Guest blog – Licensing by Ed Hutchings

Born in East Anglia, but raised in the Arabian Gulf, Ed Hutchings was always going to have two things – itchy feet and an inquisitive mind. After leaving university with a degree in hospitality, he embarked on a career as a sommelier for a decade, working at various Michelin-star restaurants; in the process winning the prestigious sommelier competition UK Torres Quizmaster in 2004.

Ed eventually decided that wildlife was his true passion in life and he went into conservation. After working for the RSPB at Symonds Yat Peregrine viewpoint in Gloucestershire and surveying Nightingales for the British Trust for Ornithology, his writing started to take centre stage. What started out as a casual column in a local village rag, escalated to writing articles for Bird Watching and Nature’s Home, as well as contributing to several other publications. He also leads tours worldwide for Greenwings Wildlife Holidays and The Travelling Naturalist.

Ed is passionate about birds and their ecology, with a particular interest in raptors. He is also fascinated by bird vocalisations and takes pleasure in committing new ones to memory. Above all, conservation is closest to his heart and the preservation of the wilder reaches of our planet.

Twitter: @EdHutchings

 

On the 24th November, a petition was launched by a Jane Griggs entitled ‘Don’t ban Grouse Shooting’ with the rather odd subtitle ‘Protect Grouse Shooting’. When I started this blog, the petition had drawn a somewhat innocuous total of signatures in three weeks, while Gavin Gamble’s opposing petition was well into five digits. However, the context is far from harmless. In fact, I found it so incendiary, that I decided to set up a petition entitled ‘License driven grouse shooting’. It is my firm belief that the views expressed bluntly here are also felt throughout the entire driven grouse shooting industry, though many would not dare to express them so publicly. Surely a good number within are cursing such a blatant and crass own goal. These views are mired in the 19th century.

Here is the text of the offending petition in full:

“Grouse moors and grouse shooting are integral and traditional parts of moorland management which benefit the grouse and ALL native wildlife i.e. Lapwing and plovers. Grouse shooting is supported by the Royal family and real country people.

Grouse shooting income is essential for local businesses and jobs and should not be banned. Killing vermin is a social service which benefits ALL wildlife. Birds of prey are over-protected and are out of balance with natural habitats and species.”

Let us examine it line by line.

“Grouse moors and grouse shooting are integral and traditional parts of moorland management which benefit the grouse and ALL native wildlife i.e. Lapwing and plovers.”

In the great scheme of things, the management of moorland for driven grouse shooting is not traditional. Most upland heathland is a modified form of the understory of woodland and scrub communities that were extensively cleared by people from the Neolithic period onwards. At high altitudes, some communities may be near natural, but most are prevented by succeeding to woodland through livestock grazing and burning. The last two centuries have seen many changes.

In the 19th century, heathland was lost through agricultural improvement and deteriorated with the rise of sheep farming, shooting estates and associated heather burning (also known as muirburn). In the 20th century, huge areas were afforested, and loss and deterioration through agricultural improvement, heavy sheep and deer grazing and burning continued – 27% was lost in England and Wales during this period and about 80% of designated heath is currently in poor condition. So, not only is the management of moorland for shooting untraditional, due to being only 200 years old, it has also been contributing to the deterioration and loss of the habitat it purports to conserve.

In many cases, upland heathland is impoverished and modifications to grazing and burning practices are widely needed. Atmospheric pollution is an issue in the South Pennines and may be contributing to the poverty of lower plant communities. The rolling moors of the Southern Uplands, Pennines and North York Moors are managed heavily for driven grouse shooting and are often little more than monocultures of Heather, coloured a pretty purple in late summer and striped and patched where they have recently been burnt to promote young growth for Red Grouse. Upland heathland is valued as a cultural landscape and, unlike lowland heathland, remains integrated into the economics of local communities through (subsidised) farming practices and management for game. An increasing awareness of water catchment and carbon storage issues, as well as a growing interest in rewilding, are all factors that will contribute to the much-needed debate over the future of the British uplands.

One could argue that the shooting of the grouse does not benefit them in the long term and therein lies one of the ridiculous fallacies of the sport. All this death and destruction for the sake of the death of the grouse. It is absurd, is it not? Nor does it benefit all native wildlife, a substantial population of which is either trapped or shot, including Mountain Hares. As for “Lapwing and plovers”, even those with the meanest of wildlife knowledge, understand that Lapwing are known as the ‘green plover’. It is time for this charade of ‘beneficial conservation management’ to end.

