Many people will know that Scotland’s grouse shooting season starts in August on the so-called Glorious 12th. Far fewer would know it draws to a close today (December 10).
However, in those four short months Scotland offers a country sport that is lauded around the world and which sees international visitors returning year after year giving rural communities a vital social and economic boost.
What’s more – and perhaps even more important – is that the grouse shooting season underpins a massive amount of conservation work on our heather-clad moorlands that protects and nurtures a tremendous array of wildlife and habitats. Grouse are only shot when there is a sufficient surplus of them to sustain their populations at the right level.
On top of it all Scotland’s grouse moors are outstanding carbon sinks, helping the country to tackle climate change, and are the sites of countless peatland restoration projects.
So why do I and gamekeepers across Scotland fear for the future when we are part of a way of life that serves Scotland so well?
Next week, the Scottish Government will end a public consultation on the licensing of grouse moors prior to pressing ahead with new legislation. More rules and laws for a sector that is already engulfed in regulatory do’s and don’ts.
What worries me and most of my colleagues is how this new blizzard of red tape and laws will shape up when is has gone through the political mill at Holyrood.
These new laws were meant to tackle raptor persecution which is now at historically low levels in Scotland. No right-thinking keeper has any truck with that kind of activity but it is depressing that so many opponents of grouse shooting fail to recognise that Scotland already has the strictest anti-persecution laws and such behaviour largely – if not completely – is a thing of the past.
Keepers are passionate about what their work and take great pride in it.
Up on the moors there is a dazzling array of species, from iconic buzzards, golden eagles and red deer, to the elusive but equally treasured mountain hare, meadow pipit and the red grouse itself.
Gamekeepers use age-old skills to boost habitats for grouse to flourish, such as creating a patchwork of heather of different lengths to provide shelter and suitable sites for nesting.
For example, the careful control of generalist predators – such as foxes, stoats and corvids – offers a fundamental lifeline to ground nesting birds that are in national decline. These include iconic species such as curlew, known for their bubbling call which carries far and wide over the moors and is loved by all who hear it.
There is also a growing recognition that moorland management actively reduces the risk of wildfire. Controlled burning of heather in the cooler months – known as muirburn – reduces fuel loads and creates fire breaks. This is more and more vital every year, as our climate warms and devastating wildfires become more common. The huge wildfires at Forsinard and in Moray started in areas where there was no muirburn and no way to stop the spread.
Reducing the amount of excess vegetation on the hills doesn’t sound important but it is extremely effective in wildfire prevention - helping to keep us, our wildlife, and our carbon-storing peatlands safe in a changing climate.
All this good work is not often trumpeted at home but when I meet people from overseas they can see that it is moorland management that protects our natural environment and its many native species. They think it would be daft to change an approach that works.
People come to Scotland from all over the UK and the rest of the world flock to Scotland and they see grouse shooting in Scotland as simply world class.
We know that grouse moor licensing is coming down the track but if we end up drowning in yet more red tape and overly-rigid legislation there is a real fear among rural communities that jobs and livelihoods could be put at risk.
That wouldn’t be good for anyone who lives and works in rural communities but neither would it be good for Scotland. There is a real need for the social, economic and environmental benefits that moorland communities deliver to be taken on board by the powers that be. Our message is simply; Don’t ruin a way of life that is good for all.