Tuesday, 10 November 2015

TGO Challenge 2015, Part X: A Murdering Monoculture


The further you walk east on the TGO Challenge, the more you come face to face with murder, on an industrial scale. There's nothing new about shooting estates in Scotland; Game shoots have been an established part of Scottish life for over a hundred years. However, recently I've noticed a dramatic change. 

The hills in the east have been transformed from the rolling brown loveliness of the heather, to a dramatic chequerboard of muirburn. Game birds, usually grouse in this part of the world, feed on the young, more tender shoots of heather and so the estates regularly burn the heather in a patchwork to promote new growth.

The extent of muirburn is an indicator of how intensively the grouse moors are worked. The first picture, below, is how Glen Lee looked, in 2002. Mick Coady is cluttering up the foreground, descending from Muckle Cairn. You'll notice that there are one or two patches of muirburn.


The next picture was taken a year later. My son Oli is standing in a patch of young heather that was probably burned back a couple of years previously. You'll note that the muirburn is substantially the same; I can't see any new areas.


Fast forward ten years, to the picture below. That's some change, eh? All the hillsides are plastered with muirburn. 

So why am I bothered about this? Surely it means that the Estate is making best use of the land to maximise the economic benefit of landownership, and providing employment. Yes. It does mean that. 


Let me refer you back to the title of this piece: "A Murdering Monoculture." I'm not referring here to the chinless wankers who come up to the estates to murder birds for fun, as sickening and despicable as I find their behaviour. No. I'm talking about the Estates' murder, on an industrial scale, of the creatures who threaten the survival, in any way, of the grouse. Be they weasels, stoats, crows, or mountain hares (they can carry ticks which can reduce grouse populations), rest assured the Estates' employees are tasked to wipe them out.

This is carried out with a Holocaust-like fanaticism. They work only with the most cost effective ways of murdering the little creatures. For the birds, it's most often with Larsen traps. Once caught, the birds are beaten to death by the keeper - all quite legally. You can find out more about the many and various legal, and illegal, traps that are used regularly by shooting estates by clicking the link below:

However, you'll also note that many tagged raptors (eagles, buzzards, kites etc) seem to go "missing" around this part of Scotland, occasionally turning up dead somewhere miles away, dumped in a layby. You can read more about this by clicking the link below:

Golden eagle is dumped by lay-by and left to die lingering death

For an accurate take on Scottish shooting estates behaviour, I suggest you subscribe to the excellent site below:

All in all, it's a pretty sick industry, and one that, like Bear Baiting and sticking children up chimneys, should be abolished.

And now, for the last picture:


Please click on the picture to blow it up to a larger size. You'll note that climbing every hillside and along the top of every hill there are unsurfaced roads. The estates like to call them 'hill tracks'. But they are roads. You could quite easily drive your family car up these. They have all been built, or in some cases, rebuilt, in the last ten years or so. They stick out like sore thumbs. 

They are only there so people who want to go about murdering birds with shotguns for fun, can be driven up the hill in a rather nice Range Rover. These roads do not need any planning permission, as they are there for "agricultural purposes." 

Quite incredible.

When you are next approaching these areas this is what you will be faced with. The Killing Fields.

Suggested further reading on the subject:

The Intensification of Grouse Moor Management

EDIT 15th February 2016

EDIT: 13th March 2016

More mountain hares massacred in Cairngorm National Park 


  1. Someone will be along in a minute to bang on about the bloody English. But I know there are many many Scots who deplore this desecration.
    It is not a Scottish thing.
    We are running our countryside down here too for the benefit of a minority if wealthy bastards and short term gain.
    Such it has always been with greed.
    Let's try to enjoy what we have while we have it.
    Our wild land is rapidly being destroyed by flawed ideology, money grabbing bastards and I'll informed politicians.
    What a fucking plant eh ��

    1. I agree - this applies equally to moorland in England and Wales, Andy, but I was writing about the TGO Challenge in Scotland.

  2. Great post Alan - you have hit the nail right on the head. I think that there are two principal contributions to this problem. Firstly, the 'old' estates that have been in the family for years are finding things increasingly difficult financially because they make so little from farming and are turning to any way they can to make money. Secondly, many of the estates have now been bought over by super-rich incomers. They simply don't give a toss for the land and any of the wildlife who live there.

    We need much stricter planning regulations but this simply won't happen as the current Scottish government simply could not care less about the countryside. It's hard to see things improving.

    1. Sadly, I agree with you, totally.
      The RSPB report illegal killing of raptors to the police, but it is a rare occasion that a perpetrator is taken to court. And it is unknown for the estate owner to end up in the dock, even now there is vicarious liability on the statute book.

