THE start of the grouse shooting season has reignited the debate over the sport's role in protecting the countryside.

As the industry marks the "Glorious 12th", the beginning of the red grouse season, moorland owners said they had restored peatland equivalent to the combined areas of Liverpool and Nottingham and wild birds are thriving on well-managed moors.

But with numbers of hen harriers, which come into conflict with gamekeepers because they prey on red grouse chicks, falling to just three breeding pairs in England this year, the RSPB is warning the industry must change its ways.

England's uplands could support more than 200 breeding pairs of hen harriers, but the bird of prey's numbers are being kept down by illegal persecution, a report by government conservation agency Natural England concluded.

The RSPB recently pulled out of the Government's hen harrier action plan because it felt the plan was not delivering the "urgent action and change in behaviour" needed to bring the bird of prey back from the brink of extinction in England.

The wildlife charity also raised concerns about the "environmental damage" caused by practices it says are used by grouse moor managers, such as draining and burning habitat and killing mountain hares to reduce disease in grouse.

It has called for the licensing of the industry, which it argues would drive up standards and ensure grouse moors complied with the law or risk losing their right to hold shoots.

The renewed debate comes as early hopes for a relatively good grouse shooting season, with better chick survival than the "calamitous conditions" last year, were undermined by adverse late weather during the nesting period.

The Moorland Association, whose members own and manage 860,000 acres of heather moorland in England and Wales for red grouse, said there could be pockets of poor grouse numbers on some moors and shoot days being cancelled.

But chairman Robert Benson said that there were still "positive outcomes" on land managed for grouse shooting, with 18,000 acres of peatland habitat restored across northern England.

Peatland restoration improves wildlife habitat, boosts water quality, helps tackle flooding and stores carbon, he said.

According to the association the shooting industry delivers £52.5m annually on conservation work, and £15m for local businesses.

Mr Benson said: "We are proud of significant wildlife gains. Careful moorland management has made a real difference to some of the country's most endangered species.

"While lapwing, curlew, golden plover, ring ouzel, merlin and black grouse are in serious decline elsewhere, they can still be found in good numbers on our moors."

The Moorland Association is backing the Government's hen harrier plan and criticised conservationists who have called for a ban on grouse shooting, warning there was no plausible alternative for the land that would deliver wildlife benefits.

Mr Benson added: "Short-term licensing of driven grouse shooting, advocated by the RSPB, could also foreshorten the generation to generation planning and investment that is inherent in managing moorland, leading to less successful conservation management."

But Jeff Knott, the RSPB's head of nature policy, said: "It is in the interests of those good, law-abiding estates to stand up and embrace licensing as a means for driving up standards, building public trust and removing the bad apples."

He said the sport was coming under increasing scrutiny, with the problems for hen harriers raising questions over whether there was a sustainable future for driven grouse shooting.

"The simple answer is that it doesn't have a future unless it changes and adopts best practise.

"The illegal killing of birds of prey like the hen harrier must end, and sadly this tars the reputation of every grouse moor estate and every shooter," he said.