Sunday book review – Moorland Matters by Ian Coghill

I enjoyed reading this book very much. It immediately gets into my list of books of the year although I’d be surprised if it gets to the top of that shortlist, but you never know. I enjoyed it for three main reasons. First, it is a good read, clearly expressed and argued with some passion and that makes it stimulating. Second, it is always interesting to read the case against one’s own views and be reassured that there isn’t much in here that I hadn’t encountered or thought about already. And third, if this is the case for intensive grouse shooting then it cannot survive very long, as we are seeing all around the UK right now.

Ian Coghill is a former chair of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust and so he has quite some background in the issue of grouse shooting and fully deserves the opportunity to set out the case for driven grouse shooting. And the sub-title of the book, ‘The battle for the uplands against authoritarian conservation’ is a good one and shows where he is coming from – apparently scientists, conservationists, statutory agencies and even politicians are all ganging up on the poor gamekeeper (and the landed gentry). That is another way of describing public opinion, and I agree, it is turning quite strongly, so this book may come to be seen as a farewell note from grouse shooting to society that was really saying ‘It was fun while it lasted’. But judging from this book there is plenty of life in the old grouse shooting ways yet.

Coghill is very clear, and I like this, that this book is full of his opinions. And they are strongly held opinions, and I like that too, there is nothing wishy-washy about this book of opinions. It is, therefore, a good read. He writes well, in my opinion, and that makes it a good book even if I disagree with a lot of it. I would, of course, defend to the death etc etc Coghill’s right to hold any opinions he wishes, although I’m not sure he would do the same for me as it strikes me that it is not conservation that is authoritarian but the views of Coghill and others, but that’s just my opinion.

The book is structured in 19 chapters with titles such as ‘Does grouse shooting cause floods?’ (Chapter 3), ‘The road to hell is paved with regulation’ (Chapter 9), ‘Raptors’ (Chapter 11) and ‘Ethics and politics’ (Chapter 18) and this works well. What the book sadly lacks is an index and that is a structural shortcoming that will mean that when I revisit this book, as I most certainly will, it will be slightly difficult to relocate some of Coghill’s better arguments.

It would take a book to respond to all of Coghill’s opinions with the facts that undermine some of them and I won’t do that here, but here’s one I prepared earlier. Noticeably, my book on the same subject is ignored pretty much completely and does not find its way into the rather paltry reference section. I can tell you that if I were re-writing Inglorious today, Coghill’s book, because it is a serious book with opinions, would definitely be in my reference section.

Of course, although we can all have opinions, some of those opinions, for all of us, are grounded in values and some are grounded in facts. It’s possible to discuss values amicably, but one rarely changes someone’s values by conversation, but facts are facts and evidence is evidence. It’s perfectly possible for someone to select the facts and evidence with which they agree the most but in all difficult areas of public policy there are always facts, and usually evidence, on both sides of any argument. The difficulty for any decison maker is making sense of the vast plethora of evidence thrown at you by vested interests and coming to an overall view. Coghill’s second chapter, ‘A burning issue’ is now pretty much a done deal. In Scotland the government is going to introduce licensing of burning, much of it carried out for grouse shooting, and in England DEFRA has already introduced a terribly weak Statutory Instrument to reduce such burning though it is far too weak probably because of the frantic lobbying of the people who will like this book the most. Only last month, the Climate Change Committee issued their report to parliament calling on government ‘to extend the ban on rotational burning of peat from certain protected upland bog sites to all peatland before the start of the burn season in 2021‘ (click here, page 62). Now, clearly that call came after this book was written but that same committee has been saying similar things for a long time and yet doesn’t seem to have been noticed by Mr Coghill who writes, as his opinion, though not backed up by evidence, that ‘the claims of climate effects…are exaggerated‘. Well, Coghill can take that up with the Climate Change Committee but I think that train has left the station since DEFRA said in announcing its rather feeble restrictions on burning this year that ‘There is a consensus that burning of vegetation on blanket bog is damaging to peatland formation and habitat condition. It makes it more difficult or impossible to restore these habitats to their natural state and to restore their hydrology.‘. Neither climate change experts nor governments have been persuaded by the opinions in Chapter 2 of this book and they are right to have taken a completely different view of the subject, on the evidence as a whole.

