M&S, the grouse, the lead and the hen harriers


I am a fan of Marks and Spencer (M&S) – but maybe that is going to change.  I am signed up to their email newsletter (which only yesterday was telling me about offers on champagne and lingerie – how sadly they misread my lifestyle!), I tend to seek out their stores in London to buy a suitably up-market sandwich for lunch, and my local BP garage has an M&S food store which sometimes tempts me on the way to the till.  And I will watch M&S adverts just to see Twiggy.  But I have a grouse with them.

My grouse, is that they are going to start selling grouse in two of their stores in London (or may be – maybe we can persuade them not to do so) in October. The two stores in question are those in High Street Kensington and Marble Arch – both of which I have frequented and both of which will lose my custom if this goes ahead (as will M&S generally).

M&S make quite a big deal of their sourcing policy for food – and although it doesn’t look like anything very special it doesn’t look awful either.  But, not surprisingly it concentrates on farming and not game shooting so I think they have seriously dropped the ball on this one.  And it’s not just grouse that M&S will be selling, it’s rabbit, wood pigeon, pheasant, partridge and venison too.

Here are some questions for M&S:

A. Selling red grouse

1. The rare and threatened hen harrier hardly exists on British grouse moors these days because of illegal persecution by game-shooting interests (see here for a recent statement by the RSPB, see here for a government agency report on the subject, see here for a statement in a scientific paper by the Director (at the time) of the Game Conservancy Trust, see here for links to more science on the subject).  Other protected wildlife is also killed by grouse shooting interests.  What steps has M&S taken to ensure that the Yorkshire and Northumberland moors from which you source your grouse are sticking to the law?

2. Red grouse are shot with lead ammunition in this country.  Lead is a poison.  Previous studies have shown that a proportion of red grouse sold for human consumption in supermarkets and game dealers have far higher lead levels than would be legal for human consumption if the meat were beef, pork, chicken etc (see here for a scientific paper which tested lead levels in red grouse (see especially Fig 2 and Table 3).  Game meat has escaped proper regulation on this matter.  What steps did you take to ensure that the grouse you plan to sell do not have high lead levels?

3. The Food Standards Agency updated their advice on lead in food last year.  They highlighted that lead is a poison and that a main source of lead is through our diets (see here for link).  The FSA recommended that pregnant women and children, particularly but not exclusively, should pay attention to their lead intake.  What steps have you taken to label grouse sold in your shops to ensure that the most vulnerable do not ingest high lead levels?

4. Because of the unnaturally high densities of red grouse on grouse moors (no, these are not remotely natural situations!) grouse moor managers provide piles of medicated grit to reduce infestations of  parasitic worms in the adult grouse.  The red grouse eat the grit provided and sometimes are even caught and more medicines are administered directly.  Concerns are growing over over-use of these chemicals.  What steps have you taken to check on the parasite loads and chemical use on the moors which are your suppliers?

5. Driven grouse shooting (as opposed to walked-up shooting – M&S, do you know the difference, because you should?) is a sport which depends on very high, unnaturally high, densities of red grouse to be profitable or ‘fun’.  A grouse moor is as intensively managed a place as is a field of wheat in the lowlands.  Moorland management for grouse shooting involves a range of practices which your customers or the general public may find disturbing, such as intensive legal killing of foxes, stoats, crows etc in order to create the unnaturally high levels of red grouse for shooting (and now for you, M&S).  In addition, moorland burning and drainage can damage internationally important peatland areas and increase greenhouse gas emissions. What steps have you taken to find out about these issues from your suppliers?  How will these greenhouse gas issues affect your desire to be carbon-neutral?  What steps will you take to inform your customers of these issues?


B. Generally on selling game

1.  The studies that showed that lead levels in red grouse can sometimes be very high also demonstrated similar levels in other game which you are thinking of selling – rabbits, venison, pheasants, partridges etc (see here and here for UK references and here for EFSA report).  High proportions of game meat sold for human consumption have lead levels that would be illegal in other meats.  Any potential problems with venison are easily avoided by sourcing your venison from wild-shot deer killed with non-toxic ammunition.  Many organisations who cull deer have switched from lead to copper or other non-toxic bullets.  What steps have you taken to source your venison from estates who use non-toxic ammunition?

