Why licensing won’t work for grouse moors.

Our e-petition asking the Westminster government to ban driven grouse shooting passed 20,000 signatures recently. The momentum is growing all the time. I wonder how many signatures we will have amassed by 21 January? We’re not even half way there yet.

I’m often asked why the RSPB doesn’t support a ban on driven grouse shooting and so I’d like to return to that subject now (as it is the RSPB’s AGM tomorrow).

Let me say right from the outset, that the impact of the RSPB supporting a ban on driven grouse shooting would be immense. The RSPB would get a load of flak from the shooting community (but then it does every week anyway) and our e-petition would sail past 100,000 signatures and would be debated in parliament.  This would almost certainly greatly increase pressure on Defra to do something on this subject, and would be likely to bring other political parties more strongly into the debate. A parliamentary debate would bring change much closer – even if that change were not a ban on driven grouse shooting, it might be vicarious liability or licensing.

We know, to some extent, why the RSPB doesn’t support a ban on driven grouse shooting because over a year ago Prof Steve Ormerod , Chair of RSPB Council, was good enough to reply to me here setting out the reasons. I wasn’t convinced then, and I’m not convinced now, so after more than a year it’s perhaps, in a friendly way, worth returning to the subject (and it goes without saying that I’m not going to fall out with the RSPB on this issue – but I do think that they are wrong (and presumably they thing I am wrong!)).  And Prof Ormerod did say over a year ago that the RSPB Council had made their decision 18 months or so before that – things have moved on a lot in over two and half years.

First, as Prof Ormerod wrote, the RSPB is not constrained by its Royal Charter on this matter. Provided the RSPB thought that driven grouse shooting was inimicable to the Society’s charitable objects of conserving species and habitats then the RSPB could oppose driven grouse shooting as an activity and ask its supporters to support our e-petition. And since our e-petition is very specifically aimed at driven grouse shooting, not at pheasant or partridge shooting (where the arguments for a ban are, in my opinion, rather weak) and not even aimed at all grouse shooting since walked up shooting could continue, no-one could legitimately say that the RSPB had taken an anti-shooting position (where it would be a bigger issue with the Charter).

There is no doubt that driven grouse shooting, as practised now, is inimicable to the RSPB’s charitable objects. No one doubts, and certainly not the RSPB, that several species of birds of prey are at much reduced population levels because of illegal persecution. And it is the RSPB’s science that has helped establish this as fact although it is accepted by statutory agencies and much of the shooting community too.

Also, the intensive management of land for driven grouse shooting damages protected habitats such as blanket bogs. That’s why the RSPB made a complaint to the EU over this issue all of three years ago (15 October 2012) and the effect of that complaint is very hard to discern as yet since neither Defra nor the RSPB have told us much about it.  We certainly haven’t seen any great turn around in Defra policy and Natural England practice in the last year.

Also, as Prof Ormerod knows far better than I, for this is an area of his expertise, the evidence has grown over the last year that intensive grouse moor management damages the delivery of ecosystem services such as flood prevention, aquatic biodiversity, water quality and carbon storage.

Now all this stuff is very unsatisfactory as the ecological footprint of a ‘sport’ – not of food production, or of a manufacturing industry, or of a service industry, but of the ‘sport’ of shooting chicken-like birds for fun. It’s a high price for society as a whole to pay for a few people’s fun. But if we would imagine a better, sustainable form of ‘shooting grouse for fun’ maybe we should promote that? Well, walked up shooting is roundly rejected by grouse shooters as less fun and less economically viable (ignoring its lower cost to the rest of us) so let’s take that at their word and say that we won’t be able to persuade shooters to switch to walked up shooting.

So is there a better form of driven grouse shooting? If so, where can we see it please? Which are the model estates where it is practised? Where is the model that all others should follow? Nobody has ever told me where I could find it so I’m thinking that it may not actually exist.

The RSPB seems to think that by licensing driven grouse moors, more can be made to fit the good model – and yet it appears that no-one has identified the good model yet – the moors with birds of prey, pristine blanket bogs, carbon storage rather than emissions, clean water and lowered flood risk.  Under the RSPB’s proposed licensing scheme would any grouse moor actually get a license today?

The RSPB suggests that in the absence of effective self-regulation the next step should be regulation (ie licensing) but this presupposes that there is an effective and workable licensing scheme. If the RSPB is remotely serious about licensing as an option then they should publish a draft licensing scheme for grouse moors for consultation. I have no doubt that such a scheme would be rejected by the British grouse industry (maybe by Sir Ian Botham himself) as they tend to reject any move for any change that is inconvenient to their interests, but also rejected by politicians who would say that such a scheme is complex, unworkable and disproportionately expensive. I might be wrong, but I’d like to see the proposals for licensing and the RSPB ought to have some since it thinks that licensing would work. Let’s all have a look, please. And if it looks like a good scheme I’ll be very happy to say so.

