As the shooting season opens a coalition of wildlife, environmental and land reform campaigners have the grouse industry in their sights. Estates burn moors, contribute little to the Scottish economy, and are engaged in a grotesque ‘war on wildlife’, they say – and the government must act to regulate the industry. Writer at Large Neil Mackay investigates

THERE’S some – lairds, gamekeepers, Saudi millionaires, and hedge fund managers holidaying in the Highlands – who consider the sound of shotguns ringing out over a grouse moor as iconic and Scottish as a good glass of whisky or a glen shrouded in mist. Others though – wildlife campaigners, ecologists, land reformers, and an array of academics and scientists – see the grouse moor industry as barbaric and feudal, a bloodsport which does little for the Scottish economy while damaging the environment, and is worthy of, if not being banned, then regulated to the point of near extinction.

The shooting season began two days ago – on ‘the Glorious Twelfth’ – and an exchange of fire is now taking place over the future of Scotland's grouse industry. On one side, campaigners want the Scottish government to impose the strictest licensing regime on grouse shooting; on the other, landowners are digging in, defending a sport seen as increasingly out of synch with 21st century sensibilities.

The campaign against grouse shooting centres around Revive, a coalition including the progressive think-tank Common Weal, Friends of the Earth, the League Against Cruel Sports, Raptor Persecution UK – which monitors illegal killings of birds of prey – and the animal welfare group OneKind.


Their findings are compelling. Their most shocking talking point is that up to a quarter of a million other animals are killed as ‘collateral damage’ to ensure grouse can be shot for “entertainment”. Hedgehogs, foxes, stoats, a wide array of birds, and even badgers are killed in traps. Up to 300,000 grouse are shot in Scotland each year – so the numbers have to be kept artificially high to ensure the sport can flourish. That means targeting animals which predate on grouse. However, animals which don’t predate on grouse – like hedgehogs – are also in jeopardy. Revive calls this “killing to kill”, and the grouse industry’s “circle of destruction”. It’s also been described as a “war on wildlife”.

Campaigners highlight the “barbaric” traps used, including ‘stink pits’: piles of dead animals ringed with snares to lure creatures like foxes. Once killed, the newly dead animals are thrown onto the stink pit as part of the bait pile.

Biologists say hundreds of birds of prey – including golden eagles – have been killed on grouse estates over the years. That’s a crime, yet successful prosecutions are rare.

Campaigners also say that the industry’s use of ‘muirburn’ – the practice of burning heather – is, in the age of climate change, an environmental threat. Heather can be found on peatland – a huge store of carbon which risks being released. The dominance of grouse moors also means Scotland is far too homogenous when it comes to wildlife, landscape and biodiversity.


The coalition against grouse shooting says the industry provides little significant economic benefit to Scotland. Common Weal found that grouse shooting accounts for more than one million hectares of land – that’s roughly half the size of Wales or 13% of Scotland’s landmass. At a generous estimate, the industry brings in roughly £32 million to the economy, creating around 2600 mostly seasonly low-paid and precarious jobs. That means grouse moors have an economic value of roughly £30 per hectare, and create one job per 330 hectares.

By contrast, forestry, which accounts for 18% of Scottish land, brings in £973m and creates 26,000 jobs. That’s 42 jobs and a value of £900 per hectare. Common Weal says forestry “encourages biodiversity, improves soil and land, and enables a range of spin-out industries”. Biomass renewable energy currently accounts for just 0.24% of Scotland’s land, brings in £49m, and creates 900 jobs; onshore wind takes up 6.5% of land, brings in £483m and creates 5400 jobs. Campaigners note that wildlife photography tourism alone brings in five times the amount of grouse moors, meaning – as Revive says – “shooting animals with cameras does more for the economy than shooting animals with guns”.

Polling shows 70% of Scots oppose grouse shooting for sport – compared to only 12% who support the activity. Many campaigners feel the industry is “indulged” by government as it’s a sport for the rich, run by the rich.


Max Wiszniewski, campaign manager of Revive, says statistically “if the Scottish economy was the size of Ben Nevis, then the grouse moor industry would be the size of an Irn Bru bottle”. The campaign says that if the grouse moor industry was created today and taken to the Scottish government in a Dragon’s Den style pitch it would be rejected immediately. Grouse moors also receive subsidies, if, for example, there is forestry or sheep on the land.

The Scottish government has promised some sort of licensing framework, but campaigners say the pledge is vague and fear it won’t be robust. They want licenses to be conditional on issues like: an end to the ‘killing to kill’ cycle which sees other animals destroyed to artificially boost grouse numbers; a clean record when it comes to bird of prey killings; and no extensive heather burning on grouse moors.

