A shooting party at the start of the grouse season near Aviemore © Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

The Scottish government is to introduce a licensing system for grouse shooting, prompting fierce objections from landowners and gamekeepers who said the scheme would wrap the sport in red tape and play into the hands of those who want to ban it completely.

The licensing plans announced on Thursday by Mairi Gougeon, Scotland’s rural affairs minister, follow growing opposition towards driven grouse shooting from environmentalists and animal rights activists as well as from land reformers who object to the use of vast upland moors as playgrounds for the rich.

Wealthy enthusiasts from England and around the world flock each year to Scottish estates to shoot the bird, providing an important boost to rural businesses but dismaying those who say the intensive management of moors for grouse is ecologically disastrous.

Ms Gougeon told the Scottish parliament that licensing was needed to strengthen moor management and in particular to prevent birds of prey being killed in order to maximise grouse populations.

The minister cited a 2017 report by public agency NatureScot that found a third of satellite-tagged golden eagles in Scotland had disappeared in suspicious circumstances on or near grouse moors.

“Self-regulation alone will not be enough to end the illegal killing of raptors, and further intervention is now required,” Ms Gougeon said.

She said the new scheme would be introduced in the next parliament if — as polls suggest — the Scottish National party remains in government after elections in May.

“A licence will be required to operate a driven grouse moor business, and . . . if there is strong evidence of unlawful activity or serious breaches of codes of practice by that business, then their licence could be withdrawn,” she said.

In a joint statement, shooting, gamekeeper and landowner lobbies denounced the plan as a “seriously damaging blow” to a sport they said sustained fragile rural communities and provided substantial environmental benefits.

The licensing scheme would interfere with legitimate business and “engulf the sector in a blizzard of red tape that is unprecedented and out of all proportion”, said the groups, which included the British Association for Shooting and Conservation and Scottish Countryside Alliance.

“There are real fears this could impact perfectly law-abiding shooting businesses,” they said. “A one-size-fits-all licensing scheme will serve only to play into the hands of those who are dedicated to banning shooting altogether.”

The Scottish Conservatives accused the SNP government of failing to follow the recommendations of a 2019 expert report that licensing should only be introduced if there was no marked improvement in the ecological sustainability of grouse moor management over five years.

“This makes no sense whatsoever,” said Liz Smith, Scottish Tory environment spokesperson. “It is yet another SNP attack on rural Scotland which will have deeply damaging and long-lasting consequences.”

However, closer oversight of grouse moors enjoys broad support in the Scottish parliament. Labour welcomed the plans, the Liberal Democrats said licensing should be introduced more quickly, while the Scottish Greens complained about the central role Ms Gougeon said she would give the gamekeeper, shooting and landowner lobbies in developing the licensing scheme.

“It’s like putting arsonists in charge of a fire station,” said Scottish Greens environment spokesperson Mark Ruskell. “Almost any other use of the land would be better for the nature and climate emergencies and create more jobs in rural areas.”

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