Simply Glorious?

BASC sprung a bit of a surprise this morning, mounting a coordinated advertising campaign in newspapers across England and Scotland, and “taking over” the front page of the Yorkshire Post with a whole page splash that trumpeted:

Simply Glorious!

Iconic date in rural calendar is climax of year-long conservation effort

Because apparently nothing celebrates dedicated conservation efforts better than a good day’s shooting. Actually, as I read over BASC’s own blog detailing the thinking behind this presumably quite expensive propaganda offensive, I found myself agreeing with them on one thing. Garry Doolan, BASC’s deputy director of communications and public affairs explained:

“Gone are the days of the Glorious Twelfth being a true celebration of a sport deep in tradition and history. It is now a social media and digital battlefield that we must feature in.”

He is right. There is a battle going on to inform the British public about what has been happening in our uplands for decades, and between the two narratives on offer (shooting is conservation versus shooting threatens conservation) there is no doubt that the shooting is conservation argument has been poorly served.

So, BASC have attempted to reach a wider audience. One could argue that if, as they claim, they now condemn raptor persecution and the criminals who continue to tarnish their sport, the money spent on these adverts might have been better spent funding a few more satellite tags, but let’s not be silly.

Instead, it is interesting to look at their arguments. These are summarised in a basic infographic. Nothing fancy here. Saving money for conservation, see?

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Benefit 1: 90% of English grouse moors fall within a National Park or an AONB.

Benefit 2: 79% of the Pennines and N.Yorks Moors’ SPAs are managed for grouse.

Well, pardon me, but from my perspective these look like the opposite of benefits. Indeed, for the growing number of people interested in rewilding and giving nature some space to restore its natural diversity, bragging that an awful lot of our National Parks are dedicated to intensive management for game bird shooting feels like a ragged salvo in the first skirmish of this propaganda battle. Perhaps they’re keeping the better stuff in reserve. Onwards!

Benefit 3: Reduced risk of wildfires by controlled burning

Well, it is true that muirburn can reduce the risk of wildfires – in habitat that is maintained as tinder dry heathland for the sport of grouse shooting. But there are two significant caveats to this issue.

Firstly, there is only a fire risk in the first place because the moors are managed to remain as dry heath. Allow them to revert to their natural state as deciduous forest and peat bog and that fire risk disappears. This wouldn’t happen quickly, and one might sensibly ask how we manage the transition, but the fact is that grouse moors pose a fire risk and deciduous forests and wet bogs don’t.

Secondly, it is also the case that a number of wildlfires are caused by muirburn. Indeed by some estimates, up to half of moorland fires are in fact caused by muirburns getting out of control. Increasingly intensive muirburn regimes are also drying out areas of deep peat, accelerating the loss of carbon from these vital sinks and worsening air and water pollution at the same time. So, not exactly a clear benefit then. Next!

Benefit 4: At least £100 million – estimated annual value of grouse shooting in England, Wales and Scotland.

Benefit 5: Atleast (sic) 40,000 people take part in grouse shooting annually and the average day brings 40 people together

Benefit 6: Over 2,500 full time jobs

Right, so these numbers appear to have been drawn from the Value of Shooting report, commissioned and paid for by the government. Just kidding. It was commissioned and paid for by the shooting industry. But they wouldn’t just make them up. 

Even taking these numbers at face value, they seem underwhelming. The same report claims shooting is worth £2 billion to the UK economy, which would mean that grouse shooting appears to account for just 5% of shooting’s overall economic impact. You have to ask, given that driven grouse shooting is dragging the whole shooting industry through the gutter on a near daily basis, is it worth it? Similarly, the shooting industry apparently supports “the equivalent of 74,000 full-time jobs” across the UK, in which case grouse shooting makes up just 3.4% of shooting employment. Again, the wider industry is paying a high price for a tiny element.

And why exactly is the fact that 40,000 people do it being touted as a benefit? This really feels a bit desperate. After all, nearly 200,000 people use crack cocaine in the UK but that isn’t something anyone is trying to celebrate. Similarly, the fact that grouse shooting brings an average of 40 people together seems like something to keep quiet about in the age of Covid, rather than flag the social nature of a day’s grouse shooting as the central benefit in an underwhelming infographic. What next, football hooligans bemoan the lost socialising opportunities inflicted by stadium bans?

Benefit 7: Heather moorland is rarer than rainforest. 75% is found in Britain because of grouse moor management.

