Fake news must not shape future of grouse moors

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Following the recent story falsely claiming that shooters were travelling from the UK to hunt puffins in Iceland, Tim Baynes, Director of the Scottish Land and Estates Moorland Group, discusses the serious matter of fake news on social media. 

Puffins are a bird not normally found in the crosshairs of the debate around moorland management and field sports.

That changed last week, however, when the Daily Telegraph published a story claiming that shooters were travelling from the UK to hunt puffins which are protected within this country.

As many of you who are tuned into social media will guess, that was leapt upon by anti-shooing campaigners: the story originated from the League Against Cruel Sports, and BBC wildlife presenter Chris Packham used it to mount  another attack on shooting and conservation organisations on his Twitter account.

However, Shooting Times had also read the article and their Scottish-based journalist Matt Cross decided to dig deeper into the detail.  On making enquiries, he found that no UK nationals had travelled to Iceland to participate in puffin-hunting and no licences to shoot (which would be required under Icelandic law) had been issued to UK hunters. (Shooting Times, 7 August 2019).

The Telegraph’s accompanying picture, which was claimed to be a man from the UK holding puffin carcasses, is actually believed to feature a Maltese national. 

Those with knowledge of field sports and moorland management will have been exasperated at yet more inaccurate information from animal rights campaigners, but it raises the serious matter of ‘fake news’ on social media.

Revive, a coalition calling for legislative restrictions on grouse moors in Scotland, is being driven forward by animal rights organisations with the support of Chris Packham.  In much the same way as the puffin story, Revive has made claims about moorland management which are not based on evidence. 

In early June, Alison Johnstone MSP began consulting on a Members’ Bill to restrict mountain hare management, citing surveys which claim their population has shrunk to 1% of 1950s figures – but  ignoring the latest science estimating their population to be 135,000 and the density of mountain hares in the Highlands on driven grouse moors to be 35 times higher than on moors not managed for shooting. 

We have seen continuous claims – presented as fact from Revive - that around 20% of Scotland’s land mass is used for grouse shooting when the reality is around half of that. Fortunately, new research commissioned by the Scottish Government will provide the real answers on many of the allegations made by Revive.

It may be tempting to take the words of anti-shooting campaigners, particularly well-known ones who have a TV platform, at face value. However, as the Icelandic puffins have shown us ‘fake news’ is a very real problem when used by those making representations to government. 

Grouse moors are an important land use in remote parts of the UK uplands, looking after rare birds and bringing economic and cultural activity which evaporates when that management is lost.  It deserves the careful consideration being given by the Scottish Government’s review expected to be announce in the next few weeks – not the inaccurate publicity of the Revive coalition.

Find out more about Matt Cross.

Read the latest science on the benefit of moorland management to mountain hares.

Read more about the realities of the area of land used for grouse moors in Scotland.