Sitting round the table with … with whom? Talking about … about what?

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Whether it be Brexit or throwing missiles around the northern Pacific there comes a time when people have to sit down and talk things through.  So might it be for driven grouse shooting?

I have to say that there has been so much talking that it is difficult to imagine quite what would come out of it. To remind you, there was a bunch of talking after the publication of the Langholm study (that’s Langholm I – in the late 1990s) which was followed by some quite expensive and professionally mediated talking from 2006-2012  (by the Environment Council) and that was followed by the Defra Hen Harrier sub-group charade which came up with a Hen Harrier Inaction Plan in 2016.  No doubt some talking continues but the last 20 years have only seen Hen Harrier numbers decline (and persecution of other protected wildlife persist) and grouse moor management intensify.

And that’s because grouse moor owners have treated those two decades of dialogue as a means to kick the issues around their industry into the long grass and to keep everything the same.  They simply don’t have anything to offer around any table. Their way forward is that everyone else should go away and that they should be allowed to continue the hobby of shooting birds for fun, a hobby underpinned by wildlife crime, without wider society having a say on the matter.

So it’s unclear how any conversation with a view to resolving the issues of wildlife crime and environmental damage on English grouse moors might go when the perpetrators are perfectly happy to keep perpetrating.  But consider, just for a moment, who might occupy chairs around that table.

Who might it be?

The Moorland Association?  No public acknowledgement of the issue. And no noticeable influence with their membership to halt wildlife crime. What do they have to offer?  They are a busted flush and nobody on the legal side of the debate has much lingering respect for their ability to lead a change of position of English grouse moor owners.

The Countryside Alliance?  Nah!

BASC?  They aren’t really that influential in the uplands.

GWCT?  Their members seem to tell them what to say these days whereas they used to listen to what they said in the past.

National Gamekeepers Organisation? Sadly, they seem to do what they are told and are not the leaders of this debate that they could be (but show no signs of wanting to be).

The situation in Scotland (as far as landowner acceptance of the problem is concerned) doesn’t look any better to me from down here, but in England the pro-grouse shooting lobby doesn’t look as though it has anything to offer as a way forward.  Imagine having a serious chat with Ian Botham and YFTB about the way forward – that is the depth to which the grouse industry has sunk.  But then, who is there on the nature conservation side to fill some chairs?

Defra? An appalling track record. Following Benyon the grouse shooter and Stewart the architect of the Hen Harrier Inaction Plan we still have Coffey the minister who when given the opportunity in a Westminster Hall debate to move things along a little did not even admit to the problem of widespread, systematic and illegal persecution of protected wildlife on grouse moors.

Natural England?  As independent from Defra as is a manacled prisoner from their ball and chain.

Wildlife Trusts? Not a player, and have almost as many views as Heinz has varieties.

RSPB?  By far the best of the bunch but one would have to ask, representing whom?  They haven’t asked their members on this subject and might get a National Trust type shock if they did.

And no I’m not asking for a seat at the table – first because there doesn’t seem to be anyone to talk to but also because I know that I represent myself and that is all. Except of course that unlike anyone else who might be involved in talking about these issues it is manifest that I am one of 123,077 people who petitioned parliament to ban driven grouse shooting less than a year ago.  We haven’t gone away and the chances are that we are more numerous now than we were then.  The time will come when we should test that assertion, but it’s some way away.  We are the elephant in the room – and we should trumpet that now and again.


So, in England, unless the RSPB seeks a mandate from its members in some way, or a bunch of moorland owners stage a breakaway group, maybe called the Moor Sense Group, then we can all expect the status quo to continue for quite a while – a few years at least.

During that period more tagged raptors will disappear on grouse moors and the already obvious scale of wildlife crime will become completely undeniable (we are getting there very rapidly), the public and decision makers will realise more clearly that the shooting community (organisations, individuals and media) has campaigned incredibly hard to keep a poison in use just because…well, just because they are dinosaurs, the economic case for grouse shooting will be further undermined, peaceful protests will grow because of a lack of government action which will increasingly look like cronyism and maybe Labour will eventually see that there is something to be gained and nothing to be lost by pitching in to this issue.

That’s what will happen – and probably a few other things too.  And my record on predicting the future of this issue isn’t too bad – see Fighting for Birds and Inglorious.


So, if I were a grouse moor owner I’d be thinking of what I should do next. And the answer, I suspect is what we are seeing – deny everything, attack everyone and make the most of one’s last years of a so-called sport that is doomed. Oh yes, and maybe find an excuse to sell  my grouse moor (easier for some than others) before the bottom falls out of the market what with the likelihood of subsidies disappearing and opposition to wildlife crime and environmental damage likely to increase.  The difficulty is in knowing quite how long one should stay in the game and when one should bale out in order to maximise profits.  It’ll be a bit difficult to face one’s shooting friends if one cuts and runs, but then, they might be thinking the same and there will be a premium to be had for first movers.


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  1. Mike Mills says:

    A great summary of the stark situation we have arrived at. You see the situation in Scotland as no better than in England but surely they are a move or two ahead of us with greater prospect for progress?
    The snowball is rolling however and the pressure is increasing, with more and more evidence of the criminality of DGS and more folk aware and involved. Are we approaching a point where the lid will blow off? You outline the scenario which fits what most of us envisage when you state "that's what will happen - and probably a few other things too", but it is these few other things which we should be giving thought to - surely there are a range of actions to encourage or to curb in order to lift the lid and sort this can of worms.