We ought also to look at the industry which I would like to ban – the driven grouse industry.  We have not seen a single concession from them in the last 20+ months. In fact, we have seen the emergence of the You Forgot the Birds campaign, funded by the British grouse industry which has attacked the RSPB on a wide range of issues, most of them nothing to do with grouse shooting.  Does this look like an industry that is up for change of the type that the RSPB suggest? No it is an industry that is ripe for abolition as I (and more than 20,000 others) suggest!

Since Prof Ormerod’s response here well over a year ago we have seen five male Hen Harriers disappear from nests at which the RSPB had some involvement,  including one on its own nature reserve at Geltsdale.  The chances of so many males disappearing naturally are infinitesimally small and might well be because those birds were indeed targetted to provide the lurid anti-RSPB headlines that we saw (and which allowed YFTB (funded by the British grouse industry) to have another go at the RSPB. Would licensing have stopped this? No it would not.

Also, since Prof Ormerod’s response here we have seen Sky, Hope and Annie, tagged Hen Harriers, disappear or die from shooting.  They are undoubtedly just the tip of a bloody iceberg, but would licensing have stopped their deaths? No, it would not.

It seems to me that the RSPB is clinging on to the idea of licensing in spite of the evidence that it would fail to make much of a difference.

The case made out in Inglorious, at some length, is that because driven grouse shooting depends on unnaturally high densities of Red Grouse, to provide huge bags of dead grouse at the end of a season’s shooting, the intensive management cannot easily be ameliorated (and that there is not appetite from grouse shooters to do so anyway).  The first Langholm study showed that you cannot easily have protected Hen Harriers and Peregrines and driven grouse shooting – you have to choose which you want. The RSPB ought to choose protected birds of prey!

The evidence has also increased (partly thanks to work by the RSPB) that the intensive burning, drainage, legal predator control and medication of grouse moors are integral to those big bags, and also the cause of ecological damage. So you probably can’t have both. Surely the RSPB should choose sustainable uplands without driven grouse shooting rather  than unsustainable ones with driven grouse shooting? Or, the RSPB could show us the good grouse moors and publish its licensing proposals.

So, as you can see, the RSPB and I agree, just about completely I think, on the problem, but don’t agree on the solution.  This isn’t unusual amongst friends – they share the same values and perspectives on how the world could be better but disagree on the best route to achieving it. I don’t think the RSPB position is workable and I’m not really sure that the RSPB does either.

The irony in this is that, I guess, the most effective way to get licensing or any other progress on this issue would be for the RSPB to support our e-petition, get a debate in parliament, and then press for change, and graciously accept less change than a full-scale ban. The RSPB is asking for too little and will get less than a little – it should join us and ask for a lot, and then we all might see some progress.


20 Replies to “Why licensing won’t work for grouse moors.”

  1. I find it appalling that the RSPB have moved so little in the two and a half years and I find your logic and reasoning sound,Mark.
    Unfortunately I also believe it extremely unlikely that an organisation like the RSPB will respond positively, even if they agree with you. Something to do with a collective ego which won’t want to react to an external view as opposed to their own idea for a next move. It would require a considerable amount of corporate humility to do so and as we saw with the friendly challenge to create a petition on lead they won’t do the right thing, even if it is the best thing.

  2. I do not understand the politics of conservation. So many groups, so little unity. It’s a world without the UN, a country without a parliament.

  3. I’ve just written to the RSPB asking them to reconsider their position on this issue. Perhaps if we all did the same a little more pressure could be brought to bear.

  4. I think the RSPB are living in a world where they think that people that enjoy killing things for fun are open to compromise. As you have stated above, the shooting industry have dug their heels in, and as with all forms of hunting think that it’s their right to do what they want regardless of the suffering of animals or the detrimental damage to the environment. Unless the RSPB & other NGO’s admit that they’ve got this one wrong then they will be left behind the movement for a ban & will lose some credibility. We have to get this issue sorted soon, the Hen Harrier doesn’t have long left. RSPB & Wildlife Trusts, stop sitting on your hands hoping that these killers will find a conscience. They won’t, join the winning team NOW before it’s too late.

