Ed writes about his e-petition to license driven grouse shooting.
It was in India that I learnt the news that the Government had responded to my petition to license driven grouse shooting. The grouse moors of Britain felt a million miles away from the dusty śāl forests of central India immortalised by Kipling. Numerous animals are revered by Hindus and thus by India as a whole. Be under no illusion – much is threatened here, but assuredly not from hunting. There was a time when it was. Bored British Army officers, stationed in the Subcontinent, would hunt big game mercilessly in vast Maharajan hunting grounds – many now established as India’s greatest Tiger reserves. Indeed, it was photos of the said Sahibs standing over dead Tigers that became a hackneyed image of the Raj. How things have changed there. How they could here.
My petition began on 15th December last year. It took 38 days to climb to 3,000, until an RSPB blog helped double it within five days. It then stagnated for a further twenty days, gaining a further 2,000 signatures, until a retweet by Chris Packham added a further 3,000 in two days. Even George Monbiot, tweeting on 19th February that it was a “feeble petition”, conversely gave it a little boost. From thereon, and despite the occasional attempt at a boost by the RSPB, it ambled along for the following four months, finally finishing at 16,902 on 15th June. At least it beat Jane Griggs’s petition.
What to make of it? First, I have nothing to add to the Government’s predictable and feeble response, nor Mark’s typically clinical riposte. Secondly, I think the RSPB attempts to get behind it were well-meaning but lacklustre. A meeting with the RSPB was planned but came to nothing – cars breaking down apparently. They could have thrown a lot more weight behind the petition, but it ended up a side line, quite literally on a page of Nature’s Home. I don’t blame the RSPB though. At the crux of it, people don’t want driven grouse shooting licensed, they want it banned. In hindsight, I thought this petition would be a litmus paper for the middle ground and so it has proved to be. If I wasn’t 100% for a ban beforehand, I certainly am now. The behaviour of the shooting fraternity since has solidified that. What we are dealing with is institutionalised and rampant illegality.
Since the beginning of my petition, we have seen numerous cases of raptor persecution on or near driven grouse moors (including a highly-publicised young Golden Eagle in the Scottish Lowlands), Natural England issuing licenses for Hen Harrier brood meddling and Scottish Natural Heritage licensing a mass cull of Ravens. The clamour for a ban grows louder and louder. I have also been on the receiving end of a torrent of abuse on social media which will come as no surprise to many. Those who have also been on the receiving end of such will be familiar with the usual vitriol – angry and predictable ad hominem attacks unsupported by any scientific facts or credible arguments.
Attempts to discredit me were made immediately. Even a photo of me on my guest blog, taken after a shoot many years ago, was dismissed as a fake. If staged, I went back in time – it’s clear, even to those with the meanest intelligence, that I appear considerably younger in it. I was also accused of having too clean a pair of shoes, with no thought given to the fact that I might have removed them to don a pair of wellingtons for the muddy fields. Apparently, my tweed jacket was completely unsuitable for shooting too – again ignoring the possibility that I may just have exchanged it for a Barbour to shoot in. No, this was my pre- and post-shooting smart dress. We’re not all Neanderthals.
Prominent among those spreading their angry agenda on social media, and well-known to many, is an individual by the name of Gethin Jones (no, not the Welsh television presenter). Mr Jones runs a company called Britannia Sporting (www.britanniasporting.com), offering ‘The Best of British Sport’. Incidentally, the Oxford English Dictionary (‘the Best of English Dictionaries’) defines ‘sport’ as “an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.” Therefore, unless your arm your quarry, it’s not really a ‘sport’, is it? His website tells us that “Britain is the envy of the shooting world when it comes to the sheer range of shooting disciplines available on these small islands lying off the coast of mainland Europe.” I do wonder if “the shooting world” (whatever that is) is aware of the extent of persecution towards native wildlife that underlines such a preposterous statement. Mr Jones offers shooting in Wales (including the red-listed and rapidly-declining Woodcock) and, not content with decimating our own beleaguered wildlife, in Russia where Black Grouse, Capercaillie and Woodcock are all ‘fair’ game.
Mr Jones spends much of time on Twitter (@GethinJones123). Do have a look. His initial approach to those questioning the validity of ‘field sports’ seems respectful, with a perceived interest in reasoned debate. Make no mistake. Things rapidly sour. Mr Jones is a bully who believes in the Latin mantra that “Let he who shout the loudest be heard first.” Personally, I prefer “The dogs with the loudest bark are the ones that are most afraid.” If you block him, he takes it badly, posting a screenshot of your blocking, oddly as some badge of honour. Mr Jones is rather keen on reposting screenshots – his phone must have a separate folder for them – as well as the post-shoot image of me. It’s a wonder he gets any work done. Furthermore, if I were a client considering a day’s shooting with him and I saw his Twitter feed, I think I might look elsewhere. He has nothing of merit to say. Only anger and a fear that his method of making money from the killing of defenceless animals may one day topple out from underneath him. My advice? Ignore him. He’ll hate the lack of attention.
