Dear Mr Gove! Wake up to this mess!

Dear Mr Gove

You have a mess on your hands and despite the fact that you inherited much of it, you have let Natural England dig you into an even deeper hole.  But in any case, it’s now your mess because you are sitting at the desk at which the buck stops.

Why would you let the impression of tolerance of wildlife crime and unsustainable management of large areas of upland England damage your personal reputation, the government’s environmental reputation (which you are trying to rescue) and be a weakness for Labour to exploit at the next general election (just like fox hunting hurt you at the last one?)?

Why? No, I can’t think of a reason either.

The intensive management of land for grouse shooting leads to increased flood risk, increased water treatment costs, increased greenhouse gas emissions, increased damage to protected wildlife, loss of wildlife and is underpinned by criminality.  Why would a Conservative support the hobby of shooting birds for fun when it has such downsides for society as a whole.

So, here’s a list of things you need to sort out on grouse shooting:


  • the consents for burning heather – there is widespread non-compliance with the code of practice, and in some cases with the law. It’s Natural England’s job to enforce these regulations – they are an utter disgrace.
  • consents for burning on blanket bogs – the Moorland Management Plan for Walshaw Moor is a disgrace.  Your nature agency, Natural England, is allowing burning on blanket bogs and industrialisation of the designated moorland.  Natural England is making your policy response non-compliant with EU law – are you happy with that and prepared to take the consequences?

Lead ammunition:

  • why is Defra holding out against the removal of lead ammunition from use in the UK. It’s coming anyway – why not move to phase out a poison shot into food?
  • why are there not statutory lead levels set for game meat as there are for other meats?

Wildlife crime:

  • driven grouse shooting is underpinned by widespread, systematic and intense wildlife crime against birds of prey – why has your department never acknowledged the scale of the issue? And why has Defra refused to move against the wildlife criminals?
  • why have you allowed NE to license the extremely unpopular and pointless policy of brood management for Hen Harriers?  This crazy plan is opposed by the RSPB as follows, ‘The idea that brood management is about helping hen harriers is nonsense. It is about facilitating unsustainable intensive land management which is destroying our uplands. To be clear, the RSPB is implacably opposed to this and as a landowner ourselves, we will never allow it on our land.’.
  • why do you allow NE to keep secret the results of its 16-year, taxpayer-funded study of Hen Harriers?
  • why does Defra continue with a discredited and ineffective Hen Harrier plan that doesn’t help Hen Harriers but does suit grouse shooters down to the ground?

Medicated grouse:

  • laws exist about the medication that can be used for grouse – but these are not enforced or even monitored. You are giving grouse shooting an easy ride by not checking compliance with these food safety regualtions.

Law enforcement on grouse moors:

  • did NE license the killing of protected wildlife on the Bowland SPA which was set up partly to protect that wildlife? And why, after more than seven months has NE not come clean on events on this grouse moor?

Whenever Defra and NE have had the chance to address the illegal and unsustainable practices of intensive grouse shooting your department and its agency have ducked them, failed to take them or done something that makes things worse rather than better.  Government and the statutory sector is not just being wilfully blind to the issues of grouse shooting but appears to be so friendly with grouse shooting interests that you are in their pockets.

You have to concede, Mr Gove, that a consistent pattern of secrecy, incompetence and a failure to meet government’s statutory duties to conserve protected species and habitats is unlikely to inspire confidence in the rest of Defra’s work.  Your department’s position on grouse shooting is harming the new Defra brand which you seek to create. As I wrote earlier, some of this happened before your arrival in Smith Square but all of it is piled up on your desk now.


Your move, Mr Gove.




12 Replies to “Dear Mr Gove! Wake up to this mess!”

  1. Mark, I hope you are preparing a similar blog addressed to Sue Hayman asking why the opposition is ignoring an open goal on this issue.

  2. Excellent blog – direct and hard hitting! I’d like to see the RSPB asking similar questions. The nature conservation sector should be presenting a concerted and consistent front on these issues.

    1. I agree Paul. Chris Corrigan RSBP’s England Director has a guest blog for Martin Harper this morning and is worth reading. See here:

      The blog covers burning of blanket bog and also brood meddling, here’s an extract:

      …And, while we’re on the subject of things which seem to get in the way of intensive grouse moor management, a quick word on hen harriers. We’ve received a few questions about how we intend to respond to Natural England’s ridiculous decision to licence a trial brood management scheme of hen harriers. First of all, to be absolutely clear, we are completely opposed to this. We are carefully considering all the details available about the licensed trial and seeking legal advice so we can decide how best to respond.

  3. I’m guessing the Ms Hayman is the Labour Environment shadow. The fact I’m guessing says it all about Labour’s environmental credentials. This whole mess is a complete political failure by both parties.

  4. I’ve just replied to Labour’s consultation on its Animal Welfare Plan to raise the topic of grouse shooting and the need for a ban. Labour’s plan calls for a “ban on intensive rearing of game birds” and for “increased penalties for criminal behaviour as well as improved enforcement and prosecution rates for the persecution of birds of prey”, which sounds promising but I’ve asked for a ban of grouse shooting. I pointed out the current government’s lack of appropriate action (I’m being kind here, to say the least) leaves an open door for them to pick up on this issue.

