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

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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.

 

 

 

 

Snipe, Sniping and Snippy Tweets

Snipe (adjective) – to criticize a person or persons from a position of security

The Shooting Times published a snippy tweet this morning, taking aim at their favourite (non-feathered) target, Chris Packham.

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This isn’t the first time that shooting waders has led to cross words. Chris Packham has previously criticised UK shooters for continuing to shoot a number of species that are in decline, including snipe and woodcock. He has sometimes got his facts wrong, most famously when he wrongly accused sportsmen of shooting lapwings and had to issue an apology. Lapwings happily enjoy full legal protection, but amber-listed snipe and red-listed woodcock do not and continue to be shot legally, in season, despite the fact that both species have suffered significant declines in recent years.

Snipe breed in wet moorland and damp pasture. They have declined most severely in lowland areas (declining 61% in just 20 years between 1982 and 2002), principally as a consequence of the intensifying management of grasslands where damp, tussocky meadows have been cut, rolled and drained to improve grazing for livestock. They have fared better in the uplands but may also be declining here, most especially where similar intensification of moorland management has seen peatlands dried out and degraded by repeated burning.

The UK’s resident woodcock prefers damp woods, but they are doing just as badly with a survey in 2013 revealing a severe decline in occupied sites of 51% in southern Scotland and overall just one in three woods yielding encounters with these charismatic little birds.

Snipe and woodcock nests probably suffer from occasional predation by corvids, mustelids, sheep, deer, pet dogs and even hedgehogs. Of course, some nest predation is natural, but when the system strays too far from its original balance and where the quality and extent of an animal’s habitat is declining, negatively impacting on recruitment can be the final nail for a struggling population.

But it is the loss of adults that is always more challenging than the loss of young. If each animal only replaces itself once in its life then a population can remain stable. But shooting adult birds chips away at the breeding population, targeting a demographic that is far more critical to the overall survival of the species than the loss of chicks predated in nests.

However, The Shooting Times were unrepentant today, shooting back at their critics on Twitter, claiming that those who shoot snipe “often lead the way in protecting their habitat.” And then they went further, claiming that “the small number that gets shot has not been shown to impact on the population over the long term” and that shooting Snipe thus followed a “responsible use model”.

Similar claims are sometimes heard by those defending the shooting of woodcock, with the added complication that the UK’s declining resident woodcock are swelled in number by hundreds of thousands of European and Siberian birds whose population is considered to be stable. “What’s the problem with shooting these birds?” say the gunmen.

Now I am not exactly a fan of all things labelled “responsible use”, but I am a defender of the principle. I can see the expedience in trophy hunting for example. In Africa far more habitat is protected in hunting concessions than in national parks used solely by photographic tourists. Ban trophy hunting, as so many seem keen to do, and you risk losing all that habitat to people and cows. It’s already happening and its why scientists and conservationists are urging politicians to refrain from well meaning but ultimately ill-informed populist calls for a ban. Never mind that many might question what business any of us have telling people in Southern Africa how to manage their wildlife. There are those in Africa who view it as a form of neo-colonialism.

But the case of woodcock and snipe in the UK is not exactly analogous to the case of shooting lions in Africa. Lions are actually increasing in many areas where hunting them is permitted, while they are declining in Kenya where hunting them was banned more than 40 years ago. In other words, a ‘harvest’ of a few lions from healthy and even increasing populations may be distasteful, but it is in my view defensible as an example of genuinely sustainable use.

This is simply not the case with either woodcock or snipe. Both these birds are suffering active declines and although DEFRA have stated that “It is unlikely that hunting has had a significant impact on recent population trends for woodcock, snipe and golden plover; trends are likely to be influenced more by the quality and extent of habitat,” we might reasonably wonder whether shooting might be adding to the problem. DEFRA hardly have an untarnished reputation amongst conservationists these days, having issued all sorts of nonsensical statements in recent years, and even this one is couched in caveats. Who says it is unlikely? Where is the science? And what is a “significant impact” in this context? Meanwhile the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust state:

“We do not believe that a ban on woodcock shooting would help recover our resident woodcock, in the long term, for three reasons. First, there is an indication, at a national scale, of a reduction in hunting pressure over the last 20 years, with many people deciding voluntarily that they no longer wish to shoot woodcock. Second, a ban might remove the motivation for many landowners to manage their woods in ways that will maintain suitable habitat for woodcock. Third, parts of western Britain have no history of breeding woodcock, but host large numbers of migrants, so shooting in these areas does not put residents at risk except during cold spells when residents might move south and west.”

