BB eye: Driven grouse shooting – where next?

Published on 13 March 2017 in Editorials

by Mark Avery

Saturday 13th August 2016 was a special day for me: an e-petition bearing my name (http://bit.ly/1WAsA6V), aimed at the Westminster government and calling for driven grouse shooting to be banned, passed 100,000 signatures and was therefore heading for a debate in parliament. I recall repeatedly refreshing the screen on my mobile phone and watching the total approach 100,000 and then suddenly whizz past it. A few seconds later Chris Packham phoned me (he’d been watching the numbers rise too) and we both said: ‘We’ve done it!’

I recall repeatedly refreshing the screen on my mobile phone and watching the total approach 100,000 and then suddenly whizz past it. A few seconds later Chris Packham phoned me (he’d been watching the numbers rise too) and we both said: ‘We’ve done it!’

Only a few years earlier the suggestion that there would be popular support for banning a niche hobby of killing birds for fun would have been unbelievable but a coalition of raptor enthusiasts and birders, environmentalists and Green Party members, and anti-bloodsports activists got the petition over the line.

We deployed social media to great effect but a series of talks to bird clubs and an old-fashioned leafletting campaign also played their parts. In the week between Hen Harrier Day and the Inglorious 12th, we had masses of media coverage, as we knew we would, and an encounter between Chris Packham and Ian Botham on the Radio 4 Today programme really got the signatures motoring (http://bbc.in/2iqSH5x). A pulse of social media advertising, targeted at RSPB members, also produced thousands of signatures in that last week.

Support came from right across the UK but particularly from areas of England and Scotland where driven grouse shooting is practised (http://bit.ly/2hHSrLg), with the highest support coming from rural constituencies with Conservative or SNP MPs. The constituency that gave the petition the highest support was Calder Valley, where locals blame increased floods in recent years on the intensification of management on nearby grouse moors – a good example of how the petition was supported by a wide range of interest groups.

A few weeks later the petition closed on 123,077 signatures and after an evidence session (http://bit.ly/2i2VVZF) the subject was debated on 31st October in Westminster Hall (http://bit.ly/2eZXoPy). The debate was an unsatisfactory affair with few Opposition MPs attending or speaking and a succession of pro-shooting Conservative MPs supporting grouse shooting. But the most important part of it was the minister’s closing speech. Therese Coffey could have signalled that grouse shooting needed to clean up its act but she foolishly failed to acknowledge its problems. Her speech will come back to haunt future Defra ministers because it failed to address the evidence.

Why driven grouse shooting will be banned

Rather than rehearse the arguments for banning driven grouse shooting here (instead see Inglorious: conflict in the uplands, Bloomsbury, 2015, 2016), let’s just take it as read that driven grouse shooting depends on high levels of wildlife crime to remove birds of prey from the uplands that would otherwise deplete the bags of Red Grouse Lagopus lagopus on sporting estates. And I use the word ‘depends’ deliberately; without the illegal killing of Hen Harriers Circus cyaneus, Peregrine Falcons Falco peregrinus and other raptors, the profitability of driven grouse shooting would be much reduced, perhaps completely eliminated.

Until recently, the conflict between driven grouse shooting and conservation interests has been focused on wildlife crime against raptors but research now shows that water quality, flood risk, carbon emissions and aquatic biodiversity are all affected by intensive grouse-moor management, particularly by heather burning and drainage (http://bit.ly/2iXeyhG; http://bit.ly/2hHUvD8; http://bit.ly/2hHPfiQ).

We’re told that we live in a post-truth, post-fact world, but that’s only the case if we let it happen. The case against driven grouse shooting is strong, and can only become stronger with more evidence. The case for reform (and eventually abolition) will become irresistible. The four main areas of weakness in the grouse shooting industry’s case are as follows:

Wildlife crime There should be 2,600 pairs of Hen Harriers nesting in the UK and we await the results of the 2016 UK survey to discover how far short the population falls from that level (http://bit.ly/2dqFvKu). My guess would be that there will be between 650 and 850 pairs, despite increasing populations in Wales and Northern Ireland where there is very little intensive grouse shooting. We know that England should have 330+ pairs but in 2016 had only three pairs. If the English population fails to increase substantially, then the future of driven grouse shooting in the English uplands is very tenuous indeed. Law-abiding ramblers, nature-lovers and visitors to National Parks will not tolerate these levels of wildlife crime (http://bit.ly/2hKJ6FP; http://bit.ly/2ePFJxV; http://bit.ly/2hHQb6C) for much longer, politicians will be unable to defend a hobby based on wildlife crime, and government will be forced to act. There may be three breeding seasons before the next UK general election (scheduled for 7th May 2020) and without progress on raptor protection grouse shooting could become an election issue (albeit a minor one).

Flood risk There is good evidence that intensive grouse-moor management increases flood risk. Floods create misery and have massive economic costs. People affected by the impacts of a rich person’s hobby will be mobilised to put pressure on politicians for change.

Water quality Water companies already expend hundreds of millions of pounds treating water that comes off grouse moors, and heather burning increases those costs. In an age of austerity, few will be willing to pay more for water because people are shooting Red Grouse for fun.

Economic value Grouse shooting relies on flawed estimates of its economic value to local communities for part of its support (http://bit.ly/2hKpXW3). A proper analysis of these figures, which removed all double-counting of public subsidies and which incorporated the costs to the public of increased flood risk and water treatment, would show things in a very different light. Intensive grouse shooting delivers private profit at the expense of public costs – no such system can last very long once opened up to scrutiny.

How driven grouse shooting will end

We’ve made great progress in less than three years in raising the profile of the issues around driven grouse shooting – but we haven’t yet achieved any change on the ground. Frankly, it would be astounding if we had at this stage. But the Green Party is signed up to banning driven grouse shooting, and anti-bloodsports organisations, most notably the League Against Cruel Sports, are now focusing on grouse shooting in a way that they never have before.

Unfortunately, wildlife conservation organisations have played a much smaller role so far. The Wildlife Trusts have been unable to agree a public position on the subject and although the RSPB agrees with the analysis of the faults of driven grouse shooting, it favours licensing of shooting estates as a way forward. The RSPB failed to mobilise MPs behind licensing in the parliamentary debate and so lost an opportunity presented to them to progress their own agenda. We need to see nature conservation organisations performing far more effectively over the next few years, although, it has to be said, we’ve made plenty of progress without them so far.

Progress on the issue may be faster in Scotland than in England. A petition to license gamebird shooting, set up by the Scottish Raptor Study Groups (but with a lot of behind-the-scenes support from the RSPB), is progressing through the Scottish system and let us hope that it results in legislative change. If licensing proved to be effective, then it might open that door in England too; but if it proved ineffective, then it would leave an outright ban as the obvious route for legislators in England and Scotland alike. Either way, it would be a step forward.

No social or environmental wrong has ever been righted by silence. In 2016 we raised over 120,000 voices on the subject of driven grouse shooting and took the arguments to the Westminster parliament where they will forever sit in the parliamentary record. Clearly, 2016 was a bad year for driven grouse shooting and a good year for the future of the uplands and of their wildlife.

Mark Avery