BB eye: Why it is in the driven grouse industry’s interest to clean up its own act

Published on 13 April 2017 in Editorials

by Martin Harper

I believe that the future of the driven grouse shooting industry rests in its own hands. It either reforms, to improve the environmental conditions of the uplands, or public distrust and anger will grow, leading inevitably to government intervention to regulate its activities. Let me explain.

Driven grouse shooting is a form of hunting that has shaped our landscapes over the past two centuries, leading to profound changes in vegetation cover and creating the mix of wildlife we find on many of our hills and moors today. During the nineteenth century, highly organised and professionalised management of heather moorland developed to produce high numbers of Red Grouse Lagopus lagopus for shooting. Sadly, the days of big bag shooting were the nadir for species like the Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus, which was driven out of mainland Britain.

While there were great changes during the twentieth century, the Victorian extirpation of so many of our top predators continues to influence attitudes (so much so that some still refer to predators as ‘vermin’) and sets a dark context to the debate about the future of driven grouse shooting. Land-use choices that have given primacy to creating a shootable surplus of Red Grouse have come at a cost for other species. For decades after the Second World War, the prevailing orthodoxy was that the future for upland wildlife depended on a balance between intensive sheep grazing, blanket afforestation with non-native conifer crops or management for grouse. The net benefit appeared to lie with grouse-moor management at sufficiently low intensity to allow it to rub along constructively with conservation management, for example benefiting wading birds. There was always the intractable issue of illegal raptor killing but, at a habitat scale, the RSPB felt it could do business with grouse-moor managers.

So what changed?

In the early years of the twenty-first century, a new approach to managing grouse moors emerged: intensification of the rate of heather burning, the use of medicated grit and a zero tolerance of predators. A renaissance of the Victorian big bag, no limits, grouse shooting has created a context in which the outrage at illegal bird-of-prey killing has spiralled and profound concerns have now become apparent about the nature of land management that is delivering huge densities of nesting Red Grouse. As a comparison, densities of 300 pairs/km2 are now the target in the UK set against a natural density of 3 pairs/km2 across the range of the Willow Grouse in Scandinavia.

This new approach has created conflict between those within the grouse industry and those concerned about its impact on the environment and especially birds of prey. The RSPB, clearly, has been part of an increasingly polarised and heated debate. Much is made of our charitable neutrality on the ethics of sport shooting. It’s critical to understand that our focus is on the land-use practices that support the grouse industry and its conservation impacts and not the shooting activity itself.

Our aim is simple: we want a future where our uplands are richer in wildlife than they are today. This will require a shift in the way that our land is managed and clearly, as well as creating jeopardy for existing environmental laws, Brexit provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reform our agriculture and land-use system.

The case for change has become more compelling in recent years. Our own research informed a complaint to the European Commission about the way our most important blanket bogs were being managed. We highlighted the scale and extent of damage that rotational burning was causing to our most important upland sites in England. The trigger for this complaint was the management carried out at Walshaw Moor, near Hebden Bridge in the southern Pennines, and the failure of Natural England to tackle it. I was taken there a few years ago and was shocked at the intensity of management that was plain to see from the Pennine Way that crosses the moor: new tracks and shooting butts, areas of grassland sprayed with herbicide, all within the regular chequerboard landscape caused by rotational burning that is the signature of driven grouse shooting in the hills.

Our own monitoring and the data from volunteer raptor workers throughout the uplands is adding weight to our knowledge that birds of prey are under renewed pressure. In England only three Hen Harriers nested successfully in 2016, Peregrine Falcons Falco peregrinus are largely absent again from areas of northwest England and the Peak District remains a black hole for Northern Goshawks Accipiter gentilis and other raptors. Satellite tagging is adding greater detail to our knowledge of the movements and fates of individual Hen Harriers and with support of funders such as LUSH and through our EU LIFE-funded project we are learning much more about the lives of our most threatened bird of prey.

The intensification of land management for grouse and its environmental consequences have prompted a wave of campaigning and outrage including the establishment of ‘Birders Against Wildlife Crime’ and their creation of Hen Harrier Day, which we are proud to support, and of course the recent petition that secured a debate in the House of Commons. The stated aim of that petition, sponsored by my predecessor Mark Avery, was to secure a ban of driven grouse shooting in England. While fully in agreement with the assessment of the impact of driven grouse shooting, we do not support a ban.

The RSPB has a strong track record of working with a variety of industries that have an impact (for good or ill) on our natural world – the water industry, ports, and the aggregate industry are just some of the examples where we have often started from a position of conflict but developed constructive working relations that now are delivering some of our most productive and worthwhile partnerships. Modern industry should aspire to minimise its impact on the natural world, advocate change to others and, if their business model results in unacceptable harm, be prepared to change that model. This same thinking must apply to grouse shooting.

The industry needs to do more to acknowledge that their land management is creating environmental problems and then begin to clean up its act. We believe that licensing would be a way to drive out some of the most unsustainable practices and give confidence to the public that the industry has a place in modern Britain. Critically, a licensing system would build trust – a commodity as rare as an English Hen Harrier at the moment.

Progress is likely to move at different speeds across the UK. In Scotland, there is greater interest in a state-regulated licensing system for gamebird hunting, stimulated by a recent Scottish Raptor Study Group petition to the Scottish Parliament. In England, there is clearly not parliamentary support for reform at the moment, and the House of Commons debate demonstrated that. Yet I believe that the quality of the debate will reform as more scrutiny is given to unsustainable land-management practices. Through a maturation of political thinking and sustained public pressure, reform will surely come.

The collateral damage of an intensifying land use to produce superabundant Red Grouse for sport shooting is significant and increasingly unacceptable. It is occurring at a landscape scale and affects fundamental human needs including water quality and the ability to ameliorate flood risk and carbon loss; these issues, and the damage to wildlife, especially through the illegal loss of our birds of prey, are all part of the challenge to the industry to reform.

The evidence will continue to build – through the efforts of raptor workers and birdwatchers monitoring populations, through the satellite tagging and tracking of Hen Harriers, through our own dedicated investigations work – and the case for change will strengthen further. Licensing could be the approach that builds trust, restores confidence and opens the door to a new relationship between grouse-moor owners and the public. It could even be the key to providing driven grouse shooting with the future it craves.

Martin Harper is the RSPB’s Conservation Director