      The murdering of the little, and not so little creatures will continue, at an accelerating pace.

    2. I think we need ethics. Not scum who play law games, saying it's OK in law to kill birds and animals for fun.

  3. Good post. It's very distressing on so many levels. Unfortunately those that could do something about it are too busy whinging about Westminster.

    1. Ah yes...
      The rabid amongst the SNP supporters' continual chanting of "Westminster Tory Scum..."
      These guys need to be sat down in a classroom and told the facts of life.

  4. Great post Alan. I'd recommend Mark Avery's recent book 'Inglorious' as a must-read for anyone unaware of the issues surrounding driven grouse shooting.

  5. Interesting read I'm sure some estates would love to invite you too take your family car on their hill tracks and see how long it lasts unless of course your family car is a Landy or a vehicle of such ilk. Muirburn and legal predator control benefits a range of species especially ground nesting birds this is a well known fact and can be backed by figures showing increases in most waders and of course the grouse including the black grouse which is now a everyday sight on the hill. "A scientific study found that abundance of golden plover, lapwing, curlew, red grouse, skylark and hen harrier was higher when moorland was managed for grouse than when it was not. Wader, red grouse and hen harrier abundance was significantly lower following the cessation of game management. Hen harrier, golden plover, curlew and skylark were approximately two to three times more abundant when moorland was managed for grouse than when it was not. Lapwing, was virtually lost after gamekeeping ceased." part of a document published by baines,red path,Richardson and thirgood (2008). Also crows ,magpies caught in Larsen traps are recorded and usually placed in a hessian sack taken out of sight of the decoy bird and killed by one swift blow to the head. Also what happens to heather when it reaches its maximum growth and stands at two or three feet tall ? Which species does this heather benefit ? I look forward to hearing your reply.

    1. Hello Anonymous.
      I've published your comment, even though it is my policy not to publish anonymous comments. Should you wish to reply, please use your name, or an identifiable name, such as your 'web-name,' so it will be possible to identify you.

      Anyway, thank you for your comment, and taking the time to make it.
      I wondered how long it would be before an apologist for the shooting industry came along. I think that perhaps the best way of answering your rather selective use of the study would be to copy and paste a comment made by Mark Avery on his blog:

      "The first Langholm study (the subject of the whole of Chapter 3 in Inglorious) was very important in setting the framework for the conflict between nature conservation (particularly of birds of prey) and driven grouse shooting. When birds of prey were protected at Langholm their numbers increased – this was true of Hen Harriers and Peregrines. The higher numbers of birds of prey resulted in much lower numbers of Red Grouse than expected on the moor at the end of the breeding season, although breeding numbers each spring remained pretty constant. What this meant, and showed for the first time, was that when protected from persecution, birds of prey could remove the shootable surplus of Red Grouse on which grouse shooting depends. In other words, the raptors were unsportingly eating the Red Grouse before rich people could shoot them for fun. That is the essence of the conflict between birds of prey and grouse shooting. It’s a bit more complicated than that – but not really much more complicated.

      The law of the land says that you can’t kill Hen Harriers and Peregrines but the laws of nature say that if you want to run an intensive driven grouse shoot then those raptors are likely to destroy your business. That’s why there is a conflict. Killing birds of prey is entirely rational if you want to make money from shooting Red Grouse and entirely illegal.

      It’s not very easy to square this circle – and nobody has succeeded (though see tomorrow’s blog) – and that’s why, eventually, on this issue, you have to make up your mind which you want. Driven grouse shooting or birds of prey? I started, as many do, by thinking I could have both – it’s the British search for compromise – but now I’m pretty sure you can’t have both (partly because the grouse industry is intransigent and partly because killing raptors is so easy) and so I have to choose. I choose birds of prey!"

      And my own thoughts on your idyll of a burnt grouse moor are as follows.

      Removing predators and vegetation that would support secondary growth of scrub and bush goes completely against nature. You have only to look at study areas where vegetation is left to thrive to see how invertebrates, small mammals and birdlife flourish.

      Trying to compare birdlife on a grouse moor after a period of a few years of non persecution, with the complete absence of muirburn & shooting is a nonsense. It takes years and years for a balanced eco-system to re-establish.

      From what you have said, you clearly don't care about nature, and to defend the clubbing to death of a wild bird in a hessian sack, out of view of the decoy bird so not upset it, is frankly quite bizarre.

      I would suggest you think awhile on your distorted moral perspective.

