I’M writing this on the Glorious 12th – so-called – which means I have my eyes peeled for a species that’s due to make its first appearance of the year. It shares its moorland habitat with the hen harrier, but its behaviour is unusual. It will stand about on a moor and wait for birds to fly past. It will then kill as many of the birds as it can. It’s that rare and rather sad creature: the grouse shooter.

But could they be a threatened species? The Scottish Government’s Werritty report on grouse moors last year said that, if there wasn’t a marked improvement in the populations of birds of prey on grouse moors (and who expects that?), then a licensing system should be introduced. We await the Government’s response. This week Labour also called for the licensing of grouse shooting after a big increase in the illegal killing of birds during the lockdown.

But in Scotland, I’m afraid, the signs of progress are not good. For a start, the Werritty report was based on the flawed premise that driven grouse shooting can be made acceptable. Werritty was explicitly looking for ways in which grouse moors could continue to be a part of the economy instead of questioning whether Scotland’s countryside should tolerate a business that harms the countryside – through the burning of heather, for example.

The report’s conclusion on licensing also ended up being rather limp because the group that led the report was divided, which meant the compromise of suggesting a licensing system if there is no improvement in bird of prey populations. Which gives the Scottish Government a get-out: we’re waiting, they’ll say, to see if there’s been an improvement … still waiting … still waiting. The Government has also shown a lack of urgency in responding to Werritty. It does not look good.

There are also serious question marks over whether licensing will work. First off, the people who are illegally killing birds of prey are unlikely to be deterred by a licensing system if they’re not deterred by the law as it stands (the hen harrier has been protected in Scotland for more than 60 years).

Secondly, it’s hard to see what the basis for licensing would be – why license something that makes such a minimal contribution to Scotland’s economy? Yes, the grouse shooters say it supports jobs, but the Common Weal think-tank recently looked at grouse shooting compared to forestry, renewable energy, horticulture, and tourism and concluded that grouse shooting was the least economically effective. It takes 330 hectares to provide one job on a grouse moor, compared to just 42 for forestry and three for horticulture.

There’s also a danger that an ineffective licensing system will be introduced and then everything will just carry on as normal. I spoke to the conservationist Mark Avery about this recently and his view was that the whole idea of licensing depended on how robust the system was; a weak one would pretty much allow the wildlife criminals to carry on regardless.

Some people in the shooting community feel they’re being unfairly singled out over this. I remember speaking to one guy who runs a training school for gundogs who said he was frustrated that certain ways of killing animals – fishing for example – were seen as socially acceptable whereas shooting had a stigma attached to it. A farrier also told me that at least shooting enthusiasts are being honest about killing animals – townies on the other hand will happily tuck into burgers and fish and chips and yet judge people for shooting birds or deer.

In some ways, I can see where the country sports enthusiasts are coming from on that one – for most of us, grouse shooting is a weird and distant practice and maybe that makes it easier to support moves to control it. But fishing doesn’t involve killing every other species in the water, whereas the ideal grouse moor from the point of view of landowners and gamekeepers is one that’s devoid of any predator, which leads to predator control on a mass scale – legal and illegal.

That is the key to the problem: a model that is effectively based on the killing of birds of prey. Perhaps licensing can do something to improve it. I hope so. Perhaps the Government will support licensing. I hope for that too. But it may be that it all rests on a simple question. Mark Thomas of the RSPB said this week that most of the bird of prey deaths they’d seen during lockdown were linked in some way to shooting. So the question is: will licensing change the behaviour of those people? Or do we have to go further and ban driven grouse shooting completely?

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