Yorkshire: The end of grouse shooting in sight?

An article in The Guardian this Sunday (22/Dec/2019), looking at a “landmark” decision by Yorkshire Water, the county’s largest landowner, to review the leasing of its land to grouse shoots, suggested that, “On Brontë country’s moors, the end of grouse shooting is in sight“.

It goes on to say that “in a major shift the utility company has confirmed that it will review the leases on thirteen areas of moorland it owns – including Haworth Moor, synonymous with the Brontë sisters – when they come up for renewal“.

When an existing shooting lease comes up for renewal, we will undertake a thorough review to assess the best option to deliver the required land management for the future,” Yorkshire Water confirmed in a statement. “This will be done using our innovative six capitals approach, which assesses the benefits to natural, social, human, manufactured, intellectual and financial capital. This approach ensures all potential benefits of an option are quantified and assessed.”

Excellent news for the growing numbers of us that don’t see wildlife as a resource to be used as target practice. Or that don’t see a landscape ruthlessly purged of its predators (such as foxes, weasels, stoats, corvids, and Hen Harriers) as ‘natural’ and ‘well-managed’. Or that ‘Bronte country’ looks better with tracks cutting into remote areas so that shooters don’t have to get their new boots wet than without.


Why the change of mind?

So how did this apparent change of heart come about (after all Yorkshire Water has been selling the wildlife on its land for a long, long time, and says on its website that, “Over many years we have established positive long-term partnerships with sporting tenants both on our land and other landowners’ holdings and these have enabled us to deliver significant water and wider environmental improvements through land management“)?

The Guardian quotes the ‘does-exactly-what-it-says-on-the-tin’ Ban Bloodsports on Yorkshire’s Moors (BBYM) and its tack-sharp young spokesperson Luke Steele. “Customer pressure combined with evidence captured by moorland monitors on Yorkshire Water land has focused the company’s mind on making urgent changes to conserve wildlife and habitat and to benefit local communities…while this isn’t yet the end of grouse shooting and the problems that this practice brings, we have moved one significant step closer to achieving that goal.”

Customer pressure and evidence. Sounds simple enough. In reality of course while BBYM has achieved a remarkable amount in its relatively short life Luke is right to warn that, ‘This isn’t the end yet”.


This isn’t the end yet

Getting an article in The Guardian is hugely significant, but it’s not the end yet because driven grouse shooting is an industry worth millions to estate owners. Parts of the media still re-hash press-releases about the ‘Glorious Twelfth’, the start of an orgy of blood and blasted feathers, without questioning what they’re writing. Sections of it still salivate over the Great Grouse Race, selling us misty-eyed images of “local, genuinely free-range British produce, served as fresh as it gets”, the Yorkshire dew still clinging to the limp corpse of a bird that just hours before was living its life out on the hillsides.

And all industries have their lobbyists. Bans across the developed world saw marketing drives to promote smoking in countries where the news about cancer wasn’t so well-reported. Despite all the evidence of the havoc alcoholism wreaks, that hasn’t stopped lobby groups confusing health advice with messages about ‘responsible drinking’. Pesticide manufacturers still claim we’d starve without drenching the countryside in poisons. It’s perhaps worth remembering that the so-called Countryside Alliance was formed from the British Field Sports Association and the Countryside Business Group and soon morphed into a tool to dismantle the Hunting Act 2004. Despite the occasional foray into campaigning for connecting broadband to remote estates (sorry, remote villages), the tool bit still stands. The CA now spends its time bemoaning the popularity of Chris Packham on social media and whipping up its dwindling but vociferous supporters to fight back against threats to hunting (threats like the law and public opposition). This despite even the Conservative Party seeing the writing on the wall and not openly campaigning for repeal of the Act in the 2019 general election.