Know what else is rarer than rainforest? Plastic grass. Pig farms. Theme Parks. Donald Trump’s golf courses. You get the idea. Asking us to appreciate a man-made habitat simply because it is an oddity is fine up to a point. But asking us to accept it as the dominant land use in our national parks because no other country has been mad enough to do anything similar is just perverse. And the 75% figure is rubbish anyway.

Benefit 8: Up to 5 times more threatened wading birds supported on moors managed by gamekeepers.

Stop press! We appear to have an actual bona fide genuine benefit here. Or do we? It is certainly true that some wading birds fare better on some moors managed for grouse shooting than on unmanaged moorland habitat. This, if anything, is the central pillar of the shooting is conservation argument in our uplands. But it’s not always even true. Dunlin and golden plover appear to be declining on grouse moors and long term studies in the Lammermuir hills have documented steady declines in wader numbers alongside the steady intensification of grouse moor management there.

And you might fairly wonder why we should focus on waders anyway? We might equally point out that predators are 5 times rarer on grouse moors (made up stat, but you get my point) or that hen harriers are 10x more likely to disappear when flying over grouse moors than they are when wandering over any other habitat (not a made up stat). We might ask how many more species we might see in our uplands if they weren’t so exclusively dedicated to producing red grouse to shoot, and wonder what the place might look like with trees, bogs, and shrubs, and the animals and fungi that might inhabit them.

Without grouse shooting, we might have fewer waders but we could have more diversity overall. So, this abundance of waders appears to not really be a benefit either. Rather it is best viewed as an incidental consequence of intensive predator control maintaining an unnatural and unbalanced species assemblage in a sub-climax habitat. Okay?

Benefit 9: Managing heather helps preserve and protect the UK’S BIGGEST CARBON STORE IN PEAT

Well, that sounds good. Except that the science suggests that peat forming flora grow optimally under a 20 year burn cycle and we burn our grouse moors a lot more often that that, damaging and drying the peat such that it begins to break down and release carbon rather than locking it up. Wet grouse moors would be great for locking up carbon but they don’t produce many grouse. How wet was the last grouse moor you strolled across? And of course, the roads and drains built across grouse moors to ferry happy shooting folk to their posts further damage that peat. We certainly should be looking after our peat but it is far from self-evident that we either need grouse shooting to do it, or that grouse shooting does a very good job of delivering this environmental benefit at present.

Benefit 10: Fresh water sources and reduced flood risk. 70% of the UK’s drinking water comes from the uplands

So, it is unclear to me why this infographic’s creators believe that the capacity of our uplands to catch, filter and release fresh water is improved by grouse shooting. It is probably unclear to them too since it is untrue. In fact, quite a lot of people feel that the opposite is true, with our denuded hillsides often linked to increased flood risk. This might be mitigated by trees, beavers and natural floodplains, but none of these can be found on grouse moors. Added to this are the costs of managing sediment in rivers and reservoirs running off our eroding hills.

I think I would have left the words “flood risk” out of this infographic if I had been involved in designing it. I would probably have left most of it out in fact. I might just have plumped for a nice picture of a curlew and left it at that.

BASC’s Ross Ewing thought it was great though, excitedly tweeting “The private investment going into the upkeep of Scotland’s moors is magnanimous & glorious in equal measure.”

That’s right. The landowners have very magnanimously seen fit to invest in all this expensive burning and killing as a grand philanthropic gesture, selflessly serving the public interest and motivated only by the noblest conservation ideals. They happen to enjoy a spot of grouse shooting too, but we can hardly begrudge them that when you think that their sport can bring 40 people together on a terrific day out and helps maintain a habitat that’s rarer than rainforest. Or not.






Trophy Hunting – a way forward

After explaining why I believe current campaigns against trophy hunting are, on balance, ill-advised and badly-timed, I expected a bit of flak. Other conservationists who have voiced similar warnings have been subjected to ignorant and defamatory accusations of bias, but my blog provoked relatively little engagement from those who support a trophy hunting ban. One twitter user asked if I was taking “industry backhanders” before accusing me of presiding over a “human caused mass extinction”, while another blog reader commented: “Purge All Hunters from CONservation Organizations. Wildcru and the entire “conservation” system is corrupted. Funded by hunters. Pure evil.” But otherwise, my freshly prepared tin hat received barely a scratch.

Trophy hunting’s opponents have sometimes been labelled as unsophisticated, but freelance economist Ross Harvey put together a more rational argument in The Ecologist, where he made the case that “ethical, economic and ecological problems with trophy hunting warrant a trophy import ban.” Mr Harvey argues that justifying trophy hunting on consequentialist grounds is inadequate, partly because he believes that the true consequences of a ban are unclear (i.e. we might not actually lose all the habitat currently used for hunting after a ban if some other means might be found to fund its protection), and partly because even if the consequences are as dire as feared, the consequentialist argument opens a Pandora’s box of consequences in turn. For example, if it is acceptable to support trophy hunting to protect endangered species and habitat, is it also okay to support “green militarisation” and the displacement of human communities to further conservation aims? In short, does conservation trump ethics?

