Where are we with Werritty? - Scotland's grouse shooting review

Ross Ewing

Ross Ewing

Ross is BASC’s political and press officer in Scotland. He is a recent graduate of the University of St Andrews and his shooting interests include lowland game shooting, clay pigeon shooting and deer stalking. Ross has been embroiled in the debates surrounding shoot licensing since university where he wrote a dissertation on attitudes towards licensing driven grouse shooting in Scotland.

After almost two and a half years, the Scottish Government’s official review into driven grouse shooting (DGS) – also known as the Werritty Review – has been published.

The review is the first of its kind in Scotland, and was commissioned on the back of a study by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) which found that one third of satellite-tagged golden eagles in the Eastern Highlands had disappeared in ‘suspicious circumstances’ on or near to driven grouse moors over a 12-year period. This study prompted the incumbent cabinet secretary for the environment, climate change and land reform, Roseanna Cunningham MSP, to commission an official government review of DGS.

Crucially, the review chairman, Professor Alan Werritty FRSE, was also instructed to ‘advise’ on the option of licensing grouse shooting businesses – a move that would constitute an unprecedented regulatory hike if recommended, and one that would set a dangerous precedent for the future of shooting in Scotland.

BASC Scotland director, Dr Colin Shedden, sat on the steering group of a study commissioned by the Scottish Government into the socio-economic and biodiversity impacts of grouse shooting. The study was subsequently presented to the review panel for consideration. Elsewhere, my efforts have been focussed on informing MSPs about the implications of licensing and building cross-party political support for grouse shooting.

The review was due to be published back in June but has been substantially delayed for reasons previously unknown. Today those reasons became clear. In a surprising move, Professor Werritty openly comments on the divisions in the ranks of his own steering group. He concedes that there was an equal number of members for and against licensing, and that he – in his capacity as chairman – wished to use his casting vote to rule in favour of licensing.

He goes on to disclose that he was subsequently persuaded not to support licensing, and the official flagship recommendation states that a licensing scheme should be introduced in five years’ time if there is no improvement in raptor conservation on grouse moors. The report states that raptor conservation will be measured by determining whether populations of breeding golden eagles, hen harriers and peregrines are in favourable or unfavourable condition on and in the vicinity of grouse moors.

The highly unusual insight to the group’s internal disagreements represents a tangible threat to grouse shooting in Scotland. The mere acknowledgement of significant rifts in the group and the u-turn on Werritty’s casting vote removes all credibility behind the flagship recommendation. 

When Roseanna Cunningham’s special advisors read the contents of the review, they will know that Werritty’s disclosure gives almost free reign to implement licensing. It is, after all, far easier to implement policies that disagree with the official review if there is: i) public acknowledgement that the authors themselves are divided; and ii) public acknowledgement the chairman himself was in support of shoot licensing.

Moreover, the recommendation does not distinguish between driven and walked up grouse shooting, which suggests that even smaller, walked-up grouse shoots could be subject to heightened regulation at some point in the future. This is a worrying prospect and evidence that the regulatory framework is already extending to smaller shooting businesses which manage game less-intensively.

In the absence of a credible licensing recommendation, it goes without saying that DGS in Scotland has entered a new era of uncertainty. BASC recognise this and will do all that we can to engage with the Scottish Government and cross-party groups of MSPs to highlight why licensing would be profoundly damaging. We argue that it is high time that we move away from constraining within legislation to enabling within legislation in light of the vital economic and environmental contributions made in by the shooting community in Scotland.

Alongside the flagship recommendation, Werritty and his team have made a series of other recommendations. Among the most high profile is a recommendation to increase the regulatory framework surrounding muirburn. BASC will support this recommendation provided it is regulated under a general licence that negates the requirement for individual applications. Estates should not be over-burdened with excessive regulatory admin.

On mountain hares, Werritty recommends that the hare population and number of hares culled should be reported to SNH – a move supported by BASC on account of the fact that it will evidence the healthy hare populations on grouse moors and the proportional, carefully-considered culls which take place.

Other recommendations include a direction to make greater use of section 16 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act to take species that are perceived to be limiting the populations of amber and red listed birds including red grouse. We welcome this move and hope that it will help to reduce ground-nesting bird predation. 

We also welcome Werritty’s recommendation that states that DGS should not be banned in light of the extensive contribution to the rural economy – an argument that has frequently been made by BASC over the last two years.

The publication of this review is very much a tale of two halves. BASC will always support initiatives designed to improve accountability and best practice. However, the recommendation with respect to the wholesale licensing of grouse shooting is confused and lacking in credibility. What is abundantly clear is that licensing will become inevitable – in five years or sooner – if bad practice continues. The shooting community cannot allow this to happen. 

Licensing would impose a significant burden on estates that do so much for the environment and the economy in fragile, rural areas. Losing them to a barrage of heightening regulation would have disastrous implications and set a dangerous, regulatory precedent for the future of shooting in Scotland. 

The onus is now on all of us comes together to eradicate bad practice, promote the benefits of grouse shooting and make the case against licensing at what is a pivotal moment for the future of DGS in Scotland.