That same selectivity of both the facts and evidence is manifest in Chapter 11 on raptors. How does Coghill deal with the inconvenient fact that study after study has shown that raptor persecution on grouse moors is at a very high level and at a level high enough to explain the absence of such raptors from those areas to an amazingly striking, obvious and undeniable degree (here are links to some of those studies and discussion of them, just as a recap, Murgatroyd et al., Fielding et al,. 2011, Etheridge et al. 1997, Natural England 2009, NatureScot 2008, Amar et al. 2012, and there are plenty of others)? Well, for a start, he doesn’t put any of those studies in the reference section which instead, for this chapter, has some slightly odd references to my mind. Coghill gives the impression of meeting the issue of raptors head on when he starts the chapter with ‘There is NO doubt that raptors have been killed by gamekeepers and there is equally no doubt that some still do sometimes kill them. this is illegal and should not happen. But if it does it behoves everyone to find practical ways to make it stop‘ but we’re very soon heading into the issues of brood meddling and reintroducing Hen Harriers to Wiltshire rather than any admission of the scale of illegal persecution of Hen Harriers and a blind eye is turned to the persecution of Golden Eagles, Peregrines, Red Kites, Goshawks and other species. Raptor persecution is rife on grouse moors, and is illegal, but once that is accepted then consequences follow, and the grouse shooting community and the Westminster government have never properly admitted the scale of the problem that exists now, on their supporters’ land. The closest I recall the pro-grouse shooters have ever come was the famous slip by Amanda Anderson of the Moorland Association when she was quoted as saying If we let the hen harrier in, we will soon have nothing else. That is why we need this brood management plan‘. It’s not actually a contrite admission of sins, but it’s the most we have and it’s a shame that Ian Goghill did not take the opportunity in this book to do a bit of humble admission of sins – but he doesn’t. And so, to my mind, his opinions are rendered a bit moot by his lack of attention to the evidence. In fact, it is slightly worse than that in that towards the end of this chapter Coghill claims that all the conditions that I set out in an article in The Field in 2011, including a prominent admission of guilt and a wide roll out of diversionary feeding have been met and therefore we should move now to brood meddling. But they haven’t, so we shouldn’t. My position on brood meddling of Hen Harriers is still that it could be used as a reward for better behaviour (ie greatly reduced illegality) on grouse moors. It should be a reward for good behaviour after Hen Harrier numbers have risen considerably, not a reward for continuing bad behaviour as it is now under the Westminster government. I am still the utterly reasonable and pragmatic Mark Avery of 2011 that Coghill seems to approve of, it’s just that, though he claims differently, grouse shooting hasn’t even dipped its toes into the Rubicon, let alone crossed it. This chapter on raptors disappointed me for the opportunities missed to move things on and to make some proper admissions on behalf of others and because it does not look the evidence squarely in the eye. It may be that while writing this book, Ian Coghill did look the evidence in the eye, but if so, it seems he blinked and turned away.

In Chapter 11 there is also much criticism, and many brickbats, thrown at the RSPB, but that is a feature of the book. It certainly makes it an entertaining read and I was keen to see what the next rant about one of the nation’s largest and most successful (in conservation terms) charities would be. There are just loads of them, mostly familiar and mostly to my mind both unfair and spectacularly misjudged. Coghill has a go at this conservation charity so much, so often, that anyone coming to this issue cold would begin to wonder what was really going on here – is the author obsessed with the RSPB? And why? It’s a handy collection of the opinions that are commonplace among a very small group of people and it’s a pity that there is no index otherwise we could all enjoy a few hours reading just those juicy passages for fun and amusement. I bet the RSPB has a team of people checking every chapter right now but they needn’t bother really.

The chapters each start with some anonymous quotes and I think I feature as ‘.. this enormous bloke‘ in one of them (page 65) but it is difficult to tell because so much of the rest of the account is wrong. The quote comes from ‘DT’ who might be the ultra-svelte BASC employee who was sitting near the front looking bothered through my talk but never did pluck up the courage to ask a question at the end. If he sends me his address I’ll put a pie in the post to him.