2.  This is not a trivial issue.  The evidence grows that ingested lead is a very important poison – some even claim that drops in social violence are as a result of removal of lead from the environment (see link here).  Lead has been removed from petrol, from water pipes, from many uses in fishing weights and in as many other uses as possible on environmental and health grounds. Countries such as Denmark have outlawed the use of lead ammunition completely.  There is a government working group which is making glacially slow progress on the health and environmental issues (due, it seems, to delaying tactics by vested interests).  I understand that the Risk Assessment that will one day see the light of day will be something that you should read.  Why are you getting into this contentious issue instead of waiting for the results of the Lead Ammunition Group to be published?

3.  Who did you consult on this issue? Did you consult the scientists working on lead issues? Did you read the relevant scientific literature? Or have you blundered into this area without proper thought and due diligence?

4.  Given that this is a highly contentious area, have you noticed that the memberships of wildlife conservation organisations (such as the RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts etc) are immense, and look very much like your customers, whereas you won’t meet many practising grouse shooters in the streets.  Have you done the maths? Why have you chosen to enter such a contentious area? 

5.  I would like to know whether M&S would support the licensing of grouse moors so that your task as a purchaser would be made just a little easier in choosing reputable suppliers.


So, that’s my grouse with M&S.  I’ll drop my grouse when they drop theirs!

M&S (@marksandspencer) have been ignoring Twitter questions on this subject and supplying unconvincing answers to emails.  Feel free to email this blog or your own comments to the M&S Director of Food steve.rowe@marks-and-spencer.com (copied to the Chief Exec marc.bolland@marks-and-spencer.com).

I’ve emailed Twiggy too – http://www.twiggylawson.co.uk/contact.html – and the lovely lady has a Facebook page and a Twitter account @Twiggy.

After thinking about it – please do sign the epetition on licensing grouse moors.

And there is an interesting poll on whether  grouse hunting should be allowed to continue which you might find worth a quick glance.

And this is a hen harrier…

By Andreas Trepte (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Andreas Trepte (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
 …just in case, like me, you don’t see them very often these days.







57 Replies to “M&S, the grouse, the lead and the hen harriers”

  1. But, hey, It will come beautifully over packaged.. like all the rest of their fresh, but perfectly formed, food

    1. ….. and the good news is… Hen Harrier persecution is no longer going on in England (there’s none left to persecute)

  2. What a superb blog Mark. Thanks.
    Made me think quite hard about M&S and whether I should boycott their lovely sandwiches.

    One note – the EFSA report which you kindly linked to (in case anyone missed it, its reproduced below) has a table on page 53 which makes me think that lead in one’s diet taken in from eating a lot of game, is not really a huge worry for most Brits (and nor it should be).
    Most Brits would get more lead inside them from chocolate and bread (and many MANY other foodstuffs) it seems.

    Now, that said, my boy is nearly 9 months old now, and finding his feet.
    I will do my utmost to try to ensure that we don’t feed him two partridge a week in his formative years… you know…. just in case.

    1. Doug – yes, read the rest of the report too. The medical evidence keeps growing that we should reduce lead intake wherever possible. There is no practicable way to tell the lead levels in a piece of game meat that you buy, but we know that in some samples lead levels are very high (very high). Switching to non-toxic shot would be a good idea – just like replacing lead water pipes and removing lead from petrol were good ideas too. M&S would do their consumers a favour if they only bought game shot with non-toxic shot. if they did I would praise them. And the shooting community could come into the 21st century with the rest of us if they chose to use non-toxic shot.

      And then there is the lack of hen harriers….

      And greenhouse gas emissions….

      1. Thanks for the reply Mark.
        The only reason I would boycott M&S over this is because of the hen harrier situation.
        Lead in game (soley as far as diet is concerned) is pretty irrelevant for me or my family.

        1. Doug – as it would be to vegetarians of course. I would actually eat more game – particularly wood pigeons, if I knew they were shot with non-toxic ammunition. Maybe that is where M&S should go.

      2. “And greenhouse gas emissions….”

        Have you quantified return flights to Americol and road mileage in dead grouse equivalents?

        1. filbert – quite high I should think. But you do need a life-long analysis. My carbon footprint has dropped greatly over the last few years.

