A plan to re-introduce grouse shooting on Ilkley Moor has been attacked as "barbaric" by animal welfare campaigners.

Countryside bosses plan to hand over grouse shooting rights on Ilkley Moor to a private company, a decade after shooting on the moor was scrapped for being offensive.

Landowner Bradford Council has invited companies to tender for a ten-year lease and could hand it over to the successful firm as early as next month.

The council says grouse shooting would help with moorland management because it is accompanied by practices such as heather burning and the control of bracken, a plant which has overrun parts of the landscape.

But an Ilkley animal welfare organisation has started a petition against shooting on the moor and the country's largest animal rights group has condemned the move.

Shoots take place on other parts of the larger Rombalds Moor and although the council has sanctioned grouse shooting on Ilkley Moor in recent years, no shoots took place.

The lease would include a deal for the company to jointly manage land holding with Bradford Council. The closing date for the tenders is Wednesday.

The council abandoned grouse shooting on Ilkley Moor in 1997 but did not ban it outright. In recent years it has issued a licence for shooting.

No shooting took place, however, as council countryside officers feared it would harm the grouse population, already hit by an outbreak of a parasitic worm.

The council has also allowed grouse to be driven from Ilkley Moor to Rombalds Moor for shoots, when the population was high, although many birds were said to have flown back.

The ten-year shooting deal has already been condemned by the country's leading animal rights group and Ilkley-based animal welfare group West Yorkshire Animals in Need, hopes the strength of feeling of Ilkley residents will halt grouse shooting.

But Ilkley ward councillor and Bradford Council environment portfolio holder Councillor Anne Hawkesworth defended the move.

She said the council could not take a moral standpoint on the issue and allowed grouse shooting for the good of managing the moor.

Coun Hawkesworth said: "Permission was given four years ago and it was given very much on management grounds. From a management perspective, it's a grouse moor. If we want to retain grouse and want the moor purple with heather, it's got to be managed." She said council policy had not changed recently and the call for tenders was to allow fair competition between interested parties.

Bradford Council's original decision to halt grouse shooting on Ilkley Moor was attacked by critics, claiming it would be detrimental to the management of the moor and amounted to an attack on the hunting and shooting lobby.

The council Countryside Service manager Danny Jackson said: "It was stopped in 1997 when the council decided not to renew the licence. However, we have continued to manage the moor and monitor the wild bird population. We are also working closely with the owners of neighbouring moors, all of which are shot for grouse.

"In the past few years the council has allowed grouse to be driven from Ilkley Moor as grouse stocks increased. Grouse shooting does assist moorland management because of the practices that go with it, such as heather burning and bracken control."

The country's largest animal rights group, Animal Aid, condemned the return of shooting as a "huge step backwards".

Animal Aid campaigner Fiona Pereira said: "Aside from the obvious and blatant cruelty of using birds as feathered targets, the management of moorland for grouse shooting interests means the legal and illegal destruction through trapping, shooting and poisoning of a host of indigenous species that interfere with shooting."

Chairman of West Yorkshire Animals in Need, Ilkley resident Oliver Townsend, described grouse shooting as "barbaric". "I think it's a retrograde step," he said. "It will send out all the wrong signals to the adults and children of the area, because if it's okay to shoot grouse, they'll think it's okay to get air rifles and shoot other birds from the trees, possibly dogs and cats too. How can we differentiate between so much killing?"

In June 2006, just a month before the week long fire which razed an estimated quarter of the moor, it was estimated that grouse shooting could raise around £10,000. The plan was to plough this money back into the moor.

However, concerns about the re-introduction of shooting on the moor arose more recently. People opposed to the moor being put into the hands of a trust feared for public safety of the many walkers and visitors if grouse shooting began on the moor again.