Ben Macdonald is a conservation writer, field director in wildlife television, and a lifelong naturalist; passionate about restoring Britain’s wildlife, pelicans included, in his lifetime. He has been the conservation columnist for Birdwatching magazine, as well as a contributor to the RSPB Nature’s Home and BBC Wildlife. He has worked on a range of TV series, including for the BBC, Netflix and Apple – most recently the grasslands and jungles programmes of Sir David Attenborough’s Our Planet: broadcast worldwide on Netflix since 5 April 2019.
In the introduction and setup of his book Inglorious, Mark makes the point that grouse moors are big business. Since then, the times have moved on, and many, including the host of this blog, are beginning to look not only at the destruction wrought on wildlife by grouse moors, but upon our economy – and most importantly, at what could be thriving there instead.
Very often, however, there is still the underlying mistake that even if grouse moors ‘cost’ us in terms of environmental damage, that they are somehow integral to the economy: that fundamentally, grouse is ‘big business’. Oddly, as long as conservationists of any affiliation repeat this, there will be no chance of change. The future of hen harriers cannot and will never ever induce governments to act – but business interests do. So do people’s jobs.
Big business, after all, powers our country. It can at its best generate thousands of jobs, create new sectors of employment, and keep rural communities alive. Fortunately, grouse moors do none of these things. Whilst other countries with robust ecosystems – from Alaska to Finland – enjoy thriving rural communities in which hunting estates can play a valuable role, northern England does not. In the following excerpts from my book Rebirding, I compare the economies of nature tourism and grouse shooting. We do not get personal, we do not denigrate any individual and we do not name particular estates. We simply look at which of nature ecotourism or grouse farming is better able to generate jobs and revenue in our country. Nature, it would seem, is in fact the biggest business of all.
For the 50 footnotes to this section, statistics, and many other arguments for the riches of nature – please read Rebirding.
Grouse versus jobs
In England, according to the Countryside Alliance and the National Gamekeepers Organisation, when reporting to parliament in October 2016, the country’s 175 grouse moors support 1,520 full-time equivalent (FTE) jobs. Only 700 of these jobs are directly involved with grouse moor management. A further 820 are in related services and industries. It is not clear reading the report what these jobs are.
In Scotland, a report written by the Fraser of Allander Institute in July 2010 stated that 140 ‘core’ estates in Scotland, who responded to their enquiries, supported 493 jobs. The report’s authors estimated that if this held for all Scottish grouse estates, these would support a total of 1,072 jobs. Adding this total to the English one makes for no more than 2,592 people employed in grouse shooting across Britain, of which no more than 1,772 are directly involved with the management of grouse moors.
As of September 2018, the number of people in employment in the UK is 32.4 million. Grouse shooting, if we include the ‘related services’ jobs too, therefore accounts for 0.008% of the jobs in Britain – that’s one job in every 12,500. In terms of ownership, the 175 English grouse-moor landowners currently represent 0.0003% of the English population. Astonishingly, however, the grouse moors of England and Scotland cover around 8% of Britain: an area of 16,763 square kilometres. To put this in context, this is an area, again, almost twice the size of Yellowstone, seven times as big as the Lake District and ten times the size of Greater London. Such an area, alone, would cater for the full restoration of Britain’s wildlife, even if every other land use stayed the same.
Those grouse jobs, therefore, equate to one job for every 6.5 square kilometres of land used by grouse shooting. No other European country has, or would tolerate, such extraordinary wastes of national land, in employment terms alone. Preventing most forms of ecotourism, grouse moors block jobs on a massive scale. The economics get worse, however, when you look at what grouse moors contribute for their 8% coverage of our country.
Back to the Fraser of Allander Institute’s report, commissioned by the industry-friendly Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust. The report states that in Scotland just 43% of estates made a profit on their grouse-shooting activities. Only 46% of employment on studied estates even came from grouse- shooting jobs. Scotland’s 1,072 grouse jobs, it estimates, cost £14.5 million in wages and contribute £23.3 million to GDP. Millions always sound a lot, if taken out of context. The UK, however, the fifth largest economy in the world by GDP, was worth, in 2016, $2.647 trillion, or £1.88 trillion at the time of writing. That Scottish grouse-moor contribution, with the conversions done, therefore comes to 0.001% of UK GDP.
In England, the Moorland Association estimates that the economic value of the grouse-shooting industry is £67.7 million. That’s under 0.004% of GDP. This brings the combined contribution of grouse shooting, in England and Scotland, to less than 0.005% of the United Kingdom’s GDP, a contribution made from 8% of its land!
