommends that a voluntary Code of Practice be introduced to address these problems.
The key recommendation however is that “a licensing scheme be introduced for the shooting of grouse if, within five years from the Scottish Government publishing this report, there is no marked improvement in the ecological sustainability of grouse moor management, as evidenced by the populations of breeding Golden Eagles, Hen Harriers and Peregrines within the vicinity of grouse moors being in favourable condition.”
This is clear recognition that driven grouse shooting continues to limit the populations of our raptors on and around grouse moors, and was a hard won recommendation by the sound of it, “fraught” with disagreement as “personal opinions and values intervened.” Professor Werritty relates how “the Group was evenly split on whether or not to license grouse shooting. When, as Chair, I sought to exercise a casting vote in favour of the immediate introduction of licensing, this was contested by two members of the Group.” The reluctance of these two unnamed stakeholders within the review group to move quickly to embrace licensing has been mirrored by the dismay expressed by shooting organisations since the review’s publication yesterday.
A joint statement by the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, Scottish Countryside Alliance, Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association, Scottish Association for Country Sports and Scottish Land & Estates protested that “This report has recommended a barrage of measures that will leave the grouse shooting sector engulfed by legislation and red tape,” while claiming that this “sector has already willingly embraced change and improvements in how it operates” and that raptor persecution “incidents are now at historically low levels.”
Sadly, such callous disregard for the ongoing stain of raptor persecution has come to typify such statements from the shooting industry, and Ian Thomson, Head of Investigations at RSPB was quick to pour cold water on these claims, publishing a list of just some of this year’s raptor disappearances. Reading the joint statement from all those shooting organisation I was struck again by how noticeable it is that those who so often claim that the industry is dogged by a small number of bad apples seem so reluctant to help identify and root out those rotten elements.
After all, what have ‘good’ estates got to fear from licensing?
Professor Werritty concluded his report with this statement. “Ultimately, whether and when to licence grouse shooting are political decisions that rest with the Scottish Government,” and the ball is now in the politicians’ court. The grouse shooting industry was already supposed to be in “the last chance saloon.” Can they really be offered another five years to clean up their act, remembering that it has already been twenty years since Donald Dewar (then Scotland’s First Minister) called raptor persecution a “national disgrace”.
Since Werritty’s Review has been published the Scottish Wildlife Trust, Scottish Raptor Study Group, RSPB Scotland and others have all urged that licensing be adopted without delay. Others have noted that introducing licensing will take time, “to draft legislation, consult, allow for Parliamentary scrutiny, produce relevant guidance and establish administration,” and that this period could itself serve as part of the proposed grace period for driven grouse shooting to clean up its act.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has responded in turn by stating that if necessary the Scottish Government was prepared to move “earlier than the five-year timeframe that was suggested by the review group.” The direction of travel is clear, but expect grouse moor owners to fight conservation measures every step of the way as they remain as stubbornly opposed to regulation and reform as ever.