For Dee Ward, grouse shooting enthusiast and owner of an 8,000-acre estate in Scotland’s scenic eastern Highlands, worries about government plans to license the sport go far beyond the prospect of more red tape in an already highly regulated rural sector.
The licensing scheme announced last week is a victory for an anti-shooting lobby that Mr Ward believes is rooted largely in hostility to capitalism and landowners, and which he says could threaten the future of what is one of the world’s most celebrated blood sports.
“A lot of [shooting enthusiasts] come from abroad and lots of owners are foreign, and my worry is that if there’s too much regulation . . . they will stop investing,” said Mr Ward, who sold his office water cooler business in England to move to the glens nearly two decades ago.
“My concern is that it’s another nail in the coffin of the grouse shooting sector,” he said.
Landowners say grouse moors are already subject to a wide range of regulation, including controls on when heather can be burnt, methods of pest control and the use of medicines to control ticks.
Scottish National party ministers have stressed their goal is to address misconduct associated with driven grouse shooting, rather than to outlaw a sport that draws admirers from around the world and has enjoyed a royal seal of approval since Queen Victoria took it up in the 19th century.
Driven grouse shooting involves beaters driving large flocks of birds towards a line of hidden marksmen who try to shoot as many as possible as they pass, an approach that requires much more intensive management to boost bird numbers than more traditional “walk-up” shooting.
The licence plans follow increasingly vocal opposition both within and beyond the governing SNP towards grouse shooting on broader environmental, economic and moral grounds.
While enthusiasts celebrate driven grouse shooting for the challenge of hitting the unpredictable and fast-flying red grouse, many animal lovers consider the sport and the large hauls it produces to be as cruel as the now largely banned practice of hunting foxes with hounds.
Some critics of the sport see the plans for tighter controls on it as a step to bolder action against the large sporting estates that dominate land ownership patterns in swaths of Scotland.
“The case for radically reforming grouse moors and land reform in Scotland is very interlinked,” Max Wiszneiwski, a campaigner for grouse moor reform, wrote in the pro-independence National newspaper last month. “Grouse moors, it can be said, are a metaphor for land reform in Scotland — very few people using land very badly for very little benefit to society.”
But while the licensing plan is likely to please more radical SNP members, Mairi Gougeon, Scotland’s rural affairs minister, dismayed some campaigners by promising to “work closely” with gamekeepers, landowners and shooting groups in developing the licence scheme.
The SNP’s membership and electoral footprint has become more urban in recent years, but party leaders remain sensitive to any move that could damage the fragile economies of the many rural communities that currently rely on shooting for employment and infrastructure.
Ms Gougeon portrayed the central goal of the scheme as ending the illegal persecution of birds of prey by gamekeepers trying to maximise the population of grouse that can be driven towards waiting guns.
A report by the RSPB environmental charity last year found that confirmed cases of illegal raptor killing doubled between 2017 and 2018, but that the difficulty of detecting such persecution meant this was only the “tip of the iceberg”.
Satellite-tagged raptors, including golden eagles, continue to go missing suspiciously near grouse moors, with the tag from one lost in 2016 recently found wrapped in lead in a river.
Opposition has also grown to the practice of burning sections of heather to ensure that grouse chicks have young shoots to eat and old growth in which to hide, and to the large scale killing of mountain hares, which some gamekeepers say is needed to maintain large populations of grouse.
“These animals are killed so that there can be more grouse to shoot for entertainment,” said the League Against Cruel Sports campaign group.
But while shooting critics say the result of intensive moor management stifles environmental diversity, supporters say such efforts and the legal suppression of predators such as weasels and crows preserves moorland and benefits other bird species.
Mr Ward, who is also vice-chairman of the Scottish Land and Estates landowners group, said that while a few estates might still be breaking the law, growing numbers of golden eagles and other raptors across Scotland showed the vast majority would these days never kill birds of prey.
Grouse shooting on his estate not only kept two people in jobs, it also supported a population of waders and black grouse — an environmental benefit that was not well enough understood, he said.
“Nothing is more soul destroying than when you’re working, and you’re seeing all these beautiful wildlife, and then you read the press that how we’re killing everything,” he said.
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