Driven Grouse Shooting: to license or to ban?

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Driven grouse shooting has to change. It is a sport underpinned by landscape scale wildlife crime, the systematic removal of raptors across our uplands that has left hen harriers, peregrines, goshawks and golden eagles, to name just a few, either missing entirely or significantly suppressed across huge swathes of our uplands. The science is conclusive, doubted only by those with the most severe cases of wilful blindness, people unwilling or unable to accept that any form of shooting may be associated with criminality or environmental harm.

And raptor persecution is just part of the problem.

Driven grouse shooting also relies on a management regime that involves regular burning of the moors. So-called muirburn is a complex phenomenon; periodic well-controlled burns may be associated with a range of positive effects but the fact is that grouse moors burn the ground too often. Wet peat bogs are of little use in rearing red grouse and so gamekeepers promote their transition to drier heather heath by repeated burning. Indeed, inappropriate burning is cited as one of the main reasons contributing to the ‘unfavourable’ condition of 87% of upland bog features in Scotland (Scottish Natural Heritage 2010). Despite the Muirburn Code advising against burning on deep peat, Douglas et al. (2015) found that 28% of all 1km squares subjected to burning in Scotland were located over deep peat, while the annual number of burns increased by 11% per annum between 2001-2011 as grouse moor management has intensified.

Peat bogs typically preserve organic material for thousands of years, turning up amazingly preserved animals and plants from time to time, but repeated burning dries out deep peat, allowing oxygen in as the water level drops, restarting aerobic respiration and kickstarting decomposition. As the microorganisms driving decomposition are sparked into activity by this injection of oxygen they respire aerobically for the first time in millennia, releasing large amounts of locked up carbon into our atmosphere and transforming peat bogs from carbon sinks into carbon emitters. Deep peat in its natural wet state should be the UK’s greatest asset for sequestering carbon, but in their damaged state, dried out by excessive burning, they are in fact contributing to climate change rather than combating it.

This burning regime also excludes trees from our moors and prevents the development of or any sort of vegetational diversity. Heterogeneity is astonishingly limited, restricted to the different ages and heights of heather maintained in this highly managed landscape. As a consequence, when it rains the water flashes off our denuded uplands, scouring out gullies in the already damaged peat and flooding local communities with a pulse of water that sees villages and farms inundated downstream. This water is additionally loaded with organic material and nutrients, all washed out of the decomposing peat, that silts up reservoirs and pollutes water supplies.

And of course, driven grouse shooting depends on a remarkable campaign of legalised predator control that removes countless mammalian predators from our national parks, alongside illegally persecuted pine martens, wildcats, badgers and a grisly by-catch of hedgehogs, ring ouzels and other threatened species caught in the ubiquitous and largely unselective network of traps and snares that cover our uplands.

And so, we come to the vexed question of how best to address these multiple harms. Many people, heartily sick of this damaging and unrepentant industry, are now calling for a ban, with the campaign for a ban led by Dr Mark Avery, Dr Ruth Tingay and Chris Packham. Others, such as the RSPB, are hoping that licensing may provide a way to retain some of the environmental and social benefits of driven grouse shooting, while mitigating the harmful practices the sport has come to rely on.

And there are undoubtedly some benefits associated with the sort of management practiced on driven grouse moors. While grouse moors do not promote biodiversity in any meaningful ecological sense, they do sustain a particular community of organisms, including some for whom the moors may represent a last refuge. Curlews, lapwings, golden plover and mountain hares are all often more abundant on driven grouse moors than elsewhere. Critics of a ban say that if driven grouse shooting were to be banned then landowners would be forced to find other ways to earn revenue from their land. Should the moors become covered in forestry, as has already happened across large amounts of Dumfries and Galloway, then these species would suffer.

I am not sure how valid these claims are. More enlightened estates have already abandoned driven grouse shooting and have successfully diversified their income streams to incorporate a mixture of walked-up grouse shooting, deer stalking and ecotourism. There is an argument that the high densities of red grouse and mountain hares found on driven grouse moors are unnatural and a more natural balance might see a decline in their numbers alongside a diversification of the floral and faunal community.