These arguments seem rather thin. Firstly, arguing that a ban isn’t needed because people aren’t shooting them so much any more isn’t an argument. So long as some people are shooting them then there is a potential impact. Secondly, it is a sad inditement of landowners if they are purely motivated to look after habitat so that they may have a chance of shooting a few snipe. We are not talking about subsistence farmers needing compensation for the real and opportunity costs of living with elephants and lions! In any case, stewardship schemes already exist for those who need more motivation. Thirdly, it may be true that those woodcock shot in some parts of Western Britain today are mostly non-residents and hence part of the large stable population of migratory woodcock which may indeed be able to sustain a degree of “harvesting”, but the data on this seems patchy and even the GWCT admit that resident birds may move West in cold snaps, increasing the risk that they are accidentally targeted by shooters believing themselves to be safely shooting birds from an unthreatened population.

In short, the precautionary principle should surely be being applied. Rather than crowing that there is no scientific evidence that shooting waders is contributing to their decline, The Shooting Times would do better to argue that in the absence of convincing evidence that the UK’s most embattled birds aren’t negatively impacted by shooting them their readers might be well advised to curb the urge to shoot them. After all, we so often hear about the sportsmen’s fondness for their quarry and many countrymen still work hard to protect black grouse without any opportunity to shoot them. Might we not hope that individuals would continue to care about snipe and woodcock, even when not allowed to shoot them? Indeed, some forward-thinking country sports enthusiasts have already sworn off shooting these birds.

We live in a time of discord. A nation divided, with incivility increasingly normalised. It’s about time everyone stopped sniping at each other and focused on finding common goals before we all charge merrily into the abyss, still calling each other names, united only by our mutual disdain. Not all shooting is bad for the environment, and although some people may object to killing things on principle, I would suggest that they choose their battles carefully. Shooters meanwhile should appreciate that their sport is under scrutiny like never before. If they want to make a convincing case that it has a future then they need to look much harder at what should constitute acceptable practice. Happily, some already are.

Mountain Hare status downgraded to unfavourable in the UK – what does this mean?

On Monday news emerged that the mountain hare’s conservation status in the UK was being downgraded from “favourable” to “unfavourable”. Monitoring threatened habitats (as listed in Annex I of the Habitats Directive) and species of particular interest (as listed in Annexes II, IV and V) is an obligation arising from Article 11 of the Habitats Directive, while Article 17 of the Habitats Directive requires EU member states to report on the status of monitored habitats and species every six years.

As part of this process, Scottish Natural Heritage, the Scottish government’s own natural heritage advisors, have now taken the decision to reclassify the mountain hare’s status. This decision comes in the light of recent evidence revealing catastrophic mountain hare declines, particularly in areas managed for intensive driven grouse shooting activity.

In amongst the long list of references cited in support of this decision were two key papers: Watson & Wilson 2018 and Massimino et al. 2018. I have written about these papers before (here and here), but the key finding from both papers is that mountain hares have suffered significant declines in recent decades. In some cases these declines have been as great as 99% from levels recorded in the 1950s, while mountain hare populations have shown significant and severe decreases of at least 50% across around one third of their range. These same analyses reported no significant increases anywhere.

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Fig. 1 Average abundances and population trends across the UK range of the mountain hare (Lepus timidus) as reported in Massimino et al. 2018 showing severe declines of at least 50% across 34% of their range.

This most recent SNH report notes that the range occupied by mountain hares in Scotland has remained approximately stable during the period 2007-2018, but that the population (estimated at between 93,600 and 709,300) has decreased. A number of threats are identified as having contributed to this decline, including habitat changes, but only two factors are identified as being of “High importance/impact” and these are: “Hunting” and “Management of Fishing Stocks and Game.”

This assessment chimes with the report by the charity OneKind that identified sport hunting and culls (ostensibly for disease control) as the two main reasons that mountain hares are killed.

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Fig. 2 Reasons why mountain hares are killed, based on Kinrade et al. 2008

Mountain hares are already theoretically protected against unsustainable killing by the European Union’s Habitats Directive. However, they are routinely culled on a large scale on many grouse moors, in part because of a belief that doing so protects red grouse against the tick-borne louping ill virus, and despite a lack of any scientific evidence that this approach serves to increase grouse numbers.

Curiously, given that the mountain hare’s reclassification to “unfavourable” status should mean that special conservation action needs to be undertaken to arrest further declines and aid population recovery, the SNH report also appears to note that no conservation measures are needed. That strikes me as odd.

