Why licensing of driven grouse shooting will not work

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).


28 Replies to “Why licensing of driven grouse shooting will not work”

  1. yes, quite right Mark. For those of you who are (rightly) reluctant to ban anything without very good reasons, see Mark’s early blog.

    1. When the epetition numbers get to the required level to ensure (ha ?) a debate in Westminster then I’d like to be able to have confidence that those in the Lords with an interest in such activity (we should check Registers of Members Interests) would demonstrate integrity and declare an interest and not vote on the issue perhaps?

      Perhaps an offer could be made to deliver a presentation to all 650 + 800 in order that they are provided with robust scientific evidence to properly inform them ahead of the Westminster debate?

  2. Mark, what a great response to why licensing won’t work. The RSPB has been one step behind on this issue and licensing is too much of a compromise for dealing with people who carry out wildlife crime.

  3. Why miss out the word Red! Poor blacks must have a rough time being recognised as a species when no one talks about them! Once the commonest grouse in Britain driven to near extinction by Red Grouse management. No, licensing will not work because they will not be able to get the Red Grouse to the butts due to too many Hen Harriers and Short eared Owls.

    1. … except that no one has been shooting black grouse for decades. Black grouse now only live on moors managed for red grouse – they need that shelter of predator control because there simply isn’t the extent of forest edge acreage that they would otherwise require for habitat. I’m afraid that if (red) grouse shooting were banned, all the blacks would be gone in a few years from the moors of England and Scotland, just as they’ve disappeared in Ireland and (almost) Wales. It’s a state of affairs worth considering alongside the other arguments about red grouse shooting.

      1. John – indeed it is worth considering. And consideration would lead you to realise that since there are plenty of Black Grouse across the world in countries where tweed is never worn then the Black Grouse cannot depend on intensive predator control. There are Black Grouse in Wales and little grouse shooting – there are Black grouse in many parts of Scotland where there is little Red Grouse shooting. There are Black grouse on Speyside living in forests and on the forest edge. There are Black Grouse doing well, last I heard at Geltsdale and they will do better still as the bits of woodland develope. And there will be Black Grouse in the Peak District if the National Trust get on with the implementation of their vision for the High Peak.

  4. There has been much talk of why the grouse industry don’t fess up to the criminality on the moors and accept the need for some form of regulation before the inevitable ban. I am reminded of the excellent Upton Sinclair 1935 quote “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.

  5. I agree with all of that.

    I am a little concerned about the practicalities of a ban. Perhaps this isn’t the blog to examine ‘the ban’ alternative but here is a scenario I conjured up in my fevered imagination!

    What if a line of guns walk across the moor ‘walking up’ grouse but somehow, even letting off a shot or two or three don’t manage to shoot any grouse at all and they all fly away…meanwhile, another line of guns is ‘walking up’ in the opposite direction. Entirely by coincidence so many birds arrive at once by surprise that the second line of guns has to stop for a while also coincidentally just at a line of butts.

    I’m no great Legal Mind, but we have to be prepared, for when “dealing with unreasonable people you have to think what the unreasonable people will do next”

  6. Mark, I apologise for repeating a comment I have already posted, but I think the points I made a week ago are relevant to what you and others are saying in this post.

    There is no doubt at all in my mind a licensing system will not protect the hen harrier, or other grouse predating raptors like peregrine, goshawk or short-eared owl. Should a licensing system be adopted consider this, in the last 40 years during my involvement working to protect both peregrines and hen harriers on red grouse moorland in the Forest of Bowland, although persecution was and still is widespread, not one single gamekeeper has ever been caught killing any schedule 1 species or destroying their nests. Not one gamekeeper, except for two cases in Cumbria, has ever been seen or caught at or near any peregrine or hen harrier nest site, and yet their nests, chicks and eggs continue to be destroyed.

