THE scandal of Scotland’s empty uplands has been exposed in almost every newspaper this week from the Telegraph and Daily Mail to the Record – and even on the BBC. Yet the issue finally focusing attention is not the enduring absence of people from the bulk of Scotland’s landmass but the fate of animals like the mountain hare, fox and hen harrier, perceived by many “sporting” estates to be a collective threat to the diminutive King of our moorlands – the humble grouse.

Now I’ll be honest and admit that as I surveyed the incredible turnout of folk for the launch of Revive – the coalition for grouse moor reform on Tuesday night in Edinburgh -- a bit of me was green with envy. Many of us have spent months, years and decades trying to conserve the human populations of glens, straths, hill farms and moorlands – and to be honest we haven’t got very far.

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Right now, for example, nothing and no-one seems able to stop the removal of tenant farmers by the Duke of Buccleuch (despite a petition reaching almost 70k signatures) or start locals pushing for more land transfers before 9000 of his lordship’s acres go on the market.

Does that human dilemma move the folk who care so much about animals and habitats? And if the honest answer is no, should land reformers really care if grouse moors are as messed up as the human communities that surround them? The answer is yes, we absolutely should.

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Firstly, the document produced by the Revive coalition is the most thorough demolition of the case for “sporting estates” I’ve ever seen in print. It questions the prevailing belief that grouse moors are naturally empty, barren terrains, explaining that heather is rotationally burnt to make life better for the grouse and worse for natural predators which are labelled as pests and routinely killed. Foxes, stoats, weasels, crows and ravens have been destroyed on grouse moors for decades. Now they’ve been joined by mountain hares (which may transmit a disease to grouse chicks via ticks) and protected species like hen harriers and eagles.

The report also reveals that grouse density is on the rise; profits from grouse moors exceed that of deer forests and salmon rivers; game birds are exempt from statutory testing for lead shot; peat moorlands are burnt even though they constitute the largest terrestrial carbon store in the UK; medicated grit is commonly used on “wild” grouse to reduce disease; the use of sheep as “tick mops” means grouse moors can attract agricultural subsidies even though they create just 2640 full-time equivalent jobs on an average salary of £11,401 – well below the national minimum wage.

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As the coalition’s outspoken, high-profile patron, BBC Springwatch presenter Chris Packham said at the launch, “The UK shooting industry is the least regulated in the world. We don’t know how many grouse are shot, how much lead is fired, how many pheasants are brought in just to be killed or how much money is made.” And we should.

Secondly, the Revive report is a concise yet damning indictment of the Scottish Government’s continuing and mystifying inability to get tough with large landed estates.

Film evidence and two scientifically peer-reviewed papers demonstrate that 38000 mountain hares were killed in the 2017 season and, earlier this year, campaigners from One Kind, the League against Cruel Sports Scotland and the retailer Lush released video footage of “brutal, military-style culls” of mountain hares. What is the Scottish Government going to do about it?

Why did SNP MSPs vote with Tories to defeat Andy Wightman’s recent attempts to subject hill tracks to some sort of planning regulations? And why will the majority of grouse moor owners continue to pay no business rates despite the provisions of the 2015 Land Reform Bill, because they will qualify for the Scottish Government’s small-business bonus scheme. Is that acceptable? I asked for a response on all these issues but got none.

A fifth of the Scottish land mass is riven with raptor persecution, exclusion of people, loss of biodiversity, and poverty wages. Is the Scottish Government happy with this? Even the most dedicated SNP supporters are now quite scunnered by the monumental lack of progress.

Finally, the coalition of forces working together on grouse moors is potentially game-changing for all the casualties of Scotland’s broken land ownership system – two and four-legged. Until now there’s been a kind of segregation between community buyout activists and land reformers on the one hand and big animal charities like the RSPB, wild land people like the John Muir Trust and nature conservation quangos like Scottish Natural Heritage on the other.

There’s been change in recent years, but the flora and fauna people who have often opposed wind farms (even small-scale and community-owned) have kept their distance in the land reform debate and have generally looked happier dealing with flora and fauna than people. There’s no crime in that, but it can hit a raw nerve. Until the community land buyouts of the 1990s, people have consistently come further down the pecking order than animals – whether through clearance for sheep and deer forests in centuries past or restriction by conservation designations protecting vulnerable species like newts, bats, corncrakes and eagles today.

Now though, with the Revive coalition, there’s a chance for both “sides” to learn from one another and produce a truly holistic alternative to what Chris Packham calls the “dead, burned and barren hills of Scotland”. Happily, the coalition involved veteran land reform campaigner Andy Wightman MSP and social justice think tank Common Weal right from the start, which means the circular ecosystem being promoted as an alternative to grouse moors actually includes people too.

The coalition intends to produce more in-depth research on each grouse-moor related problem over coming months and years, and will refrain from producing its own recommendations until after the Scottish Government-commissioned Werrity report into grouse moor management is published next year. Is that too softly, softly? Or a recognition that demands and petitions haven’t done much to influence the SNP’s thinking about sporting estates thus far.

In any case, the coalition isn’t yet clear on the best way forward. “Driven grouse shooting,” where beaters sweep grouse up out of the heather to waiting guns, is a peculiarly Scottish tradition (amongst the landed classes).

Should it be banned or just licensed? In April, Bradford Council became the last British local authority to ban grouse shooting on public moorland. So it can be done. But in other countries, especially the Nordic nations, hunting has been a cross-societal pursuit for generations with ultra-local councils setting cull quotas and men, women and children all involved in the hunting process. Of course, the social context is very different here, but should country-dwellers be able to shoot the occasional grouse, pheasant, deer or duck or is all hunting of wildlife a crime?

Two things are crystal clear from the Revive Coalition launch. Scots need fully-fledged alternatives so our barren moorlands can be imagined differently, and the SNP needs some political insight (and apparently some smeddum) to realise that the days of feudal privilege and double standards are gone forever.

Farmers can no longer burn off stubble in fields, but nothing stops landowners burning off heather to promote new heather shoots for grouse. Scottish Government campaigns urge children to get outdoors, but primary school pupils near me cannot walk in certain woods and fields because of constant pheasant shooting and snares.

Revive has already rendered a great service to the cause of land reform. The coalition has demonstrated that accommodating feudal landowners and their fondness for shooting small birds comes at a price and isn’t compatible with modern ideas about access, climate change, animal cruelty and the urgent need for diversity in land use and ownership.

That’s an impressive start.