Who I am – Scottish with a fascination for wildlife from childhood – in lieu of formal qualifications (and not being able to flash them about!) – was on the 1990 International Youth Conservation Exchange to Hungary, was the 1993 winner of the BBC Wildlife Magazine ‘Realms of the Russian Bear’ competition and spent nearly two weeks in the Aksu Zhabagly Reserve in Kazakhstan as the prize – found the local stomach bug was much more dangerous than the brown bears. Especially interested in the removal of invasive non native plants and conservation of dead wood and trees and associated fauna/flora as conservation issues – my personal experience suggests they are badly neglected topics. My main background is in recycling and waste reduction – I am currently setting up an anti waste group called 6R (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Re-educate, Re-employ, Rewild) – I am fascinated in the potential that kerbside recycling projects have in acting as catalysts for environmental education and green business, should be speaking to a small zoo soon about possibility of integrating reduce, reuse, recycle practice and education within its operations. I am also passionate about lost ice age wildlife, was a 2012 contestant on Mastermind specialist subject ‘Extinct Fauna of the Ice Age’ (didn’t get past the first round!). I have been fully aware of what huntin, fishin n shootin have done to my country since I was eight, and got fed up asking kids from council estates to look after nature by planting trees and sowing wildflowers when people with lots of money and far less sense were making Scotland a wet desert for their hobbies – that’s why I wrote the article, had enough..
Well with clockwork regularity another season’s fledged hen harriers ‘disappear’ over grouse moor. They’re not even making an effort to throttle back in the face of growing censure in fact they seem to be giving conservationists, the public and the law a bigger two finger salute than ever. Time to return the gesture, but the thing is we don’t have to resort to breaking the law or raw insult we just have to ask as members of the public for what we always should’ve had. Given that it’s our taxes and too often politicians that are already supporting driven grouse shooting – we need an independent, comprehensive economic analysis to see if we’re giving subsidies to something that actually deserves them.
What’s really keeping grouse moors afloat politically isn’t the phony conservation case they put forward which has more holes than a Swiss cheese and can be torn to shreds by any half decent wildlife gardener; it’s the phony jobs one. I know genuine environmentalists who detest driven grouse shooting (DGS) but can’t bring themselves to campaign against it because they truly believe rural communities will be devastated by job losses – the threats that families will lose their homes, schools will close and villages die hit home although they are almost certainly not true, but the jobs blackmail works.
Common sense and history, especially of industrial areas that were dependent upon the local steel mill, coal mines or shipyards, tell us that economically as well as ecologically it’s best to be ‘diverse’ – a strong local economy with many elements that can shift and adapt to knocks rather than collapse from one foul stroke of misfortune. This year’s ‘poor’ grouse shooting season where local businesses suffer because grouse chicks haven’t done too well really underlines this. How idiotic it is to depend upon the intensive and extensive ‘management’ of vast swathes of land for something that compromises virtually every other activity that could take place there. Something that can never, ever be for anything other than a tiny minority and doesn’t even have the saving grace of being a spectator sport, something which countries across northern Europe, Asia and America could do with the willow grouse – but not one will touch with a ten foot barge pole.
To this end government petition 226109 ‘An Independent Study to find if Driven Grouse Shooting is of Economic Benefit’ has been created . If it reaches 10,000 signatures an official government response will be required which will be very interesting indeed. Official responses to government petitions wanting to ban DGS have typically included a reference that it‘s a vital contributor to the rural economy – how can it say that in response to a petition asking if it’s true? The Scottish Government is already conducting a wide ranging review of DGS which includes an economic study so it would be very difficult to justify not having one south of the border given the dearth of comprehensive, up to date and independent studies currently – obviously the various ones produced by the grouse shooting sector don’t make the grade except perhaps as comedy material or toilet paper.
To get to the 10,000 mark and hopefully beyond by the closing date of Feb 2nd 2019 is doable, but challenging. Rather ironically (but understandably) it’s infinitely easier to get lots of signatures for petitions against animal cruelty and wildlife persecution than it is for an economic study, but if we prove DGS is driving away jobs as much as it is wildlife it will lose political support and with that its capacity to ‘cull’ mountain hares, get dodgy licenses for killing ravens, to snare, trap and build stink pits, to illegally kill birds of prey and then say it was the raptor workers and ramblers that scared them away, to bulldoze hill tracks to get wheezy stock brokers onto the moors, to create a fire-prone landscape then say they’ve got to maintain it to reduce fire risk, to pollute and degrade watercourses with muir burn and exacerbate flooding downstream. If they lose the capacity to apply ‘jobs blackmail’ they lose the grouse moors and with it will go every single one of its cruelties and absurdities.
