Shooting in National Parks

Around 22,660 square kilometres (or 8725 sq miles) of UK land area are designated ‘national parks’. According to the homepage of the UK’s National Parks website, our fifteen national parks are “some of our most breath-taking and treasured landscapes. From the rugged wilds of the Cairngorms in Scotland and the ancient woodlands of the New Forest in southern England to the golden shores of the Pembrokeshire Coast in Wales, all of our National Parks are truly special places. Hmmm. ‘Treasured landscapes‘. ‘Rugged wilds‘. Perhaps. ‘Truly special places‘? That probably depends on your definition of a ‘truly special place‘. Somewhere to go for peace and solitude, go hiking or birdwatching perhaps, or to enjoy wildlife? Or how about somewhere to go and listen to shooters killing that wildlife and filling the valleys and hills with the sound of gunfire…?

Shooting in National Parks Astonishingly, shooting and the habitat destruction and trapping/snaring that goes with it is actually commonplace in our ‘National Parks’. The website of the North Yorks Moors NP acknowledges, for example, that “Commercial shooting in the National Park is available on privately owned land and consists of seasonal grouse and pheasant shooting, with small volumes of partridge and duck shooting also available”. Most shooting does indeed take place on private land within ‘national parks’. but, you might reasonably ask, surely ‘national parks’ are owned by the nation, or at least managed for the benefit of the nation’s people. Or even the nation’s wildlife? Think again. As the website of the Peak District National Park states, “More than 95% of land in the National Park is in private ownership. The National Park Authority has no legal or statutory role to regulate shooting other than on land it owns, which comprises between 4-5% of the National Park”. The vast majority of the land in the Peak District NP is privately-owned. But the law is the law, regardless of who owns the land, right? You’d hope so, but the northern part of the Peak District NP, known as the Dark Peak, is actually so bad for illegal persecution of birds of prey that the RSPB released a daming report in 2018 called ‘Peak Malpractice’ which highlighted the problem. Shooting’s criminal element is not confined to England of course. Many of Scotland’s most notorious wildlife crime ‘hot spots’ are in national parks, huge areas of which are controlled by shooting estates. The infuential Raptor Persecution UK website has detailed many instances of destruction and wildlife crime in the Cairngorms National Park, for example.

Wildlife in ‘national parks’ So, large parts of our ‘national parks’ are privately owned and are places where, contrary to expectation perhaps, wildlife crime has been documented on many, many occasions. Even so, surely wildlife in general is protected in a ‘National Park’? Hardly. In fact, millions of native mammals (especially foxes, stoats, and weasels) and birds (especially corvids) are shot, poisoned, or killed in legal traps and snares every year in ‘national parks’, solely to ‘protect’ pheasants and Red Grouse for shooters. And while traps and snares are legal here in the UK, that doesn’t mean they are somehow animal welfare friendly. A recent report from Revive (a coaliton for Grouse Moor reform in Scotland) titled ‘Untold Suffering‘ “documents the extent to which animals are being killed and subjected to negative welfare impacts to ensure grouse stocks are kept artificially high to be shot for entertainment.” Alongside the removal of vast numbers of native animals, our national parks aren’t protecting natural habitats in many instances either. Fences and tracks (to allow shooters to drive up to shooting butts, for example) criss-cross ‘remote’ areas. Sheep graze out natural vegetation in huge numbers. Widescale burning of moorland is also routine in many of our ‘special places’. Red Grouse, farmed for the gun at industrial levels in many of Scotland’s and northern England’s ‘national parks’ (often as many as 325 grouse per sq km, around 20 times the natural level), prefer a mix of heather growth throughout their lives, so the land is regularly torched, roasting “reptiles, small mammals, insects and tree seedlings”. The destruction is so bad, that Kevin Cox, chair of the RSPB, was quoted in The Independent in March 2019 saying that, “National parks are not delivering for wildlife and are often in worse condition than areas outside the park”, and that even calling them ‘national parks’ was “misleading because practices including farming, tourism and grouse shooting were doing so much damage“. It’s a sentiment also expressed many times by noted conservationist and campaigner Dr Mark Avery. Mark contributed to Chris Packham’s ‘A People’s Manifesto for Wildlife‘ as Minister for Upland Ecology and said on a recent podcast for this site that, “our national parks are national parks in name only” and should be downgraded until their problems are sorted out.

