The management practices. That is by far the main reason anyway. I cannot claim to be an animal rights activist. Sure, I am against hunting mammals with dogs but so is the majority of the UK population, plus it’s not something I feel particularly strongly about. I eat meat and dairy, although I have cut right back since looking into the ecological impact of food types. I like my cat and will feel sad when she dies but if I see an anonymous dead cat at the side of the road being pecked at by a jackdaw, I look with more interest than sadness.
Driven grouse shooting is the preserve of the wealthy, costing thousands of pounds for a day’s shooting. I don’t begrudge wealth. I am embarrassed to admit that, though not particularly well-off, I am wearing a Rolex watch as a write this. I can see why one would spend tens of thousands of pounds on a Patek Philippe and I dare say I might do myself one day.
Driven grouse shooting looks like great fun. Getting up early and being outside in the fresh air all day with friends, the camaraderie, the tweed outfits, the working retrievers doing what hundreds of years of selective breeding has honed them for, beautiful old guns and afterwards off to the pub for a game pie and a few snifters. I have a couple of good friends who would be keen to join me for a day’s shooting once per year without breaking the bank too much. A lot of grouse would die on our watch but this is precisely what they are managed for (to great effect, existing at extremely high densities) and if eaten I doubt I wouldn’t feel much guilt about the loss of life. Although I would keep an eye on levels of consumption, especially in children, due to the high lead content from shot. I agree with Ian Botham that wild grouse have better lives than the chickens I am happy to eat now and again in shop-bought sandwiches.
Here’s the kicker. I have been to grouse moors across the north of England, birding and carrying out undergraduate field research. I spent an enjoyable week in the Cairngorms at the end of my second year of university collecting data and sitting a short exam on moorland species identification, part of the course run by a head gamekeeper. I have hiked through the Peak District and Yorkshire Dales.
I thought these areas were great to begin with – spotting lapwing, curlew and circumnavigating placid sheep. Being from the suburbs of Liverpool, I considered these national parks the great outdoors. Then I visited the Amazon rainforest, the Carpathian mountains, Sumatra, France, Germany, Cambodia, Nepal and India. I soon realised that other countries have a very different idea of what constitutes a national park, as do we in the UK for everyone except ourselves. For the record, I feel significant guilt about the carbon footprint of all of the flights I took to visit these places. Noisy, dark, even scary at times, the national parks in the aforementioned countries were filled with nature.
Wildness is a sliding scale. There is almost no landscape on Earth uninfluenced by man. Nonetheless, some places are wilder than others; an untamed garden of bracken is wilder than a manicured lawn. A grouse moor is the equivalent of manicured lawn alongside the untamed garden of France’s mosaic uplands or a Romanian forest.
Hunting is popular in France but there is no driven grouse shooting. Driven grouse management involves the use of wide-scale controlled burning, in order to stimulate new heather growth – the buds of which grouse eat. This burning prevents ecological succession and with it the arrival of large shrubs and trees. Supporters of driven grouse shooting often talk of strangulation of vegetation by bracken but this is a perfectly natural part of succession that supports a wide variety of species. The bracken will later be succeeded by trees which will in turn be outcompeted by a climax community, though this may take a couple of hundred years. As succession takes place, biomass increases along with tree-nesting birds, fungus and insects that rely on old dead wood. Water retention increases also, reducing flood risk in the surrounding lowlands. As the increasing biomass of vegetation carries out photosynthesis more carbon is sequestered from the atmosphere. If you burn this vegetation, you release the carbon, destroy habitat and reduce water absorption. Back to square one.