      By all means reply, but please leave your real name or it will not be published
      Thank you.

    2. Another thought on your comment:
      "Also crows ,magpies caught in Larsen traps are recorded and usually placed in a hessian sack taken out of sight of the decoy bird and killed by one swift blow to the head."

      That's exactly what the Germans did at Bergen-Belsen. Very efficient, the Germans

  6. The protection of ground nesting birds argument is spurious. The Moorhouse estate, on the side of Cross Fell hasn't been managed for grouse shooting for 75 years, but still has heather, grouse, and ground-nesting birds. Plus quite a few scientists and students

    1. Exactly. Driven grouse shooting is new in the scheme of things (last c.150 years). Waders managed fine without the 'help' of gamekeepers. If the shooting lobby care so much about ground nesting birds they should support lynx reintroduction - they kill foxes.

    2. Absolutely right, Stefan; lynx would also help to thin out the red deer population, which would reduce the number of ground nests which are trampled by them.

  7. Mr Sloman,
    It is true that there has been a dramatic change in the Angus Glens over the last 10-12 years, a constant rolling evolution, a resurgence in this way of rural life.
    Living and working in these glens I see the moor transform annually to a beautiful mosaic of purple blossom, a blossom that brings many a visitor to these rural spots. Visitors enjoying a countryside rich in wildlife and biodiversity. Visitors often from oversee who add £200m per annum to the Scottish rural economy, visitors who fill rural hotels and restaurants, hire cars, and buy gifts.
    I have read before statements such as the one I read here in your blog of " monoculture ". I find this hard to swallow, are you and these others really talking about the countryside I live in? In May this year, I suspect around the same time your photographs are taken I decided to note during one outing the vast variety of species resident in the glen, they included
    Wood Pigeon
    Red Grouse
    Oyster catcher
    Black Cock and grey hen.

    It is also not unusual to see ptarmigan, golden plover, golden and white tail eagle( both have successfully nested in and around grouse moors in the Angus glens during the spring of 2015)
    Peregrine, sparrow and goshawk, roe deer, red deer, mountain hare, and a huge variety of small song birds.
    The change I think you refer to has been a very welcome surge of investment by several land owners in staff and infrastructure bringing grouse moors into the modern era. Investment in staff accommodation bring much needed work to local tradesmen and retailers . A resent survey revelled £4.7m per annum is spent with local firms by sporting estates in Angus. A further £1m is paid to rural workers living in these small and fragile communities. Whether you are a supporter of field sports or not these figure prove that rural Scotland require more actives than hill walking to flourish.
    I see from one of your photographs an obviously fit person enjoying the countryside from a hill track. This fairly rough track was most likely bulldozed though the hill during the 1970s or 80s, leaving a scar. These types of track erode quickly after heavy rainfall and as you can see the walker is on the middle vegetation, vegetation grown since the track was made. The new style of track seen today is maintenance free and will in time blend back into the countryside, allowing the less able to enjoy the hills along with the sportsmen and woman.
    As far as muirburn is concerned the aim of the gamekeeper/ conservationists is a longevity of the moor , unburnt muirland will suit some species some of the time, the aim of us who live and work here is to provide for all species all the time. Heather to eat, heather to hide in, heather to nest in, sheep and deer as well as grouse and other ground nesting birds benefit from this management. That is why these managed muirland areas are the place to come and enjoy wildlife and all forms.
    I think you may also be interested to learn the RSPB and now working with GWCT in regards to predator control. This control long understood by the countryman but often missed by bypassers.
    Bruce Angus glens resident

    1. Hi Bruce.
      Please excuse my very tardy reply but I've been otherwise engaged for a few days. I'll have to break this down into two parts, as Blogger doesn't allow me the luxury of a long comment:


      Thank you for replying so comprehensively, and from a local's perspective. I am pleased to see that we are starting with some common ground. We both believe that grouse shooting benefits the local economy to a major extent and that the Estates provide employment, both directly and indirectly.

      We also both agree that visitors from overseas are very welcome in Scotland's rural areas, as a very real source of revenue, and culture.

      However, I do hope you are not trying to persuade me that the £200m figure you quote all comes because the visitors from overseas who want to see a patchwork of moorland in bloom and grouse shooting, because we will not agree on that.

      I am also pleased to note your sightings of all the other species on your walks. Some indeed have thrived because of the mixed habitat that muirburn provides.

      However, some are thriving because their natural predators have either been trapped and murdered, poisoned (see HERE for a prime recent example) and also because the environment has been artifically altered to suit that particular species' requirements.