But we cannot necessarily expect every estate to pursue such an enlightened approach in the wake of a ban. Bans foster resentment and some estate owners may be motivated to adopt the worst environmental alternatives, simply out of spite. Additionally, a ban may be no more effective in ending raptor persecution than the laws we have now. After all, killing birds of prey is already banned, but the problem remains that these crimes are incredibly difficult to detect and prosecute. Ending driven grouse shooting may remove one motive for persecution – the need to produce large numbers of red grouse ready to be shot – only to replace it with another. In Scandinavia and Spain, wolves are sometimes persecuted simply as an act of protest against laws imposed by a liberal urban elite. Raptors could well become similar victims of this embittered debate. Freed from any need to limit persecution, having already lost the sport they loved, one can imagine certain elements in the shooting community relishing an open season on raptors, hanging eagles from road signs in the same way decapitated wolves are displayed in Spain.

And so, for me, the major appeal of licensing is that it offers a way to shape how our uplands are managed, retaining the carrot of grouse shooting to recruit estate owners and their employees to the cause of restoring damaged peatlands, managing watersheds to mitigate downstream flooding and diversifying landscapes with a prescribed mix of woodland planting and moorland management. Unlike raptor persecution, muirburn and moorland drainage are easily monitored and regulated. The threat of losing one’s license, even for a year, might also act as a greater disincentive to raptor persecution than existing laws, where only the guilty gamekeeper suffers on the rare occasion that they are caught red-handed. License conditions will be key to making such a scheme a success, but the idea has enough potential to deserve a try.

Critics of licensing say that driven grouse shooting is dependent on raptor persecution. Fundamentally, driven grouse shooting may not be economically viable without removing the eagles and hen harriers that otherwise prey on the “shootable surplus” key to sustaining a moor’s shooting. Mark Avery has spent years seeking compromise but has reached the conclusion, after endless rounds of discussion and attempted partnerships, that a ban is the only way to end driven grouse shooting’s harmful impacts on our uplands. The onus now is on the industry itself to show that it can switch to a more sustainable form. If it can’t, then a ban may well be the only legitimate solution.


 

Hugh Webster is an independent conservationist and author of The Blue Hare, a fable about mountain hares and the restorative power of wilderness.

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4 thoughts on “Driven Grouse Shooting: to license or to ban?

  1. jgordon5 August 18, 2019 / 2:11 pm

    Ban driven grouse shooting. Personally I’d like to ban all killing of wildlife but in the meantime, yes, let’s definitely ban driven grouse shooting. Bad for the environment, catastrophic for raptors.

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  2. Mark Farrar August 21, 2019 / 10:45 am

    https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/licence-grouse-moors-in-england-wales-and-ireland the grouse shooting as become to well established for the Gov to ban driven grouse shooting. I am campaigning a petition to DEFRA UK to introduce a licence for grouse shooting! Difficult to prove who owns these grouse shooting estates for a successful prosecution to be made for illegal persecution of raptors ie hen harriers in a court of law.Having a licence for grouse shooting, the licence holder for grouse shooting on that estate should be held responsible for any illegal persecution of raptors on that estate.

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  3. Paul Fisher August 28, 2019 / 1:43 pm

    But how are you going to enforce a licence system? Apart from the fact that it will need people to enforce it and no doubt, a lot more taxpayers money, the will from our governments and judiciary is simply not there to enforce it. Call it wilful blindness or vested interest or simply disinterest, the powers that be are simply not interested. Licensing will simply allow them to prevaricate for another twenty years until there is no wildlife left to protect.
    After far to many years of talking, banning is now the only option.

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    • hughwebsterauthor August 28, 2019 / 2:04 pm

      Some things are easier to monitor than others. Monitoring muirburn on deep peat could be quite easily enforceable, as could suspending hare culls, limiting track development and re-wetting grips. Raptor persecution is more difficult, but then a ban might also struggle to enforce an end to persecution, where as licensing might incentivise better practice.

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