This might sound like wishful thinking, but the petition isn’t just about getting signatures it’s about making a political point. Considering that pro DGS organisations repeatedly claim that without it communities will die etc shouldn’t they be absolutely cock a hoop at the opportunity to get official verification that no one could effectively challenge? Makes you wonder why they didn’t initiate this petition them selves. So it was with great surprise that when I contacted the Moorland Association, National Gamekeepers Organisation, GWCT, BASC and four English moorland forums with the news they now had a petition for an independent study they could and should promote to their heart’s content not only did they not do so, they didn’t even acknowledge my communications! It was if they wanted to pretend the petition didn’t exist. Of course in any subsequent statements they make re the positive economics of DGS I (and now you) can point out this anomaly – their bluff’s been called. I also contacted the constituency parties of four of the MPs who stood up in support of DGS at the notorious parliamentary ‘debate’ on the 31st of October 2016 that resulted from Mark Avery’s petition to ban DGS. It was pointed out that they now had the chance to back up their MPs’ assertions by supporting the petition, again absolutely no reaction from any of them. What would the public make of that? Would we be right in saying they are all frightened of the petition, do they believe it’s the DGS nemesis – they can’t even utter its name?
If we’ve identified the Achilles Heel of DGS, which for years they’ve tried to make ours, let’s hammer the nail into it just as remorselessly as they kill hen harriers. Nowhere in the north of England can be very far from a driven grouse moor, we need ‘petition champions’ who will do what they can to raise the issue in the local papers, ask local conservation and environmental groups to support the petition, contact the district branches of the political parties, councillors, ramblers clubs – and in fact anybody that might spend time on the moors, local businesses that might like to know if they’d do better without DGS and think their family income shouldn’t be dependent on grouse chick productivity, animal welfare charities obviously and no doubt many more you can think of. And if there’s more than one person in a locality doing this – all the better. There can’t possibly be any legitimate objection to a proper economic study of something which receives public subsidy and effects so many directly and indirectly – in fact all rational individuals should sign it.
Of course getting the public interested in grouse moors when most have very little to do with them is difficult, but rather the point too – they mean so very little to most when they should mean a lot – the places where you really can get away from the big smoke and see amazing wildlife and a genuinely stunning landscape – places where fell runners don’t get caught in snares. Places so much better to visit and live in with more jobs and more wildlife. We could use everything from peat bog restoration to riparian tree planting, and yes even beavers (wouldn’t they draw people into the hills!) in the right places to reduce the effects of flooding and drought downstream, improve water quality and reduce fire risk. With proper ecological restoration you’d start getting wildlife back including the dramatic raptors, that means far greater scope for wildlife photography, bush craft and foraging classes – how many people could do these rather than shoot driven grouse, hundreds, even a thousand fold? Better business plus far, far more of us genuinely benefitting from OUR heritage. Imagine a place which still has red grouse, but also hosts bat walks? Then there are conservation working holidays like the two I did in the Forest of Bowland after the end of the grouse shooting as it happens – we spent a fair amount in the local shops, pubs and even the local pantomime, and had a great time clearing invasive rhododendron from woods were it had probably been planted originally for pheasant cover!
For some families a wood stove isn’t an ornamental feature or ‘I’m carbon neutral’ statement it’s genuinely the best option for heating their homes because they don’t have access to mains gas – that’s what’s called a legitimate need for woodlot forestry. I’ve stood in Fort William after interviewing families in dire fuel poverty, spending more than 10% of their income trying to heat their homes in a particularly cold and damp climate, looking up at the surrounding hills seeing miles and miles of moor being burnt off – for grouse or sheep or both I’m not sure, but that could have at least been producing logs for people who really struggled to keep their kids warm – that I have to say pissed me off. Better fire in the hearth than fire on the hill – another option for the new mix.
It’s not only about fully fledged eco tourism it’s also just being better places to walk and picnic in where you’re not a second class citizen because you have nothing to do with grouse shooting. Do any grouse moors have pony trekking on them, even off season? Not dramatic or original, but I imagine a nice change for many people that don’t currently have the option. Try to visualise a line of pony trekkers going across what was a grouse moor, so much nicer than a line of shooters in appropriately named butts isn’t it? Of course the public should be asked to make suggestions, emphasizing the need not to compromise wildlife or environment, and we can look abroad for ideas too.
We need people to get signatures for the petition and to use it as a catalyst to raise awareness and stimulate debate – we’ve been getting short changed for an extremely long time. No matter how powerful, pampered and influential the grouse moor owners are they can’t ignore public opinion; for one thing their on a leash MP friends still need to get voted in. As long ago as the 1930s the Kinder Scout trespass showed that people with dedication and right on their side could give the grouse moor owners one hell of a bloody nose. I’m positive that no amount of raptor persecution or mountain hare massacres will ever be enough to get DGS stopped as long as doing so conjures up the Dickensian image (fostered by the shooting estates) of a young family put out in the street, but turn that round to mean all children are missing out on the chance to see real wildlife and that jobs helping to make that happen are being lost among so many other opportunities thanks to seriously over blown DGS then it has really had it – and ‘they’ know it.
There’s the story, cliché even, that Al Capone wasn’t chucked behind bars because he was nabbed for bootlegging, extortion or murder, but for income tax evasion. I think there’s quite a lot of relevance there for DGS and all the missing raptors, damaged moor and lies. Please, please, please get behind the petition at local level – remember the lost harriers, get stuck in and have fun! Thanks.