Few Red Grouse were shot in the UK this year, mainly because of disease and bad weather. But regardless of grouse bags, this was a very bad year for driven grouse shooting and hastened the end of this worthless hobby.
The case against driven grouse shooting is that it depends on intensive management that involves a perversion of the ecology of our uplands. Other wildlife is pushed aside to produce Red Grouse for shooting and the ecological services provided by the hills (eg carbon storage, flood reduction) are reduced for all of us. In addition, grouse shooting experienced disease problems of its own making.
Raptors: There was a welcome increase in the number of Hen Harrier nesting attempts in England but an unwelcome increase in the incidence of males ‘disappearing’ from active, protected, guarded nests whilst away on foraging trips. The British grouse industry, in the shape of YFTB, tried to make much of the ‘fact’ that of these Hen Harriers, ones with RSPB involvement did less well than those on driven grouse moors and the YFTB press release was essentially reproduced unchecked in the Daily Telegraph. The facts were rather different and resulted in the Telegraph having to apologise and make corrections. The extreme unlikelihood of so many male Hen Harriers disappearing naturally in this time period suggested that pairs with RSPB involvement were deliberately targetted by criminals to produce lurid headlines.
More generally, there should be over 300 pairs of Hen Harrier nesting in northern England and there were again, not much more than a single handful of successful nests. The body of a Hen Harrier named Annie was tracked down to a grouse moor in Scotland.
Hen Harriers are not, of course, the only victims of wildlife crime on grouse moors. Initial findings from the national Peregrine survey showed that grouse moors remain black holes for this species. We await the full publication of the results with interest.
The Peak District raptor project failed to make a jot of difference to persecuted raptor populations in one of England’s National Parks.
Raptor persecution is necessary to produce ridiculously high densities of Red Grouse for shooting for ‘sport’. We can’t have both – choose which you want: a pointless sport involving killing birds for fun or wildlife law to be upheld.
Greenhouse gas emissions: in a year when the world came together to limit greenhouse gas emissions men in tweed continue to damage the UK’s carbon stores by draining and burning our uplands to produce large numbers of chicken-like birds for the ‘sport’ of shooting.
The Committee on Climate Change, not a bunch of birdwatchers or raptor workers, said ‘The damaging practice of burning peat to increase grouse yields continues, including on internationally protected sites ‘.
Of course, those carbon emissions may be a cause of increased flood risk.
Floods: 2015 draws to a close with northern towns being flooded; many of them by the rivers that drain England’s grouse moors. My eye was drawn to the folk of Hebden Bridge who have suffered in the recent past and are suffering again now. As I saw images of the centre of Hebden Bridge under water my eye was drawn to the Crown fish and chip restaurant in Crown Street and just across the road from the Crown Inn where in 2014 I talked to the then landlord about the floods of 2012. I gave a talk in Hebden Bridge this autumn and my heart goes out to those reflooded this winter. The Ban the Burn group blame previous Hebden Bridge flooding on intensive management on moorland upstream and lying above the town, the most notorious of which is Walshaw Moor (see Inglorious for lots of detail).
Across northern England rivers such as the Wyre (draining the Forest of Bowland) and Calder were part of the flood story that has dominated the news for days.
The focus is moving towards building landscapes better able to moderate flood risk rather than building bigger flood walls, which never seem to be in the right places or quite tall enough, to try to cope with the problems. Prevention is much better than cure and grouse shooting is small beer compared with flooded towns.
The cost of the recent floods is mounting as I write, and is estimated to be around £1.5bn. That cannot, remotely, all be laid at the door of driven grouse shooting. But imagine that just 1% of the cost was attributed to driven grouse shooting – that’s £15m. That’s a high proportion of the (inflated and disputed) spend by grouse moor managers (£52.5m) in England and Wales. It’s likely that grouse moor management has a much wider role than 1% and, of course, its impacts are not restricted to flood risk.
Disease: Densities of Red Grouse on grouse moors are up to 100 times natural densities whereas densities of natural predators such as foxes, stoats and raptors are closer to 0% natural levels. These are ideal conditions for disease to spread: high densities of birds (mixed together by driving of moors) and no predators to weed out, quickly, diseased birds.
Louping ill is one disease of concern to grouse shooters, and large numbers of Mountain Hares are killed simply in an attempt to produce a few more grouse. But gut worms have been one of the main problems for grouse shooters for decades, although medicated grit has led grouse shooters to imagine that they might be able to cheat nature. Hubris! The GWCT is now admitting that there is a danger of resistance to medication and there are rumours and fears that medication is being used more intensively and later in the year than it should be (see here, here and here).
As if this weren’t bad enough, another Guest Blog by Ruth Tingay revealed that the disease bulgy eye is spreading across grouse moors and its spread may be aided by the provision of medicated grit feeders (a bit like Greenfinches and bird feeders).
All in all, the year ends with a growing picture that Red Grouse populations are incredibly unnatural and are suffering from a range of diseases which have been allowed to develop and spread thanks to the management practices employed for the sport of driven grouse shooting.
Grouse on your plate: if the ticks, worms and protozoan parasites don’t put you off having a Red Grouse on your plate, then maybe the fact that it is likely to be heavily laden with lead might. The Lead Ammunition Group reported to ministers but their report has, so far, been buried by Defra. M&S decided, again, not to sell grouse in its stores and my money would be on the fact that they never will. Iceland, owned by keen shooter Malcolm Walker, stocked their stores with Red Grouse that they found almost impossible to flog off to their customers – which is why they were so cheap at the end of the season when many samples were bought and are even now being analysed for their lead content – watch this space. But X-rays of Red Grouse and other game demonstrated what is well-known – that tiny fragments of lead spread through the carcasses of small game shot with lead pellets and are responsible for the high lead levels in such meat even when the whole pellets are removed. It will take a callous or stupid restaurant to sell Red Grouse shot with lead in future. Let’s see!
Protests increase: A six-foot Hen Harrier mascot roamed the grouse moors of England and Scotland, and the Bird Fair and Game Fair, drawing attention to driven grouse shooting and raptor persecution. This was loathed by grouse shooters as who can find the right way to combat a fluffy mascot! Birders Against Wildlife Crime organised a conference and a Hen Harrier Day event in Derbyshire that was simply one of many held across England and Scotland. An e-petition aimed at banning driven grouse shooting closed in March with over 22,000 signatures and another started in July which already has over 25,000 signatures. A book was published which put the case for banning driven grouse shooting and immediately became a best-seller in the Amazon UK category of target shooting – and stayed in that position for over three months.
The word spread that driven grouse shooting is all a bit pointless and has downsides for society as a whole. The persecution of protected wildlife is totally unacceptable, but then so is the damage to the ecosystem services provided by upland habitats, and all for a ‘sport’ for the rich.
So, all in all, a terrible year for driven grouse shooting. We didn’t go away as they probably hoped, instead we grew noisier, more numerous and stronger. More and more people heard about grouse shooting and what it actually means for upland ecology and people across the country. It’s a damaging and pointless hobby – we should end it now, and we will end it soon, particularly if you sign this e-petition and get your friends to do the same.
If you are a gamekeeper or grouse moor manager reading this blog you can look forward to a 2016 that will be another bad year for driven grouse shooting. There will be more satellite-tagged birds, more science criticising your management, more public awareness of your intensive management practices, more understanding of how pointless driven grouse shooting is, more scepticism about the sustainability of your sport and more and more protest and opposition to it continuing. But 2016 may be a better year than 2017 for the direction of travel is only in one direction.