“Grouse shooting is supported by the Royal family and real country people.”

Does support by the Royal Family (pedant alert: ‘family’ should also have a capital ‘F’) make it acceptable? Who are “real country people”? It is telling that the highest number of signatures for the offending petition come from the London constituencies of Chelsea and Fulham, as well as neighbouring Battersea and Kensington. Are these the “real country people”, living in the wealthiest boroughs of London, retreating to the country at weekends to pepper it with lead shot?

“Grouse shooting income is essential for local businesses and jobs and should not be banned.”

We are told that driven grouse shooting supports the equivalent of 2,500 full-time jobs in Britain and inputs approximately £100 million into our economy annually. (Conversely, an estimated £60 million of public funding went to owners and tenants of grouse moors in England from 1991-2001.) A parish survey around Blanchland in Northumberland (population 140) found that 55% of people are either directly or indirectly involved in driven grouse shooting and that increased guest numbers in the four-month shooting season push up the hotel’s average occupancy rate from 50 to 65% per year. Grouse is also served in many local pubs, hotels and restaurants, boosting the hospitality industry. So what? That is a drop in the ocean. Uplands full of wildlife, better water quality, more soil carbon and fewer floods would be of much greater benefit to the British economy in the long run.

“Killing vermin is a social service which benefits ALL wildlife.”

The last time I checked the definition of ‘social services’, “killing vermin” was not included. And it clearly does not benefit all wildlife, as that wildlife that is deemed to be vermin is destroyed. Grouse moors have a near-200-year history of recorded predator control. One of the largest recorded kills was at the 6,500-acre Glengarry estate in Scotland where the following mammals were killed between the years 1837 and 1840: Stoat and Weasel 301, Pine Marten 246, Wildcat 198, Polecat 106, House Cat 78, Badger 67, Otter 48 and Red Fox 11. Birds killed in the same period were: Hooded Crow 1,431, Raven 475, Kestrel 462, Buzzard 285, Red Kite 275, Goshawk 63, Hen Harrier 63, White-tailed Eagle 27, Osprey 18, Golden Eagle 15 and Magpie 2. A staggering roll call of destruction if ever there was one. Whilst these statistics are no longer relevant today, wildlife is still under siege.

“Birds of prey are over-protected and are out of balance with natural habitats and species.”

This sentence beggars belief that one needs to read it repeatedly. If we ever needed damning verbal evidence that raptor persecution is rife, this is it. Birds of prey are not “over-protected”. They are protected. Bird of prey destruction increased dramatically during the 19th Century when game shooting became more widespread. It was not just the rise of the shotgun that threatened raptors though. In 1851, a skilled marksman by the name of Lord Edward Thynne shot a Golden Eagle with a rifle at a range of a hundred yards, while deerstalking in Scotland as a guest of the Earl of Malmesbury. It was reported to be the only instance of a flying eagle being killed with a single ball.

By the end of the First World War, five of our fifteen breeding birds of prey (Goshawk, Marsh Harrier, Honey Buzzard, White-tailed Eagle and Osprey) had been driven to extinction in Britain. Five more species (Golden Eagle, Hobby, Hen Harrier, Red Kite and Montagu’s Harrier) all declined to fewer than a hundred pairs at some stage between the 1870s and 1970s. During the World Wars, gamekeeping declined as keepers went off to fight. Less destruction occurred and some species like the Sparrowhawk increased in numbers. However, killing by game managers increased again at the end of the wars. Regardless, most British bird of prey populations have recovered significantly during the last century. During the 20th Century, legal protection was introduced for all birds of prey – a significant development for their conservation. In 1954, all birds of prey were given full legal protection (except for the Sparrowhawk, which has only been protected since 1963). This protection has been strengthened by further legislation, notably the Birds Directive, that is implemented in Britain under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order 1985 and the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004. There can be little doubt that strong, properly enforced legal protection will continue to be vital to the conservation of Britain’s birds of prey, as they rightfully return to the levels they were sometime in the 18th Century. Nevertheless, after centuries of prolonged persecution, Merlin, Hen Harrier and Short-eared Owl, which all nest in open heather, are often scarce or absent around driven grouse shooting estates due to illegal persecution.

One of the terms often heard in whisky distilleries is ‘the angels’ share’. When whisky is slowly maturing in its cask, a small amount evaporates through the wood and into the atmosphere. Each year, roughly 2% of the liquid leaves the cask this way, so over the years it is come to be thought of as a natural sacrifice. I have often thought this way about gamebirds and predators. It is only natural for them to predate all this abundant game in their environment. If only gamekeepers felt the same.

How can a bird of prey be “out of balance with natural habitats and species” when it is an essential cog in a healthy ecosystem? This is the single elementary truth in ecology that those in the shooting industry fail (or ignore) to grasp. Predators cull vulnerable prey, such as the old, injured, sick or very young, leaving more food for the survival and prosperity of healthy prey animals. Also, by controlling the size of prey populations, predators help slow down the spread of disease. It is also counterproductive for predators to decimate their food source. I would argue that the unnaturally high levels of Red Grouse in our uplands (some 200,000 are shot in England and Wales in a shooting season) are more out of balance with natural habitats and species. It simply is not sustainable.

One last important point. A study of eleven shooting moors in northern England concluded that disturbance by birds of prey affected only 2-7% of grouse drives, less than the 3-10% affected by poor weather. The weather is more detrimental to driven grouse shooting than birds of prey.

Why I am calling for the licensing of driven grouse shooting? It is the middle ground between a ban and doing nothing. And it will appeal to those sitting on the fence. Licensing of grouse shoots in Scotland moved a step closer when the party of government north of the Border, the SNP, adopted this as official policy. A committee investigating the impact of driven grouse shooting on raptor populations and the moorland environment will start work next year. The RSPB called for it three years ago, but have now become noticeably silent on the issue. Let us look at what they called for:

  • Hunting should be subject to a transparent planning and reporting process, including commitments to meet agreed quotas of grouse shot and to meet statutory obligations for protected species, habitats and areas.
  • Licensing should allow for reasonable access for monitoring.
  • Licensing should require implementation of the management necessary to deliver the site’s conservation responsibilities.
  • Any breach of conditions or existing environmental legislation should lead to the license being revoked.
  • Licensing should be cost neutral to the State.

Sounds reasonable to me. I cannot think why the RSPB dropped the ball on this one. I do hope they will get behind my petition. Important wildlife sites are being destroyed or damaged by the poor management of many driven grouse moors, while raptors continue to be disturbed and persecuted. Self-regulation has failed, so I am asking for a robust licensing system. Those who breach conditions would have their licenses removed. Law-abiding grouse shoots would benefit from improved public confidence. What have shooting estates to lose or fear if they are legal and sustainable?

Before those in the shooting industry start tarring me as a lefty conservationist who has no idea what he is talking about, I would like to remind them that I am an ex-public schoolboy who shot for many years. Readers might recall another guest blog I wrote a couple of years ago, which explained why I had turned my back on an industry riddled with pompous deceit and hypocrisy. I adore raptors. Who in their right mind does not? And I am sick to the back teeth of seeing them persecuted relentlessly in order that a certain breed can have a bit of fun at the expense of our wildlife. We are a long way from the 19th century. It is time raptor persecution was history too.

Please sign the petition here – https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/207482

 

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30 Replies to “Guest blog – Licensing by Ed Hutchings”

  1. Full licencing and control would depend upon the ability and inclination to monitor, investigate, prosecute successfully and restrict or withdraw the licence as appropriate. Where are the resources coming from?
    The RSPB Bird Report recently issued outlines the crimes of raptor killing and persecution reported (and which are only the tip of the iceberg) with no successful prosecutions in 2016. Where does this leave licensing?
    The RSPB reason that banning driven grouse shooting will harm their relationships with those estates where ringing and bird monitoring is taking place....... What will happen if - God forbid - any of those estates are put onto the naughty step for wildlife crime activities?
    I'm being advised to agree to signing the petition for licensing to be introduced as it will show that we - those who really have wildlife at heart - are serious about our claims and requests for policing a 'hobby' which is costing us wildlife, habitats and ecological diversity.
    Licensing, for me, is condoning the practice of over breeding birds to be killed in the name of 'sport' for bagsful of ego to be bragged about ...
    Licensing is asking that driven grouse shoots abide by the law of the land .... they should be doing this without a polite request.
    Persecution and illegal snaring and trapping will still carry on in the hard-to-reach locations where resources are stretched and people will just say 'Ah ..... but it's tradition' ........