Wiszniewski says that when it comes to the ‘killing to kill’ cycle around “40% of animals killed are not even target species”, meaning they’re not predators of grouse. “What’s happening is morally abhorrent. It’s ritual slaughter every single year.”


The preponderance of moorland for grouse shooting – land which could be put to use for forestry, campaigners say – “lowers the diversity of species and provides fewer ecosystems, meaning the continued management of grouse moors leaves a large area of Scotland in an impoverished state”. Big swathes of moorland are burned on “deep peat”, Wiszniewski says. “If all the carbon that’s being sequestered in peat currently was released it would amount to 140 years of Scotland’s current carbon emissions. It should be illegal to burn on deep peat, this cycle of environmental destruction has to end.”

Grouse moors often carve out unsightly and environmentally damaging hill-tracks so vehicles can reach shooting stations. There’s also concerns about the use of ‘medicated grit’ to feed grouse, and its effect on other wildlife and the environment.

Revive’s coalition wants any future licensing system to deal with these issues too – and if there’s been “wildlife crime” on an estate, such as birds of prey killed, then no licence should be granted.

“Any breach of licensing conditions should mean loss of licence,” says Wiszniewski, “and that means there’s no longer the right to shoot. Although many would like this banned, we’re not calling for that. We want firm, sensible regulation. The bottom line is that simply killing other animals and burning the landscape to ensure there’s more grouse to shoot isn’t acceptable.”

Despite a commitment to regulate, “there should be more government urgency”, says Wiszniewski. “We need to transition away from grouse moors to more economically and environmentally productive uses of land.”


Prohibiting the ‘killing to kill’ cycle and extensive muirburn would make running grouse moors more difficult and, campaigners hope, encourage landowners to sell land which could then be used better by local communities or for more productive industries.

Revive is lobbying the Scottish government to act on these issues as part of the consultation around a Land Reform Bill. The coalition points out that the grouse moor industry – comprising some of Scotland’s most wealthy landowners – also lobbies the Scottish government. “They’re very powerful,” Wiszniewski says. “But the public are behind us and we want the SNP to be brave so we can genuinely transform our land for people, wildlife, the economy and the environment. What we’re asking isn’t radical, it’s inherently sensible.”


The illegal killing of protected birds on grouse moors is a major concern among campaigners. The most reliable longterm figures show that between 1994 and 2014, 779 birds of prey were illegally killed across all of Scotland. The RSPB has previously said that “buzzards, goshawks and peregrines continue to be illegally targeted, particularly in areas managed for ‘driven’ grouse shooting”. Golden eagles have been killed on grouse moors. The RSPB has called for “leadership” on “the illegal persecution of birds of prey” from “the grouse moor community”.

Killing protected birds is “widespread and heavily concentrated … in areas intensively managed for driven grouse shooting”. An RSPB report once noted that “illegal persecution of eagles, principally associated with grouse moor management … is the most severe constraint on golden eagles in Scotland”, and “records of the illegal use of poisoned baits were significantly associated with areas where grouse moors predominated”. The situation is “stark”, the RSPB has previously warned: “There is also widespread criminality associated with the production of high densities of grouse. It is long overdue that sporting estates, that manage such a significant part of our countryside, should be licensed.”

Subsequent RSPB investigations in 2020 showed the killing of protected birds continued, and referred to one estate as “notorious”.

Dr Ruth Tingay runs Raptor Persecution UK which monitors crimes against birds of prey. “Raptors just aren’t welcome on grouse moors,” she says. “The value of an estate is measured by the ‘bag size’ – the number of grouse shot.” Birds of prey eat grouse, so the more birds of prey, the less grouse – and the less money estate can make.


Gamekeepers, she says, know they are committing crimes targeting birds. However, some try to claim that birds are killed accidentally while they’re targeting other animals with traps or bait. Birds of prey are often caught in cages laid for crows. When raptors are captured some gamekeepers “bash them over the head” rather than release them as they are legally obliged. Some gamekeepers have been caught on secret cameras killing protected birds this way. Raptor persecution, Tingay says, is “widespread” across Scotland, but worse in the central and eastern highlands and southern uplands.

Tingay spent much of her career in Mongolia, Madagascar and Cambodia as a biologist studying birds of prey. She was shocked when she moved to Scotland to learn of the extent of raptor killings. “I was horrified,” she says. “It’s embarrassing.” Fellow scientists in the countries she’s worked in “look at the UK and say ‘what the hell is going on in your country?’ They’re far ahead of us.”


A day’s shooting for “nine guns”, Tingay explains, can cost up to £30,000. “When you’re talking about that sort of money it gives you an insight why raptors aren’t tolerated.”

Just getting the Scottish government to accept the need for licensing was a “major achievement” as for years the problems around grouse moors were simply “kicked into the long grass”. The government was “forced into a corner” by campaigners through the “weight of evidence” and public opinion. “They’d nowhere else to go.”