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Fig. 3 Extract from SNH report to EU detailing threats to Mountain Hares and the incongruous claim that no conservation measures are needed.

So, what exactly does this reclassification mean? For assessed species, the four key parameters are: range, population, habitat (extent and condition) and future prospects.  Each of these parameters is separately assessed as being in one of the four following conditions: Favourable, Unfavourable-inadequate, Unfavourable-Bad, or Unknown. ‘Unfavourable-Bad’ signifies that a habitat or species is in serious danger of becoming extinct (at least locally) and ‘Unfavourable-Inadequate’ indicates a change in management or policy is required but that the danger of extinction is not so high – at least for now.

In addition, EU Member States are also required to make an overall assessment of the conservation status of each of the assessed habitats and species, with this overall assessment typically reflecting the least favourable of the individual parameter conclusions. In the case of the mountain hare, its range and habitat were both assessed as ‘Favourable’ in this most recent assessment, but because its population is declining and looks set to continue to decline, the status of its population and future prospects were assessed as ‘Unfavourable-Inadequate’, and thus the mountain hare’s overall status has been downgraded to reflect this.

Notably, the range and population parameters are only measured relative to baselines set in 1994, and the current population of mountain hares is considered “approximately equal” to this “Favourable Reference Population”, but because the population is actively declining from this (arguably false – see Fig. 4) baseline, it has had to be reclassified as ‘Unfavourable-Inadequate’ overall.

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Fig. 4 Decline in relative abundance of mountain hares in Scotland since 1954 as reported in Watson and Wilson (2018). Note the level when the baseline was set in 1994.

All of this might have been expected to unite conservation organisations behind recent calls for a moratorium on current hare culling practices but predictably, given that the report identifies hunting and management for hunting as the key threats to mountain hares, one supposed conservation organisation has been quick to express skepticism about the reclassification. The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) has again demonstrated its stance as a greenwashing organisation for the shooting community, releasing a muddled press release that appears to be trying to shift the finger of blame, claiming that instead of hunting “Habitat change resulting from loss of moorland to forestry and increasing predation in areas where no control takes place should be the primary concern”.

GWCT further state that “It is the natural variability of mountain hare numbers and the absence of a national mountain hare count rather than any clear evidence of major declines resulting from hunting, as suggested inaccurately by the RSPB, that has led to the change of status for mountain hares in the report.”

This is simply untrue, as anyone can read for themselves in the SNH report which explicitly identifies hunting as one of two key threats to mountain hares, with management related to hunting the other. It is also sad to see GWCT falsely representing the RSPB, when in fact it is SNH that have made this assessment. Of course, the SNH report does cite peer-reviewed RSPB research amongst the sources which have informed its assessment, but it is by no means only the RSPB that have highlighted these declines, with the Watson and Wilson paper a joint venture between the RSPB and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, and the Massimino et al. paper a product of the well-respected British Trust for Ornithology.

The conservation status of threatened species has often been hotly contested, especially when it is linked with hunting (as has happened with the wolf in Sweden). One suspects that the GWCT may be upset not to see their own paper (Hesford et al. 2019) on mountain hares cited amongst the references, but given the inconsistencies and unsupported claims in this paper, perhaps SNH simply considered it to be of minimal use in informing their assessment. Driven grouse shooting apologists will continue to attempt to muddy the water regarding the negative environmental impacts of their sport, but the evidence continues to pile up against them while the pressure on the Scottish Government to rein in this rogue industry grows daily.

 


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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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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The dubious ethics of giving hunted animals a ‘sporting chance’

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I was idly flicking through the channels on TV last night, a rarely rewarding experience these days, but one show caught my interest. “Wild Alaska” was following a camouflage-clad husband and wife on a black bear hunt in the Alaskan mountains and at the moment I joined the programme they were lying on a rocky outcrop scoping a bear 300m away. I began to worry as the woman expressed concern at the range, admitting that she’d never shot over more than about 100m before, but her husband expressed encouragement and she decided to take the shot on. She missed.

The bear didn’t flinch, suggesting to me that she had missed by a wide margin. She fired again. She missed again. The bear raised its head, apparently alerted now that something was up. She fired a third time and seemed to miss again, but the bear was agitated now and span round. Her husband began firing and the bear was now provoked into movement, galloping towards the firing hunters (I had lost track of how many shots had been fired by now) before disappearing into a ravine.

The hunting couple looked at each other, looking a little bit guilty and a little bit worried.

