Alternatives to driven grouse shooting

This paper is a mixture of the completely obvious and the quite important. It takes the oft-quoted suggestion by pro-grouse-shooting interests, that the only real alternative land uses to intensive driven grouse shooting are harmful agriculture and harmful afforestation, and says that isn’t true. It clearly isn’t, because what happens in terms of land use is a societal decision which will be influenced by the suite of regulatory and encouraging options that we put in place. For example, there has been little new conifer afforestation in the English uplands for decades because a previous Conservative government decided so. We can in theory have whatever uplands we wish to have. We, the public, are not powerless in these decisions, because this is a democracy and because public money pours into every land use and so we can adjust the flow to get what we want. Policy is a somewhat blunt but powerful weapon, but it is in our hands all the time.

The authors’ jumping off point for this line of thinking is Ian Newton’s book (Uplands and Birdsreviewed here) which is slightly unfair since that book has a good discussion of one of the alternative land uses for the uplands, namely rewilding. Often windfarms are the third in the list of land uses that we would get if driven grouse shooting were to go. They cite Mary Colwell’s Beak, Tooth and Claw (reviewed here) as one example of the mistaken view of future land use options but others they mention are all from GWCT sources but they fail to include Ian Coghill’s recent book, Moorland Matters (reviewed here) which seems to have been sent to every decision-maker in the country and which cleaves to the same erroneous view that the sheep, wind turbines and Sitka Spruce will run amok if we have the temerity to end an ecologically bankrupt land use of shooting artificially high densities of Red Grouse for fun. I couldn’t help smiling when I was reminded that Coghill’s book proudly boasts of a Foreword by the now-disgraced Conservative ex-cabinet minister, Owen Paterson.

This paper also references other books that put an alternative and more accurate series of future land use scenarios in play including my own (Inglorious, which to a large extent kicked off this debate in 2015, see here) but also James Rebanks’s 2020 English Pastoral (reviewed here), Ben MacDonald’s 2019 Rebirding (reviewed here) and Dieter Helm’s 2019 (Green and Prosperous Land reviewed here). One could now add Andrew Painting’s 2021 Regeneration (reviewed here) and last week’s (February 2022) publication of Lee Schofield’s Wild Fell (reviewed here).

We are sometimes told how wonderful grouse moors are for raptors. This half paragraph is a useful antidote to that venom;

The authors of this paper conclude as follows;

What makes this paper more important than stating the pretty obvious is that its authors all work for the statutory nature conservation agency in England, Natural England. They can probably look forward to being branded as eco-zealots for speaking out in such a mild way. But seriously, this statement is helpful and we should make sure it is quoted widely. Unfortunately the flawed project-fear narrative from the shooting industry is out there very widely in books, leaflets etc and, more importantly, in people’s heads, and most of those people will not be avid readers of Ibis.

I thank the authors of this paper, and their bosses, for its appearance. It doesn’t say anything really new, it’s just remarkable in this day and age that it is being said at all by statutory agency staff. This slightly obscure (with all respect to Ibis) paper hardly represents a fightback from our conservation agency. It is not what we would have got from William Wilkinson and Derek Ratcliffe, but at a time when other parts of Natural England are going through contortions to try to prop up Hen Harrier brood meddling as a solution to a question that appears to be ‘How can we keep driven grouse shooting going?’ it’s good to see this paper appearing which says ‘We don’t necessarily need it anyway and if it went there are many future options, some of which might just be better’.

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14 Replies to “Alternatives to driven grouse shooting”

  1. This sounds like a really excellent paper and similarly good comments by you Mark.
    A large part of our uplands in the U.K. is a devastated landscape having been cleared of trees in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and then swamped with sheep so that none of the seed bank could regenerate. Anything that gets this across to the general public has to be good.
    To obtain reform on most fronts, and this is certainly needed as far as our upland land use is concerned, it is often more productive in my view to progress in smaller steps or stages. If one tries to tries to make a very radical change all in one go, that change may often fail to take place, mainly because people are often rather fearful of change, especially if it is major. So this paper seems to move in this right direction. Once people can see that the smaller changes are really quite acceptable then things can proceed much quicker to the larger changes. Rewinding on some upland estates is a good example. All this needs to progress in parallel with scotching the many pieces of total miss information put about by the the shooters for fun. For example that the uplands are good for birds of prey and birds generally. Again, for example, during my ten day visit last year in the spring mainly to see limestone pavement flora in the North Yorkshire Moors I saw not a single raptor and very few general birds other than Meadow pipits. There was just one kestrel just lower down off the moorland.
    In this twenty first century we need to positively progress step. By step changes to our upland land use and throw out the false statements put about by the “shooters for fun.brigade” of the Victorian age

  2. Sheep, wind turbines and forestry are seen as the main three alternatives to intensive grouse shooting by those who favour DGS because to them it’s all about money. (I mention this on the ‘know your enemy’ principle.) They know most of this land is privately owned and the owners basically see it as a way to make as much cash as possible. (Is that the only thing they enjoy, money?) All other perspectives are, to them, so secondary as to be irrelevant.
    Are they incapable of doing some work and earning money that way, like most of us do? They can’t be bothered it seems – they’d rather plunder the world and destroy it.