  3. What a great opportunity for the National Trust or even the RSPB to sell Red Grouse to M & S. No, they don’t have to be shot. There are several ways to catch them without a gun even a nice Peregrine Falcon which is now all most extinct on Red Grouse moors due to persecution. McPherson’s great book ‘A history of fowling’ 1897 will help you and to think that the Romans even caught them in nets 2000 years ago. Who needs a gun!! Only the weak and the brainless!

  4. Mark, it is evident from emails I have exchanged with M&S that they think that their Red Grouse are OK because they are sourced from English moors that don’t have any Hen Harriers. To say they have dropped the ball is quite an under-statement considering they wish us to believe they uphold high ethics in sourcing their food products.

    1. Robin – thank you. M&S seem strangely ignorant of the area they have entered. I think i might know why. Watch this space.

      But surely they should do much better. Always disappointing when a respected company begins to lose your respect. I am sure M&S could turn this to their advantage – but not without looking as though they know, they understand and they care. Not doing at all well on any of those at the moment.

  5. Mark, hopefully you will have far more success in generating a response from the nature loving community. Over on BirdGuides, Rob Curtis raised awareness of the Game Keeping licencing ePetition at whcih time the signature count stood at 5938, two days later its now at 5955 a whole 17 points higher! The “rule of six” by which we’re all supposed to be linked, clearly doesn’t work in some areas. This awareness raising game is tough. If your brilliant piece here fails to deliver maybe unleash some high profile top communicators, such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Jamie Oliver and Jimmy Doherty?

  6. Don’t expect an answer any time soon. From top to bottom the organisation consistently ignores customer queries. For years I tried to get them to give me answers about lack of vegetarian fare, and the only result was ignoring, removal of a popular vegetable dish, and rudeness from a motored manager who looked about 12 (male, of course, they are not fond of putting women in top positions).

    I no longer shop there. And they do not give a damn.

  7. I can see an M&S boycott coming. Some great stuff here Mark and thanks for pointing it out. My wife will be given her instructions in a minute – she is an M&S fan.

    For me there is a little problem. I am a type 2 diabetic and I am advised not too eat beef or pork because of the fat content. I am encouraged to eat venison instead. Most of what I consume comes from culling Fallow Deer on a nearby estate and not a Red Grouse estate so I shall continue.

    Eating Red Grouse always seemed a betrayal of my love for our wild birds and an endemic race at that.

    Keep up the protest.

    1. Derek – I am partial to venison too (now and again). That is the easy one – either eat farmed venison or make sure you ask that the deer was shot with non-toxic bullets (I know that sounds a bit odd – any anmmunition is quite toxic entering your body). Many people have switched to non-toxic bullets – the RSPB did on its reserves several years ago (because of the wildlife and human health impacts). A lot (most these days?) of deer culled by FC are killed with non-toxic shot.

      I don’t think grouse tastes particularly good – but maybe that is partly because of the bitter taste left from all those missing hen harriers?

  8. Just seen the summer of wildlife supplement in the Radio Times. It lists 17 ‘ some of the most endangered species’ but this does not include the hen harrier. Amongst others it does show kingfisher, barn owl and house sparrow.

  9. Good stuff Mark, it will be interesting to read their reply, if indeed they do reply.

    Not long ago I was told by an experienced farm assurance inspector (who specialised in the poultry sector) that in their opinion, the farm assurance standards of M&S were well below those of many of their major competitors. Apparently Waitrose and Tesco had the most exacting requirements, I was quite surprised to learn this about the latter.

    I could be wrong, but I do sense that M&S has lost much if its cachet in recent years. In my area they have been appear to have been given a sound trouncing by Waitrose in the ‘supplier of premium quality food stakes’. I do concede that they do make very good sandwiches, however so do independent sandwich shops but with far less packaging. Plus you can often ascertain where the ingredients were sourced from.

  10. I’ll be continuing to take M&S’s “Plan A” with a hefty pinch of salt until such time as the majority of their wines (or preferably all of them) come with natural cork stoppers from sustainably managed Iberian cork oak forests. If M&S are truly promoting sustainability then this is a no-brainer.

    The grouse issue just blows an even bigger hole in “Plan A’s” credibility.