  5. Mark, as I have said on more than one occasion, the talks that the RSPB are having or have had with the GWCT et al, have been going on for years now and are getting nowhere ( which of course suits most parties).
    Surely, as a charity run for their members, it is incumbent on the RSPB to inform their members of this issue and allow 1.1 million members to make up their own minds.
    Keeping this, and other important issues, secret from their members only serves to make those same members suspicious of the way the charity is run when they eventually do find out about those issues from another source.
    Why are the RSPB keeping silent. Why do they take our money (and repeatedly ask for more) but refuse to involve us.
    It almost seems like an us and them situation. Or, gentry and surfs.
    To the council of the RSPB, remember, your supposed to work for us, we pay your wages to do so.
    And while on my hobby horse, why oh why do the AGMs for the RSPB and the HOT fall on the same weekend!?

  6. Having spoken face to face with Rory Stewart yesterday (MP and DEFRA minister) he was very positive re the RSPB role and very confident that we would see numbers of Hen Harriers rise in the next few years.I guess the angle we are all taking does then make the RSPB stance look more reasonable to our opponents and to MPs! Rory Stewart was convinced that the grouse-moor people know that they have to change their practices,although I pointed out that recent events have not really supported that assertion. Personally, I would rather the RSPB supported the petition, but maybe there is some plan on the horizon. If not, I will be returning to Rory soon!

    In the meantime, I think all that we are doing is forcing the issue up the agenda.

  7. Peter, whatever Rory says, the Grouse Moor people had their chance this spring – and we all know what happened. As I said before, I don’t believe in licensing (1) because the moor owners will ensure the bar is set too low (2) this Government simply won’t enforce the conditions of any license and will undermine their own enforcement agency – as they have done over Walshaw Moor.

    Rather than the ‘conventional’ approach of negotiating up from where we are now on the basis that allowing grouse shooting to continue is the default position I would suggest we need to be looking back from what society needs from this land – carbon capture, clean water, no flooding and a full ecosystem of wildlife and see whether grouse shooting can fit into it – if it can’t, then that’s it, its should go. I don’t think Rory will be too keen on this – but there is nothing to stop RSPB or anyone else putting the prescription for healthy uplands on the table. And the Government then has a problem because, as mark has pointed out, virtually the whole of land based activity in the open uplands is taxpayer funded.

    1. Agree entirely and think the best chance of helping the Hen Harriers and other Raptors on the Grouse moors would be by concentrating on the damage the present Grouse moor owners are doing to the moors,water and environment.
      Sadly hardly anyone except the 20,000 or so care about the Hen Harrier or even know what it is if asked.
      As for Martin Harper solving the problem well that is beyond a joke.

  8. Brilliantly argued as ever Mark. As an RSPB member I was encouraged by what I heard Jeff Knott and Mike Clarke say at Hen Harrier Day 2015. However since then unfortunately action doesn’t seem to have followed words. If I was attending the RSPB AGM, as a football fan (Aston Villa for my sins!) I’d be tempted to start up a chorus of “It’s all gone quiet over there”.

    Come on RSPB. Get off the fence otherwise my subs might be heading to BAWC.

  9. By banning driven red grouse shooting you are not directly banning intensive heather moorland management. In fact if the shooters change to walking up grouse then chances are that the same harmful intensive moorland management will continue as high numbers of grouse will continue to be an important priority.

    By all means ban harmful intensive heather moorland management practices directly or introduce a system of regulation of these practices such as licensing of heather moorlands as suggested by the RSPB.
    I feel that the RSPB licensing suggestion is a much more pragmatic and sensible solution to the problems in the upland.
    Killing Hen Harriers is already illegal in the UK and banning driven red grouse shooting cannot make it any more illegal in fact nothing can apart from longer prison sentences. So what is the point of banning driven red grouse. There is no logic here at all.
    Why not just go for a complete ban on shooting red grouse. The management and shooting of pheasants and red partridge is likewise not an ecologically sound activity and perhaps we should be considering banning these activities as well !

  10. Mark, I’ve been wondering. It’s good to ask RSPB to justify their licencing idea.
    Can I ask you how you see the ban working? How will you legally define driven grouse shooting in a watertight way? I have in mind as a cautionary tale the fudge around fox hunting, which seems to have satisfied neither party.

    Through what statutory instrument do you see the ban being imposed – are you asking for a whole new wildlife bill, and amendment to existing legislation (both potential cans of worms – be careful what you wish for) – or is there another mechanism open to a sympathetic minister?


  11. Following the comment from Paul Fisher above, I just wanted to say that, as a member of many nature conservation charities, some for over 30 years, including RSPB, I have never considered that membership gave or should give me entitlement to direct the actions of those organisations or their staff. Charities exist to achieve something for the public good (consistent with the relevant charity’s aims/objectives), they are not `clubs’ run for their members. While my preferences and views may not at times be wholly consistent with all those of the charities I support through membership/donations/voluntary actions, I think it is wrong to view membership of a charity as authority to direct its actions. Charities must have clear objectives and act consistent with their aims. AGMs, votes for Council members and individual contact with charities are all avenues open to all members of individual charities to question or influence their actions.

