Grouse shooting over as moorland burning banned?

An article in today’s Observer is titled ‘Grouse shoots scrapped as heather burning is banned on moors‘. The headline doesn’t tell the whole story of course. Read a little deeper and the report goes on to say, for example, that ‘Torching heather, popular with gamekeepers but bad for the environment, is now outlawed in several upland areas of northern England‘. In other words the ban is not wholesale, it applies to large areas of moorland in England but not Scotland (where heather burning is also commonplace *), and – we learn – landowners have not banned heather burning for good (though that will surely be the long-term outcome) but have said that their tenants are ‘no longer allowed to burn heather routinely’. This, as the cliche goes, is not the end of driven grouse shooting, but it’s certainly the beginning of the end of it.

Having said that, it’s still a ground-breaking and welcome change of heart, of course, and it’s important to acknowledge the steps to ban the burning of heather taken by Yorkshire Water, United Utilities, and the National Trust – large landowners who allow grouse shooting on their holdings – described in the Observer article.


Now, we’ve written many times about why heather is burned – essentially Red Grouse prefer the shoots of young heather and shooting estates want a lot of Red Grouse to sell to their clients – and why it’s particularly unwarranted during a national crisis brought on by a virus that causes severe breathing problems and a looming global crisis brought on by climate change, but what we haven’t really discussed before is how we’ve reached this point.

There will undoubtedly be longer, more authoritative analyses written (we’re looking at you Dr Mark Avery), but at its heart is that on one side shooters and their lobby groups have been stuck in a place of denial and obfuscation, reliant on claims of tradition, economic arguments that don’t stand up to scrutiny, and the mainstream media for support, while on the other far more nimble and increasingly emboldened campaigners have come at them along an ever-widening front that perhaps seriously began with reporting wildlife crime (particularly by Raptor Persecution UK and the RSPB Investigation Unit) but that has broadened into undermining the assumption that landowners have the right to kill whatever they want, setting up Hen Harrier Days which have highlighted the connection between grouse shooting and the near-extinction of the Hen Harrier as a breeding bird in England, highlighting the cruelty of using vast numbers of snares and traps to kill native wildlife, and developing a skillful use of social media.

While wildlife and animal welfare have been primary concerns, over the course of perhaps a decade, we’ve also opened up the arguments to look at the importance of peat for carbon storage ,and the flooding of towns lying below scorched and drained moorlands. Campaigning groups like Ban Bloodsports on Yorkshire’s Moors have gone even further, and with persistence and hard work (as well as sound argument) have convinced moorland landowners that the changing public mood will impact their businesses and reputations for environmental stewardship if they rent those uplands out to other companies who do exactly what their customers no longer accept as ‘the norm’.

While shooting has appeared fractured, argumentative, and caught off guard, with outliers actively providing evidence (often via Twitter) of just how nasty some in the so-called ‘shooting community’ really are, campaigners and activists have sought to join up and work on our support for each other.

While we may not all agree on why we want to see grouse shooting banned (many leading campaigners, for example, are not anti-shooting per se, just driven grouse shooting, whilst others like the League Against Cruel Sports want to see all shooting banned) what we have all agreed on is that intensive farming of grouse is cruel, is unsustainable, is underpinned by wildlife crime, and is out of step with concerns about environmental degradation and climate change.


Where we still need to do more, perhaps, is in reaching out beyond our ‘bubble’ to talk with a section of the public who – like so many of us before them – has still to question the legitimacy of grouse shooting. This form of hobbyist slaughter is something ‘the establishment’ does, after all, that is still enjoyed by the Windsors (in August 2018 the Express gleefully reported ‘He’s a natural! Queen and Kate take Prince George on his first grouse shoot’), and – we’ve been told – is as natural as the turning seasons. It does seem that the majority are questioning that legitimacy now though, and while many, many people have been involved in the effort to bring this about, it’s been led by the likes of Mark Avery and Chris Packham, and journalists like George Monbiot and Patrick Barkham, who between them have rationally explained to their audiences why driven grouse shooting is not the harmless day out that we’ve been sold.

And it’s worth repeating again that shooting has responded in exactly the wrong way. Instead of asking themselves why these questions are being asked, what is it that the public now finds so distasteful, how they win back public trust, they have lashed out with ad hominem attacks in the mainstream media, branded anyone who cares about wildlife ‘animal rights activists’ or ‘extremists’, and in mounting frustration told us that we just don’t understand the ways of the countryside and that we ought to keep our townie noses out of something that has nothing to do with us (of course, many campaigners and activists live right in the heart of the countryside and know the issues first hand).

They have sounded out-of-touch, like brats stamping their feet rather than engaging in debate. And of course they have continued to trap and snare, argue about how many Hen Harriers are acceptable on their land, and, as even generally supportive media platforms have pointed out, continued to set fire to huge swathes of moorland.


Some more thoughtful commentators within shooting have noted that if grouse shooting is ever banned it will have been brought about by shooters themselves. To an extent that’s true – they certainly haven’t helped themselves – but it’s more accurate to say that grouse shooting simply does not chime with modern thinking about animal welfare and the environment. It refuses to acknowledge valid concerns about the enormous numbers of birds used as live targets for fun, let alone side-stepping equally valid questions about the impact of medicated grit, the ongoing use of lead shot, the slaughter of Mountain Hares to ‘protect’ Red Grouse, the building of tracks and roads across protected moorland so that shooters don’t even to have to bother with walking through the environment they’re abusing, the alienation of people with genuine questions about what’s being presented to them…the list goes on.


As we said above, there will be more thorough analyses. More individuals and organisations will be recognised for their contributions to the enormous effort being made to protect our wildlife and our environment from a handful of wealthy landowners and selfish gun owners. In the meantime though, we should take in for a moment just how far we’ve taken this campaign in a relatively short time. Not so long ago shooting advocates scoffed and patronised us, seemingly ‘safe’ in the fact that they had always run the countryside the way they wanted to and that the public really didn’t care what they got up to on remote moorlands they knew little about – but that’s not the case anymore.

The headline in The Observer goes a little too far in suggesting that a trio of landowners stopping heather burning means that hundreds of years of happily blowing Red Grouse out of the sky on a fun day out is going to stop overnight, but that is the definitely the way things are heading. From several concurrent years of poor weather meaning that grouse moors are unproductive to the thoughtless behaviour of their own employees, from companies turning against them to organisations putting volunteers into the field to monitor what’s happening on estates, from the courage of high-profile individuals standing up to shooting’s thugs to the heads-stuck-firmly-in-the-sand of their own lobbyists, the tide has turned against driven grouse shooting and is heading a very long way out from the shore indeed.

Shooting has abjectly misjudged what it believed was its immunity to a changing world. Wildlife does matter. The environment does matter. The climate does matter. Killing wildlife for fun does not. While we will go on to increasingly drive that message home (while shooting and its lobbyists will continue to bluster and splutter from marginalised sidelines), it’s hard to imagine now how grouse shooting could ever find a way to turn that tide in their favour again.


  • EDIT 06/04/20:* Scotland has now banned all moor burning (or muirburn), thanks to the deft actions of Andy Wightman MSP. As Revive reports, “Muirburn has been banned by the Scottish Parliament for the duration of the Covid 19 crisis to ease the burden on emergency and public services in case of fire going out of control. As calls for voluntary restraint were ignored, legislation appeared to be necessary. While this ban is only temporary, it shows that when there is the political will to tackle a crisis, common sense can prevail.”