  11. Hi Mark. Good for you. It’s things like this which make your blog is so good.

    BTW, have you seen the hilarious introverts /extroverts thing on coyote’s crossing? Fabulous! (I have no interest to declare there, it’s just very funny.)

  12. Do the RSPB have any moorland reserves in England with a thriving Hen Harrier population? The RSPB web site says that heather moorland is in the good state it is in today due to upland farming AND grouse shooting and there doesn’t seem to be any actual evidence of general persecution as far as I can see.

    I have eaten pigeon and rabbit as well as game birds shot with lead and am honestly more concerned about breaking a tooth on the shot than its lead content (I don’t think non toxic shot would help much with that). I’m actually pleased that M&S are going to be stocking game which is as free range as you can get as well as being healthy and sustainable.

    1. Bruce – welcome. Since there are 2 pairs of hen harrier in the N of England this year, when GWCT science says there should be 300, the RSPB would be very lucky to have any, wouldn’t they.

      How much lead do you ingest, I wonder?

      Good to see some pro-shooters have woken up today!

      No evidence of general persecution you say – so you didn’t read the links in the blog? Come back when you have please and let me know if you think hen harriers are bumping themselves off?

      1. I have read the “science” though any scientific paper that contains “It is speculated that” doesn’t really carry much weight as far as I am concerned.

        I have no doubt that illegal raptor culling does occur in isolated cases and in no way condone this. It needs to stop but if grouse shooting stops then the habitat and the hen harrier will very likely disappear anyway. M&S are hardly adding to the problem.

        The medicated grit issue is of great concern to gamekeepers anyway and is being addressed with some urgency.

        Legal removal of high (to a degree that they are legally classed as vermin) levels of predators is even carried out by the RSPB just the same as it is by gamekeepers, presumably to keep an “unnaturally” high volume of other bird species on reserves? Even though grouse are being supported for sport and food how is what they are doing so different?

        I’d guess I’m still taking on much more lead from other sources than from the odd bit of shot in a wholesome tasty meal. Spit don’t swallow as I’ve heard said somewhere before.

        1. Bruce – kinda like your style but I wonder who recommended you do the last thing?

          Almost all the hen harriers in the UK are nesting on moors not managed for grouse shooting. They obviously don’t know that they depend on grouse moors and maybe you should tell them to move if that is the crux of your argument. Really – that is a quite ridiculous argument. The hen harrier does well when it isn’t bumped off! Funny how it manages to survive so well in North America and Scandinavia and many other parts of Europe without depending on the Glorious 12th. Please keep coming back with these rural myths – they are such a laugh.

          Spitting out the lead shot won’t reduce your lead intake from those measued inn the papers cited – they all had their shot removed (after cooking) but before lead assay. If you do swallow – and the choice must be yours – then you get even more. The papers say that – read them again.

          I don’t think there is anything that is legally classed as vermin in the UK. I might be wrong. I think most of Society moved away from that way of looking at nature some time ago. Let me have the reference if I am wrong please.

          I won’t get dragged into the ‘RSPB do it too’ argument ‘cos I am not paid to any more. But you aren’t really right there either – RSPB can fight their own battles on that one.

          Thank you for your comment – as I say, I kinda like your style.

    2. “… concerned about breaking a tooth on the shot …”

      If you did so you might be reasonably assured that the corpse was a result of shooting rather than kosher slaughter – or the other lot – as M&S’s blandishments on such niceties are untestable for the customer.

    1. Charlie – hadn’t seen this. Thank you for sharing. I would suggest that readers go straight to the conclusions (page 22).

      The conclusions are that:

      1) lead is a poison which you can get from eating game shot with lead but that the government agency tasked with advising on food safety (the Food Standards Agency) doesn’t know what it is talking about whereas those with most to lose from a switch to non-toxic shot know better!
      2) safe shot is more expensive than toxic shot (well, it will be until you have to use it and then the price will come down – duhhh!) and we shooters are mean as well as ungenerous.
      3) game shooting is a profitable rural industry (are drugs trafficing and prostitution? And was pushing little boys up chimneys to clean them?) and so you cannot possibly change anything.

      I may have paraphrased that a little.

      The conclusion is good enough to say that the WWT and RSPB are ‘hiding behind the science’ which seems to be another way of admitting that both organisations know what they are talking about, have researched it and have published numerous papers in the scientific literature. It is clear that the CA is not hiding behind any science – it appears not to have any to hide behind.

      Lead poisoning – discharged shot in wetlands – kills thousands of wildfowl every year.
      Lead ingestion affects raptor populations across the world from condors in the USA to white-tailed eagles in Europe.
      Health authorities no longer say that any level of lead is ‘safe’ for humans – every little harms (as one of M&S’s competitors might say).

      Very useful document which just shows the mean-mindedness of those who oppose a move away from lead ammunition. Please share more widely – it will win everyone over.

    1. Mike – good to see you on Friday. Yes, so I see. Have been in touch with Ellie Goulding and her 1million twitter followers already. Sorry to see Twiggy go but Helen Mirren in place.

  13. I just got this email:

    Thank you for emailing Steve Rowe to share your concerns about the introduction of grouse into some of our stores. As a member of his personal team, I’m replying on his behalf. 

    We have the highest standards of animal welfare and only source from suppliers we know and trust. Our game range is sourced from well-managed estates across the UK stretching from Nottinghamshire to the Scottish borders, with the majority of product coming from Yorkshire and Northumberland. 

    Game is one of the most animal welfare friendly meats you can eat as it is totally free range – the birds live totally in the wild and in their natural habitats. It is also a very sustainable option and good estate management and conservation intended for game shooting actually stops deforestation, and encourages the protection of the countryside. 

    There are no breeding pairs of hen harriers on the grouse moors we take from and there are severe penalties for anyone that interferes with Hen Harriers – this is actively enforced not just for Hen Harriers but all species of raptors. 

    I appreciate you taking the time to get in touch with us to raise your concerns about the sale of grouse in our stores. I hope my email has helped to reassure you of how seriously we take our commitments to the environment and ethical sourcing. 

    Kind regards
     Stephen Duxbury
    Executive Office 

    1. Kiteman – yes, I’ve seen a few of those. I haven’t had mine yet, but I haven’t had anything else yet either. I am hoping that M&S have a go at answering my questions.

  14. I almost choked laughing at that letter. I can imagine the moorland association representitive dictating that utter nonsense down the telephone. One of the most stupid letters I have ever seen! In fact that’s not just a stupid letter, it’s a Marks and Spencer’s extra special stupid letter.

  15. And on the subject of lead in pipes, wish it had all been replaced with something less toxic, then the water companies wouldn’t have to dose our drinking water with very high concentrations of phosphate, which exacerbate further our freshwater eutrophication problems when this water makes its way back to our lakes and rivers via a sewage treatment works, or directly via mains leaks, car washing or other mis connected drainage systems. Almost all drinking water in England and Wales is dosed with phosphate – seems to be a little known fact.

    I never was a big fan of M&S but won’t go near them now, for what it’s worth, but can you really expect some purchasing manager of a big supermarket to understand what goes on on grouse moors? I’m sure they think they are doing something good, just didn’t do their homework properly, or at all.

  16. Dear Mr Rowe

    I note your organisation’s recent responses regarding the sale of Red Grouse meat in your London outlets, suggesting that there are no Hen Harriers on the suppliers’ land.

    Please can M&S explain why there are no Hen Harriers on your suppliers’ land? Grouse Moor is entirely suitable habitat for this protected species and it would be helpful to know why they are not present if the land in question is being managed so well.

    Many thanks………

  17. The M&S response is hilarious – clearly drafted by a real ‘custodian of the countryside’! Most of it seems to refer to game in general rather than addressing the issue of grouse. Don’t get me started on commercial driven pheasant shooting – it is even more indefensible than grouse shooting. Does anyone know if M&S sell pheasants? It would be interesting to see if these are also described as totally free range despite being reared on game farms and then put into pheasant pens where they are fed on pellets and medicated supplements, before being released to be run over by cars or shot after presenting the sporting challenge of the average chicken……

  18. Sian,

    The way M&S were/are structured is that they have ‘Selectors’ who control the buying process, making decisions about product selection and negotiating prices and they have ‘Technologists’ who deal with the product specifications and re-inforce supply standards.