Shooting lobbyists Of course, shooting holds a different view. The so-called Countryside Alliance proudly highlights a 2016 poll that ‘proves’ how important the mass killing of wildlife is to ‘national parks’. It says that “shooting came in 3rd out of 23 options among those who live and work in a National Park and 2nd among those who live and work outside a National Park.” It doesn’t say that the poll was a survey organised by a campaign group (not by the parks themselves), had less than 10,000 respondents, and was heavily promoted by shooting lobbyists on social media (even the survey’s creators recognised that responses had been ‘self-selective’). Or just how much destruction and wildlife crime serving up a continuous supply of live targets to guns is responsible for. Or that despite their efforts the poll suggests that in fact walking, enjoying the view, and seeing wildlife is why most people were coming to ‘national parks’.

Fighting for our ‘national parks’ The disastrous situation facing wildlife in our national parks is not recognised by government either. In November 2019 (so prior to December’s general election), then environment minister Rebecca Pow (MP for Taunton Deane) said that there will be no changes to grouse moor shooting rules and that (bizarrely) the activity is good for wildlife conservation. Fortunately, as already mentioned, there are groups working hard to raise awareness of the realities of shooting in ‘national parks’, and are making headway in turning the situation around. Another such group is Ban Bloodsports on Yorkshire’s Moors (BBYM). BBYM has made remarkable progress in challenging the assertions that  national parks are good for wildlife. It’s succeeding because its members largely live and work locally, talk directly with park authorities and local communities, are well-researched, and are unbelievably persistent! In the last few years BBYM have campaigned remorselessly, established moorland monitoring groups to report back from ‘the field’, and taken their message out to events and meetings on numerous occasions (we joined them in Braford recently for a podcast). Their latest press-release (dated 15/Dec/19) reports on recent progress they’ve made to tackle “intensive game bird shooting in North York Moors National Park”.

The North York Moors National Park Authority has voiced concerns over the increased disruption being caused by the intensification of game bird shooting. In a letter to Ban Bloodsports on Yorkshire’s Moors and the North York Moors Moorland Monitors, the national park’s Chief Executive, Andy Wilson, outlined fresh steps being taken to tackle the problem, which it says is disturbing visitors and local communities, degrading important habitat and resulting in obstruction of rights of way. The national park has adopted a presumption against allowing new moorland tracks for grouse shooting, will not automatically renew its pheasant shooting lease at the Levisham Estate and will give serious consideration to producing a bird of prey persecution evidence report as part of its next management plan in 2020. Luke Steele, Spokesperson for Ban Bloodsports on Yorkshire’s Moors, welcomed the progress being made: “The North York Moors National Park Authority has a considerable responsibility, as the custodian of one of the country’s leading conservation landscapes, to ensure habitats and the wild animals which make them home are protected and enhanced. “Whilst the National Park Authority cannot end game bird shooting it can use its powers to rein in the growing environmental damage and disruption to communities caused by intensification of the practice, which it has rightly committed to doing by engaging with concerns. There is still work to be done, but these are important first steps.” Bird of prey persecution in the National Park is one of the long-standing problems associated with game bird shooting, with eighteen incidents of raptor crime reported since 2005. This includes hen harriers, goshawks and buzzards being found shot, trapped and poisoned and satellite-tagged birds of prey ‘vanishing’ without a trace over grouse shooting moors. “Another cause of environmental damage is the large-scale release of non-native game birds into the countryside, with more than two million factory-farmed pheasants and an unknown number of partridges released in North Yorkshire in 2018, according to DEFRA records. The North York Moors National Park Authority is the only national park authority in the country to lease land for game bird shooting and campaigners say that by ending the practice it will set a positive example for other landowners in the area to follow. Andy Wilson, Chief Executive of North York Moors National Park Authority, said in his letter: “The issues surrounding shooting remain very much in the public mind: this is very clear from the continuing mix of letters, comments, phone calls and social media coverage which we receive in Helmsley and I pick up at Parish Forums and other local events.”

Our view We are of course open to the charge of being lobbyists ourselves (we speak out in public fora on behalf of wildlife), but contrary to the opinion of shooting lobbyists, we believe that shooting does not benefit local people, is harmful in the extreme to native wildlife, is underpinned by wildlife crime, and does not enhance the experience of many visitors to what should be the ‘crown jewels’ of our protected landscapes.
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