Guest blog: A stranger’s Short Diary on encountering the grouse and pheasant shooting industry for the first time

The first year visiting village X, February 2018

I can only see a few feet ahead of me. A Swaledale trots up, but huffily bleats her complaint when she realises I’m not the farmer. A Red Grouse whirrs “go back, go back” and drops like an arrow at the end of its trajectory and is gone. Then my shrouded lane reveals a bridleway and a kissing gate and I’m through to a mangled path. A rabbit runs from between my feet only to be swallowed by the dense white and the fog presses until I am wrapped in visible blindness. Then it breaks suddenly and against the blue a Sitka spruce rushes fast towards me, dew-wet branches sparkling and burning like diamonds. In front of me and as if surprised, a swampy heath and a rabbit warren give way in a sweep to a balding moor, rabid and foreboding.  Balding because there should be more trees, rabid because it is scorched earth from the swaling. In a second it too has disappeared back into the fog, like a hasty passerby in a rush to get out of the cold. I take the hint and retrace my steps, meaning to make for home and my gaze falls upon a small wooden box with wire mesh pushed up against blasted hawthorn and grass. It’s so obviously placed out in the open by a road. I blink. It’s a stoat trap. It’s the legal kind, but disquiet begins.

March 2018

I’m back. Country girl that I am currently living in the big smoke and hating it, I can’t keep away. The inappropriately or perhaps appropriately named “Beast from the East” is also here and rasps its icy breath over everything. I can’t walk far, snowdrifts 12 feet deep or more cover the moors. The lanes roundabout have grown towering verges of snow and blue icicles so enticing, you fight yourself not to jump in them like the hares. When I stroll down “X-Lane” towards the edge of the plateau, I meet the kind of cold winter dryness I have only experienced in post-soviet spaces. I stop at a hedge. Inexplicably, on their backs supported by the dry spindly fingers of the hawthorn and blackthorn, lie a cock pheasant and a fully grown rabbit still as statues and as dead. As a child, I’ve lived in and roamed over various parts of rural Britain and I’ve campaigned against badger culling and fox hunting taking place in my area, but I have never seen, on all my thousands of rambles on untrodden paths and lanes, anything as obvious as this. They are not roadkill – this place is roadkill county and no one bothers to remove splattered corpses from the highways – in fact, I’ve seen a deer so flattened into the tarmac up “X-dale” it resembled a nuclear shadow from Hiroshima. So who would put these animals in the tops of hedgerows and why? I’ve not experienced it yet, likely because of the inhibiting bad weather, but I realise that this is game shooting land – and it’s likely these animals in the hedge are bait filled with poison for the raptors, rooks and crows keepers say take the grouse and pheasant chicks. They are placed on the top of hedges and fences for maximum visibility and away from the snouts of the 20 or something dogs resident in the village. I think, “It’s madness that people are against such birds like sparrow-hawks because they hunt and kill so openly, but we excuse ourselves of the same thing. It’s madness that the shooting industry thinks it has to destroy all other competition weaker than itself – raptors included – to flourish. It is madness that such pressure is put on the gamekeepers to retain certain numbers of birds when the industry contributes – what? – 0.005% of our GDP and something like 0.008% of jobs. Why then is such a small industry able to have such a massive impact on how huge swathes of our countryside is managed – and by default how people live in it and use it? Something is going badly, philosophically wrong.” My stomach cringes slightly.

Summer 2018

Are we in a war zone? The way keepers speedily career around in their decommissioned army jeeps as they transport shooters over the tracks right up to the grouse butts makes you think so. If one is walking one has to be careful and watch out on the lanes. And anyone would think we were in mortal danger, the way guns are so openly on view, balanced dangerously on the shoulders of quad bikes or dangling lazily in people’s laps. I see more guns here than I do in the hands of the security forces on the streets of our cities. I mean it’s only grouse and pheasants! Whooping and yodelling from the beaters high in the hills reaches my ears. It’s as if we’re in the cowboy capital of the world and not the half domesticated hills and valleys of Great Britain. Piercing cries of pain shatter my thoughts. I am drawn to a small hole in a wall, two pairs of bright eyes stare out incomprehensibly at me. As blue bottles fight to get to them I think they are kittens and that they are crying because of the flies. I want to touch, but some inner instinct curbs the desire. Good job, as a quick phone call confirms these are probably not cats but mink cubs. Now, I cannot shrug off the thought that they might have been poisoned – they are definitely experiencing pain. And whilst they might not have been poisoned by keepers, it feels all related in these killing zones. I am helpless to help them and the screams continue. I stupidly try soothing words and soothing noises, but the blue bottles keep filing in to feast on the flesh they know is dying. The next day something or someone has dragged the poor mink out and left them exposed on the grass verge. There are four of them. It is as if people are going mad – it is legal to kill minks because they are seen as a pest (for me this still does not make it right) but by shooting or using traps. Poison is a slow death and is not considered humane. Back in the village people speak in whispers of a dog fox that has been allowed to live because he does not bother the grouse or pheasant chicks. I’m appalled. Should I be applauding this decision? Why do people think and believe they have the right to play God?