Here and there, Coghill did make me think. He dismisses the data on Mountain Hare numbers collected by the great upland ecologist, Adam Watson, over seven decades as ‘There exists a peer-reviewed paper claiming that the number of mountain hares has declined by 99% apparently as a result of mass shooting of by gamekeepers‘ without citing the reference so that you could read it yourself (help yourself here). Actually, that isn’t quite what the paper says – as you will see if you take the opportunity to read it which Coghill did not give you. But, Coghill does have a debating point when he says ‘A moment’s reflection might lead anyone to question how you can have mass shootings of something that apparently isn’t there‘. I smiled at that, and wondered where the truth lay, but I wouldn’t start by completely dismissing the Watson and Wilson paper.

I’ll give you just one more example of how Coghill selectively quotes the science. When he writes in Chapter 3 (Does grouse shooting cause floods?), ‘the study on which much of the ‘grouse moors cause floods’ sentiment appears to be based‘ says ‘…catchments where burning has taken place appear slightly more prone to higher flow peaks during heavy rain – however this is not a conclusive finding‘ that is correct. But what he surely knows is that the EMBER study (see here for a summary and here for links to the original report), a very fine detailed study, was not the last word on the subject and if you check the EMBER website, as Coghill surely has, then you’ll see this paper which (is a tough read – I know, I’ve read it several times – and) takes the science quite a bit further which is why the EMBER website says ‘This paper relates to Part 4 of the report. It provides more conclusive findings of soil and river hydrology, particularly during peak rainfall events, following further analyses of the data since 2014.’. Do you think that was written so that people like Coghill wouldn’t quote the original wisely cautious finding but might adopt the wisely cautious view that in big storms burned catchments shed water quicker than unburned ones? So, Coghill doesn’t tell you what the study from which he quotes is, and he also doesn’t tell you that the study’s website specifically updates the analysis on which he comments, and finds a result that contradicts what Coghill says about the science. It’s not a brilliant example of intellectual honesty in my opinion – at the very least Coghill has failed to help the reader to judge for themselves.

The very short Chapter 14, on ticks, was interesting and included the statement that large-scale culling of Mountain Hares and deer had not been as effective at reducing tick numbers as had been hoped.

I was completely unconvinced by the argument about authoritarian conservation – I think Coghill just doesn’t like many of the rules that society has decided and, more understandably, doesn’t like the way that statutory agencies implement government policy and the law of the land. We all feel like that sometimes. Of course, these arguments are framed in terms of the poor old gamekeepers who are down-trodden by everyone rather than it being powerful landowners who can’t stand having to stick to the rules.

Not much on lead ammunition here – that’s a shame.

The book has plaudits on its cover from Kate Hoey, Ian Botham and Matt Ridley and a Foreword from Owen Paterson – they all like the book. I don’t want to be too dismissive here but Owen Paterson telling the world that Ian Coghill’s ‘command of the science behind conservation is unparalleled‘ might literally be true but not necessarily in the way that Paterson meant.

The cover? Nothing special, 6/10, but the words inside the book are most entertaining.

I did enjoy reading this book because it is what it says on the tin, and it is very much what I expected from the author. It’s a useful collection of opinions, many of which are grounded in values that I don’t share and too few of which are grounded in evidence.

Moorland Matters: the battle for the uplands against authoritarian conservation by Ian Coghill is published by Quiller Publishing.

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21 Replies to “Sunday book review – Moorland Matters by Ian Coghill”

  1. Well done Mark for reading such drivel. I don’t think I could stick it further than about the second page. As you say it is always important to understand the “enemy”.
    People who want to kill our wildlife for fun or desecrate some good wildlife habitat or cause some other sort of environmental destruction are always vociferous in criticising the RSPB because the RSPB do such a brilliant job in preventing the work of such wildlife and environmental Philistines. Without the RSPB much of our wildlife in the U.K. and abroad would by now be nonexistent. They are absolute stalwarts.
    However the only really practical solution to preventing the cruelties and killings to our uplands wildlife and the environmental destruction that goes with it, is to ban for good driven grouse shooting and any other form of wildlife killing for fun.
    It won’t happen under this Westminster Tory Government because they are themselves predominately the killers and destroyers, but it will happen. When it does, fortunately Mr. Coghill will have nothing to write and complain about.

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  2. Brilliant review, so difficult to deliver an objective view on a subject you know so well and without getting into mud slinging.
    Ian Coghill will be able to quote you on how good his book is in much the same way that he seems to have selectively drawn support for his opinions from other sources...

