Carbon carnage: the real cost of grouse-shooting

‘Grouse moors are burnt and drained. Regenerating native trees are rooted out. Bogs and mires, wet miracles of carbon capture, are trashed by fire, ditches, vehicles, access roads, and trampling deer and sheep’

Bright Green

We often fondly imagine shooting and hunting as encounters with the wild. But in Britain, at least, it is a curated affair. From the late 18th century until the First World War, the English imported thousands of foxes from Europe for foxhunting. Scottish landowners imported Hungarian stags in the belief that their own deer were stunted by bad bloodlines, rather than their dire lives on treeless, overgrazed moors. Unsurprisingly—red deer are a woodland species—Hungarian blood did not boost the starving beasts’ size.

Even Britain’s iconic red grouse—the supposed epitome of wild game—is intensively managed, and over huge areas. About one-fifth of Scotland’s total landmass is given over to grouse moors, and there are huge moors south of the border as well. Numbers fluctuate, but about 700,000 grouse are shot each year. They are mostly driven towards stationary, armed men—a way to shoot that Victorian grandees considered so unsporting and so nouveau riche that, when it was invented in the late 19th century, there were protests in the House of Lords.

To keep the grouse at artificially high numbers, and to even out these birds’ natural boom-and-bust population cycles, the moors have become, in effect, unregulated farms. They are burnt and drained. Regenerating native trees such as willow, juniper, aspen, rowans, and pine are rooted out. Bogs and mires, wet miracles of carbon capture, are trashed by fire, ditches, vehicles, access roads, and trampling deer and sheep. In Yorkshire alone, over 4,300 kilometres of drainage channels have been dug across upland peat soil—a leading cause, incidentally, of flash flooding in the valleys below.

Thus our moor wetlands—green marvels of biodiversity—are transformed into deep crevasses of hagged peat, or, in other words, the gullies of black, drying, bare, unvegetated peat which criss-cross these eroded, flayed lands. This dying terrain radiates extraordinary amounts of carbon dioxide. Scotland’s grouse moors—the pleasure ground for a few thousand men—emit about 10m tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. That is nearly double the amount emitted by all the homes in Scotland.

Across Britain, almost 25 times as much carbon is locked up in peat as in trees and forests. And the real figure of how much carbon the grouse moors emit is probably above 10m. No one knows for certain. But the calculations exclude carbon emitted by the moor fires themselves; carbon lost as eroding soils dissolve in run-off waters; and methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas, which is also emitted as the moors dry and die.

No economic calculation can justify negative externalities on this scale. Yes, Britain’s business-as-usual shooting bring in some money to the countryside. So do beaver fanciers and sea eagle watchers, and, for that matter, ramblers. And I wholeheartedly support well-regulated country sports, on the Nordic and German model—walk-up grouse over dogs, say, and wild red deer stalks, on hills where deer numbers are below the land’s carrying capacity. Today’s madly high deer numbers represents a post-War industrial-style intensification of the Highlands, hammering erstwhile high-altitude savannahs into monotone deer grass and bare trampled ground. This devastates not only flora, but also fauna. Did you know, for example, that red deer eat the eggs and chicks of ground-nesting birds? But it guarantees novices “a stag by tea time”. How are they to know that their proud trophy is a salt-lick pampered, at times hay-fed, and semi-tame beast, saved up especially for their uncertain squeezing of the trigger?

Grouse are caught in nets or lured to grit mounds, to be medicated against parasitic worms. The pharmaceuticals pass straight through the little birds; the effects of introducing powerful, long-lasting chemicals onto the moor are unknown. Nobody checks that gamekeepers remove these toxins, as required, 28 days before the birds are shot. “Tick mops,” or sheep drenched in insecticides, are also driven onto the moors. Casualties include other insects and, we now know, birds.

Fauna suffers along with flora. Britain’s mountain hare, our only native lepine and a key prey for eagles, is driven into guns by the thousand (26,000 per year, as a rough count). Why? Gamekeepers and estate owners anecdotally blame them for carrying the  ticks—though in fact, hare numbers do not correlate with grouse tick infection. On the grouse moors, birds of prey, as well as mammals such as stoats, weasels and foxes, are shot, snared, and poisoned. The snares also inadvertently kill otters, capercaillie, badgers, roe deer, wildcats, curlew, lapwing, snipe and golden plover.

Without persecution, about 500 pairs of hen harriers would live on the moors. Essentially none now nest there. And heaven help those birds who fly over them. Thanks to new technology—small satellite tags attached to rare birds—we know how many golden eagles go down over grouse moors, as do nearly half of all tagged hen harriers. These are not elderly birds who chose to die among their beloved prey. Young, healthy birds simply disappear. Their transmitters stop working without warning, and no bodies can be found. In short: a smoking gun.