Fast track to summer 2020

My knowledge about the shooting industry and the related issues around land management, eco-diversity and raptor persecution has grown. After watching my first Hen Harrier Day online (we are in the times of COVID) I am more aware of what to look out for and what to do if I see things that look awry. There have been a few missed opportunities – there are at least two more locations, one even on a busy moor road, where I have seen what looks like “bait” pinioned to trees and bushes. But now I am looking the practices seemed to have stopped – I don’t know whether to be relieved or worried that, due to the extensive media coverage of raptor killings of late, people have become more covert and their activities are more off the beaten track. The only half-solace is that this year the industry has been hit by the dreaded heather beetle, at least 75% of shoots won’t go ahead and the glorious 12th has definitely been inglorious. Yet might this make keepers even more eager to protect depleted numbers of game, especially grouse? Whenever I see a harrier, falcon, buzzard, kestrel or even owl up here, I worry. And my mum will text me to say a Red Kite has been spotted up “X-dale” or a Sea Eagle is visiting and then we both wonder aloud how long they will last. Although I know that a lot of local people don’t support the industry, they are still are reluctant to speak out and air their views – there can be ramifications. It is ridiculous and shameful that one cannot openly object to a “sport” that is destroying the countryside without fear of abuse and worse. And the other thing that’s a shame is that every time I think about coming up here, a shadow crosses my heart because it feels like death. Even the woods are alive to the sound of it, the ones here remind me of George Orwell’s powdered carcasses…

In fact, the whole area feels as if its chi is out of balance. The smells coming from the woods are not always the sweet smells of Scot pines or Norway Spruces, sometimes there is a decaying smell – perhaps it’s stink pits used to attract raptors. But is it also the stink of man’s conscience, a conscience not yet awakened to the decimation this mismanaged industry is bringing to certain parts of rural Britain. What can be done about these killing moors and hills? has to be the question on every responsible person’s lips.

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23 Replies to “Guest blog: A stranger’s Short Diary on encountering the grouse and pheasant shooting industry for the first time”

  1. This petition is relevant - https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/321425?fbclid=IwAR00D59zCcS-N8hnVn9HJL9AP62h4Yyde09mXajLOKM93OLV64HirLVoUq4

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    1. Unless I'm missing something, this petition is highly relevant and should be supported - thanks for bringing it to my attention.
      I doubt that it will become law anytime soon, but a really good number of signatures would send another clear message to the criminals in the shooting cabal.

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  2. I inadvertently wondered into a Pheasant shoot whilst on holiday in Wales. There was I, thinking that the area I had found, the valleys that run down to the South Side of the Dyfi Estuary near Machynlleth and Ynys Hir, were prime Goshawk territory, when I ran into this area, gamekeepers and Pheasants everywhere. Thousands of them. It was like an intensive chicken farm. The only place where I have seen even higher densities of Pheasants was on Stonewall Hill near Presteigne. Got told off for straying off the footpath too. It really was the "low-light" of the family holiday.

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    1. I knew about the area you are writing about Gerard. We live in a similar area between Llandinam and Llanidloes, my partner decided today to walk up the steep hill behind the house and found some nice little bridges over the brook that eventually enters the Severn via our garden. These bridges go nowhere except stands to shoot from, she saw thousands of freshly released Pheasants some very small and a equal number of Red legged Partridges. Lots of sign of predation by birds and foxes. We do have Goshawks although they run a gauntlet of persecution, I saw an adult female today soaring with a Buzzard and a different adult still in moult a couple of days ago. There are Goshawks where you went but there are more in Hafren Forest around the Clywedog and there's always a chance of Osprey and Crossbill there too. I usually ignore keepers when they tell me I'm off the path etc, what can they do?

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      1. That bog behind Borth is impressive and we saw lots of Sundews at Cors Caron. Other highlights included Bottlenose Dolphins, an Osprey at Creggenan Lakes, lots of Wheatears, Manxies and Gannets from the coast road between Fairbourne and Tywyn. The best was the kids faces as they saw their first dolphins.

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  3. Really!? Come on Mark, you can do better than this! May not agree on a lot but generally the standard and knowledge on your blog is generally much better than this! Writer clearly showing a lack of knowledge of shooting, game keeping, the countryside and wildlife here. Very poor! No wonder they wanted to be anonymous. Strange that? A lot of us have moved on from this much repeated heart strings fictional stuff. It gets boring. It's folk that keep writing stuff like this that we need to educate how important wildlife and real conservation really is from both sides.