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  3. A very good review I have the book on order ( 2nd hand so I don't put money in the author or publisher's pocket) and will no doubt both enjoy the read and sometimes be apoplectic or smile with derision but read it I will. Know thy enemy! The book may end up with lots of little post it tabs to the most quotable or otherwise bits.

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  4. Perhaps it's time to forget the birds and concentrate on things that will actually have an impact. There's an open goal coming up in November with COP26. Muir burn is an issue with a high public profile and it's got traction politically. There's a huge downside to politician who supports it publicly when day in day out the Climate Emergency is front and centre. Where's the Harry Kane who can knock this one home?

    Another opportunity presents itself all through this book (excellent review BTW). All the talk is about authoritarian governments, meddling townies and how the country people just want to be left along. Why not let them get on with it but they don't get any public money to do it and they have to pay their way just like the rest of us.

    The book is probably worth buying and it seems that it contains an entire manifesto for breaking the current "posturing and sabre-rattling but real action" logjam that we are in and outlines a path for getting driven grouse shooting consigned to the dustbin of history.

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  5. It sounds worth a read but I am not sure I would get past any sentence that reads, in respect of killing of birds of prey ‘But if it does it behoves everyone to find practical ways to make it stop‘. Nonsense. It doesn’t need everyone. It just needs criminals to stop or to be caught and jailed. There, fixed it for you, Mr Coghill.

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    1. Indeed - I wonder if Mr Coghill thinks the same about other categories of crime. Should we all be looking at practical ways of incentivising burglars into giving up their nefarious ways? Perhaps we should all leave some of our valuables out in the garden so they don't need to break in?

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    2. There has always been an easier way to stop bird of prey persecution and that is for the folk that the criminal owners and agents socialise with to shun them and make very public the reasons why. One of the reasons it has almost prospered is the fact that amongst the glitterati of shooting it is socially acceptable, because frankly without it they all believe DGS is badly damaged or untenable. The other thing is penalties, they are derisory and an indication about how "authority" feels about such crimes even on the rare occasion a culprit is before the courts and found guilty. Then of course the agent owner is not in the dock alongside the employee as the WCA only allows the culprit and not the commissioner of crime to be prosecuted, the bosses get out of jail card as it were. We need penalties like Spain, thousands in fines , plus jail time, compensation and bans from their pastime to indicate that this is serious and not as one keeper said to me the same as a speeding or parking fine. Also we need a dedicated wildlife ranger countryside service that will actually catch them at it rather than relying on the excellent RSPB investigations ( the real reason that RSPB are disliked) Coghill et al go on about regulation but frankly the regulation of shooting, their management practices, their guns and ammunition is utterly piss poor compared to other countries. It needs to be tough, experience shows that and that bus may have left town with a ban now the best option. The views of a townie the opposition will say, NO I've worked in the countryside since the mid 80s and been going regularly on grouse moors twenty years more than that for both sides.
      Coghill used to comment on this blog but stopped when he made no headway and anyway he is definitely a townie not that I hold that against him, most folk are even those who espouse his views.
      It is also true to say raptor and protected predator killing is a crime should be treated always as crime, and prevented and discouraged through enforcement, detection, prosecution and crime prevention education, not by sops to the criminals by such things as "brood meddling."

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    1. Comings or Cummings? Plenty of Tories are wishing they could shoot one of those right now...

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  6. I've been looking forward to your review of this book Mark, and you don't disappoint. Love your comment on the Owen Paterson quote - genius.

    It's very sad that such a gulf has grown up between conservation and many shooting interests - both could benefit so much from each other. Unlike some commenters here, I have no problem with people "killing wildlife for fun" and I don't think that line of attack helps the conservation case, although everyone is entitled to their own view of course.

    Coghill's book sounds like the sort of propaganda one can read on another website - entertaining on one level, but dangerous. It certainly won't help build bridges.

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  7. The quote on raptors, "some still do sometimes kill them" is such an understatement as to almost consitute an outright intentional lie. GWCT & it's grouse researchers know fine well that most keepers kill them most of the time (i.e. whenever they can get away with it). They are not stupid people and from just one of their research hubs in the North Pennines they spend countless hours on enough different moors to know exactly which Estates are hammering them and which (one or maybe two) are not. About time some of these genuinely decent people - many of them talented scientists and researchers - looked in the mirror and asked what are they selling their souls for.

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  8. "Authoritarian Conservation". Hilarious. Bulls**t of the first order. No need to read any further than the front cover in my view but thanks for ploughing through it Mark on our behalf.