    1. Helene – welcome and thank you for your comment. You are, of course, right. But you are also entitled to warn a charity that it risks losing your support if it takes a particular line. And as you know, many people do just that.

  12. There is a pile of evidence that shows that the release of millions of birds… just to be driven to the gun… has a massive impact on the environment and people’s health and safety. And virtually none that says the opposite. Is it really that different from driven grouse?

    1. Paul – yes, thanks for drawing this to my attention. I’ve thanked Martin for his blog. The RSPB is also saying to Defra (and other devolved administrations) – get on and do something!

      1. Now I can look forward to the AGM tomorrow! Desperately sorry you won’t be there Mark. Have a great day in Ilkley.

  13. Mark, that’s an excellent interpretation of the problem and the reasoning why the RSPB’s licensing ideas are non workable. The intransigence of the grouse shooting fraternity against any change that might remotely have an adverse effect on their grouse shooting is well known, any perceived change to the status quo as it stands would be vigorously protested in high places and would make the licensing of driven grouse shooting a non starter for several very good reasons. The main reason being they would be most unlikely to accept and work with it under any circumstances, even if it was forced on them by law, and we all know how much respect they have for the law. By the time any licensing trial had been proven to be a failure, (and it will be) several more years and much more damage will have been done to the raptors, the environment and the remnants of the wildlife on it. The only real solution to protect the raptors, our moorland environments and the wildlife on it is to ban driven grouse shooting as soon as possible !!!

  14. Which comes first, ethics or science? In my opinion they deserve equal weight and should always be considered together. It is a widely held ethical view, which I perceive to be held by a majority of British citizens and the vast majority of RSPB members, that killing wildlife for fun is a perversion of man’s hunting instinct, which it is time we consigned to the history of our species. There might be an irresistible urge to hunt wildlife among some testosterone-fuelled individuals, but there is no need for it nowadays. It is cruel, selfish and lacking in either sympathy or empathy with our biological relatives on this planet. Not to mention a complete disregard for the sensitivities and feelings of fellow human beings. There is a known connection between hunting blood-lust and an enthusiasm for violence and warmongering. Just ask any hunt saboteur for tales of appalling violent reaction.

    Instead of trying to reach compromise with the arrogant bullies involved in hunting, I believe we should take a firm and resolute ethical stance against killing animals as a form of recreation or unadulterated primeval pleasure. We can then use our democratic right to argue for change in society for the benefit of both mankind and nature. I often wonder why it is that almost everyone with whom I associate, and I don’t just mean birdwatching friends, thinks killing wildlife for fun is unacceptable, yet many of those with ‘authority’ in nature conservation bodies are ambivalent or even ambiguous in their intellectual approach. Is this genuine or just pragmatism?

    One of our main achievements as modern humans is the advancement of science, and it’s important that we adhere to scientific principles when arguing our case. Not many people would argue with that, but in some cases the separation of science from ethics leads to a lack of overall clarity. For example, why do so many conservationists ignore the totally unjustified massacre of Carrion Crows and Red Foxes on grouse moors? Is it simply because they are ‘common’ species (arguable in the case of crows recently) and not considered to be of conservation concern? Gamekeepers are claiming that they use gas guns, not to disturb harriers from nesting territories, but to “disperse flocks of young Ravens.” Why? Apparently because the young Ravens are preying upon Red Grouse nests. Anyone who has observed these flocks carefully knows that they form to feed upon localised high densities of field voles (and sheep carrion of course). I was quite taken aback when a ranger from the Langholm Project told our local bird club that “Carrion Crows are horrendous predators of harrier chicks,” so the gamekeepers are actually doing harriers a service by severely controlling their numbers. In fifteen years of intensive harrier study and nest monitoring I knew this was nonsense, which was confirmed by checking round my Raptor Study Group colleagues.

    I applaud Mark Avery and everyone fighting the cause of raptor conservation, but differ in the sense that I would argue fundamentally against shooting wildlife as a socially acceptable hobby. I think it’s slightly naive to say that the release of all those millions of pheasants into the British countryside has significantly less of an impact than grouse shooting; the impact on seed-eating passerines, wild Grey Partridge and raptors like Goshawk, Sparrowhawk and Buzzard (and Scotttish Wildcats) are just relatively unknown compared to the fate suffered by most Hen Harriers. I can’t understand the call for banning only driven grouse shooting, as walk-up shoots could become more popular in future with the consequential continuation of harrier persecution and other damaging management practices. It’s hard to predict the future in a world where the super-rich are becoming the ultra-super rich, and willing to spend vast fortunes on their idea of recreational pleasure.

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