By Drew Ainslie, Head Keeper of two moors in the Lammermuir Hills
I have been a game keeper all my working life and today – the so-called glorious 12th of August – is a time that has always filled me with feelings of purpose and pride.
The heather-clad hills are at their best, a tremendous array of wildlife is on display and the country plays host for the next few months to visitors from all over the world who cherish what they regard as a truly world-class and unique Scottish experience.
However, this year a sense of foreboding is sweeping across moorland communities where people like me live and work.
This year, the grouse shooting season is expected to be the last of its kind prior to a new licensing regime being brought in by the Scottish Government.
You may well think: “What’s the big deal?” – and you ought to be right.
But the deal for the people who work day-in and day-out to create an outstanding conservation and tourism success for Scotland is that once again our voices have been ignored and our experience and expertise apparently discarded.
Instead, we are facing a future where our livelihoods, or the loss of them, could be decided on a whim and legitimate rural enterprises could be put out of business in a heartbeat. By this time next year a licensing scheme will have been implemented that, if it goes ahead in its current form, will have far reaching implications for the wonderful Scottish landscapes adored by people from all walks of life.
We are told time and again by the powers that be about the importance of doing your bit to tackle climate change, protecting the environment and caring for the countryside. Not only do we believe in that, we put it into practice….only to find that government is determined to bring in new laws to make that job even more difficult.
Take, for example, the biggest threat to our landscapes – wildfire. You don’t have to have a long memory to recall the utter devastation it wreaks. In late May and early June the wildfire at Cannich around 20 miles west of Inverness was catastrophic. In one of the largest wildfires recorded in the UK, wildlife and trees were lost, firemen injured and that’s before even trying to estimate the massive carbon loss over five days of continuous burning.
Cannich was sadly not an isolated incident and around the world, from California, to Europe and Australia there is ample evidence of the carnage caused by wildfire. What, of course, is emerging is that one of the most effective ways of preventing and limiting the impact of wildfire is controlled burning, creating firebreaks to stop the spread of flames.
So what is being proposed in Scotland? A government determined to place further restrictions on controlled heather burning – called muirburn in this part of the world. Despite a growing body of evidence that suggests controlled burning can be good for carbon capture in the medium and long term, there are those so wedded to the net zero mantra, they cannot bring themselves to look at the benefits muirburn delivers. Arch opponents of shooting would gladly have it banned altogether and many politicians are very reluctant to take on board the evidence that suggests muirburn – a tried a tested technique developed over generations – is key element in tackling wildfire.
How sad it was to see a leading officer from the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service – which supports muirburn –being sharply told by politicians at a Holyrood committee that muirburn didn’t fit the net zero agenda.
Gamekeepers the length and breadth of Scotland are often the first to help the fire and rescue service with their own specialist equipment when wildfire breaks outs and well managed moors that have burned heather to rejuvenate it have a very strong track record in the prevention and limitation of wildfire.
No-one who works in managing the land is against sensible legislation or regulation that helps improve the natural environment.
The Wildlife Management and Muirburn Bill – which will make its way through the Scottish Parliament over the next year – was meant to be about licensing grouse shooting to deter the killing of raptors, something that has been a historical issue on moorland managed for grouse shooting, but has already been reduced to very low levels. This kind of illegal activity has no place in our world now and no-one in their right mind gets involved in it.
While it is true to say that no one in the sector wanted licensing, we could all live with a reasonable and workable licensing scheme. Instead, it has grown arms and legs and is currently out of all proportion.
As it stands, a licence could be revoked or suspended on the basis of an allegation being made that something wrong has happened on a grouse moor – without waiting for a conclusion by the relevant authorities.
This would be a gift to the extremists who set their face against shooting and would not think twice about making vexatious claims against an estate. The upshot could be loss of jobs, not only on an estate unable to organise shoots, but have a domino effect on the many local suppliers in the community who earn their living supporting shooting enterprises. Worse still, visitors who favour coming back to particular moors and estates repeatedly would find their plans disrupted or cancelled – even though no illegal activity is established.
We’re all aware of the voices who say that the social and economic benefit of grouse shooting that pours millions into Scotland could easily be replaced by eco-tourism. Dream on. Ask any business owner working in a shooting community and they will quickly put you right. Eco tourism is all well and good and has its place but there is not a shred of evidence that it could replace what grouse shooting brings.
So, what – apart from a massive economic boost to parts of Scotland that sorely need it in autumn and winter months – does grouse shooting bring?
If the environment is your interest, shooting estates are at the forefront of peatland restoration – bringing peat damaged through historic agricultural activity – back to its best so it can operate as a vital tool in capturing carbon.
If biodiversity is important to you then look no further to shooting estates to see the wonderful plants and habitats all cared for through moorland management. There’s a reason the heather looks so good in August – we help look after it.
On most estates you will see an outstanding range of wildlife. It’s not uncommon to see around 100 different species of birds thriving – some of the most endangered in the country such as Curlew and Golden Plover. Buzzards, Hen Harriers and Golden Eagles are all there to be seen, putting into context the all-too polarised debate about raptors.
All of the above contribute to the magnificent landscapes that are the uplands in Scotland. It’s something that can – and should be – be celebrated by us all, particularly on this glorious day.