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    1. its a royal issue so the land owning royal society of PB will / can
      do nothing - or at best sit on the gibbet fence - what did they do about the culling of migrant gulls on royal land eg ? not even an email of acknl about the matter to here in The Gambia where some of the popln they cull spend many months of their annual time ..
      Recorder The Gambia

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  2. An excellently presented piece of writing, both logical and as clear as day. I've taken a copy, and look forward to quoting from it. Well done Ed. excellent work sir.

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  3. Licensing might be the way forward but ONLY if the authorities are prepared to police grouse shooting estates vigorously and probably constantly, with commensurate punishment for transgression involving withdrawal of the licence for significant time for a first and second offence, permanently for a third.It may also be a necessary step on the way to a total ban Licensing in other areas only really works with the consent and compliance of the licensed, this will probably be different. I have often thought Gamekeepers should also have individual licences withdrawal of them would be for life for a second offence.
    I would in fact licence all shoots, there in lies the probable only root to the control of the over release of millions of alien game birds the ecological effect of which is not really understood scientifically.
    I too felt the nonsense about over protected and over population by raptors statement really demonstrated true colours and wilful ignorance. Nature balances itself, yes even in man made habitats, this is also an argument put forward by those numbwits who support Songbird Survival and it is total tripe.
    Well done Ed an excellent blog.

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  4. It appears that the second highest number of signatures is the Cotswolds, just beating Thirsk and Malton! I wonder why? Any grouse moors there? Does money speak louder than intelligence?

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    1. Mairi - update coming along at lunchtime - but you've missed the central London constituencies (click on the bottom right box to enlarge that area)!

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  5. A very informative and well argued piece. I have signed the petition, because it helps to underline the strength of public feeling about the wanton destruction of protected wildlife. However, I struggle to see that licensing can be made to work. We've already witnessed the meagre appetite of certain authorities for rigorously pursuing and punishing wildlife crimes. Licensing is unlikely to change that, especially with limited resources. And monitoring what happens on far flung moorlands is hopelessly unrealistic.

    While there are differences of view over the best solution, we have to demonstrate to decision makers that this ongoing slaughter is unacceptable to large numbers of the public. The RSPB could and should be playing a leading role in doing so.

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    1. So far, the RSPB have not answered my question as to why they didn't take their licensing stance forward (in England) after the last 'Ban' petition debate. Even one of their own wondered why all had gone quiet.

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  6. Excellent blog - passionate but clearly argued.
    With 2 petitions on the go simultaneously, I think it's important not to see them as mutually exclusive alternatives. There is no reason why they should split the vote - IMO everyone who wants to see the worst excesses of the grouse shooting brigade brought under control should sign both petitions. To borrow what Mark wrote recently:
    "...you should also sign the Gamble petition because the best way of getting licensing is to ask for it but show that there is a real appetite and public desire to see driven grouse shooting cease altogether."

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  7. My problems with licensing are, will it be policed properly and wont it set a total ban back for a long time if we think of it as a stage on a journey? With licencing we are in effect allowing the ritualised slaughter of wild birds, with people wearing the "right" kit using the "right" gun, meeting the "right" other people for a day of fun, killing things for sport, having paid the "right" amount of money for the priviledge.
    I have nothing against a man and his dog out shooting for the pot. I guess it is this ritualisation of the killing that I dislike together with the other negative aspects of it that Mark outlines so well in his book.

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  8. Well argued Ed - though demolishing the tosh in the 'protect grouse shooting' petition was probably not the toughest piece of analysis you have ever needed to do!
    I have signed both your petition and Gavin Gamble's and see no contradiction in this. A strong level of support to both petitions will help to underline the strength of feeling that is caused by the ecological harm that continues to be committed in the name of grouse shooting. Eventually the government is going to be obliged to come to the recognition that it is not tenable to allow this harm to continue and obliged to take some meaningful action rather than the side shows of brood meddling and southern reintroduction.

