Animal

Close Scottish grouse moors to help climate, report urges


Conservation groups have called for Scotland’s grouse moors to be closed down and replaced by woodland to protect the country from the impacts of the climate emergency.

A report for Revive, a coalition of environmental and animal rights groups, has found grouse moors cause significant ecological damage by burning heather, allowing heavy grazing by deer and sheep, and using intensive predator control.

The industry’s practices have created a treeless landscape that has severely limited the number of animals and plants living there, and also threatens peatlands and bogs that are the country’s greatest reservoir of carbon dioxide, the report said.

Helen Armstrong, its author, said replacing driven grouse moors – estates that are intensively managed for shooting – with natural woodland and scrub would be far more sustainable and more economically productive.

She said that about 1m hectares (2.47m acres) of upland Scotland, about 13% of the country’s land area, had been used in recent decades for driven grouse shooting in areas such as the Cairngorms, the Monadhliath mountains, Deeside, the Angus glens and southern Scotland. Even so, the industry added only about 0.04% of value to Scotland’s economy.

Drawing on experience in south-west-Norway, Armstrong said returning the Scottish uplands to mixed woodland would support craft industries, low-impact timber felling, sustainable hunting and small-scale farms.

Armstrong, a land management consultant who has worked for the government agencies Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and Forest Research, said many of the industry’s most damaging practices should be strictly controlled or stopped.

Those included a presumption against muirburn, where large strips of heather are burned to create new growth for young grouse to feed on. It creates a grouse moor’s characteristic patchwork appearance and flowering heather, but also releases significant amounts of CO2 and dries out underlying peat, she said.

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Recent aerial surveys suggested that 328,000 hectares – or 4% of Scotland’s land area – is regularly strip-burned for that purpose. The UK government has proposed banning muirburn in England on sustainability grounds, adding to pressure on Scottish ministers.

While intensive management supported ground-nesting birds such as curlew and golden plover, it prevented many other endangered species from prospering, including wild cats, capercaillie and golden eagles, she added.

Armstrong said it was essential that Scotland’s substantial deer herds were heavily culled to allow woodland and scrub to naturally regenerate. Sheep numbers should also be heavily reduced, with organised tree-planting used in some areas to stimulate woodland regeneration.

Revive – formed by Friends of the Earth Scotland (FoES), the League Against Cruel Sports, the animal rights group OneKind, the wildlife crime website Raptor Persecution UK, and the pro-independence thinktank Common Weal – has called previously for much tougher legal controls on grouse moors.

It accuses these estates of widespread illegal persecution of birds of prey, as well as unjustified culling of mountain hares and other mammals that could carry ticks or eat grouse chicks or eggs, using inhumane techniques.

Last month, SNH sanctioned one of Scotland’s most famous grouse moors, Leadhills near Abington, after the police said there was clear evidence of illegal bird of prey persecution on the estate. SNH withdrew its authority to control ravens and crows, a predator control measure that critics say allows gamekeepers to target birds of prey, for three years. Leadhills’ owners said they were considering an appeal.

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The Scottish government is expected to set out its stance on grouse moors soon after receiving a much delayed report on the industry from an expert working group led by Prof Alan Werritty.

Its report, which will be published by ministers later this month, looked at whether grouse moors should be licensed to ensure estates follow the correct legal and environmental standards.

Richard Dixon, the chief executive of FoES, said: “Licensing would be welcome but we would like to go further than that, by promoting a much more comprehensive move to more sustainable land use.”

The Scottish government should support the phasing out of grouse moors by subsidising natural reforestation projects, paying land-owners to conserve and enhance peatlands, and by giving grants for woodland crofts.

Sarah-Jane Laing, the chief executive of Scottish Land and Estates, the body that represents many grouse moor owners, said the report was funded by anti-shooting activists and was ill-informed.

She said: “It goes firmly against a raft of independent scientific studies. It is recommending a complete change in the landscape of Scotland. The bonnie purple heather will give way to an unmanaged vista of scrub and scarce wildlife.”

A recent study of grouse moor management at Langholm moor in the Scottish Borders found the correct management techniques led to higher curlew, snipe and golden plover populations, and hen harriers. The Scottish fire and rescue service has said muirburn could also prevent moorland wildfires by reducing fuel from dry heather.

Laing said: “Such land management is funded privately and without management for grouse it is likely that the motivation for many of these benefits would disappear.”

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