The grouse moor conception of national leadership


I can remember when Harold Wilson was Prime Minister – I remember my father couldn’t stand him because of something called Selective Employment Tax (funny what you remember isn’t it?) – but I certainly didn’t remember him referring to grouse moors.  So I am grateful to a former RSPB colleague and reader of this blog for pointing out that Wilson did just that.

In January 1964, when I was still 5 year old (though approaching 6, I would probably have pointed out at the time), Wilson made a speech contrasting the Edwardian Age of the Conservative government with the Jet Age of the Labour government.  This might have been tosh, but it’s interesting to see how things have moved on – or not.

Wilson scorned ‘the grouse moor conception of national leadership’ and claimed, 50 years ago, that ‘we are living in the jet age but we are governed by an Edwardian Establishment mentality’. How ridiculous! How things have changed in the modern day Conservative party.


A former government minister and Conservative MP claims the credit for the cut and paste job he has done with an inaccurate and misleading Defra briefing but cannot be bothered to answer questions about it from a mere constituent.

The grandson of Winston Churchill, Nicholas Soames MP, uses his Twitter account to spread the rudeness of others calling Chris Packham a ‘nutjob’ and me a ‘truth avoider’ and refuses to apologise. But no matter, he is hosting the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust’s parliamentary reception next week.


Charles Walker MP of Broxbourne replies to a constituent writing to him about grouse shooting by slagging off the RSPB and Chris Packham…



I thought that MPs were supposed to represent the views, disparate though they might be, of their constituents. Here is an MP dismissing his constituents’ request for him to represent their views in parliament but further than that, going on to criticise not only the views, but also the motives of a national charity with over a million members and the views of a national treasure (and wildlife expert).  But then, those million people, that charity and that one person can be easily dismissed if one adopts an Edwardian grouse moor conception of leadership.  I think Mr Walker owes the RSPB and Chris Packham, and actually his constituents, an apology, but experience suggests that none will be forthcoming.

And then there is Liam Fox MP, a busy man who has returned to government after a scandal, and who refers his constituents to the Spectator article of the not-so-talented Viscount Ridley as worth reading – he is a Viscount after all – despite its manifold errors of fact (and see here) and lack of verifiability.

Yes, the Conservative and Labour parties are very different from how they were when I was a lad – the world has moved on. But there are pockets of conservatism in the Conservative Party which have not moved on very far. Prick them on grouse shooting and they bleed hauteur and arrogance ill-befitting either the Edwardian Age, the jet age or the age of Theresa May – or so she says.

The Conservative Party cannot talk about driven grouse shooting in an open and honest way, just as the industry cannot, because driven grouse shooting is the Conservative Party at play and it is  underpinned by wildlife crime.

It’s terribly embarrassing for the party which regards itself as the party of law and order that it is turning a blind eye to wildlife crime on a massive scale in the uplands of Britain.  Conservative MPs are sending out the standard briefing to their constituents which claims that the funding for the National Wildlife Crime Unit shows its commitment to dealing with wildlife crime. This is rubbish. The NWCU has played no major role in the fight against Hen Harrier persecution and even if it has – we still have, because of wildlife crime, 3 pairs of nesting Hen Harriers in England when we should have 300+ pairs. The status quo is no solution to wildlife crime.

There are five possible reactions to wildlife crime on grouse moors and they are:

  1. Do nothing – this appears to be the Conservative Party preferred response – and we will see that in our expected debate in parliament. If you accept that wildlife crime is a massive problem then doing nothing cannot be the answer.
  2. Increase enforcement activity strongly  – no support from the Conservative Party
  3. Introduce vicarious liability for wildlife crimes – rejected by the grouse moor-owning Richard Benyon MP when a Conservative Defra minister
  4. Regulation of all game shooting – not favoured by any Conservative MP I know but the favoured rather weak approach of the RSPB
  5. Abolition of driven grouse shooting – supported in an e-petition by 120,000 UK citizens, largely from Conservative constituencies (as it happens).

The Conservative MPs quoted here do not appear to have moved on from the Edwardian Age and the grouse shooting conception of leadership. They are digging a deep hole for their party.  It is to be hoped that there are enough modern Tories who see driven grouse shooting as the unsustainable anachronism that it is.  Modern Conservative leadership would have to include a credible response to the wildlife crime that infects our uplands.




25 Replies to “The grouse moor conception of national leadership”

  1. It’s now nearly 3 weeks ago since I emailed my (Tory) MP and got the auto acknowledgement. I’m hoping he’ll send me a substantive reply soon, but if he has been on holiday and has a backlog a quick holding email would have been polite. In fairness as a doctor himself he may have been preoccupied with the junior doctors’ dispute in terms of what he responds to first if he has been away until recently.

    I’ll be impressed if he has a better “standard reply” than Tory v.1, now that so many MPs will have had the damning Firm Briefing feedback on the first version. I await developments with interest.

  2. I wonder who these ‘conservationists’ are who’ll be debating the killing of Hen Harriers, sorry, predator control to halt the worrying decline of wading birds (as if they give a damn about wading birds other than for the pot). Have you been invited to talk Mark?

