Late changes to the Animal and Wildlife bill in Scotland were bewildering to moorland managers, however, Gift of Grouse and regional groups are giving them a voice at last, says Tim Baynes
Moorlands have long been loved by visitors, but the public’s understanding of their management remains poor. Gift of Grouse and seven regional moorland groups are working to close the gap, while also giving a voice to those ‘up the glen’ at last, says Tim Baynes, director of moorland, Scottish Land & Estates.
Learn more about the Gift of Grouse and how they are highlighting the positive impact managing grouse moors offers to wildlife and local communities, read the Gift of Grouse campaign.
GIFT OF GROUSE AND REGIONAL MOORLAND GROUPS
The Animal and Wildlife bill debate in the Scottish Parliament on 17 June was a sobering experience. Despite strong criticism from all parties about lack of scrutiny, the Scottish Government supported an 11th-hour amendment to license the management of mountain hares. Bizarrely, it happened while a response from Scottish Government to its own report (by the Werritty Panel) is still awaited. This had looked carefully at the evidence and recommended a different approach to mountain hares.
Grouse moor managers can be forgiven for anger and bewilderment at such obvious lack of support from their own government when a strong rural economy is badly needed. But despite years of similar attacks, two poor grouse years and not knowing if shooting will even be possible in 2020, the sector is remarkably buoyant. This resilience is down to the commitment of moor owners to keep investing and to the spirit of the people on the ground, who remain passionate about their way of life and the communities in which they live and work.
Despite moorlands being loved by visitors, focus groups show there is a poor understanding of their management among the public. To correct this, since 2015 the people at the sharp end have ‘stepped up’ to better explain the benefits of what they do to policymakers and the public, and to build strong local relationships. This has been done at two levels: a national campaign of promotion and advocacy under the ‘Gift of Grouse’ banner; and the setting up of regional moorland groups. Regional groups are led by gamekeepers with the direct support of their employers, which has proven to be highly effective. There is close coordination between Gift of Grouse and the regional groups, and both liaise with national bodies such as Scottish Land & Estates, the Scottish Gamekeepers Association and the GWCT. The structure is low on bureaucracy so it can adapt to challenges as they develop . In the run-up to the animal welfare bill debate in June there was concerted lobbying at short notice, with constituency MSPs receiving many emails and calls to rival the pressure from those opposed to culling mountain hares.
The seven regional moorland groups cover areas across Scotland where driven grouse shooting is a realistic option. In the far north, Loch Ness Rural Communities takes a holistic approach with grouse as the main driver but deer and farming important, too. Around Tomatin and the eastern Monadhliaths, a small group focuses on grouse management, while the Speyside Moorland Group stretches from Grantown down to north Perthshire, where the Tayside and Central Scotland Moorland Group picks up the cudgels. To the east, the Grampian Moorland Group covers a large part of the Cairngorms and to the south of that is the Angus Glens Moorland Group. This was the first to be established and has led the way in many respects. South of the central belt, the Southern Upland Moorland Group covers the grouse strongholds of the Lammermuir and Moorfoot hills. An eighth group covers the south-west of Scotland although this has become the most difficult area in which to run a driven moor – a chilling example of what could happen if the Gift of Grouse and the regional groups are not successful.
THE IMPETUS FOR REGIONAL GROUPS
Socio-economic studies of grouse moor areas in 2009 and 2015 found a gap between some local residents and those who lived and worked ‘up the glen’. That realisation gave impetus to setting up moorland groups. Those involved in looking after grouse moors think it is fairly obvious that what they do gives permanent employment, funds housing, supports local businesses and looks after the wildlife that visitors come to see – and often keeps the local shops and schools open. But as more people from outside the area have settled nearby or travel in to walk the hills, they have had to explain it to a new audience.
Farming and forestry have learned how to put on shows and open days and moorland groups have now developed a similar range of activities, from game cookery demonstrations to helping with school and college careers days and helping young people start work in the sector. Young hillkeepers are always up for a challenge and have taken part in charity events, from abseiling to giving blood. Most recently, they have organised for protective glasses used on shoot days to be given to local NHS staff when PPE was in short supply.
While giftofgrouse.com acts as the national shop window for moorland management, the main platforms for regional groups are Facebook, Twitter and Instagram with daily updates on the work of keepers and the wildlife on the moors. At times they act as hubs to help find lost dogs – and occasionally lost people – and as a large-scale neighbourhood watch system. There is a constant effort to show through photos and video clips the wildlife that keepers see on a daily basis under #WeHaveWildlife. There is also a ‘direct action’ aspect to the regional groups, such as organising a peaceful protest when Chris Packham visited Perth in late 2019.
One of the best things Gift of Grouse and the regional group network has done is to give keepers and moor owners greater self-empowerment. They now have the support to contact their local politicians directly and there is a sense that they are no longer alone and isolated up the glen. Public perceptions are starting to turn. Perhaps the farce over the Parliamentary vote to license hare management will prove to be a turning point.
Tim Baynes is director of moorland, Scottish Land & Estates