      Repeated burning, very often all the way down to the valley floors (see my pictures above) destroys any chance of natural scrub or woodland becoming established. This, on its own, changes the flora and fauna massively. If nature is left to take its course (and deer and sheep numbers are limited) then you will see a massive increase in wildlife.

      It is interesting that you mention that white tailed eagles are nesting in the Angus Glens again, as it was only two years ago when the estate quite deliberately disturbed one of their nesting sites just below where my pictures were taking by uprooting the tree containing the nest. That was criminal behaviour. Sadly, the estates in the Angus glens are repeat offenders when it comes to the criminal persecution of raptors.

      Just to cite one example - on my walk above the Milden Estate in May of this year, (to the north of Glen Esk) I came across a propane gas-powered gun, used to scare off corvids just behind a shooting hut. I understand that Scottish Land & Estates has now written to all its members to let them know that this is illegal, at the insistence of SNH.

      Before turning to the shooting roads, I would lastly say that the estates could as well invest in a porn studio instead. It would provide employment, both directly and indirectly. It is entirely legal, and you might think just as distasteful as I find grouse shooting. I am assured by a porn producer of my acquaintance that it would be a far more profitable enterprise than grouse shooting. He certainly has done very nicely out of it, as has his film stars, the makers of digital software, cameras, etc etc to fade. And the general public seem to like it too, judging by the time taken looking at porn on the net.


    2. TWO:

      Anyway, silliness aside, let's talk about the shooters' roads.

      I can assure you that these are certainly not maintenance-free affairs. That, Bruce, is cobblers. With my old job hat of civil engineers firmly in place I can assure you that nothing short of a metalled road with concrete culverts and drainage will come close to maintenance free. On my walk along just one such road above Milden Estate this year I can assure you that surface erosion was already strongly in evidence along many stretches of the road. It may well be of a much better construction than the old bulldozed roads of the past, but I can definitely assure you that the estates will have a hefty ongoing maintenance bill in years to come. The Scottish winter is almost upon us. We shall see.

      Bruce, I hope I haven't come across as confrontational in my reply to you. I agree with you that the estate and gamekeepers both want the longevity of the moor. However, it is a moor that has one purpose, and one purpose only, and that is to beed grouse to shoot. As Mark Avery puts it so well:

      "The law of the land says that you can’t kill Hen Harriers and Peregrines but the laws of nature say that if you want to run an intensive driven grouse shoot then those raptors are likely to destroy your business. That’s why there is a conflict. Killing birds of prey is entirely rational if you want to make money from shooting Red Grouse and entirely illegal.

      It’s not very easy to square this circle – and nobody has succeeded (though see tomorrow’s blog) – and that’s why, eventually, on this issue, you have to make up your mind which you want. Driven grouse shooting or birds of prey? I started, as many do, by thinking I could have both – it’s the British search for compromise – but now I’m pretty sure you can’t have both (partly because the grouse industry is intransigent and partly because killing raptors is so easy) and so I have to choose. I choose birds of prey!"

    3. Humans and their lifestyle requirements are the problem. Until we realise we are part of the scheme of things instead of the Masters of the scheme of things, nothing will change. A beautiful defence, though, Alan. All power to the raptors.

    4. Hi Jane. It's nice to have you back.
      I hope you're getting out and about. Scotland will shortly be (or already is, in fact) a winter wonderland. Enjoy!

    5. Only out and about as in "pushing a Nissan Micra through floods almost too deep for us aging maids". Can't wait for some cold, crisp, deep and even Wenceslas-style snowfalls. And wasn't the Stronelairg decision a beaut!!

    6. Pushing Nissan Micras through floods: That sounds like excellent training for pushing and aging knackered body (mine, not yours!) up boggy Scottish hillsides...
      Yes - Stronelairg. What bloody wonderful news! I did a 'Dad Dance' around the room upon hearing this!

  8. Alan, I can't comment about the area you're referring to but things have certainly changed on the moor where I regularly run. I'm not against grouse shooting, the revenue it generates is ploughed back into moorland management and finances the estate and all its employees.
    Twenty years ago I was on friendly terms with the local gamekeeper and always stopped for a chat when we met to discuss the local wildlife and bird life. At that time I was regularly stopped in my tracks with sightings of buzzards, peregrines, merlin, red kites, raptors that happily co-existed with the local grouse population. Likewise I'd chat with the farmer who grazed sheep on the moor. As he said, "There's room for us all".
    Fast forward ten years and a different Gamekeeper arrived on the scene - bringing hundreds of box traps, planks with with traps across every stream, fox snares arranged in lines leading to his stink pits, and goodness knows what else he does besides. What I do know is that there isn't a single raptor left on the moor. A villager actually saw him shoot a buzzard but foolishly didn't report it. I used to love seeing those birds in the wild and lonely places where I run. I was so tired of being brought down by his snares, set down wall sides and in vehicle tracks, I reported it to the police. Most of those were removed and the majority of them now are round his stink pits, full of rotting bird and fox carcases.
    There are good and bad gamekeepers Alan and the former are the salt of the earth. The latter should be buried in the earth.

