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:
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?
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.