  3. Most politicians don’t give a damn about wildlife. They don’t give a damn partly because of deeply ingrained cultural attitudes. More so because they feel little or no pain from failing to take action for wildlife.

    The public has the potential to make them feel more pain, but it has to be motivated and mobilised to do so, on a significantly greater scale than is happening at present. We’ve seen how One Man and His Blog – with a bit of help from his friends – can get over 120,000 people to take action on an issue that has hitherto been the preserve of a few enthusiasts.

    With vastly greater resources and communications channels, wildlife conservation bodies must use this example to re-evaluate their ambitions and to come up with a vision and strategy to engage and inspire the public on a scale that makes MPs unable to ignore them.

    I recognise this is far easier say than do – not least having worked in the sector. However, I see no evidence of a step change in ambition or strategy – more of the same approach will only produce more of the same (limited) results. The State of Nature report shows 60% of the 3,148 UK species assessed have declined over the last 50 years. Campaigns like this one give hope, but something has to change if those hopes are to be converted into success on a meaningful scale.

    1. Paul, couldn’t agree more. Now Loathsome is in charge it will be even more important that NGOs step up to the plate and ensure that their members fully understand that they can’t look to politicians to do what is right. 120,000 can get a debate. It will take at least 1,200,000 to get action.
      This will be a very long process but it has to start now. Mark’s example above shows that the loss of a few votes mean nothing to a sitting MP. However, the loss of many votes….?
      Putting AL in charge of Defra is the clearest signal yet that the Conservatives want nothing to do with conservation at all.
      The Wildlife Trusts support for the Badger petition is the first step in the right direction but we now need clear leadership shown by all NGOs. Time to stop pussyfooting around. Softly softly hasn’t worked, time for the gloves to come off.

      1. Interesting you should choose those figures. There may be lessons to be learned from GoogleX, the skunk works offshoot of Google. It searches for solutions that are better by a factor of ten.

        Their logic is that if you aim for 10% better, you’re basically signing up to the status quo. By going for a 10x improvement, you throw out the rule book and embrace bravery and creativity. Of course you have to have a culture that is willing to treat failure as an essential part of learning.

      2. Sadly though for some reason it would seem that the 850,000 members of the WTs have not got behind their President Simon King yet as the initial surge has slowed considerably. OK there’s plenty of time to reach the required 100k, but the lack lustre media push from the WTs?

        The Badger Trust with one CEO and three part time staff has done as much to raise the badger cull profile as those others who sport a badger for their logo? Please note I said cull, I accept promote vaccination. Beadgered to Death is to bTB what Inglorious is to upland moor mis-management, IMHO.

        Is it that conservation charities are too blinkered delivering one off projects to support retention of core staff, are their trustees fearful of charities banned from advocacy, are their trustees too close to business?

  4. Can I comment on the ‘rather weak approach’ of the RSPB. I am glad that the petition has achieved its aim of a debate in parliament but now is the time to sit down and try and work out how to achieve what the petition is actually asking for. I know it is headed Ban Driven Grouse Shooting but its overall aim is to arrive at more harriers, no wildlife crime, no flooding, better habitat etc. That can be achieved in a number of ways with BDGS being one.

    My one concern with BDGS is that the remaining grouse shooting is unregulated in any way. You have to legally define ‘Driven’ and there is a danger that DGS will be replaced with an enhanced walked up option with nothing to stop the nefarious activities going on in the background.

    With the licensing option all grouse shooting is banned unless you can show that you are fit to be licensed. Licences are a privilege in our society, not a right and can therefore be withdrawn relatively easily. It is not a weak option but a very strong one. As always there are downsides and in the licensing case the legal wording of how licences would operate is likely to be a stumbling block.

    If I go a doctor with the onset of a heart attack I don’t want him to say ‘this has been caused by high cholesterol’ and then treat me with some statins, I want him to treat the heart attack. In this case the cause of the problems on grouse moors may well be DGS but what needs to be dealt with is the illegality, the flooding etc. and I would hope those issues could be written into a strongly worded licence.

    1. Bob – your comment has struck a chord with me. Whilst I’m truly delighted at the success of Mark’s petition (and I gladly signed it) I do worry a bit about licensing being presented as a ‘weak alternative’ to a ban. Of course it’s Mark’s blog and if that’s his view of licensing he has every right to express it (statement of the bleedin’ obvious) but I like your argument about it’s potential strengths. Thank you for saying some of what I’ve been thinking for some time (and putting it better than I could).

    2. Could all the estate welfare payments from the public purse be withdrawn? Then an independent assessment of any estate seeking public funds, carrying capacity of raptors for example could be calculated and the estate paid on delivery of successful breeding of Hen Harriers and other raptors etc.?

      Management practice which is shown to have negative impact on downstream catchments could be clawed by through some penalty scheme?

      Estates which do not enter public benefit schemes (access, carbon sequestration, water quality – no muir burn etc.) might be subject to a higher taxation rate?

      Radical, but what do we want from our uplands? Where there is a will there is oft a way, the issue will be of course that the ‘ruling classes’ are comfortable with the status quo and want it to remain that way.