However, “we’re yet to see any details of what this licensing regime will look like. There has to be really strong enforcement. There hasn’t been a single successful prosecution for anybody killing a golden eagle in Scotland ever.”

Tingay warned that if government failed to deliver robust licensing, campaigners would shift focus to a “complete ban”.


Grouse shooting provides “the smallest contribution that land could possibly make” in terms of the economy, according to Amanda Burgauer, director of the progressive think-tank Common Weal, which investigated the contribution the industry makes to Scotland.

The system of landownership behind many grouse moors is “feudal”, she says. “Scotland has one of the lowest amounts of publicly accessible land for purchase or use. We don’t compare very well with other European countries.”

Rewilding the countryside and creating small sustainable rural businesses would be much more beneficial to Scotland rather than the dominance of grouse estates. It would also help counter rural depopulation. Burgauer is highly critical of grouse estate receiving subsidies if there’s forests or sheep on the land, and then using that money for shooting.

Land taxes should be used to put pressure on grouse estates, such as a graduated tax which increases with the amount of land owned. “By the time you get to a certain level, the tax burden would mean that landowners were much happier to sell,” Burgauer adds. “The price of land would fall if it had tax liability. It’s one of the mechanisms to speed up land reform and make land affordable to more people. You could also automatically break up holdings of a certain size when they come on the market.”

The Scottish government “already has a lot of the powers that it needs to do this. There are a lot better uses for land than grouse moors which would be much more productive for communities, biodiversity and the economy. We should start looking at grouse shooting as something the Victorians did.” Burgauer suggests a public campaign to make grouse shooting “morally abhorrent” as was done around drink-driving.


Robbie Marsland, director of the League Against Cruel Sports Scotland, has a very clear take on what’s happening on grouse moors: “Animals are being killed for entertainment – for fun and money.”

The widespread killing of other animals like foxes, stoats, hedgehogs and many species of birds, just to ensure there’s maximum numbers of grouse to be shot by rich customers, is “mind-bogglingly crazy. Hundreds of thousands of animals are being killed just to make sure there’s more grouse”. Snares, he says, “are Stone Age devices which undoubtedly cause distress and suffering”.

Marsland pointed to the irony that “all this killing may not even be having the desired effect of producing more grouse because for the last few seasons the shooting industry has described them as ‘poor’ for grouse numbers”.

He said there’s a “war on wildlife – the mass deployment, the premeditated dispersal, of indiscriminate killing devices”. Mummified animals have been found in traps by league investigators.

“They don’t even check their traps or clear them. How is any of this worth the environmental degradation and the lack of benefit to local communities economically over such a huge swathe of Scottish land? This is much bigger than a few people going out and shooting birds for entertainment. That’s why the licensing scheme needs to take account of the scope and scale of the industry behind all this. Without that, this cycle just continues. I’d like proper consideration paid to whether in Scotland today we think it’s right that you can kill hundreds of thousands of animals to make sure there’s more animals to shoot for entertainment. I don’t think it should be legal to kill an animal to make sure that there are more animals to kill for fun.”

Any licensing framework should prohibit the ‘killing to kill’ deaths, and reflect whether the public truly considers such actions “acceptable”. Any deaths should be “to the highest possible welfare standards”. Marsland says shooting grouse out of the sky and trapping other animals cannot be considered sufficiently ethical. Muirburn and medicated grit should be highly regulated as part of any licence. “I sincerely hope the Scottish government does the right thing.”


The Scottish government says it will deliver recommendations on licensing “as a matter of urgency”, and work on regulation has already begun. Muirburn will be reviewed.

Ross Ewing, of Scottish Land and Estates which represents the grouse industry, said there’s “overwhelming” evidence grouse moors provide “widespread social, economic and environmental benefits”. He added that “activists” opposed to grouse shooting “cannot bring themselves to acknowledge the positive benefits”. Ewing says muirburn “plays a massive role in preventing and limiting wildfire”. He made clear that nobody “in their right minds condones” raptor persecution, and “tremendous” progress has been made driving this down. “Scotland’s moorland is enjoyed by many thousands of people every year … The heather-clad hills are there for all to enjoy,” he added.

A spokesman for the Scottish Gamekeepers Association said that controlling “predator populations” helps other species like curlews. “Habitat management of heather” allows insects to thrive, he added. Any subsidy received is for “farming and forestry which everyone else using the land in such a way receives … Driven grouse shooting was found to create higher per hectare employment than all other studied land uses”. Recent studies “did not find any major issues with … medicated grit”. Hill tracks provide “good access to remote hillsides”, though some do “find them aesthetically unappealing … Not everyone will always be happy with everything.”