THE culture of driven grouse shooting is inextricably linked to the royal family.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert helped to popularise the sport amongst the upper classes after purchasing the Balmoral estate in 1852.

The growth of the sport helped by the monarchy’s fulsome endorsement has, in turn, completely transformed vast swathes of Scotland’s land.

While there is some uncertainty around the extent of land managed as grouse moor in Scotland it is ­estimated to cover between one to 1.5 million hectares – 12% to 18% of the country’s landmass.

Managing land as grouse moor translates into an intensive system of ­controlling what flora and fauna are permitted to exist within its ­boundaries. That means rotational burning of heather to provide young plants for red grouse to eat while maintaining older heather for nest sites.

It means medicating grouse with special grit to control parasites (and killing animals such as mountain hares who may also carry them).

And it means lethally ­controlling the numbers of predators in the area, including foxes, weasels, stoats, and crows.

On many estates, this has also ­included the illegal killing of birds of prey, which has blighted the ­industry’s reputation for responsible environmental stewardship.

“The sport became popular amongst Britain’s elite and large ­landowners, including royalty, in the Victorian era when railways made previously isolated parts of ­Scotland more accessible and the invention of the breech-loading shotgun was particularly suited for shooting large numbers at a time,” said Max Wiszniewski, campaign manager for the REVIVE coalition – a group of charities and campaign groups calling for the ­reform of Scotland’s grouse moors.

“Because of the destructive land practices that accompany it, driven grouse shooting is rightly seen as controversial today – for many, it’s the new fox hunting – but like many large landowners the royals have ­continued it and the management of their estates has continued to grow in intensity in the last few decades.”

However, the way in which grouse moorland is managed in Scotland looks set to change.

READ MORE: 'Terrible' night for Tories as Keir Starmer hails local election wins

The proposed Wildlife ­Management and Muirburn Bill currently going through the Scottish Parliament aims to stop the illegal persecution of birds of prey by introducing a licensing ­regime for grouse moors.

It will also further regulate or even ban the use of certain wildlife traps and extend the existing licensing ­regime for muirburn.

When asked by The National ­whether this bill would apply to all landowners, including the ­royal ­family, a spokesperson for the ­Scottish Government said: “We ­remain committed in our efforts to improve protections for Scotland’s iconic wildlife and biodiversity.

“The Wildlife Management and Muirburn Bill will impact all ­landowners and land managers who wish to engage in any of the ­proposed regulated activities such as the ­shooting red grouse or undertaking muirburn.”

But as has often been the case with legislation as it applies to the Crown, there remains some opportunity for it to wriggle away from the full scrutiny of the law.

Last year, the Scottish Greens ­announced that there existed a ­loophole within the Hunting with Dogs Bill which could allow those hunting illegally on land owned by the Scottish Crown Estate to escape prosecution or investigation.

The bill states that in order for ­police to investigate or gather evidence on land “an interest in which belongs to His Majesty in right of the Crown and which forms part of the Scottish Crown Estate” then they would have to receive permission from the person managing the land – i.e an employee of Crown Estate Scotland.

As the bill was not part of the Bute House Agreement, Green MSP ­Ariane Burgess described the ­potential ­loophole as “particularly galling” and stated that the law should apply equally to everyone.

She said: “King Charles, his staff and associates should all be subject to the same laws as the rest of us, and it’s not right that police will need to ask for permission to do their job.

“I’ll be discussing with the ­Scottish Government how to strengthen this bill at the final stage later this year, ­including ensuring the royal ­family are subject to the same ­legal ­requirements when it comes to ­animal welfare as every other citizen in Scotland.”

The Hunting with Dogs Bill passed with this potential loophole intact back in January.

READ MORE: Choose your top pick for Scotland's first elected President

But despite the Muirburn Bill being part of the Bute House Agreement, the very same loophole exists within the proposed legislation (the Greens declined The National’s request for comment).

While Balmoral is privately owned by the royal family and therefore not subject to this loophole, the Scottish Crown Estate does manage some of its land as grouse moor – meaning there does appear to be potential for land managers to turn away police at their leisure.

The Scottish Government states that exemptions for Crown Estate land are not uncommon due to ­reasons of national security as some Crown Estate land is used by the Ministry of Defence.

It also notes that the provisions in the bill which relate to the licensing of grouse moors and wildlife traps will be inserted into Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, meaning that offences subject to a warrant will not require authorisation from the ­relative authority.

But as Nick Kempe of parkswatchscotland, and a former executive on the committee of Scotland’s ­Campaign for National Parks, told The National, the issue isn’t whether the police have ways of enforcing their authority on Crown assets.

Rather, it’s that legislation is still being written that presumes they should be treated differently.

“The first version of the Scottish Parliament’s Land Reform Act of 2003 produced by civil servants said that access rights would not exist on royal land,” he said.

“But recreational organisations and the Scottish Parliament got rid of that. It was accepted that royals shouldn’t be treated differently.

“Yet, here we are 20 years later. Even if there is some convoluted legal route which allows police access to Crown Estate land, what’s ­staggering is that those exceptions are still being presented.”

Equally as remarkable is the fact that in a royal family of avowed ­environmentalists, nobody has raised any issue with the continuation of managing much of their land as grouse moorland.

“During COP26 in Glasgow, King Charles rightly called out the ­existence of monocultures which was particularly striking considering the royal’s ownership of large driven grouse moors,” said Wiszniewski.

READ MORE: Local election results suggest Labour need SNP to form government

“If the new monarch is to lead by example he would do well to quickly transition away from driven grouse shooting towards better land uses for people, our wildlife and the environment.”

As the country’s most famous ­family engaging in blood sport, their opinion on it can be seen to set the tone, said Kempe.

“The royal family are at the top of Scotland’s feudal-type ­landowning system.

“People copy what they do, just as the Queen and now Charles copied Queen Victoria with their management of Balmoral.

“So, if Charles set an example on this, if he was honest about the ­damage grouse moorland can cause, then that would make a huge ­difference to how it is perceived in our culture. It could bring about massive change.”

Buckingham Palace was contacted for comment