Shooting will not exit the Yorkshire moors easily. The same Guardian article quotes GWCT spin-doctor Andrew ‘Cherrypicker’ Gilruth, routinely presented as the acceptable face of killing wildlife, saying that, “Open heather moorland, the sort best preserved and maintained by driven grouse shooting, is now globally rare. Yorkshire Water must be congratulated for its commitment to ensuring these ancient landscapes will continue to support both the wildlife and the communities that depend on them.”

These are the arguments we will see increasingly wheeled out. Moorland can’t exist without being burnt to its roots or having ‘sportsmen’ slaughtering its wildlife. These ‘ancient landscapes’ are best understood to a background of gunshots and 4X4s. It’s vital to support wildlife, as long as it’s red, feathered, and weighs about 600g. And of course we’re here to look after local communities – whether those local communities (as demonstrated by BBYM’s campaign) want us here or not.


Talking to ourselves

These same debates have been forensically picked apart in recent years by the Raptor Persecution blog, Mark Avery’s “Inglorious Twelfth” (a chapter by chapter dissection of driven grouse shooting), Birders Against Wildlife Crime, the aforementioned Chris Packham, and Hen Harrier Day. And that’s not to mention the less forward-facing work of eg the RSPB Investigations Team, the Northern England Raptor Forum, and many more. Attitudes have been changed, information disseminated, and (as BBYM’s success proves) arguments are being won. But we still face an even larger and potentially harder fight to win: we’re largely still talking to ourselves.

The sad truth is that few people outside pro-wildlife and pro-shooting circles have any idea that Yorkshire’s ‘Bronte country’ is so widely used for killing birds. Or that shooting is widespread in our national parks. Or even that (incredibly) it is legal for the driven grouse industry to deploy hundreds of thousands of wire nooses and crude spring traps on moorland to ‘control’ unknown numbers of native predators (unknown as there is no requirement to keep count).

Few people? Surely not. But then who is actually talking about stopping shooting? Conservation has rarely taken on ethical and welfare arguments about shooting, choosing instead to focus on ‘scarcity’ (and Red Grouse populations, artificially kept high for the guns, are not under any immediate threat). The ‘environment’ is – at last – a burning topic, but is almost always now conflated with climate change (which of course is critical to the survival of – well, everything, but is often directed towards the impact it will have on us and our way of life). In the lead-up to the ‘great debates’ of this general election, the UK’s political parties wrote about wildlife and animal welfare but barely spoke about it. What’s a few birds compared with Brexit?

That’s not to say – of course – that campaigners and activists don’t recognise the ‘echo chamber’ problem. The majority of speakers at Carsington Water, the location of this year’s Hen Harrier Day (image below), spoke passionately about the need for wider engagement (while acknowledging the irony that their words were largely being heard by an audience who’d heard much the same thing at every Hen Harrier Day).


A real countryside alliance

None of this is meant as criticism. Less than a decade ago barely anyone (including birdwatchers and self-professed ‘nature nuts’) realised what was happening to our birds of prey on grouse moors. Most of us assumed that, like most of Europe, the UK had banned snares long ago. Few people ever challenged the mantra that the ritual plundering of our uplands was ‘Glorious’. Progress has undoubtedly been made. We question more. We are getting better at recognising lobbying and propaganda. When the situation is properly explained the public undoubtedly side with wildlife rather than siding with killing it. It’s just that there is still a lot more to do. And less time to do it in.

We must make alliances and work together. As collaborations against intensive grouse shooting like the Revive coalition and BBYM and the League Against Cruel Sports, are proving huge strides can be made when we come together. We must also be absolutely clear about what we actually want (if we can decide what that is). And we must find ways to reach new audiences (hopefully this website will prove to be one of those ways). Above all, we mustn’t get complacent. Shooting won’t. The more cornered it feels, the more aggressive it will get.

2020 will undoubtedly see more pressure applied to grouse shooting. It will take more hits. There are (Christmas) reasons to be cheerful. This is a fight that can be won. We just need to be aware that if there are any certainties in life, one is that shooting will never easily give up what it sees as its right to inflict death and destruction – especially when it’s The Guardian telling it that the end is in sight!