Other North American and Australian scientists have argued that:

“Situating this practice in a Western cultural narrative of chauvinism, colonialism, and anthropocentrism, we argue trophy hunting is morally inappropriate. We suggest alternative strategies for conservation and community development should be explored and decisively ruled out as viable sources of support before the conservation community endorses trophy hunting. If wildlife conservation is broadly and inescapably dependent on the institution of trophy hunting, conservationists should accept the practice only with a due appreciation of tragedy, and proper remorse.”

Regardless of what you make of their language, the argument that alternative strategies for conservation and community development should be ruled out before endorsing trophy hunting strikes me as poorly reasoned. Indeed, it seems more irresponsible to endorse a ban without first establishing viable alternatives. We surely have a responsibility to ensure that alternatives are in place, are sustainable and are reliably funded, before enacting any bans, so as to be confident that these alternatives stand ready to immediately replace the habitat protection, anti-poaching presence and community funding that hunting currently delivers. Otherwise, what will happen to wildlife and communities in the interim? Sadly, no such alternatives have yet been properly established, although work is being done to try and develop them.

It also strikes me that abstract discussion of the morality and ethics of trophy hunting rarely touches on the morality or ethics of a ban and its consequences, or the rights of people who may be negatively affected by hunting bans. In Botswana, the village of Sankuyo exists within a wildlife management area where cattle are not permitted. Trophy hunting was their main income source, but when the moratorium was introduced they were left in limbo, angry and impoverished.

In Namibia, marginalised San communities have been able to resist cattle invasions by neighbouring communities because of the legal defence offered by the hunting conservancy in which they live. Importantly, Namibian conservancies support more than 5000 jobs where other job options are almost non-existent, and have supported increases in wildlife populations at the same time as numbers have been dropping in many national parks. As discussed in my last blog, it is naive to imagine that “non-consumptive” tourism can simply replace these jobs and continue to support these vital wildlife refuges. Experience tells us it can’t – at least not everywhere.

Mr Harvey continues his support for a trophy hunting import ban by touching on the ecological problems that trophy hunting can cause, citing research which shows that hunters’ oft-made claims that old bull elephants are post-breeding age – and can therefore be shot without any impact on elephant society – is based on a flawed understanding of elephant breeding ecology. Other elephant researchers have also highlighted the social value of old males as both repositories of knowledge and in curbing adolescent bad behaviour. Hunting also stresses elephants, potentially making them more dangerous, with detectable increases in stress hormones recorded across hunted populations for up to a month after a hunt. Finally, the provision of artificial waterholes by hunters seeking to attract quarry species can disrupt the delicate balance of arid environments, to the detriment of other rare species. Of course, this is also true of the tourist camps which use pumped waterholes to attract wildlife.

However, elephants are likely to be closer to the exception than the rule. While trophy hunting has been be linked to evolutionary changes in selected traits for a handful of species, this is more likely when both sexes are selectively targeted, as is the case with ivory poaching more than trophy hunting. Other species, such as lions, may be hunted perfectly sustainably, without any negative impacts on their populations, behaviour or genetics. Hunting can also serve a useful purpose in reducing human-wildlife conflict and the perception of conflict with dangerous wild animals.

Overall, the allegation of “ecological harm” turns out to be an argument in favour of better regulation of hunting, rather than a persuasive reason to ban it.

Mr Harvey’s final argument against trophy hunting is that it does not represent such a significant economic contribution to either local communities or national GDP as hunters claim. There are many claims and counter claims around the economics of hunting, but even those who campaign against it recognise that it is “big business“. It is probably true that “non-consumptive” tourism supports more jobs than hunting, and it may be a better employer of women who can find more jobs in housekeeping and hospitality in a tourist lodge than in a hunting camp, but that is not the point.

If non-consumptive tourism could fund conservation everywhere then the case for hunting would be significantly weakened, but the fact is that it can’t. As I outlined in my last blog, there is insufficient demand to fill the bed nights already available in protected areas. Mr Harvey’s rather glib assertion that “if hunting land were converted to non-consumptive tourism” many more jobs could be created neglects the fact that when hunting land has actually been offered for conservation it has sometimes led to a net loss of jobs and community income, and where bans have been enacted local communities have often been the ones to lose out.

