Home Society & Culture The Animals Suffering on Scottish Moors in the Name of Sport

The Animals Suffering on Scottish Moors in the Name of Sport

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The economic benefit of grouse shooting is negligible. It only amounts to 0.0075–0.016% of Scotland’s entire gross domestic product. But any economic argument made for grouse shooting does not dispense with the moral objection, and the management of moorlands in Scotland has become the subject of increasing debate. Many assume that these areas are “wild” and “untamed”, but these landscapes are the result of management techniques that are now under scrutiny via the Wildlife Management and Muirburn (Scotland) Bill, currently at Stage 2 in the parliamentary process. 

Every year in the UK, approximately half a million grouse are shot in the name of sport. While the majority of this takes place in Scotland, it also occurs in Wales and parts of Northern England. It is estimated that between 10 and 19% of the total land surface of Scotland alone is set aside specifically to facilitate the shooting season, which runs from August until December.

Hundreds of thousands of animals killed each year

While “gamebird” shooting is attracting political attention in Scotland and is increasingly regarded as both a moral and an environmental issue, comparatively little attention has

been given to the “predator control” methods that underpin grouse shooting. “Predator control” is just one of the types of “moor management” undertaken to ensure inflated numbers of grouse. Other types of “management” include heather burning (“muirburn”), disease management using medicated grit, and tracks for improved access.

According to the best available estimates, as many as 260,000 animals are killed each year in Scotland as part of legal “predator control” measures. Targeted animals include foxes, weasels, stoats, rats, rabbits, and various types of corvids, such as crows, magpies, jackdaws, and jays. Non-targeted animals that are also killed include pine martens, hedgehogs, badgers, deer, and hares. There have also been reports of endangered and protected animals, such as the capercaillie and raptors, being killed. A recent report shows that as many as 39% of the animals trapped are not the intended “target” animals. 

Any conservation argument for these predator control methods is untenable because of the tacit acceptance that grouse shooting is entirely a sporting activity. Claims that “predator control” helps sustain populations of capercaillie and other endangered species are negated by the fact that these species are themselves killed not infrequently by “predator control” methods.

Trapping of animals causes suffering

In assessing the traps used on the moors, it is impossible to overstate the severity of the suffering caused to animals caught in these traps. Any system of killing that only causes death after 45 seconds to five minutes is grotesquely cruel (as per the Agreement on International Humane Trapping Standards, to which the UK is a signatory). Traps are still considered “efficient” if 20% of animals do not die in five minutes, but the animals have to suffer an appalling range of injuries that would not be acceptable in any other context. Entrapment of free-living animals is at best a distressing experience that obviously involves psychological and emotional harm. This must be coupled with the consideration that 20% or more of the animals trapped will have undergone actual physical injuries of a substantial kind. 

All forms of predator control, trapping, snaring, and poisoning are predicated on exposing animals to hours or days of prolonged suffering. Moreover, all of this implies that these traps can practically be inspected often. This is a question in and of itself given the vast area in which the methods are used and the limited manpower available, as well as adverse weather conditions. The suffering caused by these “management techniques” is made invisible, reduced to being a private matter on private estates, whereas cruelty to animals is a public moral issue and should be subject to political accountability.

The proposed legislation does not go far enough

Effective legislation requires three important components: compliance, inspection, and enforcement. The illegal trapping, especially of raptors, indicates that there is limited compliance with the current legislation. Raptor persecution is one of the main concerns of the bill, which aims to change “rules around how people can capture and kill certain wild birds and wild animals” and “rules around the making of muirburn.” The bill plans to address these problems by banning glue traps, licensing the use of traps, and giving the SSPCA powers of inspection, as well as introducing a licensing scheme for grouse hunting and the management of land.

While we commend the plan to introduce powers of inspection for the SSPCA, licensing the killing of animals on moors serves only to codify and ingrain the suffering and deaths of those animals. Trapping, including snares, and poisoning are inherently inhumane and cannot, in almost all cases, be divorced from prolonged suffering. All current methods of “predator control” either cause suffering, prolong suffering, or make animals liable to suffering. To license any of the traps currently in use is to institutionalise the suffering and death of thousands of animals a year.

Our recent report, Killing to Kill: An Ethical Assessment of “Predator Control” on Scottish Moors concludes that “predator control” is uncontrollable. There are simply not enough mechanisms in place to control it. Poisons and traps of various kinds are readily available for purchase in shops and on the internet. There is no moral alternative to making all these practices illegal. 

We propose the promulgation of a new charter for free-living animals. In this, Scotland could lead the way in pioneering legislation that can encompass not only domestic animals but also free-living ones. This legislation should begin with the recognition of sentiency and enshrine in law the value and dignity of free-living animals so that their right to live unmolested is respected.




Katie Javanaud is a fellow at Oxford Animal Ethics. Clair Linzey is the deputy director of Oxford Animal Ethics.

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