    If a licensing system was introduces tomorrow, unless all nests were protected 24/7 as demonstrated in Bowland this year, almost certainly they would continue to be destroyed on moorland where red grouse are shot. Where would the funding come from to police such an ambitious undertaking, and how long would the financing last? Where would the experienced man power resources on the ground come from to ensure no breaches of the licence conditions occurred? Would all red grouse moorland in Northern England be encompassed by a licensing scheme? No matter how we look at the logistics of any scheme proposed this would be a massive undertaking costing millions of pounds to enforce. Would the revocation of a licences only occur following a successful prosecution, is so the scheme is doomed to failure?

    History tells us hen harrier and peregrine nests where they exist on moorland where red grouse are shot are invariably discovered first by gamekeepers. This being the case the majority of nests along with their content and adult birds usually simply disappear very quickly.

    Once a licensing scheme had been introduced access to private moorland estates in England to monitor, protect or ring/satellite tag nestling’s would be a significant issue to overcome. Employees of Natural England and RSPB, because they receive a salary, must first obtain permission from the estate owner to enter his or her property to undertake these licensed activities. In my opinion estates may not be too eager to provide approval unless they were happy to allow hen harriers to breed on moorland they own. Access approval applies only to licensed individuals who receives payment for the work he/she has been requested to carry out. Under separate rules set by the BTO, access consent must also be obtained by all licensees, paid or otherwise, to ring or tag any wild bird in England, particularly on moorland where red grouse are shot.

  7. “the possibility that if the Scots vote for independence that we will have this flavour of government for a very long time”

    It is a myth that Scottish votes make any significant difference to Westminster election results:


    Since 1945 there has never been an occasion where the loss of Scottish votes would have turned a labour majority into a conservative majority. There have only been three occasions where Scottish votes have made a slight difference: from 1964-66 a slim labour majority would have become a hung parliament with the tories as the largest party; from 1974-79 a slim labour majority would have become a hung parliament with labour still as the largest party; in 2010 the conservatives would have had an outright majority (would that have made any difference?).

    1. Paul – if you think that the loss if 41 Labour MPs and one Toy MP won’t make a difference then good luck to you. I am planning to live in the future not the past.

      1. That’s a bit harsh don’t you think.

        Is this an example of evidence versus perception again?

        “It is a myth that Scottish votes make any significant difference to Westminster election results” which is precisely why there’s a referendum in a months time!

      2. Maybe it will, but you have to factor in the loss of the LibDem Tories too. The coalition had a majority of 78 after the 2010 election. If the Scottish MPs were lost, the Tories would have had a majority of 21 and would presumably have not bothered with a coalition. End result is a Tory government with a smaller majority than at present.

  8. Mark I agree with what you say, Red Grouse Moor licensing is likely to achieve very little.

    I supported the RSPB’s recent Hen Harrier Appeal because I thought some of the proposals such as satellite tagging, increased suveillance and staffing were worthwhile and should help Hen Harriers.

    I do however strongly consider that the RSPB could do far more in terms of vigorous public debate with and direct criticism of, the persecutors and their apologists. When I suggested this, to RSPB, some months ago by commenting on Martin Harper’s blog he replied with words to the effect – “fireworks are okay occasionally but if you have them every day they are mostly ignored”. It would be encouraging to see fireworks even occasionally from RSPB on this!

    I get the distinct impression that RSPB has been prodded into taking a more public stance by Mark’s open letter and by the upsurge in interest centred on Hen Harrier Day with BAWC, Chris Packham et al. I did not receive the RSPB appeal by post but I understand that in that mailing (I stand to be corrected here) their stated target is 15 pairs of Hen Harriers breeding in England in 5 years time! Today’s blog mentions “setting one’s sights too low” – how true!

  9. Excellent points Mark!!

    Perhaps it’s surprising that there hasn’t been an attempt to include the Hen Harrier in the list of ‘non-native’ species as defined in the current version of the Infrastructure Bill, as have Red Kite, White-tailed Eagle, Barn Owl, Goshawk, Corncrake et al:

  10. Mark, I am starting to become concerned that we are heading towards a position of undermining our own position. Divide and rule they say.