Hunting may only support 17,000 jobs in South Africa compared to 90,000 in “non-consumptive” tourism, but the point is that those are 17000 jobs that cannot be easily replaced by alternative forms of tourism. We need both.

If trophy hunting operators sometimes fail to share enough revenue with local communities this is again an argument for reform, not a ban. Certainly, governments and communities should be seeking to earn the maximum possible revenue from each hunted animal’s death. Lions have been shot for less than $10,000 in South Africa, and yet trophy-hunting licenses in America have sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars. If Americans will pay that much money to shoot a sheep, how much might they pay to shoot a lion?

I agree that the hunting industry is in need of better regulation and in some places, substantive reform, but how best can this be achieved? The UK Government’s proposal to impose a trophy import ban is considering four options:

  1. A ban on hunting trophies from certain species entering or leaving the UK.
  2. Stricter requirements for clear benefits to conservation and local communities to be demonstrated before hunting trophies from certain species are permitted to enter or leave the UK.
  3. A ban on all hunting trophies entering or leaving the UK.
  4. Do nothing – continue to apply current controls based on internationally agreed rules.

UK hunters only represent a very small percentage of the safari hunting market and a blanket ban (option 3), or even a ban on selected species (option 1), is unlikely to have much material effect on the hunting industry, but it would entrench the African view that Western animal rights campaigners care nothing about the welfare of poor rural Africans, or their right to sustainably manage the wildlife they coexist with, often at great cost.

If instead, the UK chooses option 2, and opts to support a “smart ban” on trophy imports from areas where hunting offers no demonstrable benefit for conservation or communities, that could form the basis of a progressive policy which could actually help incentivise a better, more ethical and more sustainable hunting culture in Africa. Rather than making a largely symbolic and yet potentially damaging gesture, we could enact a policy which will actively help drive positive change in the hunting industry, benefiting both wildlife and people. Let us hope that for once, our politicians make the right choice.

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Trophy Hunting – a complex picture

Like Professor David Macdonald with Cecil, I once had a study animal shot by hunters. The leopard – known to us as Wilbur – was a remarkably relaxed cat. The first time I encountered him, he materialised out of a wall of apple leaf scrub and walked right up to my open Land Rover without a care in the world, brushing along the side of my parked vehicle while I held my breath. Leopards can be like that – either so shy that they disappear long before you get close, or so bold that they appear fearless.

This was nearly ten years ago now, but I still remember the shock, pain and anger we all felt when word filtered through to us at our research camp that Wilbur – by then fitted with an orange VHF tracking collar – had been shot by a hunter. Losing a study animal can feel a bit like losing a much-loved pet. Scientists are supposed to remain dispassionate observers, but when you spend hundreds of hours alone in the company of a wild animal you get to know its individual character and inevitably a bond forms; you become invested in that animal’s fate. While a respectful distance distinguishes this relationship from the sort one might enjoy with a domestic animal, the wild animal’s death is still mourned – especially when its death has only served to furnish some sad individual with a pathetic trophy.

We soon learned that the hunter had been sitting in a hide with his professional guide, staking out a bait they were using to attract leopards. This is how leopards are shot, from a stable position, in cover, and at short range, with the big cat lured to its death. It is like shooting fish in a barrel. In the gloaming, the hunter and his guide claimed not to have seen the orange collar around Wilbur’s neck. I have always found that hard to believe. Collars are very obvious on leopards, contrasting noticeably with the surrounding spotted fur and sitting proud of their short coats. I suspect that Wilbur was just too fine a specimen to pass up. Under time pressure, with a client having paid thousands of dollars for his trophy, I believe the professional guide chose not to see the collar and sanctioned the shot, but I can never know for sure.

Whatever the truth of Wilbur’s death, the hunter and his professional guide left the country shortly after this incident, and not long after that hunting was suspended in Botswana. The hunter had been entitled to shoot a leopard in that area, but the established code of practice was and is for hunters to avoid shooting collared research animals, partly out of courtesy and partly because the good hunters genuinely value conservation and the insights these collars give everyone with an interest in managing and conserving wildlife.

Today, Botswana is slowly opening up its hunting industry again, attracting vocal criticism from animal rights campaigners and celebrities. Their campaign strikes a chord with many for whom the images of overweight and inanely grinning hunters posing proudly next to recently butchered wild animals in their physical prime are repugnant. The “sport” favoured by Donald Trump Junior and the King of Spain is seemingly indefensible, but should it be banned?

