After 150 years of being treated as a quaint rural pastime, grouse shooting is now under the microscope – unless it reforms it is doomed, and it may drag other country sports down with it.
On Saturday, the start of the grouse shooting season, the social media hashtag #inglorious12th was trending, and a social media message, “I want to see an end to raptor persecution in the uplands. Criminal activity needs to be stopped”, set up by 15-year-old birdwatcher and conservation campaigner Findlay Wilde, was sent to more than 11 million people.
Thousands marched in London protesting at the badger cull, calling for foxhunting to remain banned and calling for an end to grouse shooting. Recently, Sir Ian Botham was given a rough time on BBC Radio 5 Live when he couldn’t answer questions about gamebird shooting, and on Friday the RSPB released a video of armed men, who might have been gamekeepers, meddling with a nest of a rare bird of prey on a North Yorkshire moor. What’s going on?
Driven grouse shooting consists of a line of “beaters”, blowing whistles and waving flags to chase wild red grouse towards a distant line of guns, waiting to shoot at them as they fly past. By 10 December, when the season ends, around 500,000 grouse will be killed. There is big money involved. Eating a roast grouse costs around £25 in a London restaurant, but shooting that grouse costs £75, so a day’s shooting may cost several thousand pounds.
Red grouse live in the hills of Scotland and northern England. To increase red grouse numbers, heather is burned and to provide a mixed-age profile of heather plants for the birds to eat, wet areas are drained to encourage heather growth. Natural predators such as foxes, stoats and crows are trapped or shot (in very large numbers) because they eat grouse (and don’t pay £75 a bird for the privilege). Grouse are given medication because their unnaturally high densities allow diseases to spread. Mountain hares carry ticks that affect grouse, so are killed. Grouse moors are as intensively managed as East Anglian wheatfields.
The growing opposition to grouse shooting stems from three overlapping communities: animal welfare activists, environmental campaigners and nature conservationists. Many, when they realise the scale of the killing, not just of grouse but also predators, are appalled that this Victorian “sport” is still allowed. Environmentalists highlight the intensive moorland management and a body of science demonstrating that this causes increased flood risk, higher water-treatment costs, greater carbon emissions, damage to moorland habitats and reduced insect life in the streams running off grouse moors. It’s a classic case of a niche activity of a few, hitting the pockets of the many through higher home insurance costs, higher water bills and a damaged environment.
Labour, a fundamentally urban party, hasn’t yet woken up to the fact that imposing a ban is the right thing to do
Nature conservationists’ poster-bird is the hen harrier, just one protected species illegally killed on grouse moors. There should be over 300 pairs of hen harriers nesting in the English uplands, (2,600 pairs in the UK as a whole) and this year there were just seven pairs ( around 550 pairs in the UK). The police struggle to catch the perpetrators of these wildlife crimes – understandably, since they operate covertly on private shooting estates in the least populated parts of the UK.
There are many reasons for calling the start of the grouse shooting season “inglorious” and the industry is under extreme pressure. But rather than mend its ways, reform its management and throw out its bad apples it has copied the tobacco, pesticides and fossil fuels industries and poured money into vilifying its opponents and a campaign of denial. TV presenter, author and photographer Chris Packham has been targeted – the Countryside Alliance called on the BBC to sack Packham for his off-camera campaigning, and less famous campaigners have been threatened and vilified. The grouse industry funded a campaign targeted at the RSPB.
Grouse shooting has friends in high places – even the Balmoral Estate visitor centre sings its praises – and the Conservative government has done nothing to push the case for reform. In Scotland there is more progress and a strong chance that the SNP government will introduce licensing of shooting estates in 2018.
On this day last year, an online petition I organised which called for an outright ban on intensive grouse shooting reached 123,000 signatures when it closed in September (a rival pro-shooting petition raised only 25,000) and secured a Westminster Hall parliamentary debate. The Conservative MPs packing that debate represented a large proportion of the House of Commons’s old Etonians, and they spent as much time denigrating Chris Packham and me as supporting grouse-shooting.
The Green party supports a ban of all bloodsports but Labour, a fundamentally urban party, hasn’t yet woken up to the fact that a policy of banning grouse-shooting is the right thing to do and is also an electoral asset.
Intensive grouse shooting will cease in my lifetime. The industry has been nasty and intransigent and is dragging down the reputation of less disreputable country sports. The pressure on grouse shooting will not go away.
The question for the rest of the shooting community is: do they want to be dragged into a mire from which they may never emerge or should they cut the grouse shooters loose and distance themselves as quickly as possible?
Dr Mark Avery is a former conservation director of the RSPB; now a, blogger, campaigner and author and author of Inglorious – Conflict in the Uplands.