    1. Hi Gordon.
      I'm afraid it's the same as you walk over the northern Monadh Liath these days. Following a track down to the Findhorn (coming from Mazeran) there were traps every 50m or so - box and fen traps in the main, and all handily placed adjacent to piles of grit. This was so the keeper had only to stop his landy the once - to top up the medicated grit and check on the traps. They were everywhere. It was ghastly.
      The dose of medication in the grit the keepers use these days is also considerably higher than used a few years ago - this has lead to food scientists calling for a ban on the sale of grouse for food - watch this space...
      I remember being brought down myself in the Lammermuir Hills by a snare trap in 2007 - they were also all along a path - so I ripped up a dozen of them that I found in a 200 yard stretch - they were all illegal traps.
      Game keeping has changed, and changed dramatically over the last dozen years.

  9. When it ocmes to thinking about ecosystems, the clue is in the name - a system of interlinked flora and fauna that operate with natural checks and balances to maintain an approximate equilibrium, whilst still being able to adapt to change over time.

    The introduction of a massive imbalance, as here with Grouse Framing (or any virtual or actual monoculture) will throw this natural balance out of kilter. Ultimately this will be to the detriment of everyone, because a diverse ecology is a healthy ecology.

    And as for the raptors, I'm with you - magnificent. So sad about the Golden Eagle you linked to earlier in the post - I'm gutted.


  10. Jules, I think you mean 'grouse farming' - of which there's no such thing. Grouse are the natural inhabitants of the moor and breed naturally there. Good keepers manage the moors to ensure they're a better environment for grouse and other indigenous upland birds to live and feed and breed. Sadly, not all keepers are of the same mindset - like the one who supposedly manages the moor where I run who thinks nothing else but grouse should ever exist on his patch....and currently it appears nothing else does.
    But at the risk of being shot at, I believe grouse shooting and deer stalking are necessary sources of revenue for estates to manage these upland areas, besides keeping them accessible for the likes of you and me. How else could they exist? If all moors had been left totally unmanaged, left to natures own devices, we'd all be hacking our way through some pretty impenetrable country we'd find far from pleasurable. Once upon a time deer forests were indeed forests, not the empty moorland they are today. We can't just take such places for granted when walking, running, mountain biking or climbing in these wild areas, free of charge. A lot of very hard work and an awful lot of money has been invested into making them into places we can all enjoy.
    More to be deplored, and I'm with Alan on this, are all the ugly wind turbines that have sprung up across the highlands and the nasty scars bulldozed across the landscape to access these monstrosities. That is indeed unforgiveable and should never have been allowed in such wild areas of outstanding natural beauty.

  11. It's worth reading George Monbiot's book 'Feral': there's a few passages in there about the often overstated value of shooting estates to regional economies and the conveniently unmentioned benefits of eco-tourism - very much dependant on protected landscapes and diversity of wildlife - which are denied to the same communities by the activities of those estates.

    The myth that "without shooting there would be nothing" needs to be exposed as exactly that - a myth.

    1. I heartily concur. It's not often that I find myself agreeing with Monbiot, but on this subject I get pretty close.

      There's no reason at all to give, as Gordon (Old Runningfox) suggests, the Estates a clear run with the excuse of "managing the landscape that allows us easy access" (to paraphrase quite a bit). These Estates are there to make money. And in doing so they have sterilized the landscape and systematically murder any competitor species.

      Let the moor rewild itself. Kick out the grouse shooters, cull the deer (okay - that means shooting) and limit the sheep numbers, and then sit back and let nature take its magnificent course.

  12. This is worth a read to gen up on what's legal and what isn't whenyou come across traps in the countryside:

    1. Thanks Stefan
      I have already provided a link to that site as the first clickable link in the blog piece.
      However, it's good to know that you are following all this up yourself!

    2. Oops so it is - been a while since I read your post.


Because of spammers, I moderate all comments, so don't worry if your comment seems to have disappeared; It has been sent to me for approval. As soon as I see it, I'll deal with it straight away.
Thank you!