Perhaps surprisingly, there are few conservation scientists endorsing these popular calls for a ban. Instead, many are alarmed at what a ban might mean for the threatened species they have dedicated their lives to protecting. Why is this? When so many conservation biologists are disgusted by trophy hunting, and when some of us have lost well-loved study animals to hunters’ bullets, why are we reluctant to support a ban?

The truth is that trophy hunting is not the main threat facing wild animals in Africa. For most species it is not a threat of any sort. In fact, the opposite is true – trophy hunting provides a means of funding and therefore protecting the habitats that sustain populations of wild animals across large swathes of the continent where, without hunters’ dollars, wild bush country would soon be taken over by agriculture. Across many of Africa’s prime safari destination countries, the area of land managed for hunting is equal to or larger than the area set aside for photo tourism in national parks. This is why lions are actually increasing in Southern Africa where they are legally hunted, while their population has crashed in countries like Kenya where trophy hunting is already banned. Ditto giraffes. Ditto Rhinos. Ditto elephants… But if we banned hunting, the area of land protected for wildlife could shrink drastically.

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Fig.1 Map of Zambia showing the land area protected within national parks and the area designated as Game Management Areas, hunting zones which buffer the core national park network and provide local communities with invaluable income (Subakanya et al 2018).

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Fig.2 Map of Zimbabwe showing the far greater extent of areas designated for hunting versus non-hunting areas (Njerekai 2016).

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Fig.3 Map of Namibia showing conservancies (hunting areas) linking the national park network and which are contiguous with the KAZA landscape to the East.(Ahlenius 2008).

But wait! I hear you cry. Why do the hunters have to kill things? Why can’t we turn all these hunting zones into ecotourism destinations? Why can’t phototourism pay to protect these habitats? That might sound appealing but the reality is that there is not enough tourism demand to fill the bed nights in the protected area network that currently exists. Away from the most popular destinations like the Serengeti or the Masai Mara, tourist operators struggle to attract guests. Animals are too scarce, biting flies too abundant, or the views are too unremarkable. Who do you know that has been on safari to Chad or the Central African Republic? Botswana tried to auction its hunting areas to photographic tourism companies after the hunting moratorium in 2012, but only a few of the most desirable ex-hunting wildlife management areas were leased and most have remained unoccupied since the ban. Hunters were happy to visit these areas of dry bushveldt without the picturesque appeal of the verdant Okavango; other tourists are not.

But these miles and miles of flat thorny scrubland, where the animals are rarely seen and the view is limited to a few metres, are vital for wildlife. They link protected areas together, securing gene flow between otherwise isolated populations, and they provide spatial refuges for so-called fugitive species like cheetahs and African wild dogs that often do not compete so well in the more popular tourist areas where lions dominate. In the KAZA Transfrontier Conservation Area (half a million square kilometres of wild land spanning the catchments of the Kavango and Zambezi rivers and encompassing protected areas across Namibia, Angola, Zambia, Botswana and Zimbabwe), hunting areas play a vital role in maintaining landscape scale integrity across this vast system – the largest contiguous protected area outside of Antarctica. But if hunting was banned, what would happen to these areas? What would happen to this connectivity?

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Fig.4 Map of the KAZA TFCA showing the variety of land use designations and the integral role of hunting areas, including WMAs in Botswana (light green), GMAs in Zambia (straw yellow) and Communal Conservancies in Namibia (sandy orange), as well as other safari hunting areas in Zimbabwe, which all contribute to overall landscape connectivity (Karidozo et al. 2016).

Since the hunting ban in Botswana, the boreholes that the hunters paid for have dried up and with the deterrent of hunting activity gone, illegal poaching is rumoured to have increased. Such poaching takes a far greater toll on wildlife populations and critically is unselective, with a far greater impact on females and overall population numbers. Meanwhile local communities have reported increasing conflict with and increasing resentment towards wildlife, now that they do not receive any financial recompense for the crop losses, stock depredation and human mortality caused by lions, elephants and other wild animals. The situation was unsustainable, and so the Botswana government has opted to re-open trophy hunting in Botswana, offering employment and meat to those communities living with wildlife. In a country that supports more elephants than any other, Botswana is surely entitled to manage its wildlife how it sees fit, but that hasn’t stopped distant celebrities and Western animal rights campaigners from criticising this move, causing some local communities to feel understandably aggrieved.