    The overall concern of all of us is to find a way to improve the position of hen harrier and other species. The current position is that they are as fully protected as they could be under legislation but all sides accept that they are still persecuted.

    Whether we want licensing or the banning of certain forms of shooting these can only add to the basic premise that the law needs enforcing. They don’t replace current regulation as some seem to feel.

    Either of these or something else could work and we shouldn’t dismiss others’ opinions. What happens when the Government of the day says they won’t ban driven grouse shooting but will introduce licensing. At that stage do all those now saying that licensing won’t work continue with that stance and prevent any change and likewise does the RSPB, when told that a Govt is prepared to ban, stand up and repeat their position that that won’t work.

    Terry Pickford raises some interesting points on the law as it stands all of which could be overcome with Govt willingness. It seems illogical that you and I out for a walk on land accessible to the public can see and record details of illegal activity yet ‘law’ officers can’t walk onto the same public accessible land without permission. That could be overcome with minor changes in legislation. Govt should be targeted with a view to increasing financial inputs and investigative manpower (sorry ladies, I couldn’t find a different word for that one).

    Terry makes comments about funding and licences being removed after prosecutions only. Costed properly, additional manpower could be self funded through the licence scheme; I presume the cost of a licence wouldn’t be a few quid but hopefully thousands. Whilst any removal of licences would require a court hearing, if it followed Alcohol Licensing it would not necessarily be after prosecutions but general evidence about the behaviour of Estates. Licensing would automatically include its own form of Vicarious Liability.

    Whether driven Grouse shooting is banned or Grouse shooting is licensed there are still the same legal and technical arguments to go through before that could become law. There are issues you raise about licensing that I would challenge you to replace the word Licensing with Banning and you will find the same arguments apply in most cases. Bimbling also makes one point that needs to be considered, what happens when walked up shooting continues but the participants demand a high bag count to make their exercise worthwhile.

    It is way too early to start undermining other’s ideas with comments on final practicalities of ideas. At this stage push for improved enforcement but in addition push for licensing, push for banning, push for a proper DEFRA plan to include everything that is needed, push for anything else and see what is achievable. When that is achieved support it wholeheartedly but don’t dismiss it at this early stage

    Divide and rule they say and the Moorland association must be watching this with extreme interest.

  11. Mark,great reasoning why we need a ban not licensing,thank goodness yourself and a few other influential people are keeping the Hen Harrier in peoples minds.
    After reading your blog maybe the position taken by RSPB is not so well thought out.

  12. the bottom line is the law is unenforceable so there is no point going on about more manpower etc. And the people persecuting HH understand perfectly that possession is 9/10ths of (breaking) the law.

    Which is why I don’t think RSPB’s position is seriously credible – and there is an alternative – were On RSPB Council today I think my position would be that a ban must be RSPB’s default position – but in the meantime (however long that might be) RSPB should work with moorland owners to get HH back on England’s moors – and quite obviously, that then spins out to the position that the policy to ban would be withdrawn if the HH’s are allowed back – and stay back.

    There are probably much greater risks for the official conservation bodies in all this than they would ever acknowledge in public – the establishment has been trying to put the forest sales fiasco out of their minds because it was simply too painful – but exactly the same could happen over this issue, with the Springwatch audience heading in a quite different direction from the ‘official’ line. There are some hard, practical judgements to be made and the past 4 years of working with Government as if it were in any way in sympathy with the environment looked dodgy from the start – or at least January 2011 when forest sales collapsed – and was blown away quite comprehensively by Owen Paterson and the ‘green blob’.

  13. I love reading all your socialist militant comments, it’s nothing about conservation just jealousy.

  14. Cannot understand how anyone like Rich comes to that conclusion,Mark has probably put at least as much effort as anyone in UK over the last 3 or 4 decades and has never shown any jealousy.Certainly he need be jealous of no one.
    How many other bloggers would put such a ignorant comment on their blog.