  5. I commend Mark for his excellent work in highlight the Walshaw Moors travesty, Lesser Black-backed Gull culling in Bowland and other scandalous cases where out statutory conservation body is not acting in the public or conservation interest.

    However, I wonder in this case which is in fact the dog, which is tail, and who is wagging who? In other words is NE really dragging Gove down, or is NE really failing on these issues because of Conservative Party policy, which despite his fine words, Gove is actually a prime architect in implementing.

    There was a misunderstanding when I questioned Mark’s general condemnation of NE. I fully support Mark’s specific criticisms. What I question though is how much of these lamentable failings are down to organizational failure, and how much it is really down to government policy, albeit a hidden agenda. You see there is considerable circumstantial evidence that says NE is dealing with these issues like this, because the Conservative government want it to be like this.

    1) The failure to act as expected is against people, and vested interests which are not only natural allies of the Conservative Party.

    2) Many other government departments, regulatory bodies, public bodies, public services etc, have been similarly compromised and have been failing to fulfil their remits.

    I say none of the latter is coincidence. I say austerity was never about balancing the books as claimed. Rather obviously it has not provided the savings claimed, and much of it now lies abandoned when it become not in the interests of the Conservative Party to continue with it. Rather I say that austerity was a means where Conservative ideologues could force public bodies to heel, and to force them to implement Conservative Party ideology unseen, under the blackmail of further swinging cuts if they did not cooperate. NE has suffered massive cuts to it’s budget, and has been under the threat of more if it did not cooperate. Think of how supine NE has been over Badger culling, even though most of it’s scientists and staff oppose it.

    1. I am not a Conservative, so this is not a defence of them, but it was a LABOUR Government which first undermined Natural England.

      Here is a letter I wrote in June 2012(!) and which was printed in the Oxford Times at the time:

      Dear Sir,

      The last Labour Government commissioned the Hampton Report in 2004 and accepted all its recommendations for a new set of rules for areas of regulation and enforcement in this country. Philip Hampton was a corporate businessman, and the report “Implementing Hampton” (November 2006) quotes the word “business” 205 times, the word “consumer” 30 times and “putting consumers first” just once. He consulted over 300 business and governmental organisations, but not a single environmental charity.

      The findings became Statutory Law on April 6th 2008. For Natural England, the agency whose stated aim is to “defend the environment”, this now meant that “a key element of its activity will be to encourage economic progress”.

      Hence we have the shameful situation whereby Natural England has recently abandoned its legal action against the Walshaw Moor grouse estate for burning blanket bog and other habitats on an SSSI in the Pennines, killing all the wildlife which cannot flee, in order to improve the grouse shooting.

      Natural England have decided, instead, to collaborate in future with the destructive burning of a valuable natural habitat. This is because, under the Hampton principles, it now has to value the economic activity of shooting.

      Unfortunately, we have a similar situation in Wolvercote, Oxford where Natural England changed their minds and supported the introduction of much faster trains through a narrow tunnel – underneath Woodstock Road roundabout – currently being used by thirteen species of bats, two of which are rare nationally.

      If Natural England are to consider business interests above those of wildlife (why do they not insist on the trains slowing down for this tunnel?) who is left to “defend our environment”?

      Yours etc…

  6. SteB – I agree with you. I think there are some conservation-minded senior people in NE who feel they have little choice but to act according to the expectations of politicians and the government department. The game (for them) is trying to squeeze as many small conservation benefits out of the system as they can possibly get away with and wait for better times. Then,of course, there are the senior people who care very little about conservation and put their careers before everything else. The conclusion I take from that is that it’s better to focus criticism on specific aspects of what the organisation does (and there are no shortage of candidates) rather than necessarily write off the organisation as a whole.

  7. Excellent blog. Gove is something of a prisoner of the still powerful interests in Government and as a consequence on NEs Board. Yet if their spines were suitably stiffened, NE would find him an escape route. Remember their vision for the uplands? Me too.

    There are still lots of fantastic people doing fantastic work at NE, too often in spite of their most senior leadership for whom not upsetting vested business interests too often takes priority over little things like evidence and environmental protection. Whether it’s them or their leadership Gove is widely said around Whitehall to loathe isn’t​ clear, but the fact that he loves the NGOs perhaps gives us a clue. Had NE appointed the credible fresh water candidate rather than the malleable salt water candidate willing to do anything for his master things may have turned out very differently. But then malleable was precisely what was wanted and the only candidate invited to promote their case to the Natural England Board post interview pre job offer. Odd that I’ve always thought.

    A better leader would know that Langholm demonstrated that a natural population of predators including raptors isn’t compatible with a highly unnatural and artificially maintained population of grouse bred to be shot.

    They may even have understand that the real question isn’t how best to remove predators a la Moorland Association but how should the industry restructure to operate within a sustainable operating climate. If ‘too few’ grouse can be raised to be shot profitably within a natural environment, what needs to change in the industry’s cost model? Presumably fewer grouse at higher price generates a similar margin to more grouse at a lower price? Certainly that’s every other businesses options range.

    Businesses of every type need to be work out how to trade within the limits of their operating environment. If they don’t know how, that’s hardly the public’s fault or the taxpayers responsibility.

    But not everyone on NEs Board agrees.

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