It gets a little worse again. In 2014, Friends of the Earth used Land Registry data to identify 550,000 acres (223,000 ha) of grouse moors across northern England (see Figure 19). Of these, just 30 estates covered 300,000 acres (121,000 ha) of our uplands. It was found that these estates received £4 million in taxpayer-funded subsidies, in 2014 alone, from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. Not only are jobs and wildlife being prevented from returning across England’s uplands – the public are paying for this to happen. So with grouse moors using 8% of Britain to no profit – often, even their own – how does ecotourism stand up in comparison?
Grouse versus tourism
National Parks England provides for some 48,000 full-time jobs in the tourism sector. The grouse moors in England create 1,520. Tourism-based jobs in our national parks, even before there is charismatic wildlife to see in them, trump the jobs economy of grouse moors 32 times over. Whilst England’s national parks harvest at least £4 billion in tourism and recreation expenditure, grouse moors in England, adding £67.7 million, contribute 44 times less to local economies.
In contrast, the grouse-moor money supposed to reach rural communities appears to form part of a closed ‘loop’. Some £52.5 million is spent on land management, which deprives our nation of beautiful wild uplands, birds of prey and such basics as trees. A further £15.2 million covers travel and accommodation. But this accommodation is for the tiny minority of the British public who pay to shoot grouse in the first place.
The British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) estimates 40,000 shooting visitors to grouse moors annually across the UK, which represents around 0.06% of the British population. The Moorland Association claims that 6,500 ‘visitor nights’ were generated by grouse shooters in 2010. If 40,000 shooters visit grouse moors, this means just 16% of them spend a grand total of one night each in a bed and breakfast. By contrast, dolphin watching on the Moray Firth alone generates up to 52,200 overnight stays in a year.
If you look at the revenue of grouse moors, it’s irrelevant to most businesses in the countryside around. A shooting day with thirty beaters (grouse chasers), nine loaders (gun-helpers) and drivers for five vehicles may cost the industry around £1,800, and a really large shoot can cost up to £30,000.
The only jobs created in this interchange of money are for gamekeepers – at the cost of the tens of thousands of jobs that arise in ecotourism economies, which could incorporate these rural jobs, too, if an area ten times the size of London were not used for grouse shooting. By contrast, in 2009, the RSPB’s reserves brought £66 million to local economies, and created 1,872 FTE jobs. This is comparable to all of England’s grouse moors, but in just a fraction of their land area.
Compared to 40,000 visitors to grouse moors, Scottish National Heritage finds that 240,000 tourists visit western Scotland for whale-watching each year: a mere snapshot of one local ecotourism economy. An estimated 290,000 people visit osprey watch-points around the country. A minimum of 250,000 people fuel local economies by visiting our seabird cities. Around the RSPB’s South Stack reserve on Anglesey, in 1998, 43,000 visitors spent £418,000 in the local area – money that actually feeds into local pockets.
Even today, the English adult population makes just over 3 billion visits to the natural environment each year, spending £21 billion as they do so. In Scotland, nature-based tourism is estimated to produce £1.4 billion per year, along with 39,000 FTE jobs. That not only shoots down grouse-moor economics, but all the grouse jobs in Britain come to just 6% of this regional total.
The RSPB has over a million members. The National Trust has a membership of 4.24 million. ‘Nature-minded’ people in the UK, it would seem, are up to 11,000% more abundant than grouse shooters. We are very much more profitable to our economy – and the proof is out there for any government to see. Ecotourism economies trump grouse economies on a staggering scale – and that’s even before we have restored most of our nation’s wildlife….
Eight percent of a nation’s land, burned by 0.0003% of its population, for the creation of 0.008% of its jobs and under 0.005% of its economy, is a destructive national embarrassment. But as conservationists, it is easy to say what shouldn’t be going on. It is more useful to point, instead, to what should. In the words of the conservationist Alan Watson-Featherstone, we need to say what we would like to see.
In Rebirding, I’ve set out a few ideas for how our countryside could one day look, with upland hunting estates run in the manner they are in Scandinavia – as low intensity wilderness areas, with a whole variety of stakeholders at play. The hunt for wilderness need not preclude hunting. In our quest for a better world to live in, however, let’s not forget the economies of nature. Those arguments, not only the moral and ecological ones, are on our side as well.
REBIRDING is available from a variety of online bookstores including Amazon: