I am grateful to the RSPB Chair, Prof Steve Ormerod for his Guest Blog on licensing of grouse shooting. As always, the RSPB has a well thought-through position which could make a difference to the plight of the Hen Harrier. However, I don’t think they have the best thought-through position on this particular issue, especially for the situation in England.
In Scotland it seems feasible, believable, fingers-crossable, that licensing might be introduced in the not-too-distant future. Following the introduction of vicarious liability in Scotland licensing may not be far behind.
There are many more moors in Scotland where grouse shooting is just a part of the economy, alongside fishing and deer stalking and other pursuits than in the north of England where intensive driven grouse shooting is ‘the’ major money earner for many estates – and also the only thing they want to do with their land, it seems.
In Scotland, the political situation is more favourable to a step-by-step approach and the land owning community is (though my friends and former colleagues in Scotland may find this difficult to believe) a greater mixture of the obdurate and the almost-reasonable. Down here in England we have a government which has already ruled out licensing (and vicarious liability too), the possibility that if the Scots vote for independence that we will have this flavour of government for a very long time, and a bunch of upland land owners who, judging from the Moorland Association’s stuttering performance on the Today programme last week, cannot even bring themselves to admit that their people are breaking the law and are the cause of the losses of Hen Harrier in England.
And here in England, we have 3-4 pairs of Hen Harrier this year whereas in Scotland they have hundreds of pairs living away from driven grouse moors – not as many hundreds as they would have without the impacts of those driven grouse moors, but hundreds all the same.
In England we have gone through years of negotiation, conflict resolution, searching for compromise and attempted reconciliation in years of meetings chaired by the Environment Council and now in a Defra-‘led’ process and seen the Han Harrier population fall and fall. Conservationists being reasonable has been met with grouse interests being unreasonable. Being reasonable has been seen as a sign of weakness and the Hen Harrier has suffered even more as a result.
We have known that supplementary feeding has been a viable method for reducing impacts of Hen Harriers on grouse bags for well over a decade. It’s the ‘let’s give it a try as it might be a way forward‘ option. How many pairs of Hen Harrier in the north of England have been fed on grouse moors in that time? Have there been any? Precious few if any. And yet I remember sitting in meetings years ago when grouse managing representatives swore that their members would leap at the chance to use supplementary or substitute feeding. That hasn’t happened.
And the point of this is to say that when you are dealing with unreasonable people you have to think what the unreasonable people will do next. If licensing is seriously considered by any government then the unreasonable people will use their power, economic power, and political power (how many people in the House of Lords have grouse shooting interests?) to water down any measures. They will play for time, argue the toss and we will end up with something weak and something unenforceable. And then we’d have to wait for another 10 years before we could be sure that licensing didn’t work and we got a political opportunity to ban driven grouse shooting.
Although licensing is a tiny rational step towards the conservation of Hen Harriers it is not the best rational step towards conserving Hen Harriers – it is aiming too low, and accepting too little. It is postponing a ban through setting one’s sights too low.
Licensing is bureaucratic and technical – a ban is clean and decisive.
Licensing could not deal with killing of Hen Harriers at winter roosts (or indeed anywhere away from a licensed grouse moor) and this level of killing would increase further.
Licensing requires policing – policing has failed already for understandable practical reasons, it will fail again.
Licensing will require long technical discussions – we don’t have time as the Hen Harrier is on the brink of extinction as an English breeding bird.
Licensing would require lengthy and expensive court battles when licences were removed – who has the time, money or stomach for these when a ban on driven grouse shooting is so much easier and more decisive.
Any licensing system would have to address non-Hen Harrier ills of driven grouse shooting too – water quality, burning of blanket bog etc – it would be a technical nightmare.
I could go on, but you get my drift…
What do you think about licensing and whether it will work?
I know what over 15,000 of you think – you think that driven grouse shooting should be banned in England (as opposed to c10,000 of us, including me, who voted for licensing last year).