    With regards to grouse I would have expected the technologist responsible to at least be aware of the lead-shot issue and also to have considered and discussed animal welfare issues with the supplier(s). Though whether this would extend beyond the grouse themselves is unlikely.

  19. Great

    Loads of meat-eating and carbon-producing birders get apoplectic at Hen Harriers being killed. The obsession with Hen Harriers has – for a long time – allowed everyone to slap each other on the back about one topic while neglecting – or more often waving a hand at – the larger problems that we could actually do something to address – by consuming less, growing some food, stopping travelling unnecessarily, stopping eating food with air miles etc. That does require actually doing something though…

    Everyone do some good networking at BirdFair? Ker-ching! Trebles all round.

  20. Pingback: M&S grouse meat could come from illegal source, say conservationists
  21. Pingback: M&S grouse meat could come from illegal source, say conservationists - British News Cloud
  22. Pingback: M&S grouse meat could come from illegal source, say conservationists | Latest News ChannelLatest News Channel
  23. Pingback: M&S grouse meat source scrutinised | GreenOrg
  24. Pingback: M&S grouse meat source scrutinised
  25. Very interesting and mostly intelligent discussion. So many issues raised from M&S deciding to stock grouse. Glad it hasn’t turned into the normal ‘fluffies versus murderers’ debate.

    From reading the comments one thing seems to rear its head again and again. That of ‘intensiveness’, be it in commercial pheasant shooting (not sport in my opinion) or intensive management of moorlands. Many thinking people are uncomfortable with it, rightly so, BUT as in agriculture is it not just a symptom of overpopulation? As for persecution of raptors, some Estates are worse than others, and it goes on regularly. The RSPB know the worst offenders and (sadly) are almost powerless at stopping it.

    Anyway, just thought I’d add my two penneth.

    But just a couple of things to clear up.

    Firstly lead shot has been banned from use over wetlands etc since 1999.

    “Since Westminster signed the African-Eurasian Waterbird Agreement (AEWA) (November 1999) it is binding throughout the UK, but its implementation is a matter for the devolved governments. In England the lead shot regulations ban the use of lead shot over all foreshore, over specified SSSIs, and for the shooting of all ducks and geese, coot and moorhen – wherever they occur. The Welsh Assembly introduced similar regulations in September 2002. Scotland’s regulations came into force at the end of March 2005 and Northern Ireland came into force in September 2009.” (BASC website).

    Secondly, to clear up a widespread misunderstanding. Shot is fired from a shotgun at moving targets, grouse, duck, pheasant etc. It consists of many small balls of lead or other metal, thus the fear of meat contamination. This does not happen with venison, as deer are shot with a rifle, which fires a single projectile (a bullet). I would be amazed if there is any evidence (away from the wound) of lead contamination in the meat.

    As a fisherman I was forced years ago to find an alternative to lead, and did. This would also be the case with the shooting fraternity.

  26. Mr Avery,

    I am not sure how many hen harriers there are on Geltsdale or on the RSPB reserves at Lake Vrynwy, and I am quite sure the densities of moorland species generally on managed grouse is vastly higher than on unmanaged moor. Ribblehead is an ornithological desert as is Langholm after the study, so to make unproven allegations of persecution is neither helpful nor accurate.

    Shot game has been eaten for 150 years and I know of no issues relating to it.

    1. Robert – well just so long as you are sure, and ignorant of the impacts of lead poisoning, I guess that’s alright then… Thank you for your comment.

  27. Well here we go again ,lives in London ,has no knowledge of rural life .Will I assume buy an
    Over medicated chicken and chemical sandwich at his local garages (seller of poison liquids),
    And that’s ok .As to Hen Harriers read the report in the Shooting Times and Conservation
    Magazine as to independent reports on the work of gamekeepers particularly in Scotland,I am fully aware of reports of birds of of prey deaths,all deaths are usually blamed on keepers,but here’s the rub birds are not immortal ,they also have predators accidents, (2 BOPs killed flying into friends car,not a the same time(sic).)Also one BOP reported dead ,sat.loc.dissapeared,
    By RSPB Guess what, reapeared ,obviously not following RSPB rules.Enough,wish people would check all the THE official information available.

Comments are closed.