But the conflict between environmentalist and grouse shooting is a long standing one. There are the ethical and moral issues that are entangled with any hunting but they are also caught up in class and land ownership struggles in Scotland. This form of hunting is associated with strong association with falls in the numbers of birds of prey, most notably in the UK the hen harrier. Claims and counter claims about the meddling of conservation groups further cloud the issue for members of the public.But game keepers are regularly charged with poisoning these beautiful birds and they are found shot, poisoned and beaten to death. But grouse shooting is an economic boon for the Upland areas of Scotland, bringing in a reported £2bn a year, supporting many jobs and local businesses.
This is when conservation is at its hardest, when the wishes of the "green faction" are so starkly opposed to economics. If protecting hen harriers was going to create jobs and bring in money then the argument would be easy and the species would be saved. In situations like this maybe the best course, and this is probably very controversial, is a middle course (very Buddhist of me!). Finding some way for jobs to be maintained because of the shoot, while also protecting the raptor species. Some form of RSPB stamp of approval for raptor friendly estates perhaps? EU grants to those who work with conservationists and change their ways? I'm not invested or knowledgeable about this conflict by any means and so for all I know these have been tried in the past. However, money is a huge lever for humans and so when economics is so against a conservation issue it really needs to be addressed.
But what of this new study that I mentioned at the top? Well it turns out, along with being bad for birds of prey, grouse shooting is contributing to climate change. This may be the lever that conservationists can use, for two reasons: firstly, climate change is a hot (pardon the pun) emotive issue that multiple people and campaigns can get behind, and secondly, some form of emissions tax is possible in the same way that it is imposed on big businesses. By burning the heathland the estates create better habitat for the grouse, but they are also burning large swathes of peatland. Peat is a carbon sink, so by burning this habitat they're causing a double whamy: releasing CO2 from the burnt plant material and stopping the peat from storing CO2. So maybe this can be this revelation is what can make the change, but with a Tory government in power and having already attempted to loosen the ban on fox hunting, I doubt they'll risk further reducing their support in Scotland by taking on the big estate owners. Oh, how fun it is to be politically cynical!
The paper mentioned above:
Douglas et al. (2015) Vegetation burning for game management in the UK uplands is increasing and overlaps spatially with soil carbon and protected areas. Biological Conservation, 191:243-250
Burning for habitat management is globally widespread. Burning over carbon-rich soils is a global environmental concern due to the potential contribution to climate change. In the UK, upland heath and blanket bog, so-called 'moorland', often overlies carbon-rich soils, and has internationally important conservation value, but is burned as management for gamebird shooting and to a lesser extent for livestock grazing. There is little detailed information on the spatial extent or temporal trends in burning across the UK. This hinders formulation of policies for sustainable management, given that the practice is potentially detrimental for soil carbon storage, water quality and habitat condition. Using remotely sensed data, we mapped burning for gamebird management across c45 000 km2 of the UK. Burning occurred across 8551 1-km squares, a third of the burned squares in Scotland and England were on peat ≥ 0.5 m in depth, and the proportion of moorland burned within squares peaked at peat depths of 1–2 m. Burning was detected within 55% of Special Areas of Conservation and 63% of Special Protection Areas that were assessed, and the proportion of moorland burned was significantly higher inside sites than on comparable squares outside protected areas. The annual numbers of burns increased from 2001 to 2011 irrespective of peat depth. The spatial overlap of burning with peat and protected areas and the increasing number of burns require urgent attention, for the development of policies for sustainable management and reversal of damage to ecosystem services in the UK uplands.