All these attacks from the shooting fraternity might establish in your mind that they’re all a rotten bunch. The truth is they’re not. The friends I shot with were all gentlemen and many have come forward to say that they have read my guest blogs on shooting and could see my point of view. Some have even ceased shooting like myself. The point is, they respected my opinions. But not all are gentlemen, as social media regularly reminds us. Some of the attacks have been downright offensive and morally unacceptable. Not one of them addresses the persecution with any sincerity. They’d rather attack the person raising the issue. You’d think individuals like Tim Bonner, Chief Executive of the Countryside Alliance, would behave better. Far from it. An inept head to a rudderless organisation. Friends in high places and vested interests. Their house of cards will fall one day.
Attitudes can change. Since 1850, what is now Keoladeo National Park in Rajasthan was a hunting ground for the Maharajas of Bharatpur, where duck shoots were laid on annually for whichever Viceroy was currently in office. A plaque near one of the central temples pays testament to the slaughter. On 12th November 1938, a shooting party held in honour of Victor Hope, 2nd Marquess of Linlithgow, shot 4,273 birds. Keoladeo is now one of the world’s finest bird sanctuaries, as declared by Sir Peter Scott, himself previously a wildfowler. Sir Peter said he founded his wildfowl trust on the Severn estuary in 1946 as a haven for migrating geese and other waterfowl after shooting a goose and watching it die. ”I thought I wouldn’t do that to my worst enemy, so why should I do it to a goose?” he recalled. Regretfully, some show no intention of changing their behaviour. Raptors are still being persecuted by the archaic methods of the 19th century. They’ll learn the hard way.
Away from driven grouse shooting, it’s worth re-examining the extent and impacts of non-native gamebird release in the UK, especially as this makes up much of game shooting. No less than thirty-five million Pheasants and six and half million Red-legged Partridge are released each year into our countryside. The game estate habitat management required to accommodate them includes woodland sky-lighting, planting cover crops, conservation headlands and more. It’s likely that this management, including woodland and farmland habitat management, provision of supplemental food and predator control increases the numbers of some bird groups, particularly warblers, finches and ground feeders. It also benefits some small mammals, particularly Wood Mice and Bank Voles.
However, the direct impacts of gamebirds are anything but positive. Gamebirds, mostly Pheasant, modify woodland ground flora within release pens, through browsing and soil enrichment. Pheasants at high densities can modify hedgerow and hedge bank floral structure and this may have knock-on effects for hedge nesting birds. Furthermore, Pheasants reduce the biomass of overwintering ground-active invertebrates and caterpillars that are important food resources for breeding birds, while breeding gamebirds may compete with native birds for invertebrate resources. An often-ignored fact is that gamebirds on moorland fringe habitat threaten rare and endangered bryophyte communities and may impact on Red Grouse and other fragile moorland bird species. Likewise, Pheasant may spread numerous parasites to wild birds, particularly at feeders.
Regarding shooting practices themselves, birds of prey and other creatures suffer lead poisoning following the consumption of gamebirds shot but not collected. Spent lead shot on game estates is ingested by some birds, leading to poisoning at sufficient concentrations, while lead shot in the environment may escalate the food chain from soil invertebrates to small mammals to predators. The unintentional by-catch of Grey Partridge results in population impacts on this declining species. It’s nothing short of extraordinary that this red-listed species is still deemed a valid quarry.
As for the impacts on predators and predation dynamics, many in the shooting fraternity still lack a basic understanding of ecology. Predator abundance may be increased by excess prey abundance in the form of gamebirds. Predators such as foxes and corvids may become more ubiquitous and protected predators, such as raptors may also benefit. At the end of the shooting season gamebirds may be reduced to such an extent that predators sustained at elevated numbers due to abundant overwinter prey, may switch to other prey types. This period of low gamebird abundance coincides with the nesting season for most bird species and over-abundant predators may have detrimental effects on nesting birds. Some gamekeepers persecute protected predators such as birds of prey, particularly Buzzards and Goshawks, which are perceived as threats to gamebirds. Nothing changes.
As for the socio-economic impacts, estimates suggest that the shooting industry is worth two billion pounds each year (a drop in the ocean) and supports 70,000 full time jobs (almost one in a thousand of the total UK population). Nearly half a million (480,000) people are estimated to shoot game – roughly one in 135 people. In contrast, one in 65 people is a member of the RSPB. But back to those birds. 0.9-1.8 million pheasants collide with vehicles each year, with unknown insurance costs. Pheasants may also increase the risk of exposure to Lyme disease in humans, while lead shot in game for human consumption regularly goes undetected and people can suffer lead related illness.
The evidence suggests that the management of land and wildlife for Pheasant and partridge shooting delivers genuine benefits to certain habitats and species. However, there is also a significant and growing body of evidence indicating that the negative impacts of non-native gamebird release and related activities are considerable. How much longer will this be ignored? As for Britain’s grouse moors, they shall continue to be a minefield for raptors and other native wildlife. We will continue to be tarred as ‘armchair conservationists’, even though established scientific evidence supports our arguments. If my petition has taught us anything, it’s that nothing less than a ban on driven grouse shooting will suffice.
Added by Mark:
Totals for the three recent e-petitions on grouse shooting.
Three e-petitions - how did they do?
|Gavin Gamble||Ban||48,174||closed 2 April 2018|
|Jane Griggs||Pro||15,211||closed 24 May 2018|
|Ed Hutchings||License||16,902||closed 15 June 2018|