On the last day of October our e-petition to ban driven grouse shooting (123,077 signatures) was debated alongside another, so-called rival, e-petition to protect grouse shooting (which still languishes under 25,000 signatures despite being over half way through its allotted time).
Having let a month pass I’ll now return to what was said on that day. Today I’ll start with the most important but least inspiring speech; that of the Defra minister Therese Coffey.
But first a few words to begin to address the questions ‘Where are we now, and what do we do next?’. First, I’ve been having a bit of a rest actually! Only a few people know how much time it takes to keep the momentum going on a campaign like this and, although I certainly didn’t do it all myself, it’s been good to have a month to catch up with things that have been left undone and to start some serious writing for another book (which has no publisher, as yet). Second, I’ve been thinking about what next. Third, others have been thinking too, and I’ve had a lot of chats with people about where we should go and those discussions are continuing over this weekend and beyond. Fourth, I’ve given a few talks since the debate, all to groups of birders and I have been struck by what a lot of keen people there are out there to continue the campaign for as long as it takes. So, things are happening behind the scenes, and they will continue behind the scenes for many months, but some time next year I think it is certain that the next phase of the campaign will be rolled out. I’ll come back to this general subject in later blog posts.
But let us remember the words of the minister on 31 October. They were badly judged because they ignored the evidence and minimised the issue. That’s never a recipe for keeping the lid on s0mething serious. This is what Dr Coffey said:
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall, in this debate, which was chosen by the Petitions Committee and ably opened by my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double). It was triggered by a petition to ban driven grouse shooting, and the Committee also selected the petition to protect grouse moors and grouse shooting for debate. I thank all 20 right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken today, especially those who made full speeches and stayed the course. We have heard speeches with passion, insight and clarity. I particularly commend my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham), who described the extensive research he undertook for this debate. Members made a number of points during the debate, and I will respond to them during my speech.
The level of interest has been considerable, and we have had contributions from all parts of the United Kingdom. Not everyone who intervened has stayed. I thought we had got away from that habit in the previous Parliament. It used to be the Liberal Democrats who popped in, intervened, left and proclaimed proudly that they had spoken in the debate. They are an endangered species, and not one I am trying to save, but it seems that the Green party is adopting similar habits.
As set out in our manifesto, the Government support shooting for all the benefits it brings to individuals, the environment and the rural economy. We are also clear that wildlife should be properly respected and protected. We expect anyone involved in these enterprises to uphold the law in deed and spirit. According to a report by Public and Corporate Economic Consultants, which I recognise was criticised by the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), shooting as a whole is estimated to be worth about £2 billion a year to the economy, supporting more than 70,000 full-time equivalent jobs. It is also involved in the management of about two thirds of the UK’s rural landscape. The Moorland Association estimates that the grouse shooting industry supports 1,520 full-time jobs.
Much has rightly been made by hon. Members, and by my hon. Friends in particular, of the supporting economy, which must be recognised, particularly in the most remote parts of rural England—too many Members spoke about it to name now, but their contributions will all be on the record. The hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Richard Arkless) did not do so, although he seems very happy to have huge taxpayer support for the oil industry currently helping Scottish jobs in a fossil- fuel, carbon-busting economy. However, he is no longer in his place.
On moorland management, I think we can all agree on the importance of conserving the habitats on which grouse shooting takes place. It is undertaken on moors in several parts of the United Kingdom. Moorland management is vital for a biodiverse landscape, as has been extensively described. It can offer important benefits for wildlife and habitat conservation—for example, healthy heather provides good habitat for ground nesting birds and attracts butterflies and bees. The control of predators such as foxes also helps ground nesting birds, and without active management and conservation of the land, the landscape would quickly change and biodiversity would be lost. No one wants to see the landscape degrade, as my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) eloquently illustrated after his visits to the moors on the borders.
Extensive mention has been made of the importance of managed grouse moors to the preservation and increase of numbers of several species of bird, such as the golden plover, the curlew and the merlin, a bird of prey. I support the consensus on the importance of healthy, active peat, which provides good habitat for grouse and other wildlife, as well as numerous benefits to the environment and ecosystem services. Dry, degraded peat helps no one. We are absolutely committed to protecting and restoring these soils and have invested millions in large-scale peatland restoration projects, such as the Dark Peak nature improvement area. The Government will continue to work with moor owners and stakeholders to further improve management practices and peat condition.
The vast majority of grouse moors are in sites of special scientific interest, with Natural England’s consent required for management actions on these sites which could impact their important wildlife.
The issue of agri-environment funding has been raised. I expect we will continue to support our environment once we have left the EU and that, in the meantime, payments will be made to support environmentally beneficial land management, including the management of specific wildlife habitats, and works to improve the quality of the environment for wildlife, water quality and carbon capture.
As was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin), the uplands have complex land ownership and tenure arrangements, with many areas designated as common land. Many agreements result in funding going to grazing tenancies, which are critical to undertaking the beneficial management of the moors. I disagree with the hon. Member for Bristol East, who suggested that grouse shooting has been subsidised. I want to make it clear that agri-environment payments are not subsidies and they are not paid to support shooting activities.