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  9. The photos are interesting - presumably before and after conversion to the cause! It's interesting that so many people seem to have the same conversion, yet you rarely find it happening the other way around. Not many people start off watching wildlife and take up shooting in later life. They say that we get wiser with age so perhaps that helps to explain it.

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  10. Agreeing with Jo and Paul above, I just can't understand how licensing can possibly work.
    The problem lies, and will continue to lie, with the protection given to grouse moor owners by our government and courts. Licensed or not, friends will continue to protect friends.
    What I do believe will happen however, should we get licensing, is a lengthy period where 'it must be given a chance to work'. Just as all those 'talks' that went on for countless years had to be given a chance to work. It will be just another delaying tactic, that I believe could set us back years.
    I do not believe that we would get a ban after just three or four years of licensing not working.
    Who is going to police it? Where will the money come from?
    If it could be done, it would be being done already.
    My fear is that we could be condemning the little wildlife we have left to many more years of persecution and destruction.

    Publicise what's going on, then ban it!

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    1. The main problem is that the wider mass of the British public does not like banning things, anything, without having tried everything else first. That means that even sympathetic politicians are averse to bringing in bans, especially when the champions of whatever the thing is that needs banned have such a strong press presence. They've got to be able to turn around and say to the wider mass of the British public who only care about these issues an hour a week at Sunday teatime that they tried being reasonable first.

      Yes, this does mean that the burden of trying to enforce legislation and monitor compliance will fall on volunteers in the charity sector just as it does now. Just ask the Hunt Sabs about that. It does mean that for us not much will change. However it provides a stepping stone to build on, to keep on saying that lack of compliance is rife, that they are even more obviously thumbing their nose at the law. It is a step forward in getting the notoriously (small c) conservative British public on our side, because the UK middle class understands licensing things and is strongly averse to seeing people undermining the whole concept of licensing laws no matter what the issue.

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      1. I think you have made a good point. However, I tend to think it is politicians, rather than the general public, who prefer licensing over bans, as witnessed by the SNP position.

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  11. I think licensing is a vital step towards a full ban, of course if the grouse industry actually manages to operate within the strictures of a tight licensing system with wildlife crime coming down and wildlife populations of the uplands increasing, not to mention the necessary reduction in environmental damage re: muirburn, paths, grouse fencing, et al, well then there might not be a need for a ban at all. It would only be necessary if, even under threat of licensing, they were determined to flout the law. Really it is just giving them rope to hang themselves with, and prove to the "moderates" that the grouse shooters are determined to break the law and have no interest in acting like everyone else.

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    1. There is a form of licensing in place now which is costing driven grouse estates nothing and the tax payer more than it should ...... it is called law and order where activities should be followed rationally and legally but the boundaries are pushed beyond all recognition by some who can't/won't see the consequences of their actions environmentally or ecologically.

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  12. I don't recall seeing anything discussed on the topic of legally defining driven grouse shooting. And this is a serious question as it would be required to enable a licence to be issued, as well as understanding if a breach of any conditions have occurred.

    As we all know, defining legal fox hunting within the meaning of the Hunting Act is fraught with challenges and so I suspect would be the case with DGS. I can think of a few definitions but they are flawed in so far as I can also think of relatively easy rebuttals. And there in lies the dilemma for licencing DGS. Thus, all forms of grouse shooting, or indeed all shoots which focus on game birds bred for the purpose would have to be licenced which then, ironically, opens up another debate. That is, what constitutes a wild bird. This is legally defined under the Wildlife and Countryside Act and there is an inherent legal conundrum lying within this legislation. Pheasants, grey partridge are wild birds when 'free to roam' but livestock when in pens. Any licencing of shoots would require the legal definition of wild birds to be changed as game birds bred for the purpose of shooting are, under current legal definitions, both wild birds and livestock depending on where they are at the specific moment in time. So, if individuals are 'caught' shooting pheasant, were those pheasant bred for the purpose, or were they wild birds? Thus, if the landowner or leaseholder doesn't have a licence, has the law been broken? Can it be proved beyond reasonable doubt?

    Licencing would create a mess and make lawyers very wealthy.

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    1. Those are fair points, Richard, but they apply equally to banning DGS. It may therefore be that whether we eventually end up going down the licensing or the banning route it would need to be widened out to encompass all grouse shooting or even all shooting. A total ban on all shooting seems unlikely anytime soon so perhaps licensing on all forms of shooting is the most practical end point to aim for?

