Cull the Killing

Shooting Conservation versus Ecological Conservation

“Who hasn’t dreamed of standing in a grouse butt, waiting for coveys of birds skimming like miniature brown missiles over the horizon?” Missiles?

The persecution of hen harriers, other birds of prey, and other wild animals, by land managers whose aim is to breed birds for shooting, is increasingly attracting attention (Ethical Consumer; George Monbiot; Mark Avery). Is the activity promoted by these land managers driven purely by the desire of their employers to make money and the desire of their clients to kill?

Arguably there are ‘acceptable’ reasons for killing animals – self-protection, food and conservation/management. There’s also merit in practice to improve skills, i.e. sport, but not on live targets. However, none of these entirely explain red grouse shooting. Tradition and enjoyment of nature are not justifications. It’s even more concerning that red grouse shooters don’t feel the need to justify their actions.


Despite the siege attitude of some hunters, red grouse don’t threaten humans directly or via disease.

Deer fly

Adult deer fly, Chrysops callidus (Bruce Marlin, from

In trying to empathise with this sort of hunter, I recognise my irrational dislike of deer-flies, because the “females use knife-like mandibles and maxillae to make a cross-shaped incision [in the skin] and then lap up the blood.” Perhaps not so irrational. In needing to know where they are, that they can’t cause further harm, I become enlathered with fear and rage. I imagine this ‘need to control’ could propel someone to kill an animal – large animals that would otherwise kill me (none in this country, although I do fear being sat on by a cow) and small creatures that can attack me undetected (insects). But I don’t have any urge to breed deer-flies in order to ride that fairground attraction.


Certainly grouse meat is eaten, but if this was the primary motivation for encouraging and supporting their breeding, they would be killed efficiently and consistently, wouldn’t they? The cost of a day’s shooting makes it a very expensive dish at around £20,000 or £150 per brace. Nor is it truly ‘wild’ meat since red grouse are regularly dosed with medicated grit to disinfect them from diseases and parasites.

Ecosystem Management

Cave painting of wolf

Polychrome painting of wolf in the Font-de-Gaume cavern (from

In the absence of large predators, previously hunted to extinction, numbers of some species such as red deer in Scotland have escalated, with consequences throughout the ecosystem that require intervention. Deer stalking is subject to stringent constraints: timing, circumstances, the likelihood of a clean shot, and more. If we’re really concerned about overpopulation, we would preserve or reintroduce natural predators. No such consequences or constraints apply to red grouse.

Immersing ourselves in a natural environment and participating in wild life is healthy, physically and psychologically, but favouring a species simply in order to kill it isn’t.


If it was about honing target skill, sportspeople wouldn’t be comfortable with any level of ‘collateral damage’, nor with the way wild predators are targeted to make it easier.

The word ‘sport’ is as inflammatory to critics as ‘fun’ is to shooters. “There is nothing ‘responsible’ about making a sport out of killing. … The time is right to reconsider the dangerous message that the practice of killing animals for fun is acceptable and should even be protected.”

What would be sporting:
• Shooting with lasers or paint-balls
• Numbered grouse, each matched to a shooter
• Hunters have a limited number of bullets, say three
• Hunters sanctioned for overhunting

Ridiculous? It even turns out that there is no need to kill predators. The RSPB endorses an alternative called ‘diversionary feeding’: “this involves providing hen harriers with an alternative food source during the period when the [grouse] adults are feeding their chicks.” Shoots could still be disrupted by hen harrier fly-bys though. Game keepers may find it strange to feed the ‘enemy’, but still, choosing cruel methods of killing predators is not acceptable.


There is no minimum skill requirement. Grouse shooters can be anyone who can hold a gun. A significant proportion of the birds are not cleanly killed.

“There is no mandatory training required for using firearms anywhere in the UK, licences are often granted to inexperienced and young people, meaning that birds are often not killed outright but instead are wounded by novice shooters.”

However, the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) encourages humane treatment and respect for quarry, which should be recognised as sentient creatures. While striving for high standards for their own sake, it also acknowledges that “we cannot afford to let non-shooters think we do not care.”


Wherever you create a monoculture, whether this is arable or livestock, you multiply the risks of infection and predation. Grouse are wild but their numbers are inflated by managing the land to favour their survival and killing their predators.

“Grouse … are not reared or released by gamekeepers but grow up in their natural environment on the moors. … Predators such as foxes, crows and stoats are controlled by gamekeepers.”

Research by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust found that, not surprisingly, there is a conflict: “heather habitat, abundant food and low predation pressure that benefits harriers are delivered by moorland managed by those who want to shoot red grouse. However, research has shown that there is a real risk as harriers can suppress red grouse numbers below the level where they can be shot sustainably.” Which only challenges the economic model used to assess the viability of grouse moors. Perhaps it’s time to consider other land uses.

Is this a case of the few spoiling it for the many? Shooting is clearly a significant part of the UK economy but again money is not a justification for killing. What was originally a respectful part of our hunting existence seems to have become distorted.


The more we get into this issue, the more we notice an absence of explanation from the hunters: why do they shoot? The word ‘fun’ seems pejorative, but it’s not any for of the acceptable reasons above.

“What looked like low-flying fighter jets [was] the first large covey of incoming grouse breaking the heathery horizon”. Military language often crops up, suggesting grouse are somehow viewed as a threat in order for the shooters to feel aggressive toward them. The article describes an encounter with equally inarticulate ‘saboteurs’ but unfortunately misses the opportunity to put the case for shooting, “if this [sort of protest] continues and keepers cannot make a living, who then would look after the moorlands?” Would you not still pay keepers for their ‘conservation’ efforts so you could enjoy the moorlands without the killing?

Can we be persuaded to enjoy and fund conservation for its own sake? Or is this another symptom of our disconnection from non-human nature? We retain our primitive drive for subsistence hunting but this is distorted into killing for neither food nor safety.

“Hunting, for an indigenous, oral community, entails abilities and sensitivities very different from those associated with hunting in technological civilisation. Without guns or gunpowder, a native hunter must often come much closer to his wild prey if he is to take its life. … The hunter gradually develops an instinctive knowledge of the habits of his prey, of its fears and its pleasures, its preferred foods and favoured haunts.” (David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous, Vintage Books, 1996, page 140)

Grouse hunting in this controlled way is a tradition that’s sold as a desirable lifestyle. Hunters admire a gun crafted with skill, the history, the culmination of intellectual superiority, but this is distorted into elitism, ‘ownership’ of nature, triumph at being top of the food chain, bloodlust. However, traditions expire as our ethical sense evolves.


If you feel the grouse shooting fraternity has the balance wrong, Ethical Consumer suggests three actions:

1. Don’t shoot grouse – if you know people who shoot grouse, or businesses whose staff enjoy grouse shooting, ask them to consider giving it up until the hen harriers are back.
2. Don’t buy from businesses connected to grouse shooting – pubs and hotels promoting themselves to the industry, game fairs, estate agents who act in the sale and lease of grouse moors, shops and restaurants selling grouse.
3. Support the campaign for a suspension of all subsidies for grouse shooting estates – subsidies for upland estates and for shooting (gun licences) that do not require clear evidence (the presence of endangered species) that no illegal activity is taking place should be suspended. The RSPB, Animal Aid and Ban the Burn are campaigning in this area.

And those who shoot: if your critics are overlooking something, please educate us. Tradition is no longer a refuge.

An abridged version of this article is published at Urban Times.


One thought on “Cull the Killing

  1. Pingback: Seeing Red | Eco-mical

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