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    1. Steve - it's a guest blog. This is what someone thinks. I know why they want to be anonymous but clearly you don't. Please feel free to list the errors contained in this piece - otherwise you are simply slagging it off with no reference to what is wrong.

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      1. Well, I must admit I am a bit puzzled by the blog myself. Respectfully, could the author be asked to say more about the presumed baited carcasses in the tree? I say this because I have never known this . I know quite a bit about the dirty work keepers do and I can easily locate traps, snares, dodgy looking fenceposts, etc but I don't believe that poisoning (which is rife in many areas) is or has ever been done this way, at least not in a big area of the north of england I know well. As ever, I am happy to be corrected.

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        1. I think its a great blog because it describes one person's feel of the place with a pervading sense of un-natural, man induced death of all the wildlife. The only way to tell if bait has been poisoned is to get someone to send it to WIIS but of course they can take 9 months or so to come up with the result. And absolutely no chance of a prosecution after that time. I think the descriptions in the blog are credible - much bait is left out so the gamekeeper can see what carrion eaters are attracted to the site and "predator control" can be targeted accordingly.

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          1. Bob, I totally agree that keepers do like to leave dead stuff laid about in prominent places to see what eats it. Or maybe this tree was close to a wall and could be craftily approached by quad, and any Crow or Buzzard shot as they fly out of tree - the same reason way they squash rabbits on the roads. But to hang poisoned carcasses from a tree? I think this does not happen in northumberland, north pennines or YDales at least. If it has been confirmed somewhere by a reliable source, I would be interested to read about it.

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        2. You sound quite pleased with yourself and bragging with such knowledge you should be hiding with shame

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          1. Hi Derek, I'm unclear if your comment was directed at me - it's easy to add a comment out of sync and be misread. Please advise, thanks.

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      2. Yes Mark. Only you would know that. I am surprised you chose to post an anonymous blog of someone who most of the clever folk on here can clearly see has very limited knowledge as i said!? But! Who is using this to slagging off the shooting community, farming,countryside management and conservation. That's OK is it? Maybe some should read it again. . Just the obvious ones amongst others. . . . Poisoned baits? How was this known? Mink visible and crying out that were first thought to be cats? Poisoned dying and being feasted on by flys? Really! How so? A fox allowed to live because does not predate on grouse and pheasants? Brilliant! . As for there other knowledge of shooting and pest control. Lets not go there . . If the author has such great care, knowledge, understanding and able to identify poison carcass's and dying wildlife simply by looking. Why!? Didn't they photograph (evidence), report, remove carcass's and humanly dispatch or try to get help for the "dying" young? Preventing any secondary poisoning from carcass's being predated, picked up by dogs or kids. Even on the second visit to one scene? I shoot, carry out targeted pest control and conservation work. That's what i would of done and been my first thought if i suspected poison! . . Sadly facts and evidence don't seem to matter any more!

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          1. Like many on here i would imagine! Only a life times passion for all things nature Mark! . I do lack a single species obsession with HH and raptors in general. Is that wrong? Plenty of my own hands on conservation success doing what i can, where i can to help many species (including fish) and try to educate others to do the same without agenda. I live off the land, what i shoot and barter whenever i can . . . .OK. Maybe i am not as bright as you Mark. Care to expand on your comment? . What haven't i got?. . .Educate me!

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    2. Here Bloody Here! Another load of codswallop scribed by a self confessed anti and city dweller who thinks she's got a right to go where she likes and moan if other are doing stuff she has no understanding of.
      The whole reason the class war heroes like the moors is because of what they are and how they look and that is all down to the owners and keepers management! Stay in the city amongst your rubbish!

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      1. On and on with the the same old town/country crap. Funny how self-styled "countrymen" still churn this out, regardless of the fact that most signatures on the pathetic petition in support of DGS came from central London.

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      2. Hi William, that blog wasn't my cup of tea either, it was a bit dreamy and sketchy with real reality. In the eyes of the undecided man/woman on the street, I doubt it will add much weight to the case for ending DGS. It is responses like yours that will do that. Do you not have the feeling of a hook, line and sinker stuck in the back of your throat?

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  4. Whilst there is always going to thise for and against shooting the emotive slant that the guest blog portrays should sit alongside the issue of taking the life of any mammal, fish, bird, or insect .
    Mankind does this on an industry scale to feed the millions of us across the world .
    Householders too kill mice, rats wasps,ants , flies of all kinds .
    Its the taking of a life .
    So with the moorland situation lets look at the science which has been pier reviewed and time and time again its noted that moors with predator control have in the region of 6 times more abundant birdlife than thise that dont have any control.
    These are red book listed birds that are fast being lost from our landscape .
    There is a real need to face up to facts before its too late ,let the uneducated become educated not brainwashed .

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