      Politically we have the devil or the deep blue sea and they are both riddled with internal parasites? Perhaps we need to dose them for Trichostrongylus tenuis after too many burgers also laden with toxic levels of lead?

      IF and I am not convinced by miles licensing should be tried, it needs to be thoroughly consulted on not just the usual suspects (from either side) but a wider audience and it needs to be underpinned with things like I have suggested above?

      The criminals are too close to the ‘police’ in this debate?

      1. Deafening silence when asked such direct questions, a shame but typical? Public benefit can be calculated easily enough through a balance sheet and credible ecosystem services figures? Everyone has an opinion and that is demonstrated at the ballot box or through effective campaigning for change?

        As for Gilruth’s comment on ‘trusting times’ ….

        Farmers looking after the landscape for thousands of years, therein the problem, that is to say the pace of wholesale agri-industrialisation, nature abused for short term economics of the few with the expectation that the many are happy to keep on subsidising it through agri-welfare payments, particularly post Brexit?

        Wonder how Gilruth accounts for evidencing of public benefit from current practice? It seems perfectly reasonable that such expenditure is accounted for by evidence not anecdotal marketing spin?

        1. So glad ‘Nimby’ you read my blog Please feel free to comment on any of them any time.
          As to deafening silence, I fear I have to work and so lack the time to reply to all comments (though I did to most of those below the two guest blogs that Mark kindly asked me to do – they are on my website and Mark’s – ‘You can be a member of the RSPB and a gamekeeper’ and ‘Silence of the guns’).

      2. Mark. It is not for me to approve or disapprove of comments from MPs, Packham, Page, Botham etc. As you know I’m keener to listen to input from gamekeepers, wildlife wardens, conservation scientists et al who are closer to the grassroots issues of seeking solutions to this ‘human interest’ issue as per my major piece on conflict (incl a great quote from you)
        Ps someone had to ‘defend’ DGS in the Countryfile Mag online piece, guess who?!

  5. Paul, do we first have to overhaul the conservation bodies that purport to Protect Birds and nature but don’t mobilise their membership sufficiently? I stopped funding all but the WWT (out of my portfolio of such charities) when the penny dropped for me! As John Fowles on Christianity wrote in his book “The Aristos” – “the church offers sanctuary but takes great care to ensure sanctuary be needed”.

    1. There are many very capable and extremely committed individuals working for them. However, the culture of decision making by committee, plus the effects of groupthink, don’t encourage innovation.

      In the case of the RSPB, its effectiveness is heavily shaped by the balance of power across what you might loosely term birders, bureaucrats and beancounters. All three have an essential role to play – the Board and Council have to decide what weight to give to their respective influences. Past, present and potential members will judge whether they’ve got that balance right.

  6. My MP (Anna Soubry) has sent an automated response. Her assistant wrote saying that she was on holiday. I offered to brief her (or him) prior to any debate. Now that things have moved on, I will get back to her.
    I wonder whether Botham et al would be bleating on so much about how they are protecting the uplands for waders if someone showed that (e.g.) Golden Plovers harboured ticks? Probably (sorry, certainly) not.

  7. Broxbourne has only 83 signatures. I guessing that Walker can afford to lose these votes, and it is of course true that if he fails to represent one constituents view, he will automatically be representing another’s.
    I do wonder however, if it would be worth sending copies of his response to his party chairman and to Tereasa May.

    1. Best of luck Paul FIsher, Cameron’s assistants response when he was contacted about the not so honourable Soames was to admit in effect that he could not influence / control his backbenchers! Soames illustrated the lost parliamentary ettiquette of his late grandfather’s day perhaps?

  8. Like JBC’S first comment, I’ve still not received anything beyond the auto response. Today I sent a reminder email to my MP (ex-chancellor Osborne) requesting a reply and reminding him that he should represent my views regardless of his personal views and saying I expect a prompt response. I got one in the form of yet another automated reply. So I wait…..but it won’t be for long as I’m feeling a tad disenfranchised and cheesed off.

    The response from Charles Walker OBE (Really??) is offensive and staggeringly patronising.

  9. Historical footnote: The reason grouse moors resonated so strongly in 1964 was that the premiership had, until very recently, been occupied by Harold MacMillan whose summertime passion was to head for Scotland to shoot lots of grouse. The things Wilson said were aimed squarely at evoking public distaste for MacMillan’s style of leadership and his class. Most of his Cabinet had either been directly related to him or related by marriage and came from the strata of society that shot grouse, hence the jibe about an “Edwardian Establishment mentality”.
    Interesting also to recall that, in 1964, it was Labour that opposed our membership of Europe.

  10. I think Paul has a crucial point: there’s an assumption that everything has to be gradual and the human institutions have become a bigger barrier than technical or financial capability. The situation in the uplands across Britain looks pretty disastrous – propped up by mountains of public money, declining wildlife squeezed by inappropriate and destructive farming systems at one end and direct persecution by shooting at the other – which on top of it all are destroying things we really need, like carbon sequestration and water management. There is a simple answer (though unbelievably complicated when faced with the institutions we’ve created): (1) work back from what society needs most today and (2) seek multiple benefits, rather than single-sector, solutions wherever possible.

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