Driven grouse shooting is not without its benefits to the economy and ecology of the uplands although we could argue for years (and have done!) over exactly what are those benefits. The trouble with it is that it is based on the illegal killing of several protected raptor species (most notably, but not exclusively, golden eagle, hen harrier and peregrine falcon) and a fair bit of illegal killing of some mammals too.
But it is clear that these same protected raptors can, if left to their own devices, make the legal practising of driven grouse shooting impossible, because that is what happened at Langholm in the Joint Raptor Study (maybe it wouldn’t happen everywhere but who will promise that it won’t?).
So, grouse shooters say that they want a way out of this bind and they suggest a system of quotas of hen harriers. This was pretty well described by ‘Lazywell’ in a comment on Sunday’s blog but here is my version of it.
The quota system allows grouse moor owners to do something to hen harriers to limit their numbers on any given grouse moor once numbers exceed a quota. Various ideas for the quota float around but let’s just imagine that one could be agreed. If you get more hen harriers settling on your grouse moor in the spring than your quota then you can bump them off (the most extreme version), prick their eggs or perhaps bundle up any hatching young and cart them off to somewhere else. Any of these actions would prevent there being hungry harrier babies being fed on grouse during the summer.
These three options (there are others too) have different medium-term implications for harrier numbers – killing adults limits the population the most, pricking eggs the next and translocation of young harriers the least. Each is ‘unnatural’ and time-consuming – the usual objections to diversionary feeding. But each would allow harrier numbers to rise to the ceiling level (whatever it might be) on all those moors where harriers are mysteriously absent at the moment (thus proving that there was a lot of persecution going on).
With translocation, where would the young hen harriers go? Here, too, there are options – they could be released back where they were born, ‘down the road’ on another bit of moorland (maybe a grouse moor, maybe not) or shipped off somewhere far away like Dartmoor where there is no grouse shooting.
This scheme has a great deal of complexity in it – because there are so many variants and things that would need sorting out. And it has always struck me that it might not be that easy to sell within the shooting community anyway – seems like a lot of trouble to go to when you can carry on breaking the law and pretend that you aren’t – and that is one reason why I would require a statement from reputable shooting organisations that they ‘admit’ that there is an awful lot of illegal killing of raptors and that they agree that this limits raptor numbers. Such a statement means that there is no going back.
So such a statement from shooting organisations, not from individual moor managers, is a necessary step, in my opinion, to being able to win over nature conservationists to this scheme. All grouse moors benefit from the illegal killing of raptors – whether that killing is done by the few or the many – and it needs a collective, public admission of the problem to move things on and to gain the trust of nature conservationists. Is this grouse moor managers making the first move? yes it is – but that’s where the criminality lies, that’s the industry with the problem and they get something in return a bit further down the line (an agreed quota system).
Some would say that any such quota scheme is simply ‘regularising’ a currently criminal activity – I’ve said that myself plenty of times. But that could be dealt with by setting the quota at a sufficiently high level for there to be a real benefit to harriers from the intial stages of the scheme but a real benefit to grouse moor owners once the quota is exceeded.
So that is my three-point plan for moving things on:
- grouse shooters come together to acknowledge, publicly, through shooting-related organisations the scale of the problem of illegal raptor killing
- diversionary feeding to be used (completely voluntarily) to minimise within-year harrier impacts
- conservationists agree a quota system to be developed that leads to much higher harrier breeding numbers overall but limits their local densitites
This does mean that everybody has to move – but the criminal elements have to move first. If harriers became commoner on grouse moors then nature conservationists could relax a bit about the issue – not just forget it and go way, but relax a little. It is the almost complete eradication of harriers on grouse moors that makes it so difficult for nature conservationists to ignore this issue – why should they?
And my preference would be for chick translocation rather than egg, chick or adult killing but then that should also be the preferred route for the shooting community too if they want a publicly acceptable scheme.
I keep talking about harriers but some thought would have to be given to eagles and peregrines etc in all this too.
It must be time to move this issue on, it has become too bogged down and now is in danger of occupying too much nature conservation time for no real benefit on the ground. And if there can’t be agreement on something along these lines fairly quickly (which is entirely possible) then nature conservation organisations should seriously consider Plan B – campaigning for an end to grouse shooting outright on the grounds that it is based on widespread illegal activity.
But what do you think?