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Nothing glorious about grouse moor murders

PETER FROST joins broadcaster Chris Packham and Labour’s shadow environment secretary Sue Hayman MP on the grouse moors

JUST one week after the far from Glorious Twelfth, when every toff and every rich spiv wannabe toff dons his tweeds and picks up his shotgun and heads for moors, the real truth behind this bloody slaughter has been played out at Jedburgh law courts.

Not only are half a million red grouse (Lagopus lagopus scotica) blasted out of the sky during the grouse season, but hundreds of thousands of other wild animals and birds are murdered by gamekeepers and others at the bidding of the grouse moor owners.

Alan Wilson, one of those gamekeepers, pleaded guilty last week at Jedburgh to nine offences involving using guns, illegal snares and the highly toxic and illegal pesticide carbofuran to kill all sorts of protected and unprotected wildlife.

The gamekeeper pleaded guilty to shooting and killing two goshawks, three buzzards, three badgers and an otter. He also pleaded guilty to charges of using illegal snares and possession of two bottles of carbofuran.

He had created a so-called stink pit where he let the bodies of the birds and animals he had killed rot to attract further animals so that he could kill them too. 

Forestry Commission Scotland conservation manager David Anderson said: “In 40 years working in wildlife management I have never seen so many protected species dead in such a small area.”

Gamekeeper Wilson has previous form. He was fined £400 last year and banned from keeping birds of prey for 10 years after admitting failing to protect an eagle owl in his care from suffering. 

He had pleaded guilty to keeping the pet bird in filthy conditions in a pigsty at his home. Eagle owls are used illegally by gamekeepers to attack our native birds of prey as well as to kill small animals like weasels, stoats, mountain hares and many others perceived to be a threat to grouse. 

One question that must be asked is why Wilson’s employers, the owners of the estate and grouse moors, have not been prosecuted for vicarious liability alongside the man they paid to do their dirty work.

Today Wilson avoided a jail sentence and was ordered to carry out 225 hours of unpaid work and given a restriction of liberty order requiring him to stay home between 9pm and 6am for 10 months. 

Traditionally gamekeepers have got away with a fine easily paid by their employers out of the huge fees that shooters pay to kill grouse. 

These shooting fees can be as much as £10,000 per person per day, so a fine of a few hundred pounds is nothing to the shoot.  

There has only ever been one case of a Scottish gamekeeper receiving a custodial sentence for offences involving animal cruelty. 

In 2012 gamekeeper George Mutch was sentenced at Aberdeen sheriff court after being convicted convicted of laying illegal traps and beating a goshawk to death with a stick. 

A second goshawk and a buzzard were also caught in a trap and Mutch was recorded placing them in a sack and carrying them off. 

Goshawks are rare birds — there are only about 150 nesting pairs in the whole of Scotland. Mutch was convicted of four charges under the Wildlife and Countryside Act and jailed for a pitiful four months.

Labour’s shadow environment, food and rural affairs secretary Sue Hayman MP has called for a review into driven grouse shooting. 

If the Tory ministers — many of whom are themselves grouse shooters of course — refuse to put such a review in place then the next Labour government will introduce it.

The Labour review would examine the economic and environmental impacts of driven grouse shooting. Labour is calling for the review in light of extensive evidence that driven grouse shooting causes disastrous environmental damage.

Chris Packham, the naturalist and broadcaster, has already urged government ministers to introduce a strict licensing system on grouse moors, with powers to ban shooting on estates where protected species are vanishing. 

Foxes, stoats, weasels and mountain hares are ruthlessly targeted alongside illegal killings of protected species, says Packham. 

The broadcaster and his Wild Justice campaign group have highlighted illegal bird of prey persecution in Britain and drawn attention to the extent of largely undocumented deaths of wild animals not protected by law on private expensive grouse shoots. 

“Legally they are allowed to get rid of weasels, stoats, foxes, and they do this relentlessly,” said Packham, “and we have no idea how many of these animals are killed, but we know that obviously it runs into the hundreds of thousands.

“If you abide by certain rules and if you own the land or have the landowner’s permission, then you can trap those species at any time of the year — there’s no closed season. And that’s what they do 365 days a year. They purge those predators.

“Mountain hares are also ruthlessly targeted. Some estates have exterminated them completely. Complete hare genocide. It is believed that more than 25,000 mountain hares are killed each year.”

As illegal killings of rare and protected species mounts we all need to consider the real impact of grouse moors on our countryside. 

The techniques for managing them, which include regular burning of heather, draining water-storing soils and peats, are disastrous to the ecology of these fragile landscapes.

These moors make up roughly a fifth of all land in Scotland. Heather on these Scottish moors is routinely burnt to stimulate growth of green shoots, which grouse eat. 

The practice prevents numerous other species of plants growing as well as other negative ecological impacts. 

All kinds of so-called pests are slaughtered to protect the grouse — these include mountain hares, rabbits, foxes, even hedgehogs. Pet dogs and cats are also sometimes caught in the gamekeeper’s snares. 

Many species of birds including golden eagles, hen harriers, buzzards, goshawks and even humble crows are persecuted by those protecting the expensive grouse and other shooting estates. 

Last week a golden eagle was photographed flying with its legs still caught in an illegal trap. It was seen over the grouse moors near the royal Balmoral estate.

Packham has received much intimidation and many threats from the country shooting community. He had dead crow corpses strung up outside his home earlier this year after he successfully challenged the legality of some aspects of wildlife killing. 

Grouse moors are often also burned to ready them for shooting. This increases the likelihood of both wildfires and flooding. It also releases carbon and dramatically reduces their capacity to capture carbon in the future. 

Rare moorland plants, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates as well as birds and mammals are driven to extinction by the unsustainable monoculture that is a grouse moor.

Despite such environmental damage, the 10 largest English grouse moors are paid more than £3 million in farm subsidies every year. 

Hayman told us: “The costs of grouse shooting on our environment and wildlife needs to be to properly weighed up against the benefit of landowners profiting from shooting parties.

“For too long the Tories have bent the knee to land owners and it is our environment and our people who pay the price.”

So the price for deliberately killing two goshawks, three buzzards, three badgers and an otter is some unpaid work and staying in at night for a few months. 

No doubt Wilson will soon be out and about again defending his precious grouse for the rich owners and shooters of Scotland’s grouse moors.

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