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.
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