It was a picture of traditional Scottish country life. Across the rolling, heather-strewnmoorland shots rang out as the Glorious Twelfth ushered in the grouse-shooting season.
On one shoot on the Lammermuir Hills, 15 miles south-east of Edinburgh, shooters, gamekeepers, beaters, gunloaders and retrieval dogs were enjoying their first hunt of the year, roaming from one site to another in a procession of four-by-fours and pickup trucks.
Closer inspection, however, showed that things were not quite so idyllic. On a tour with Ian Thomson, head of investigations at RSPB Scotland, we came across a tree trunk that had been laid across a stream with a mesh cage in the middle. The cage contained what looked like a large mousetrap, designed to catch stoats and weasels that prey on grouse and their eggs.
In addition to reducing the population of predators and disease carriers such as foxes, deer, crows and mountain hares – all perfectly legal – some gamekeepers have illegally killed large numbers of hen harriers that prey on their grouse, Mr Thomson said.
It’s an accusation backed up by data. Since 2000, 20 gamekeepers have been found guilty of “raptor persecution” or poisoning offences on grouse moorland – while in 2013 alone the RSPB logged 238 reports of birds of prey being poisoned, shot or beaten to death.
Gamekeepers also burn large swathes of their estates each year to create a mosaic of areas of differently-aged heather, since grouse prefer to eat younger heather and nest in older heather. This is also legal, but the RSPB says too much heather is being burned on peat bogs that are a valuable carbon sink, and that too many bogs are being drained to enlarge the area that can be inhabited by grouse – putting bogland species such as cotton grass and bog asphodel under pressure.
The most controversial animal killings
The most controversial animal killings
1/6 Cincinnati Zoo worker shots and kills Harambe, the 17-year-old gorilla
Harambe, a 17-year-old gorilla was shot and killed by a Cincinnati Zoo worker after a three-year-old boy climbed into a gorilla enclosure and was grabbed and dragged by Harambe. The incident was recorded on video and received broad international coverage and commentary, including controversy over the choice to kill Harambe. A number of primatologists and conservationists wrote later that the zoo had no other choice under the circumstances, and that it highlighted the danger of zoo animals in close proximity to humans and the need for better standards of care
Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden
2/6 Walt Palmer (left), from Minnesota, who killed Cecil, the Zimbabwean lion (pictured here with another lion shot in Africa)
Walter James Palmer has been named by Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force as the shooter of Cecil, a 13-year-old prized lion. He is now wanted by Zimbabwe officials on poaching charges. The lion was protected and the subject of a decade long study by the Wildlife Unit of Oxford University in the UK. He was outfitted with a GPS collar and was killed in Hwange National Park. The Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Authority and the Safari Operators Association said that two men were charged with poaching in connection to Mr Palmer
3/6 Kendall Jones hunting images
Kendall Jones, a 19-year-old Texas Tech university student, has provoked worldwide fury after posting pictures of herself smiling next to animals she hunted, including a lion, rhinoceros, antelope, leopard, elephant, zebra and hippopotamus
4/6 Rebecca Francis hunting images
Rebecca Francis, a huntress who has killed dozens of wild animals has been sent death wishes by furious social media users after a picture showing her lying down next to a dead giraffe was circulated. Rebecca Francis has a website and Facebook page dedicated to the animals she has killed in hunts across Africa and America. Francis, a prolific hunter who has also co-hosted the television show Eye of the Hunter, regularly posts pictures of herself posing next to dead bears, giraffes, buffaloes and zebras, among other animals. She uses a bow and arrow to kill her prey
5/6 The slaughter of Marius, an 18-month-old healthy giraffe in Copenhagen Zoo
Copenhagen Zoo made the controversial decision to euthanise a healthy giraffe named Marius, which was later dissected and fed to lions as visitors watched. The slaughter sparked a furious backlash from social media users and zoo staff have received death threats by phone and email. Soon after the incident, Copenhagen Zoo faced an international outcry once again after four healthy lions were put down
6/6 Swiss Dählhölzli zoo kills healthy brown bear cub
A Switzerland zoo faced heavy criticism from animal rights groups, after keepers put down a healthy brown bear cub to spare it from being bullied by its dominant male father. The 360 kg male bear Misha had already killed one of his 11-week old cubs in public and was bullying the second, staff at the zoo said, because he was jealous of the attention the cubs were receiving from their mother, Masha. Both adult brown bears had been donated to Bern’s Dählhölzli zoo in 2009. Campaigners condemned staff there for not separating the cubs, who are being referred to as Baby Bear Two and Baby Bear Three, and their mother from Misha after their birth in January
“We are seeing grouse farming in many areas. But having an unnatural density of grouse has an adverse effect on other species,” said Mr Thomson. “We’re not seeing buzzards, or hen harriers or peregrines [falcons] and we should be. It’s wholly artificial.”
The shooting fraternity takes issue with the RSPB’s assertion that their activities are spoiling the countryside and argue that they provide a valuable means of conservation. “We manage the moors so that there are a mix of areas, from freshly burned to four or five years old, providing food and habitat for a wide range of species,” said Duncan Thomas, the North West regional officer for the British Association for Shooting and Conservation.
“If grouse shooting didn’t take place, the moors would grow into a mass of rank heather leaving a sterile wildlife environment. This would pose an enormous uncontrolled fire risk. Moorland management is essential to protect against that fire risk.”
The grouse shooting industry is big business in the uplands of Scotland and northern England, bringing £2bn a year into the rural economy and supporting 100,000 jobs in everything from pubs, restaurants and hotels to gunmaking, gamekeeping and beating the birds out of the heather for the shooters.
But despite the shots filling the Scottish moorland air, this season will be a tough one for the industry after an unusually cold spring decimated grouse populations.
“We’ve had a terrible cold spring which hammered all wildlife in the uplands, especially the wild grouse chicks,” Mr Thomas said. “A significant amount of income is generated by rural economies through grouse shooting but this season many restaurants, pubs, hotels will suffer from lost bookings. We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of pounds in lost revenue. There is disappointment and frustration.” Some local communities will be badly hit. “At one village near here – Abbeystead, in between Clitheroe and Lancaster – half of the kids at the school are gamekeepers’ children,” said Mr Thomas.
Phil Gunning, a retired police inspector who runs a grouse syndicate on the Bowland Estate in Lancashire, was resigned: “Whatever we do in terms of upland management, using all the science at our disposal, nature is invariably on hand to remind us just who holds the upper hand,” he said.Reuse content