Does the government subsidise grouse shooting?

27 February 2019
What was claimed

Theresa May has increased subsidies for grouse shooting from £45 million to £84 million a year.

Our verdict

Moorland in England used for grouse shooting is eligible for agricultural subsidy, though the act of shooting itself isn’t subsidised. Data on the total subsidy paid to grouse moors isn’t published, though the £45 and £84 million figures are likely to be overestimates.

“Why has Theresa May just increased taxpayer subsidies for her wealthy mates’ sport of grouse shooting from £45 million to £84 million a year?”

Facebook user, 10 February 2019

Moorland—which can be used, among other things, for grouse shooting—is eligible for agricultural subsidy, though the sport of grouse shooting isn’t itself subsidised.

We don’t know the total amount that grouse moor owners receive in agricultural subsidy as the government’s data doesn’t show this breakdown.

What we can say is that, following reforms, the average subsidy per hectare of moorland in England increased from £30 in 2014 to £56 in 2015. But given the total area of grouse moors in England, it’s almost certain that total subsidies were worth significantly less than £84 million a year in 2015, and remain worth less than this today.

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What is grouse shooting?

Grouse are wild birds native to the UK, many of which live on moorland specially maintained for the purpose of shooting. Grouse shooting is a structured activity which involves directing the grouse into positions to be shot.

Grouse moorland is a managed environment largely consisting of heather. Grouse typically eat young heather and use old heather as shelter.

Grouse moor gamekeepers manage this balance through different methods including grazing livestock on the moors and periodically burning areas of old heather to allow young heather to grow in its place.

How are agricultural subsidies allocated?

Like all EU member states, the UK follows the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). This provides direct income support payments to farmers and is meant to help maintain competition, while protecting against volatility in agricultural prices.

Funding is given to each member state, which then distributes payments to its farmers. In the UK the rules and administration of these subsidies are devolved in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. As the claim talked about the actions of the Conservative government, we’re just focusing on the rules in England.

In England CAP payments are distributed through different schemes, but the main payment is granted under something called the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS). This is paid to farmers based on the amount of land they have entitlements for.

Why do grouse moors qualify for subsidy?

While grouse moors may not obviously appear to be agricultural assets, they do qualify for agricultural subsidy.

The BPS rules state that only a farmer can claim BPS payments on their holdings. A farmer is defined as a person or group which produces agricultural products or keeps land suitable for grazing or cultivation.

Because moorland is often suitable to be grazed upon, grouse moors qualify for payment, regardless of whether livestock is actually being kept on the moorland.

The rules on subsidies do state that: “If agricultural and non-agricultural activities are taking place on the same land, the land won’t be eligible if the intensity, nature, duration, and timing of the non-agricultural activity significantly interferes with agricultural activity.”  

We don’t know how much grouse moors get in subsidies

We asked The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for the total amount of subsidy received by grouse moors. They said they didn’t have a breakdown of subsidies received by grouse moors. Nor did they have a breakdown of the amount received by moorland farmers.  

The claim says subsidies have increased from £45 million to £84 million per year, and the same article also references the change in subsidies in 2015. That year, the government increased the average subsidy on moorland from £30 per hectare up to around £56 per hectare.

So the £45 million to £84 million increase seems to be calculated by estimating that there are around 1.5 million hectares of grouse moorland and then multiplying that by the £30 and £56 figures.  

But we think that estimate might be too high. An investigation by Guy Shrubsole of Friends of the Earth estimated there were around 222,000 hectares of grouse moor in England, not 1.5 million hectares. That would mean the total amount of subsidy in England in 2015 was significantly lower than the £84 million the claim suggests.

The claim could be using an estimate of total grouse moorland across the UK and we’ve asked the author for more detail. However if this is the case, it’s incorrect to use the English subsidy level to estimate the total subsidy across the UK, as the levels vary. For example, Scottish farmers receive different subsidy levels to English farmers.

Also we can’t be sure whether every hectare of grouse moor is eligible for subsidy, or whether moorland owners are claiming subsidy on every hectare. 

Friends of the Earth calculated in 2014 (before the increase in subsidy) that 30 grouse moor estate owners (accounting for an estimated 55% of English grouse moor) received over £4 million in agricultural subsidies.

But that may have also included subsidy for other land they owned which wasn’t grouse moor.

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