Conservationists who expediently caution against banning trophy hunting do not pretend that hunting is an ideal solution. We simply recognise that it serves a valuable purpose in areas where no other viable mechanism for the protection of habitat currently exists. For most conservationists, a hunter’s desire to kill an animal like an elephant remains baffling and repugnant. But a utilitarian acceptance of hunting is based on the belief that while hunting is objectionable, it represents the lesser evil compared to the greater losses that would stem from banning it. Indeed, some conservationists have argued that a trophy hunting ban directly imperils biodiversity, while others have simply appealed for a broadening of the debate. Shameful attempts have been made to impugn the motives of those conservationists raising the alarm, with accusing fingers pointed at those who have accepted funding from hunters, however small and however long ago. These allegations betray an ignorance of the integrity of the individuals concerned and debase the whole debate.

In reality, the ethical debate between those who favour a ban on trophy hunting and those who caution against it can be characterised as a debate between deontological and consequentialist values. The deontological argument holds that if an act (in this case trophy hunting) is wrong, then it is bad (regardless of associated consequences). Similarly, shooting someone would be considered wrong, even if that person was a suicide bomber and killing them saved innocent bystanders. The consequentialist argument holds that while an act may be bad in isolation, it may be the right thing if the consequences of that act achieve a greater good.

The hunting industry is far from perfect. It does not always support proper habitat protection, and it is often linked with corruption, or the improper targeting of individual animals whose premature death may have negative impacts on local populations or wider genetic diversity. And hunting does not always funnel enough revenue back to the local communities it boasts of supporting. Where hunting can be replaced by other income-generating industries that equally support wildlife, ecosystem integrity and community development, those industries may be preferable, although so-called non-consumptive tourism has its own impacts. In the Masai Mara, poorly behaved guides have caused mass drownings of wildebeest at river crossings and the crowding of cheetahs in tourism hotspots is linked to significantly increased cub mortality. Phototourism has a much larger carbon footprint than hunting, requires more water extraction and often leads to the unregulated development of scarring networks of vehicle tracks, while a mixture of hunting and phototourism can generate more revenue and support more jobs. In the post-Covid era, Africa needs every paying visitor it can attract. We live in an imperfect world. Does hunting need reform? Absolutely. Could it be better regulated? Undoubtedly. Should hunters take more responsibility for demanding ethical practices are standardised across the industry? Again, yes. But will a trophy hunting ban at this time be good for wildlife? On balance, right now, I believe the answer is no.


Splitting Hares: Part 3

Yesterday, a coalition of Green, Labour and SNP MSPs combined to ban the unlicensed culling of mountain hares and make them a protected species, passing the amendment which had been proposed by Green party MSP Alison Johnstone, with a total of 60 votes for to 19 against.

A good day for hares, one might have imagined, but this superficially uncontroversial motion was wracked with controversy due to the late nature of its introduction as an amendment to the wider Animals and Wildlife Bill, while the vote to officially protect mountain hares was greeted with dismay by the field sports lobby.

Firstly, the controversy about the timing of this bill (which prompted Rural Affairs Minister Mairi Gougeon to comment that she was “not happy with the manner in which this amendment has been advanced”) seems largely contrived to me. After the Scottish Tories repeatedly complained about the late timing of this intervention, Green MP Andy Wightman questioned whether the Tories were claiming to have never made any late amendments themselves, after which the Tories accused him and those associated with the late amendment of virtue signalling! The whole bad tempered exchange could surely have been avoided if provision for the mountain hares’ protection – which campaigners have been pressing for for years – had simply been included in the original bill.

More interestingly, Twitter was afire last night with sour predictions from field sports enthusiasts, echoing the line advanced by both the Game and Wildlife Trust and the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association, that protection did not equal conservation, and suggesting that paradoxically the newly minted legal protection of mountain hares was likely to be hasten the demise of mountain hares, rather than benefit them.

How could this be?

Essentially their argument seems to be this: mountain hares are more numerous on driven grouse moors than in other habitats. Therefore moorland managers should be allowed to manage them how they see fit. Remove gamekeepers and management for driven grouse shooting and upland habitat may switch from being favourable to mountain hares to hostile. As evidence of this, the Scottish Gamekeepers Association cited the case of Langholm where hares allegedly thrived under the old keepered regime but have disappeared since the gamekeepers were “taken off”. Furthermore, some argue that the absence of traditional management leaves the hares vulnerable to more extreme swings of population boom and bust, with disease left to regulate their numbers rather than keepers. This threat is postulated to increase the chance that a bad year and a particularly steep decline might result in local extinction for mountain hares. Additionally, landowners argue that hare culls are necessary to combat tick-borne diseases and protect plants and young trees.

Let’s break these arguments down.