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    1. I agree it is nonsense but it is a pretty good sound-bite that will sell well with government ministers and MPs who are philosophically wedded to ideas of small government, 'light touch regulation', etc (whether or not they are personally interested in grouse shooting). The challenge for conservationists is to prevent the notion from gaining traction and ensure that decision makers and the public at large understand that effective legislation to protect wildlife is an entirely reasonable, indeed necessary, element of a civilised society.

      Looking more widely than issues associated with grouse moors it is quite clear that the Boris Johnson's 'have your cake and eat it' attitude is very much at play with respect to wildlife conservation where his government's 'ambitious' plans for the recovery of nature are at odds with rhetoric about newt counting delays, streamlining the planning system and building our way out of the economic slump. It is vital that the Tory impulse to tear down every bit of regulation they can in order to 'unfetter business' is challenged rigorously and constantly if we are not to see more of our wildlife disappearing down the drain.

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    2. I would prefer to live in a society that had found the Holy Grail - where the Land and the People are One (Excalibur, the Fillum, 1981).

      But we don't so we need rules and their enforcement and if this needs to be called "authoritarian" then I happy to suck it up. The spades in my shed are all called spades.

      I quite like this outfit - their site has some illuminating reports with revealing stats. therein: https://unchecked.uk/research/

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      1. I am happy to call a spade a spade and a rule a rule, Filbert. "Authoritarian", however, is a value laden word that is used by Coghill to sow the notion that what is argued for by conservationists is disproportionate and an assault on individual liberties. There are many on the government side of the Commons for whom the word is sufficient for them to dig in their heels, put their fingers in their ears and refuse to listen to any other argument.

        Thank you for the 'unchecked' link - it looks interesting.

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        1. Coghill is by no means the first to employ a value-laden word for effect and definitely not the last if today's Gaianurd is anything to go by. In this case "authoritarian" is value-laden largely because of its application to and association with regimes we don't like, whereas in truth the application is a matter of degree. This is at the root of my preference for a circular rather than a linear model for the political spectrum, which would reconcile the anomaly of there being only a fag-paper between far-left and far-right yet infinite separation in the linear model - which is decidedly flat-earth. See what I did there?

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          1. Thank you Filbert. I am well aware that Coghill is far from being the first person on any side of any argument to use value loaded language to persuade others to his point of view. I don't blame him for doing so. My point was that, irrespective of whether we agree with his use of the term, it will be persuasive amongst the people who currently sit in government and who will be taking the decisions about how and whether grouse moor management should be regulated over the next few years. It is therefore not sufficient for conservationists to simply say 'oh that's rubbish' - it is important to find ways to counter it effectively and to ensure that other values resound in the ears of decision makers.

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  9. Book arrived a couple of days ago and I am reading it, has to be a few pages at a time as it is full of unfounded anti RSPB bile, factually dubious or factually outdated using selective and often old material or just plain old wrong. I don't know how long it took Mark to read it or the effect on his BP or mental state but it is worse in terms of bias and bullshit than I had expected, although admittedly the case is put eloquently but with more holes than a fishing net. If Coghill is reading this I had expected better a wider and more honest use of a lot more unbiased and more modern data and far less unnecessary and completely undeserved bile for RSPB and those of us with a different perspective to yours and I'm only a few pages in.

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    1. I've got most of the way through it now and frankly the book doesn't improve the further in you get. There are plenty of bile filled attacks on RSPB and Mark even when the cause of the bile was neither, never let the facts get in the way of some spite. Sadly I've learned almost nothing worth the brain cells. it is utterly full of the sort of tosh ( I'm being very polite here) even where there may be a case for his point of view. I should have expected no less it has all the worst views of the DGS lobby, particularly when it comes to predation and predators with few redeeming features. If one was writing a school type report it would be 3/10 and "could do much better if he tried harder with less bile showing his prejudged prejudice"

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  10. I almost forgot we also have the almost laughable claim that the Owners etc are prepared to talk to and try anything to solve the problems that we real conservationists have with DGS. A sort of meeting of minds leading to compromise. I recall and I'm sure Mark does as well that we tried that over Hen Harriers and after years of discussion where all their organisations moved not one iota the conservation side decided that it was no longer going to bang its head on an immoveable brick wall and walked. As I say laughable.

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