Grouse moors contain a range of habitats that require different management methods. Rotational burning is considered to help to maintain healthy heather on the moors at different heights. Short heather provides food for sheep and red grouse and shelter for some ground-nesting birds. Tall heather provides shelter and nesting for other birds. The tapestry, if not the kaleidoscope, of heather plants at different stages of regeneration is achieved by rotational burning, and was cited as key to the success of the Glenwherry project that was referred to by the hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan). My hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) referred to the successful preservation of black grouse in north Wales.
Burning takes place over winter and early spring when there are no birds nesting and the soil is wet. I understand that the peat itself is not deliberately burned and that there is a strong presumption against rotational burning on sensitive areas such as blanket bog, as noted in the heather and grass burning code, which recommends the cool burns that several hon. Members referred to earlier. Natural England’s consent is required to burn on a site of special scientific interest. I note the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker) on alternatives and a reduction in burning. Heather could be cut as an alternative to burning, but that can be achieved only on suitable topography, and it may leave highly combustible material behind if not removed. He will know that several fires have been accidentally triggered. They have taken much resource to tackle and left damaged habitats that have taken years to recover.
A DEFRA-funded project is currently looking into the costs and effects of cutting as an alternative. I know the benefits of peat restoration for absorbing water, but, to be clear—I will cover this again—we know that upland peat is vital for filtering our drinking water, of which 70% comes from the uplands. We are committed to restoring and protecting that upland peat.
The 2013 Natural England study on the effects of managed burning found no direct evidence specifically relating to the effect of burning on watercourse flow or the risk of downstream flood events. It is the study to which my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) referred. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) talked about cod science; I thought he was in a fishing debate. However, he rightly referred to the sustained rainfall that was the decisive factor in the unprecedented flooding in modern times, and he challenged the selective use of statistics from reports. He gave us some interesting analogies to do with bull elephants. I heard an analogy the other day about the River Wear in the north-east, which suffered flooding last year: something the size of the Royal Albert Hall would have been filled full of water in less than a minute, such was the torrent suffered in the north-east.
Drainage damages blanket bog, and Natural England does not consent to constructing drainage ditches on blanket bog in SSSIs. Grouse moor owners and other stakeholders are currently carrying out programmes of ditch blocking across the country, helping to restore peat condition. My hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley referred to the levels of reservoirs, which takes me to another debate. Perhaps he might apply for another debate another time. The hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) referred to continuing funding for the York University study. No decision has yet been made, but I note her concerns on that matter.
On the “bogathon” milestones, I must admit I did not know about them; I will look into them. My officials assure me that stakeholders are carrying out valuable work to look at ways of restoring peat, including through the “bogathon” events. We are committed to working with moor owners and stakeholders through the blanket bog restoration strategy.
Upland peat is important for carbon sequestration. That is why the Government are committed to working with moor owners and stakeholders to further improve management practices and peak condition. As has already been mentioned, burning is done for heather management, although cool burns are recommended, as I have already said. I absolutely recognise the impact of climate change, but we should also recognise the importance of biodiversity, without which the world would cease to exist.
Although we have heard much about improvements in the numbers of birds, described in detail by several of my hon. Friends, including my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax), I have heard the concerns of some hon. Members that birds of prey, particularly hen harriers, are deliberately being killed. The Government take the illegal persecution of raptors very seriously. On the missing hen harriers in the last fortnight, the matter has been referred to the police. The local wildlife team has been involved and the national wildlife crime unit is aware. I can assure hon. Members that wildlife crime is a Government priority. We recently confirmed £300,000 of funding per annum for the NWCU for the next four years. Raptor persecution is one of six wildlife crime priorities for the UK. The unit has a dedicated group chaired by a senior police officer, with representatives from Government and NGOs working to deliver progress against this wildlife crime priority. It is building an intelligence picture and is due to advise on further action.
We recognise that the legal control of predators is a legitimate wildlife management practice in some circumstances. That is why Natural England will license the killing of certain birds of prey, although it would not consider licensing any activity that would adversely affect the conservation status of a species. My hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury referred to the Moorland Association study in Berwyn. The issue of hen harriers in Wales is interesting. When grouse shooting stopped, it might have been expected that the populations would burgeon and start to spread, but that has not happened. The populations have stabilised and they have not spread from the area that they occupied.
On the decline in the hen harrier population in England, the Government are committed to securing the future of this bird. That is why we took the lead in developing a hen harrier action plan, which was launched earlier this year. The plan sets out six complementary actions designed to increase hen harrier numbers in England, alongside the continuation of driven grouse shooting and the environmental, social and economic benefits that it brings. The plan is still at an early stage. Many factors can affect the successful nesting of hen harriers—food supply, weather conditions, predation and persecution —but we absolutely believe that the plan remains the best way to safeguard the hen harrier in England.