  15. The RSPB are reasonable people, sadly not as passionate about stopping the criminal slaughter of hen harrier as many of their members. They are well behind the wave of membership and probably public opinion. The grouse moor owners are like entrenched criminal syndicates, they are ruthless and will do whatever it takes to protect their vested interests. Many commenters above point out how easy it would be for them to make a mockery of a ban on driven grouse shooting. Is it worth trying to achieve some kind of deal with them?

    The logical campaign to save the hen harrier would be a positive one for the complete protection of the red grouse. This would criminalise anyone on a grouse moor with a gun. Next years petition maybe?

  16. Mark, Those harriers shot in roosts are almost all in roosts on grouse moors. This is one of the great problems (for harriers), it seems most English and indeed those Scottish harriers that move south winter on English grouse moors where many are killed. In very very harsh weather they move to low ground. Those birds we habitually see on low land are mainly but not exclusively from the European mainland.
    Otherwise I think the points you make are extremely well put and valid. Terry Pickford makes the point about monitoring, which will and would continue to be mainly done by amateur raptor workers as it is now and on access land They/we do not need land owner permission to exercise our schedule 1 licences. It is true that under BTO rules chicks cannot be ringed without landowner permission although the legal position is not clear on that particular matter.

  17. The points Paul Irving makes are reasonable, however I take issue about what he has said about work to monitor the hen harrier on access land being mainly done by amateur raptor workers as it is now. ‘As is now’ hopefully will not apply in the future, because at the moment we have no hen harriers on the bulk of England’s northern uplands to monitor.

    If hen harrier is allowed to return in any number to most moorlands in northern England where red grouse are shot, the current number of experienced amateur licence holders will simply not be sufficient to do the job, the land mass is simply too great.

    If the truth is known, Natural England have been funding at least some of the field work undertaken by amateur licencees here in the NW during the past 4 years who monitor raptor sites. This funding would have to cease, if the licensed individuals Paul is referring to wish to continue visiting Schedule 1 visit nests on access land.

    As I understand the legislation. all licensees who receive financial reward for the work they undertake, before entering access land to visit look for nests, must have the approval of the landowner. If I am wrong I am sure Paul will put the record straight.

  18. Mark, one additional misunderstanding in Paul Irving’s comment, quite rightly he informs followers of this blog that it is a BTO rule that requires licencees to obtain the permission first from the landowner before ringing any nestling’s. However this has nothing to do with any legal position because the situation is crystal clear, its a rule set out by the BTO and not any wildlife legislation.

    The BTO have been challenged on a number of occasions regarding this rule, but they remain adamant, they insist the rule will not be changed. However I do know the rule is widely disregarded by many licensed raptor workers because they are aware most estates would refuse to give permission. Raptor workers are also acutely aware that by asking for approval to ring raptors on grouse moors, the site is being identified which would almost certainly result in the nest and content being destroyed in most instances.

    As long as the BTO receives no formal objection from an estate about any breach of this rule, ringing without the appropriate consent from estates will continue without any action being taken by the BTO.

    1. BTO ringers operate under a license granted by the BTO on behalf of the Naural England. It is, I think, a condition of that licence that landowners permission must be obtained,this is standard on most licences. I doubt the BTO would be allowed to remove this condition. If you ring Schedule 1 birds without such permission under the licence, then you are breaking the law. I hope you will assist the police in apprehending such law breakers

  19. I certainly agree with Terry Pickford’s comment on ringing, however harriers are monitored throughout the year where possible so whilst currently we have no breeders in most of the uplands of England that does not prevent us from trying to monitor birds outside the breeding season. Yes there are too few of us but we have to make do. As to raptor workers being paid expenses by NE and/or others, they remain as I understand it amateurs and do not need land owner permissions to enter access land, paid workers do in England and Wales but not Scotland. Yet another case of a more sensible approach north of the border.

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