Firstly, mountain hares certainly are more numerous on grouse moors. Nobody is denying that, although these high densities aren’t natural and there is debate about whether grouse moors may also be the places where hare populations have recently experienced their steepest declines. The two facts are not incompatible. Indeed, the value of a habitat that suits hares so well is rather compromised when it is also the habitat where they are killed in the greatest numbers. And as the GWCT reported in their most recent paper on mountain hares, the number of hares killed in annual culls has been steadily increasing.

So, hares can reach high densities on grouse moors but are also culled in growing numbers on grouse moors, and these culls may or may not be driving the hares’ decline. In principle it is possible that hares could be so numerous on grouse moors that they could sustain high harvesting rates, but it is also possible that culls could be driving or merely accelerating a more general decline. Given that we have good data suggesting that mountain hares are in decline (facing other threats including climate change and afforestation with non-native plantations), or even if you only accept that they may be in decline but argue that we don’t yet have perfect data (as some shooters claim), the precautionary principle determines that an end to culls is the best course of action.

And leaving aside the debatable merits of the argument that removing keepers might be bad for hares, it’s worth pointing out that nowhere in this bill did anyone suggest removing keepers, or indeed changing moorland management except to stop culling hares! The unnatural conditions that keepers create – the muirburn and predator control – which so favour mountain hares will still be there.

The landowners claims that culls are necessary to control tick numbers also ring rather hollow when we consider that the ticks’ primary hosts are sheep and deer, both of which are maintained at very high densities across the UK uplands and both of which pose their own threat to plants and young trees. It seems a little unfair to single out hares for blame in this regard, especially given that a recent study found “no effects of Mountain Hare abundance on grouse tick burdens and actually found better grouse chick survival in areas with greater numbers of Mountain Hares”.

Concerning hare browsing impacts on plants, the Werritty Report concluded: “There is evidence that Mountain Hare browsing activity can locally reduce or suppress tree and shrub growth, i.e. preventing natural succession and contributing towards maintaining open heather moorland.” But then SNH can and does issue licenses for hare control to address this issue, and will continue to be able to do so. The new bill only bans unlicensed and unregulated culls. 

This leaves us with only one argument – that without keepers being able to freely regulate the mountain hare population it will be left to the caprices of disease and starvation to periodically reduce hare numbers. Assuming no licenses will be issued to prevent this postulated threat, how realistic is the scenario of hares cycling to extinction? Only time will tell. Hare numbers already cycle widely in Scotland. With a healthy suite of predators including eagles, goshawks and mammalian predators, the population would of course be naturally regulated, but most of these predators are excluded from grouse moors. Elsewhere in Europe, where predators are present and hare numbers are lower to begin with, hares do not exhibit the same frequency or wildly oscillating extent of cycles in Scotland.

I do not believe protection will leave hares worse off. I am not convinced that all those arguing that it will really believe it either. I think the condemnation of this “bad law” is rooted in something else – fear that shooting is under siege, belief that it represents a backdoor attack on grouse shooting, concern that this law marks the thin end of a wedge of increased regulation, and a more fundamental resentment of law being made by people remote from those whom it affects. One Twitter user commented:

“Not so much a catastrophe, just another option for rural people to manage land, and to make a living from the land, taken away by urban legislators.”

And this resentment poses insidious dangers. One prominent field sports journalist was last night speculating on whether the impending ban would motivate some to go out to “just try and wipe them out” while they still could. “Semi autos only” came one reply. The Ferret has already reported on increased seal killing rates by salmon farmers ahead of the coming ban on seal shooting.

The GWCT and SGA had earlier argued that protection does not equal conservation, and ironically this is a fact that conservationists are already only too aware of. Raptors have been protected for decades but continue to be persecuted. Beavers are legally protected but continue to be persecuted under a licensing scheme not fit for purpose. It is always better to bring people with you than legislate against them. But the deep divisions between shooting and conservation only grow wider. I am pleased that hares have received legal protection but I worry about the growing distrust, dislike and disparity between the increasingly polarised factions in the “uplands debate”. Some will undoubtedly herald the hares’ protection as a battle won, but the war shows no sign of ending soon, and like most conflicts this is one with no real winners.









Werritty’s Grouse Moor Management Review – washout or watershed?


So, it has been published at last! Having been two years and more in the making, with a remit “to make recommendations to reduce the illegal killing of raptors but at the same time to give due regard to the socio-economic contribution that grouse shooting makes to Scotland’s rural economy,” what does Werritty (finally) have to say? And just how should one give due regard to an industry’s socio-economic contribution if that industry is reliant on criminality?

