Grouse shooting in Scotland is to be brought under the control of a Government-granted licence.

In a move long-feared by the game sector – and enthusiastically touted by conservationists – grouse moors will now need to comply with strict rules or risk having their licence to operate removed.

While the new regime will be based on a set of rules governing management practices like muirburn and the use of medicated grit, the central plank of licensing will be the wellbeing of raptors. Whatever the detail in practice, the new system's blunt threat is that grouse moors where protected predator species meet untimely deaths will be closed down.

Announcing the proposals, Scottish Minister for Rural Affairs and the Natural Environment Mairi Gougeon said: “Having given full consideration to the recommendations of the Grouse Moor Management Group, alongside a wealth of other evidence and research, I have concluded that greater oversight of the practices associated with grouse moor management is necessary.

“The majority of those tasked with managing land already follow best practice guidance and care deeply about the countryside and the land that they manage. I cannot, though, ignore the fact that some of the practices associated with grouse moor management, such as muirburn and the use of medicated grit, have the potential to cause serious harm to the environment, if the correct procedures are not followed," said Ms Gougeon.

“Neither can I ignore the fact that, despite our many attempts to address this issue, every year birds of prey continue to be killed or disappear in suspicious circumstances on or around grouse moors.

“The changes that I have announced today strike what I believe is the right balance," she insisted. "They are not designed to bring an end to grouse shooting. Indeed those businesses which comply with the law should have no problems at all with licensing. But, crucially, where there is clear evidence that this is not happening, where agreed standards are not being adhered to or there is evidence of illegal raptor persecution, there will be a range of effective and transparent mechanisms in place to allow us to address such behaviour."

Responding to this news Scottish Gamekeepers Association Chairman Alex Hogg, said that gamekeepers had effectively 'had targets painted on their backs' by the Scottish Government, and warned that shooting's political opponents would not be satisfied with anything short of an outright ban on fieldsports.

“Ironically, those who lobbied so hard for licensing have no interest in seeing it being a success," said Mr Hogg. "For them, this was always a vehicle to agitate for a full ban. Scottish Parliament legislators should not be naive in thinking otherwise.

“I am angry beyond expression at the way a community of working people is being treated today in this country and the strain they and their families are constantly having to face as they cope with never-ending scrutiny and inquiry driven by elite charities with big influence over politicians and axes to grind against a people who produce so much for Scotland yet ask little back," said Mr Hogg.

“If we are not to lose an important element of Scottish rural life, gamekeepers require some substantive recognition from Parliament for the many benefits they deliver and not the endless battering they perpetually experience.”

By contrast, RSPB Scotland warmly welcomed ScotGov’s announcement, saying that self-regulation by the grouse moor industry had failed to tackle both wildlife crime and damage to the environment by unregulated muirburn.

Director Anne McCall said: “While we commend the work of both the current Government at Holyrood and that of its predecessors in trying to tackle the illegal killing of raptors on grouse moors, 21 years of piecemeal changes to wildlife protection laws so far have unfortunately not been enough to halt this practice.

"The illegal killing of birds of prey; muirburn on peatland soils damaging our vital carbon stores; the mass culling of mountain hares; and the continued use of lead ammunition have absolutely no place in 21st century Scotland.

"Any future licensing scheme for grouse moors must be robust and address these issues, hopefully once and for all. Grouse moor estates who are found to be breaking wildlife protection laws should lose their right to shoot," said Ms McCall. "Only this will act as a genuine deterrent to this still-widespread criminal activity.

"We believe that landowners and their employees who manage their shoots legally and sustainably have nothing to fear from the introduction of licensing," she added. "Indeed, gamebird shooting is licensed in some form or other in most other European countries."

The road to ScotGov's licensing proposals began with the Werritty Review of grouse moor management, and pro-game bodies were quick to highlight that Werrity's recommendations had not included such a quick move to licensing.

A joint statement from the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, the Scottish Countryside Alliance, the Scottish Association for Country Sports and Scottish Land and Estates, also endorsed by the SGA, expressed 'dismay' that ScotGov was threatening to 'engulf the sector in a blizzard of red tape'.

"People involved in grouse shooting have already embraced a huge amount of legislation, regulation and guidance to make sure the highest standards are met," said the joint statement. "This includes estates embracing many of the recommendations contained within the Werritty report. “Substantive work has already been done to improve muirburn practices with more to come and we need to understand urgently what the Scottish Government envisages in terms of even further controls.

“We are not reassured that moor managers have ‘nothing to fear’. The Minister has herself described the potential withdrawal of a licence as a ‘serious sanction’ – there are real fears this could impact perfectly law-abiding shooting businesses.

“The Werritty Review group itself stated there is no scientific or evidential basis for introducing licensing and we are disappointed that this has been ignored," said the statement. "The real weakness is that this measure misses the target in relation to wildlife crime – which is already at its lowest level – and Scotland already has the most stringent laws to deal with raptor persecution in the UK. A one-size fits all licensing scheme will serve only to play into the hands of those who are dedicated to banning shooting altogether, regardless of the consequences for communities and the environment."

Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust in Scotland's director of policy, Adam Smith, noted that the Werrity Review had recommended that licensing be held in reserve and implemented in five years’ time only if other reasonable conservation management options were not acted on.

“The Grouse Moor Management report estimated that there are just 120 grouse estates left in Scotland," said Mr Smith. "This reinforces what we know about loss of heather, namely that we have seen over 40% loss of heather habitat since the second world war. Considerable work has been done on this, not least through 20 years of the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project which the Scottish Government supported. Many grouse moors have been replaced by farming or forestry to the detriment of many ground nesting species whose losses are alarming, among them golden plover, lapwing and curlew. Once these priority species lose their open habitat they effectively face local extinction.

“Adding yet more red tape for those best placed to try to preserve and maintain this globally important open habitat, also a massive carbon store, will have consequences. As Scotland loses yet more grouse estates, it risks losing more of its increasingly rare moorland habitat, the species that depend on it and the social and economic life that goes with it.

“Those who claim that licensing is an obvious way to end the illegal killing of raptors have led the Scottish Government on a merry dance," he added. "What wildlife management needs is solutions, not another layer of bureaucracy.”