      In the meantime I personally believe that it does not matter too much which is your favoured end solution. The more people who sign each of these petitions (I am, of course, NOT including the support driven grouse shooting petition!) and or express their support for them in other ways (letters to MPs and so on) the more the government is confronted by the fact that the present situation is untenable and that some significant change is required - that change might not be either a ban or licensing for some time to come but every step we can persuade the government to take towards it, including getting tougher with wildlife criminals, is a step in the right direction.

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    2. There is no problem at all with defining a wild bird, because it is not needed. The bird species can simply be named in the legislation.

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  13. Anyone who rebrands wildlife as vermin should be excluded from decision making anywhere on this planet - desensitized thugs.

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  14. 246 wild cats on one estate alone. No wonder they are so threatened! Another great job by the custodians of the country side! Makes you wonder how many of the few remaining wild cats are currently being bumped off by game keepers.

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    1. They are more under threat from domestic cats interbreeding and diluting their genes. One of the few good things gamekeepers do is getting rid of domestic cats from estates.

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  15. I have no idea who Jane Griggs is, whether she composed the petition, or just put her name to it.
    Either way it makes cringeworthy reading,I am sure there is no official sanctioning from any fieldsports group, and a lot of embarrassment behind closed doors.
    Even if there is some sympathy with her opinions, there is too much potential negative publicity....,should it fall into unscrupulous hands.

    Eds blog, like his previous one is thoughtfully written, I could nit pick a little, but his grasp of the problems, and realistic hopes for some improvement, shine through.
    Driven grouse shooting is not going to be banned anytime soon, the only realistic hope for a partial improvement , along with a change in attitude from National Trust, water companies etc, is licensing.

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  16. Ed, well done. Your considerable list of memorised bird calls will be nothing compared to the variety of unnatural howls of anguish that will be caused by your petition.

    It’s been signed by me, a real UK person.

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  17. Aye very well said and done indeed Ed. The pro grouse shooting petition is truly abysmal - saying that the Royal Family goes shooting makes it credible is a direct throwback to Edwardian doffing of the cap. It reminds me of that silly Mary Berry series on country houses where she was talking to a head keeper on a grouse moor and as he recounted stories of his late boss(master?) he would continually use the term milord e.g 'and I asked - but where are we going milord' - I like many other people no doubt was deeply embarrassed not least on behalf of the head keeper. I wonder if people in the Songbird Survival camp are doing a bit of plugging for Jane Grigg's petition on the basis that it makes a reference to “Birds of prey are over-protected and are out of balance with natural habitats and species.” The RSPB needs to do more to counter public ignorance on ecology and underline that many shooters just want raptors killed because they think it will mean more game to shoot.

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  18. Random 22, it would be interesting to see how many satellite tagged wildcats disappeared on grouse moors.

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  19. Let me congratulate Ed on his excellent petition, and on his excellent blog:-)

    Many responses have concentrated on a supposed 'difficulty' of the monitoring of such licences - quoting the current problems we have of executing sufficient successful prosecutions for illegal persecution - but that is not necessarily the way to police licensing.

    It all depends upon what a licence requires. It should be required to meet statutory obligations for protected species, habitats and areas. That is much easier to monitor.

    Licensing should require implementation of the management necessary to deliver the site’s conservation responsibilities. That is much easier to monitor once those responsibilities have been described.

    And licensing should allow for reasonable access for monitoring. Bingo!

    Licensing would work (!) WITHOUT having to prove illegal killing. What would have to be shown by every shooting estate was that their populations of raptors (and other target species), and their areas of special habitat (for whatever purpose) were meeting expert expectations. Otherwise they lose their licence to shoot!

    I do not approve of shooting, but if - by some improbable miracle - driven Grouse shoots could PROVE that their populations of raptors, other target predators, and special habitats were THRIVING, and NOT causing flooding, then what have we to complain about (other than the ethics of shooting living creatures for fun)?

    If they cannot PROVE that, they would be shut down - a complete ban would have been achieved de facto if not de jure.

    That is why Ed's petition is so brilliant, given that we are also strong on the straight banning route.

    My Christmas message is: see the possibilities.

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