Predators are not welcome on grouse moors for the simple reason that they eat grouse and grouse are worth money. So stoats, wildcats (of which there are fewer than 300 left in Scotland), foxes, golden eagles and hen harrier are killed both legally and illegally. Illegal killing is very hard to police of course, because there aren’t many bobbies on the beat on a north Yorkshire grouse moor at five o’clock on a Saturday morning nor is there any CCTV. We know that raptors are illegally killed on grouse moors because tagged individuals go missing there at an alarming rate. The signal from a hen harrier or golden eagle stops being received and that’s the last we know about it. The evidence is destroyed. Ultimately if you believe in the rule of law, killing raptors is wrong. Not only this, but by killing a raptor you deny everybody else the chance to see it in action and remove an important piece of the food web. Estimates vary but there are certainly thousands of pairs of hen harrier in France. In 2016 just four pairs of hen harrier attempted to breed in England. Gamekeepers and the wider shooting industry publicly condemn illegal raptor killing but its continuing prevalence tells us they aren’t doing much, if anything, to help stamp it out. If they did, there would be less/no raptor killing, fewer grouse and less money to be made as a consequence. Who can blame them? Well, anyone who enjoys wildlife beyond shooting grouse.
The driven grouse shooting industry have opposed the introduction of licensing, although it looks likely to be rolled our across Scotland in the near future. I can’t imagine why a professional industry would resist licensing other than having something to hide. As a teacher, I am glad that there are standards of law-abiding and professional conduct that if breached mean an individual can be banned from the profession. It maintains standards and means my reputation is not marred by the actions of those who don’t follow rules and expectations. Self-regulation clearly is not working, or we would have 300 pairs of hen harrier in England (the estimated capacity of available habitat).
On the teaching point, I would like greater outdoor opportunities for young people in the UK. The best I could hope for growing up in north Liverpool was a spotting a red squirrel in Formby pinewoods amongst the uniform rows of carefully managed pine trees (some of which I helped to plant). I longed for the opportunity to get out into the wild amongst lynx, songbirds, snakes and raptors. Eventually I moved to Romania to do so. The wildlife opportunities that children and adults have here far surpass anything available in the UK. I have spent hundreds to thousands of pounds of my own money on guides, hotels, food and transport in my quest to see signs of a wild bear, wolf or lynx. I have seen the scat and prints of bear and lynx, which I was delighted with. One doesn’t have to actually see an individual in the flesh, although that would be wonderful. To be in the presence of these carnivores, amongst their effects as part of an exciting ecosystem, is enough.
The school I work at is brilliant for outdoor pursuits. The students love hiking and camping in the Carpathians, returning with tall tales of seeing a bear’s rump disappearing into a bush in the distance. All perfectly safe as one guide walks far in front to lead the way and clear any possible danger, a teacher walks with the pupils and a guide follows behind. The dangers from wild animals during these hikes are vanishingly small, although you still have to be sensible of course. By far the greatest risk from animals in Romania comes from feral dogs, both urban and rural. Your average secondary school student is faced by much greater danger every single day in the UK from drugs and alcohol to knife attack, abduction and wasp sting (seriously, look up the figures).
I am not suggesting we reintroduce bears and wolves to the North Yorkshire moors, but I am saying they could be much wilder places. Responsible ecotourism is a huge growing industry. I am taking two friends bird watching in the Danube Delta at the end of April with the eighteen year old son of the guide I use for school trips. A wolf, lynx and bear guide that I plan to use in May has exactly the same set-up with his son.
Game keeping for driven grouse shooting is over. Gamekeepers like to present themselves as rugged conservationists, getting the dirt under their fingernails and ensuring the continued survival of the curlew and lapwing. The truth is that not much else survives on grouse moors other than these bonus birds. Sure, they are important species, but not to the extent that they should be prioritised at the expense of the great biodiversity that could exist in our uplands. The few species that do survive on grouse moors are not prioritised; they are nothing more than by-products of extremely high artificial densities of grouse.
Driven grouse shooting is not a particularly old tradition, having begun less than two hundred years ago. The argument of tradition really does not stand up anyway, which is why I prefer having surgery done in a hospital rather than a barber shop. The generational argument is a very weak one too. A person does not have an immediate right to a profession simply because their ancestors did it, especially if that job is environmentally destructive or impacts negatively on society. There are lots of writers out there better versed than me in the reasons for banning driven grouse shooting, but if you want to see for yourself – visit a driven grouse moor and compare it to an unmanaged upland on the continent. Ask which is better for the economy (the driven grouse shooting season only lasts from the 12th of August until the 10th of December), the environment and society. I know which I prefer.