    • Mark says:

      Mike - thank you. I should have written that the situation in Scotland, as far as landowner honesty is concerned, is no better than in England. Sorry that wasn't clear - my fault. I'll amend it when I come back from the very enjoyable walk I am currently taking!

  2. Paul says:

    A few years feels like a depressingly long time when it comes to hen harrier numbers. While pressure is mounting, the other side has yet to feel any real pain. They won the Westminster Hall 'debate' and they're carrying on as usual. Plus too many of those who are on this side - or sitting on the fence - aren't feeling sufficient pain to make them take robust action.

    I can't help feeling the National Parks could play a pivotal role in this. Their public image and the associated tourism income are vital to their reputation and success. If a large number of those casual, countryside loving visitors were moved to express their support for serious change in a high profile park - such as the Peak District - then the authority would feel compelled to take this issue more seriously.
    And potentially implement some drastic measures that would make the other side recognise their game might be up sooner than they think. Then there's some hope for negotiation.

    I say this without sufficient understanding of the politics of the national parks. And recognising that mobilising that wider public support is a tough task without more resources organisational commitment behind it. How can we make those organisations move from strong words to strong actions?

    Otherwise, any further attempt at negotiation will just lead to prolonged prevarication.

    • Les Wallace says:

      Yes the Westminster 'debate' was painful and depressing to watch, but if it was a win I think it was a Pyrrhic victory. They called out all the parliamentary support they had and by god it wasn't a pretty sight. Nicholas Soames is such a walking caricature of the Eton educated, pompous tory that you have to wonder if he's actually working for the Socialist Workers Party - then there was the procession of smarmy, condescending career MPs quoting from what could have been a Moorland Association 'factsheet' - so many people talking about biodiversity and so many that I doubt could tell the difference between a golden plover and lapwing. Most people might not be experts on hen harriers, DGs and moorland 'management' but they know what bullshite is and there was one hell of a lot on display that day. If labour took this issue on they'd be on to a winner, maybe the green party north and south of the border could set a better example to start the ball rolling - apart from a few individual MPs amd MSPs so far they haven't.

  3. Paul Fisher says:

    A lovely morning for a walk Mark, hope you enjoyed it. I wonder if you were walking in a area that would not have been so welcoming to you pre 1932?
    I only mention it since your blog this morning makes a very good case for something more than just talking, something Kinder Scoutish maybe?

  4. Bob W says:

    Mark, no doubt you've seen the latest BTO led research into Curlew declines - I've just seen what's linked to in the Birdguides newsletter. It identifies afforestation and generalist predators as the biggest drivers of the decline - perhaps not a surprise. I was surprised to learn that the UK holds more than a third of the world breeding population.

    If driven grouse shooting is banned there will be landuse consequences - more afforestation and generalist predators? Surely that is why, if licensing could be made to work - for shooters, for conservationists, for public good - it would be a tremendous prize. It will only work if it's robust and the penalties are severe and I'm under no illusion about some of the people we are dealing with. However, if it could be made to work it would be so much better for conservation than a ban.

    • Mark says:

      Bob W - when driven grouse shooting is banned there won't be more afforestation unless government policy changes to allow it in the uplands of England. No reason why that should happen. And if we want to kill foxes (the main predators I believe), then we can.

      The densities of Curlew on grouse moors are twice those on non-grouse moors - that's not a huge difference but I agree it is important (and you watch - sometimes exaggerated as 'up to six times' by those in favor of intense grouse shooting). But the Curlew is a good example of a species which benefits from the package of measures associated with driven grouse shooting. It's a pity that not many more do - including people. I can see Curlew being restricted to the outer Isles and Orkney in future - even if it takes a while to get driven grouse shooting banned.

      I'd like to see licensing too - but I think it will fail. But let's see. It wouldn't even be on the table if some hadn't called for a ban - which is still the best option for nature conservation.

      'If licensing could be made to work' - yes, exactly. As a supporter of licensing can you point me towards an account of what licensing would contain so that we can all evaluate it properly? And how do you think it would work? At what cost? There's quite a lot bundled into that little word 'if'.

      • Bob W says:

        Thanks Mark. The short answer to your last paragraph is no but the RSPB and others in Scotland must be working on it. I just hope the Scottish government give it a go, so we can see if it works, and it's not killed by the establishment.

        • Mark says:

          Bob W - I hope that too. But the RSPB first came up with the idea of licensing in 2014 so I'm surprised we haven't seen a thing. And if the RSPB had got its act together it would have got MPs to press the outline of licensing in the Westminster Hall debate last October but didn't. There's a gaping hole which the RSPB needs to fill.

  5. John Keith says:

    I agree with your summary, Mark; one topic you didn't cover here is the level of cashing-in that the driven grouse shooters benefit from.
    I have seen a slide showing charges for a days shooting (guaranteed bag of 150 (pairs?)) for one moor in southern Scotland: £25000 per person per day.
    If the shooter fancied B&B thrown in the day cost £30000.
    B&B at £5000 per night? My imagination has headed off to who else is in the bed.
    In support of profiteering like that you are going to be pretty ruthless eh?

    What does your data on the economics of Grouse shooting look like?


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