Perhaps conscious of the rolling cameras, they decided to go and look for a blood trail. The husband claimed he couldn’t sleep if he thought there was an injured bear out there. I wondered how that sentiment sat against his willingness to injure the bear in the first place and was further disgusted by the desultory effort invested in this search. A cursory look around in the thick scrub ensued after which the husband declared himself mystified as to the bear’s fate. It occurred to me that a dog would have helped but the sheepish couple were heading home because “it’s vital to be safe and get off the mountain before it gets dark.” Right. Safety first.

I was shocked and probably you are too, even if you are a hunter; perhaps especially if you are a hunter. The people I know in the UK and Africa who like to shoot take great pride in the ethics of their sport, and would undoubtedly condemn such cavalier hunting in strong terms. This couple should never have taken on this shot given their evident lack of competence. They couldn’t even hit the bear when it was stationary, let alone ensure a clean kill. Having unloaded countless shots at the running bear they were left uncertain whether they had finally hit and injured the animal, while their attempt to then ascertain whether this was the case was pathetic.

But are UK hunters really so much better?

It is a curious fact that the British shooting establishment are perfectly happy to be critical of shooting cultures elsewhere – tut-tutting the songbird hunters of the Mediterranean and the American deer hunters happy to shoot deer with buckshot, or perhaps worse, pose with bloody dildos next to their dead trophies – but they are obstinately unwilling to be critical of any form of hunting still practiced within the UK, exercising impressive mental gymnastics in their desire to defend their sport from criticism and exhibiting a depressing inertia in their failure to set their own house in order or embrace change.

This blindspot for what takes place on their own doorstep serves an obvious purpose. The widely held view amongst the shooting community is that for a minority such as themselves, solidarity is the best way to ensure survival. But this approach has had the undesirable effect (for shooters at least) of uniting those who do not oppose all forms of shooting (like the RSPB) with those who believe all bloodsports should be banned (like the League Against Cruel Sports), and it seems to me that this has ultimately widened the increasingly pernicious divide amongst those with an interest in British wildlife, putting at risk many historically productive collaborations to the detriment of our shared natural heritage.

I have sometimes been accused by shooting apologists of being anti-shooting. I am not, although in recent years the ignorance, aggression and criminality exhibited by some members of the shooting community has made me more sceptical about the sport. But to be fair, ignorance, aggression and criminality are not the sole preserve of the men with guns. And to be clear, I still believe that shooting can serve conservation.

Conservation after all is different to animal rights. But an ethical approach to hunting demands consideration of animal welfare as well as conservation outcomes, and this is an area where both the shooting community and occasionally conservation organisations have come unstuck.

Consider driven bird shooting. There are many environmental concerns linked to the practice of driven grouse shooting in particular, while the ecological effect of releasing tens of millions of alien pheasants into the countryside every year is understudied. At the very least they have likely contributed to increased populations of carrion crows and other scavengers which in turn are thought to be pushing birds like curlews closer to extinction in the UK. But for now, let’s just consider the sporting ethics of shooting a bird on the wing that has been driven towards you by a beater.

Curiously, most UK hunters would frown on anyone willing to take a shot at a running deer due the risk of merely injuring the animal, but without any sense of contradiction, those same individuals would frown on anyone shooting a standing bird on a driven shoot.

Deer must not be shot on the move, but pheasants and red grouse must be shot on the wing, despite the real risk that birds may not be killed cleanly. It would be considered ‘unsporting’ to shoot them while they simply stood still. Why the difference? 

Admittedly, the spread of a shotgun’s pellets make shooting a flying bird a more viable proposition, but birds are still injured. Why is it acceptable to risk ‘winging’ a bird, but not a deer (or a bear)? And this is not a small risk. Although the proportion will vary, significant numbers of birds are injured on every driven shoot. Some are picked up quite quickly and dispatched, but even this shortening of their agony would hardly be acceptable in any other form of animal slaughtering for food. It seems the fun of shooting a flying target trumps any concern for the animal’s welfare.

I have no issue with someone going out and shooting a deer or a rabbit with a rifle, if they are sufficiently skilful to ensure a clean kill, eat what they shoot and keep a careful eye on the local population’s capacity to absorb that animal’s loss without detriment to the wider ecology. Indeed, deer stalkers often benefit UK ecosystems nibbled to the bone by these numerous ungulates. But I find it harder to be so sanguine about driven bird shooting in particular and any form of shooting that risks injury to quarry species so recklessly. It may be sporting, whatever that means, but it isn’t humane, and for me that makes it indefensible.