I think anyone looking at the landscape above would be hard-pressed to call it ‘natural’. It is drained and burned – and it has tracks running all the way through it. It’s the burning that creates that patchwork of different colours – patches of heather that were burned in different years according to a strict plan.
Such management is done solely for the unsporting sport of shooting Red Grouse for fun. That’s the only reason for it. Burning has other consequences, mostly bad but some, as always, good, but it’s done so that a few people can shoot a lot, an awful lot, of Red Grouse.
It’s only in the ununited UK that the habitat of the Red Grouse/Willow Grouse/Willow Ptarmigan is manipulated to such an extreme so that a very few people can spend their money and free time shooting grouse for fun.
The land is drained because heather, the main food of the Red Grouse, likes relatively dry conditions, and the grouse moor manager wants lots of heather so that there can be lots of Red Grouse.
Wherever you see that pattern of land use (go on Google earth and have a look round the North York Moors, Yorkshire Dales, Durham Moors, Lammermuirs, Deeside and Donside) you can be pretty sure that a war is being waged against natural predators such as foxes, stoats, weasels, crows etc because each of these species might reduce the numbers of Red Grouse available for shooting after the 12 August (The Inglorious 12th).
And you can be pretty sure that there will be piles of medicated grit placed at hundreds of places across a view like this one – grit that the Red Grouse will eat to aid their grinding up of heather. Medication is added to the grit to kill off parasitic worms that infest the grouse at very high densities – and the grouse moor manager is aiming for very high densities so that paying clients will pay a lot, often thousands of pounds, for a day shooting.
And you can also be pretty sure, in a view like this, that there will be very few birds of prey such as eagles, falcons and harriers, because they eat Red Grouse too, and although every grouse moor may not be committing wildlife crimes there is enough illegal persecution of protected birds of prey to wipe them out from most grouse-moor dominated areas.
So that is what I see when I look at a view like the one above. It’s a thoroughly unnatural landscape – one that has been subjugated to just one aim; that of shooting a wild bird for fun.
Should we look to the concept of re-wilding for a better future for these uplands? Now rewilding means different things to different people, but at the heart of it is letting nature do what it wants to do a lot more than we do at the moment. It’s an unfamiliar way of thinking to many, but one that is growing in standing all the time as we learn that the management we impose on habitats often has unintended and harmful consequences for wildlife, but also for us.
Clearly another unnatural landscape, like this wheat field, has a very obvious and pretty useful product – food! We all need to eat, and our food has to come from somewhere, and that’s what agriculture delivers for us. We ought to look at the means of food production to make them as efficient as possible but also as sustainable as possible. We need to test insecticides and herbicides, be wary of GM crops unless shown to be safe, reduce soil erosion, cut down on water pollution and reduce flood risk from overdrained or compacted soils. We ought to do all of that: we do some of that; but there clearly is a bit of a trade-off between causing harm and producing food. I’m one of the last people likely to let the farming and agrochenicals industries off the hook on environmental damage, but it would be unrealistic to think that there won’t be any at all. [And our unfortunate Brexit will open up the possibility of doing this much better ourselves – but will we take it?]
But go up into our hills, and look at a grouse moor and you are seeing a landscape intensively managed not for food but for the ‘fun’ of killing things. There we ought to take a much harder line with any bad environmental consequences. And there are lots! The intensive management necessary to produce ridiculously high numbers of Red Grouse for shooting also causes increased greenhouse gas emissions, increased flood risk, increased water treatment costs and reduced aquatic biodiversity. And, of course, less wildlife in the shape of anything with a hooked beak! And you tell me if those geometric shapes caused by burning look pretty to you.
So on grouse moors we have a ‘sport’, killing birds for fun, which causes environmental damage. Surely there is a better way forward?
And that’s where rewilding comes in. If we did far less burning, less drainage and less killing of predators then we could shoot fewer grouse – but how many grouse have you ever shot? And how many have you ever eaten? No, it wouldn’t harm your life much would it?
In return we would have fewer homes flooded (and so we would all pay lower home insurance), less water treatment costs (which would lead to many of us paying lower water bills to Yorkshire Water, United Utilities, Severn Trent etc), there would be more fish in the rivers (so you could go fishing) and we could thrill at the sight of Golden Eagles in England as well as much more of Scotland (remember, Scotland and England/Wales/NI will be separate countries soon – you didn’t dream it – you’ve got to get that thought straight in your head).
And what would this rewilded landscape look like? Quite like Scandinavia where they don’t go in for this ‘intensive grouse shooting for fun’ pastime. There would be undamaged blanket bogs laying down peat and storing carbon, blocked up drainage channels so that flash floods were reduced, more trees would spread up the valleys and onto the moors and there would be a much more varied selection of wildlife for you to enjoy. And there would be plenty of Red Grouse too – but they wouldn’t be the dominant species. Now that doesn’t sound scary does it?
Why are our National Parks completely dominated by grouse shooting with all the environmental damage it causes? Why can’t you see a rewilded Peak District or a rewilded North York Moors? The long list of damaging consequences of intensive grouse shooting should make every decision-maker, every water customer, everyone living downstream of a grouse moor and every environmentalist keen on rewilding and demanding that we shift the balance from grouse shooting for fun for the few, towards rewilding for the benefit of the many.
Here’s one way to do that – please sign this e-petition to ask for a debate over the future of driven grouse shooting. Over 45,000 people have already signed up – they’re really wild about it!