Inglorious Twelfth

Covering most of Scotland north of the Highland Line (other than East Aberdeenshire), heather moors cover 67% of our country. According to the Moorland Association: “grouse shooting is now the only significant income earner there which is not heavily subsidised by the taxpayer. It provides the ‘economic engine’ to pay for conservation management and to maintain employment in remote rural areas.” Oh, aye.

Grouse shooting in England & Wales bags about £70m a year for the local economy, based on £150 a brace of birds shot. Data for Scotland is much harder to come by, in part because the Moorland Forum is much more a conservation operation than the openly hunter-oriented Moorland Association and Moorland Scotland has no website at present.

According to Robert Rattray, partner at sporting agency CKD Galbraith the take-up for grouse shooting this season had been “particularly strong” despite the poor weather hitting bird numbers. “We expect an influx of visitors to Scotland with teams of grouse shooters looking to spend on average £10,000 to £15,000 for a day’s shooting. Grouse shooting is a vital part of our fragile rural economy, with the grouse industry as a whole in Scotland valued at £30m and supporting some 950 full time jobs.”

Over 2/3rds of Scotland’s 78,000 sq. km. are classed as the “grasses and rough grazing” of these moorlands. Let’s leave aside the whole overhanging question of the Clearances that created these great empty estates in the first place, what is the actual opportunity cost of dedicating most of the country to grouse, deer and pheasant hunting? We will also leave aside the ongoing carnage among predators, even though the scale of shooting, poisoning or otherwise eradicating sea eagles, red kites, kestrels, etc. from estates verges on the criminal and just consider the environmental and economic impact.

The great. bleak glens of Cairngorm or Morvern are not natural. The original inhabitants did for the original Caledonian forest but three hundred years of deer over-stocking and stalking have ensured that it can’t regenerate. Add in that grouse need open heather to nest and the treeless, windswept character of most estates is a logical outcome. Now, whether Assynt or Lewis could ever be more than a wilderness of peat hags is not the point. Great swathes of the Highlands (not to mention the Southern Uplands) have been planted with equally bleak and uniform blankets of conifers.

However misguided, this proves that the land is nowhere near worthless for other uses, something the eyeless skeletons of villages from Mull to Bettyhill provide eloquent, if mute, testament. And with bracken spreading its poisonous presence across the more fertile open areas, all evidence is that this is an ecology out of balance, geared to private estates benefitting from a couple of overstocked species while taking up most of the country. And that for some £30m in income in a country with a GDP of £124bn. Think about the sheer waste in those numbers: 67% of the country provides 0.02% of the GDP.

Now, I make no claim to be an ecologist but, is it not conceivable that regeneration of the Caledonian forest across huge tracts and reintroduction of lost species like beaver and wolf might not, in itself, provide more jobs and tourism per sq. km., even if some estates were left to cater for those who insist blasting hapless local fauna constitutes civilised recreation? This would also reintroduce the biodiversity we claim to want and, at the same time, provide an organic blanket to buffer this wetter climate so large rainstorms no longer cause so many flood alerts in Perth, Elgin and the like.

Instead of our archaic land laws allowing absentee landlords and our own exclusion from great swathes of our country ‘in season’, we need some draconian measures, incentivising creative and historic restoration to redress the present ludicrous imbalance between Central Belt and deserted glen populations. This, in turn would be an economic shot in the arm to Highland & Island businesses, bringing with it transport improvements and more competitive pricing so that Mullachs, etc. need not pay £1,50 per litre for fuel.

Unlike most other attractions that bring many people to visit Scotland, over 95% of native Scots will never get near a grouse moor—with those that do likely to be chased off. There is a reek of class and unearned privilege about the whole business. Why it should dominate our country for a measly £30m in forelock-tugging income straight out of another era eludes me entirely.

£30m is what people in Highlands & Islands pay EXTRA in petrol costs (over & above elsewhere) just to live where they do amidst this massive waste of national resources.

Regenerated Caledonian Forest: Image courtesy of Trees for Life


About davidsberry

Local ex-councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Retired in 2017.
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