The report’s tone is set early on as Professor Werritty observes that many of the facts remain contested, while he laments that “confirming the scale of the illegal killing of raptors is challenging and such criminal activity admits to no easy resolution.” Equally, he states that “the socio-economic contribution to the rural economy of grouse shooting in isolation is very poorly understood, as are the consequences of any potential changes in land use.” So, what progress has been made?

The review group, made up of academics and “independent consultants” to reflect a “broad and relevant set of interests”, managed to agree on recommendations for new or enhanced regulation for the use of muirburn, mountain hare management and the use of medicated grit, but these recommendations are modest in their ambition.

For the use of muirburn, which is currently regulated by the Muirburn code, the report notes that both positive and negative effects have been recorded, but that “given the absence of a robust system of monitoring compliance, it is not currently possible to assess the effectiveness of the Code which has few statutory provisions.” 

The solution? The review ultimately recommends muirburn licensing is introduced with more comprehensive muirburn monitoring” to “ensure compliance with best practice” (without anyone seemingly knowing for sure what that is, although in general terms most positive effects of muirburn have been recorded in dry heathlands and most detrimental effects in wet heaths and peatlands.”)

For mountain hares the report reiterates the fact that there is no substantive evidence to support the population control of Mountain Hares as part of tick and/or Louping Ill virus control to benefit Red Grouse.” But as we know, that hasn’t stopped grouse moor managers culling them and the report recommends increased legal regulation of this practice.

Regarding the use of medicated grit, which is used to treat some of the diseases which affect the densely supported grouse in the managed absence of most of their natural predators, the report dryly notes that there is some evidence that prescription levels are too high, that gritting holidays are not always observed, and that grit may not always be withdrawn from grouse at least 28 days before Red Grouse enter the (human) food chain.” However, the report merely recommends that a voluntary Code of Practice be introduced to address these problems.

The key recommendation however is that a licensing scheme be introduced for the shooting of grouse if, within five years from the Scottish Government publishing this report, there is no marked improvement in the ecological sustainability of grouse moor management, as evidenced by the populations of breeding Golden Eagles, Hen Harriers and Peregrines within the vicinity of grouse moors being in favourable condition.”

This is clear recognition that driven grouse shooting continues to limit the populations of our raptors on and around grouse moors, and was a hard won recommendation by the sound of it, “fraught” with disagreement as personal opinions and values intervened.” Professor Werritty relates how “the Group was evenly split on whether or not to license grouse shooting. When, as Chair, I sought to exercise a casting vote in favour of the immediate introduction of licensing, this was contested by two members of the Group.” The reluctance of these two unnamed stakeholders within the review group to move quickly to embrace licensing has been mirrored by the dismay expressed by shooting organisations since the review’s publication yesterday.

A joint statement by the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, Scottish Countryside Alliance, Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association, Scottish Association for Country Sports and Scottish Land & Estates protested that “This report has recommended a barrage of measures that will leave the grouse shooting sector engulfed by legislation and red tape,” while claiming that this “sector has already willingly embraced change and improvements in how it operates” and that raptor persecution “incidents are now at historically low levels.” 

Sadly, such callous disregard for the ongoing stain of raptor persecution has come to typify such statements from the shooting industry, and Ian Thomson, Head of Investigations at RSPB was quick to pour cold water on these claims, publishing a list of just some of this year’s raptor disappearances. Reading the joint statement from all those shooting organisation I was struck again by how noticeable it is that those who so often claim that the industry is dogged by a small number of bad apples seem so reluctant to help identify and root out those rotten elements.

After all, what have ‘good’ estates got to fear from licensing?

Professor Werritty concluded his report with this statement. Ultimately, whether and when to licence grouse shooting are political decisions that rest with the Scottish Government,” and the ball is now in the politicians’ court. The grouse shooting industry was already supposed to be in “the last chance saloon.” Can they really be offered another five years to clean up their act, remembering that it has already been twenty years since Donald Dewar (then Scotland’s First Minister) called raptor persecution a “national disgrace”.

Since Werritty’s Review has been published the Scottish Wildlife Trust, Scottish Raptor Study Group, RSPB Scotland and others have all urged that licensing be adopted without delay. Others have noted that introducing licensing will take time, “to draft legislation, consult, allow for Parliamentary scrutiny, produce relevant guidance and establish administration,” and that this period could itself serve as part of the proposed grace period for driven grouse shooting to clean up its act.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has responded in turn by stating that if necessary the Scottish Government was prepared to move “earlier than the five-year timeframe that was suggested by the review group.” The direction of travel is clear, but expect grouse moor owners to fight conservation measures every step of the way as they remain as stubbornly opposed to regulation and reform as ever.