This is an important book It is written by a leading Oxford University economist who is also a wildlife enthusiast but, probably more importantly, the chair of the Natural Capital Committee. Helm is an outsider inside the system. Although I’d describe his views as right of centre (it probably depends where you are looking from) they are not lazy right-wing views and I think we can expect his views to be listened to by the likes of Michael Gove.
So when Helm says in this book the following things about grouse shooting we can imagine that these views might permeate the corridors of Defra’s Nobel House more effectively than if the likes of George Monbiot or I said them (even though we probably would, if we could):
Many of our uplands are a shadow of what they once were. … Our uplands are overgrazed by sheep and manicured for the shooting fraternity. Imagine if the heather moors were managed not just for grouse and deer, but also for the wider public benefit. Imagine if the hen harriers were not persecuted, so people could watch the male bird pass its prey in mid-air to the female, and watch as the birds hunt low over the land.
Hen Harrier food pass. Photo: Gordon Yates
The combination of sheep, deer and grouse has not been as beneficial to the uplands biodiversity (sic) as it might have been, and given the poor economic returns of sheep, the scope for improvement without significant economic cost is considerable. The uplands contribute very little to food security, and little to economic food production. They overwhelmingly depend on subsidies.
To the estates and their gamekeepers, anything that gets in the way of the game birds is vermin and should be killed. Gamekeepers are masters at this and over the last couple of centuries have got rid of lots of golden eagles, hen harriers and buzzards, as well as stoats, weasels and foxes. In the Cairngorms the estates even shoot the realtively rare mountain hares for sport and because they might spread diseases from ticks, which might then infect the grouse.
The case of the hen harriers is perhaps the best known. Hen harriers are well adapted to Britain’s uplands and were once common. The gamekeepers have put paid to this abundance, through poisoned bait and traps and by shooting them. There are only a few pairs left, and still the gamekeepers try to kill them.
The obvious incentive on the estates is to kill them [hen harriers]. Indeed to eradicate them. That is what they have done. At one level this is just criminal, and we are more prosperous if the criminals are deterred.
Responsibility for the consequences of grouse moor management lies with the owners. They are the ‘polluters’ imposing costs on the rest of us, and they should pay. A more prosperous uplands would start with the licensing of game shoots and then a levy to put right the damage.
There is an awful lot more in this vein, but of course this is not a book about grouse shooting, but grouse shooting provides a devastating critique of the unsustainable and uneconomic current land use in the uplands. Similar analyses abound for other industries – although grouse shooting, uncriticised and uncensured by Gove and Coffey to date, is a very clear example of how we need to change.
The book is clearly and didactively written. There is little doubt in Helm’s writing about what is and isn’t the case. If you know a bit more than Helm does about wildlife, as I think I do, then he trips now and again (but never falls flat on his face) whereas if you know less about economics than Helm does (as I certainly do) it is difficult to detect whether he gallops sure-footedly across the terrain or not. This book, though, is a good read and an important one too. I loved it, as I agreed with much of it and was interested by all of it.
If you worry about putting a value on nature then you really should read this book – it will make you both more and less worried in turn, but more informed all the same.
It’s quite a high-level view of the subject, and very valuable for that, but there is quite a lot of ‘somebody else will have to do the hard work of filling in the details to make this work’ in the book which made this reader wonder who on earth those people were. Where are they located today? In Defra or NE? You must be joking – most of the good people left or were sacked! In the NGOs? Maybe – but, if so, they are quite well hidden right now?
From my perspective I cannot help but enjoy the swipes at the chair of the Efra Committee for not really knowing what are public goods, and at the NFU for being consistently stupid and self-serving. Any farmer who voted for Brexit (and so many did) should read this book to see the consequences on their actions on their industry.
But this is a book for many to read. It’s high-level, it’s wide-ranging but it’s probably also largely right. And where it isn’t right then we need to understand the ideas explained here well enough to combat unwanted consequences.
Quite honestly, if Michael Gove, Philip Hammond and Theresa May read this book, and think about it, then even with a ghastly Conservative government in place the natural world could have a better future.
Green and Prosperous Land: a blueprint for rescuing the British countryside by Dieter Helm is published by Harper Collins.