  3. If a carbon emission tax is priced at £100 per tonne what value can be placed on moorland’s ability to capture carbon. Given the areas covered even the most modest figures soon run into the hundreds of millions. Given that corporations are buying up land that value would seem to be under-appreciated. it might even be enough to tip driven grouse shooting into being uneconomic in comparison. Cue, then, appeals to tradition in an attempt to save the “sport”.

  4. It is depressing that it is so ingrained in the British psyche that everything must have some sort of financial value or use. Nothing can just be. This bloody country.

    1. I am inclined to agree with you but there’s a Problem and that’s that that Nature has an Intrinsic Value but it has become fashionable to refer to this as Natural Capital which is a Rabbit hole which if you fell down it you would bump into a Throng of Wonks stumbling around in the Dark searching for this Trove of Capital that Wonks imagine exists purely for them to sequester and charge the rest of us Saps an Entry Fee to just look at it until it becomes so Degraded by Footfall that it no longer has any Intrinsic Value as Nature because Nature got Hacked-Off with it All and Left but no matter look that doesn’t matter because the Wonks will by then have turned the Intrinsic Value of Nature which used to be a Public Good into their Private Pensions and when if ever you emerge from the Rabbit Hole into the Sunlight Uplands you will be met by an Unter-Wonk who will ask you to complete a Visitor Satisfaction Survey and whether you enjoyed the Carbon today.

    2. I do agree Random22. Everything must give something back to the almighty, self-justifying human! The fact there are so many of us in a small space makes this much harder to change of course.

  5. Great to see that these are Natural England scientists: perhaps this will encourage their leaders to focus on science and conservation, as opposed to being a mouthpiece for downplaying the harm being done by government policies and inaction.

  6. As you point out, the scare stories about forestry on the moors hasn’t played out in reality. What has – and is barely ever mentioned – iss improvement creeping up the hill, which, combined with massive grazing pressure has over the past 30 years done far more harm than forestry. there’s nothing ‘traditional’ about Welsh sheep numbers 4X greater than ever before.

    But should we be planting trees on unimproved moorland anyway ? As Mark and I pointed out 30 years ago in Birds & Forestry trees are only there because of 1947 agriculture policy, surely outdated today ? If the only tree you can plant is Sitka Spruce (let alone Lodgepole Pine) maybe you shouldn’t be there ? Surely the right place is lower down – the poorest end of improved land where pre-war plantings show what superb trees can be grown. But conservation is making quite a hash of the current tree planting craze. The 1990s are long gone and there’s a limit how far ill-informed criticism can take you – there need to be positive ideas alongside genuine concern over potential negative effects.

  7. I keep seeing web ads in my feed for things like ‘Working for Wildlife’ (an Environmental Conservation Organisation apparently – supported by G(W)CT), and the ‘Countryside Restoration Trust’. Can’t help wondering whether they aren’t Trojan horses.

  8. The countryside restoration trust was Robin page’s ‘vehicle’. It hass actually done good work on environmental farming, as has GWTC at Loddington which is often cited alongside RSPB’s Hope Farm. That these are worthwhile no way endorses some of the actions of their parent bodies – the increasingly outrageous Robin Page has, I understand, largely been removed from the CRT.

  9. Mark,
    Thanks very much for taking the time to look at our forum piece and for your thoughts on it. I have some observations to make to clarify a few things.

    “The jumping off point” was not Ian Newton’s book Uplands and Birds but his Ibis paper Newton, I. 2021. Killing of raptors on grouse moors: evidence and effects. Ibis 163, 1–19. https://doi.org/10.1111/ibi.12886. As this was published in Ibis, our response was to the same journal. People should note though that this is an open access article should they want to have a look for themselves.

    The referencing of the publications by Hudson 1995, Sotherton et al. 2009, GWCT 2020 and Colwell 2021 was to demonstrate that the prevalent view (that the only alternatives to grouse moor management are sheepwalk and plantation forestry) had been repeated in publications for a long time. We did not refer to Ian Coghill’s book Moorland Matters because none of us had read it, and if we had, would it have added anything different from the publications listed? Incidentally, we appear to have been left off the mailing list for a copy of this book which I am sure is just an administrative oversight!

    1. Alistair – many thanks. Yes, my mistake on the Ian Newton front, but you’ll find the same view in Ian’s very good book.

      You didn’t get a copy of Ian Coghill’s book? Would you like mine? Would it have added anything? Not at all, only another reference to the same view. Does it add anything to the world?

      Thank you again for writing your review.

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