The Government have no plans to introduce licensing. As has been said, considerable regulation is already in place. Several Members referred to vicarious liability. I am aware that this principle was introduced in Scotland, but there is little evidence to suggest it has had an impact on the conservation of birds of prey. However, we will continue to monitor the situation and will consider whether the approach is necessary and proportionate to assist in tackling wildlife crime here.
Since the introduction of the offence, there have been two prosecutions, but the RSPB’s report suggests that there continues to be persecution incidents. In 2013 and 2014 a total of 18 poisoning incidents were recorded in Scotland. One particular incident involved the poisoning of 12 red kites and four buzzards, which I am sure we all deplore.
The professionalism of keepers has been extensively referred to; I wish to add my contribution to that. I thank hon. Members for debating the petitions today. I am sorry I have not been able to take any interventions in the short time I have had. However, it has been useful to hear the views of Members from across the United Kingdom regarding moorland management for driven grouse shooting. This is not a binary debate. The Government want to see a vibrant working countryside that is enhanced by a biodiverse environment. The uplands are a treasured asset prized by people for their tranquillity, quiet enjoyment, inspirational nature and recreation. They are also a vital source for goods and services, particularly food and drinking water, and make a major contribution to overall livestock production in the UK.
Central to the provision of services and assets that the uplands provide is the active management of the land by farmers, landowners and land managers. Successful upland policy is dependent on upland communities, particularly farmers and land managers, whose rural businesses are fundamental to the rural economy and whose role in managing the land in the long term will ultimately determine the value of the environmental outcomes.
I will finish by stating that the Government have no intention of banning driven grouse shooting, but we have every intention of bringing to justice those who break the law. We all agree that conserving the upland moorlands is in everyone’s best interests. We will help to ensure that a constructive dialogue continues so that grouse shooting is protected and these valuable moorlands thrive.
It is quite difficult to know where to start with this speech which, remember, is from a government minister with a PhD in science but could easily be from a post-truth evangelist for shooting.
The major weaknesses in the government position are as follows:
- on Hen Harriers there should be 300+ nesting pairs in England but this year there were three (none on grouse moors). But the government minister can’t acknowledge the seriousness of the situation because then she would have to address it, so she largely ignores it. The minister has not come up with a single thing that government will do differently that will address this conservation failure of her department. Isn’t it depressing that a biodiversity minister displays no real concern for biodiversity?
- on wildlife crime the minister has ‘heard the concerns of some hon. Members that birds of prey, particularly hen harriers, are deliberately being killed’ which is great news that the minister is so up to date but all of the potential solutions are dismissed; no ban, no licensing and no vicarious liability (although the vaguest of vague comments about looking at it again perhaps). There is no-one in the world, I would say, that believes that the current funding of the National Wildlife Crime unit will make a dent in the level of wildlife crime in the uplands of England. It is astonishing that a Conservative minister can be so complacent about illegality.
- the minister says that driven grouse shooting is economically important but relys on the discredited PACEC report which, as the minister mentioned and then ignored, has been taken apart by other economists and which does not take into account the wider environmental costs of intensive grouse moor management. But no matter, somebody once said that grouse shooting was economically important – that’ll do for Defra these days.
- flooding might be one of the reasons why the economics need to be looked at but the minister does not quote any of the science, she is clearly not in a position to dismiss this subject by quoting studies but she largely dismisses it without evidence instead.
This is a sorry state of affairs, where a government minister ignores the evidence and paints an unsustainable and damaging land use as benign at worst and fantastically valuable at best. But this speech will keep us busy for quite a while. I can envisage reports coming out on different aspects of the minister’s speech and taking her argument apart bit by bit. In fact, if parliament is to do its job properly then either the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee or Environmental Audit Committee should take up the inquiry on grouse shooting and grill this minister on what she has said – Dr Coffey would soon be running for cover if having to justify her words, I feel. Which legal experts would agree that wildlife crime will be brought under control by the current level of action? Which economists would sign up to the minister’s glowing words about the value of driven grouse shooting to the economy? Which hydrologists would be prepared to say that intensive heather burning plays no part in downstream flooding? And which conservationists would say that the status of the Hen Harrier in England is favourable or even likely to improve?
This ministerial speech will have been a slap in the face for the RSPB, and by its very nature to other wildlife NGOs too. Rarely has the RSPB’s case been so lightly swatted aside, and rarely have the facts weighed so lightly in the balance. If government doesn’t listen to the evidence then where does that leave the NGOS and how should they now attempt to achieve their aims?
Where we failed at the very end of October was in mobilising enough opposition MPs to put the wealth of science against driven grouse shooting into the debate and that made it easy for the minister to ignore that it exists. But the shocking thing, and take a moment to think how very shocking it is, is that the minister was only too ready to ignore the evidence in order to speak up for the status quo on driven grouse shooting. That is Defra acting not as a government department with the interests of the public at heart but as a spokesperson for a narrow interest group. That really is quite shocking.