Licencing of grouse shooting – why?

Today the Labour Party (the official UK opposition party) announced that they were in favour of licencing grouse shooting. It has taken a huge amount of determined work behind-the-scenes from the likes of the RSPB to get to this place, and that deserves commendation (and if the shooting lobbyists cry foul, let’s remember they’ve been whining into politician’s ears for decades).

Calls have gone out for grassroots organisations and campaigners to support the development, but while we appreciate the need for a united front we feel we have a duty to be honest and state that licencing grouse shooting is not an option we favour: we believe that everything that goes into delivering wild birds to a handful of shooters (from the eradication of native predators, illegal persecution of birds of prey, the slaughter of Mountain Hares, destruction of blanket bog and peatlands, and of course the killing of hundreds of thousands of Red Grouse themselves) is unethical, underpinned by wildlife crime, and not fit for the 21st century. If we said otherwise we would be going against everything we’ve written since we launched a year ago.

Having said that, we do recognise the importance of Labour’s announcement. It makes them the first political party in the UK to do so, and when taken with the Scottish Government expressing reservations about waiting five years to introduce a licensing system north of the border it’s clear that a shift in British politics is taking place. As we said, it’s taken a lot of work – including of course presenting the undeniable weight of evidence – to move Labour from a position of calling for a ‘review’ to calling for licencing.


A history of ‘thinking about it’

The Labour Party has hovered close to a call for licencing over the last few years, repeatedly calling for a ‘review’ of grouse shooting. Almost exactly two years ago (on August 13th 2018) former Workington MP Sue Hayman, then Labour’s Shadow Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary, wrote an op-ed titled “It’s time to end grouse moor practices that harm the environment” (note, not ‘harm Red Grouse’). In it she wrote that “Labour is calling on the government not only to mandate the end of rotational heather burning but to launch an independent review into the economic, environmental and wildlife impacts of driven grouse shooting“. Almost exactly a year later Ms Hayman called for a review which would “consider viable alternatives to driven grouse shooting, including simulated shooting and wildlife tourism. It would also examine the economic and environmental impacts of driven grouse shooting, which is the most common mode of hunting grouse.”

Why not go further? What does Labour think licencing will (or might) achieve?

According to The Guardian, “Labour has called for grouse shooting to be licensed after a big increase in illegal killings of birds of prey during the coronavirus lockdown, the majority of which, investigators say, are linked to the sport“. Ignoring the facts that it’s not ‘sport’ to stand in a hole in the ground while birds are flushed at you or that it’s not investigators ‘saying’ criminality increased during lockdown it’s absolutely clear-cut, why would this prompt licencing rather than banning?

The same Guardian article quotes Plymouth Sutton and Devonport MP, Luke Pollard, who was appointed Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in January 2020, saying that, “The government has failed to cut wildlife crime and a decade of austerity has left these birds vulnerable to poaching, with fewer police preventing poaching and fewer officers able to catch those responsible”.

We need a new approach to protecting and restoring the numbers of these iconic species, with a review into how grouse moors operate and proper licensing in place.”


What is ‘licencing’?

Licencing would, apparently, involve a shoot obtaining an operational licence from a regulator which would, at minimum, have conditions attached mandating the shoot follows wildlife and environmental protection codes of practice and laws. Where there is evidence suggesting that a shoot has failed to follow those conditions the licence can be withdrawn, even if the evidence pointing to criminality is less than sufficient to merit criminal proceeding.

So in essence what licencing is doing is suggesting that shoots should not break the law or they’ll be refused permission to carry on and slaughter hundreds of thousands of wild birds. Despite breaking the law for decades (protection for birds of prey came way back in 1954 via The Protection of Birds Act!) or even refusing to acknowledge that lawbreaking takes place aside from a few ‘bad apples’ (do a search, there are examples of this ridiculous self-absolution being given all over the internet), the industry will change its ways if it’s threatened with withdrawal of a licence? Pull the other one…


Enter the ‘enforcer’

You have to ask the question, which regulator will act to withdraw these licences? Presumably (in England anyway) it would be Natural England – the same organisation that has had its staffing slashed yet still found time to approve both Hen Harrier brood meddling (a sop to the shooting industry) and the badger cull (a sop to the dairy industry). We wrote a post last year explaining brood meddling titled ‘Hen Harrier Brood-meddling 101‘ in which we said that, “the same owners who have – at best – shown ‘wilful blindness’ about the illegal persecution of raptors by some of their employees, have been given government permission to remove a legally protected species (one that has a minor commercial impact on their hugely profitable businesses) from the one habitat those birds breed on“. That government permission came, of course, from Natural England (the same Natural England that we now know, thanks to a Freedom of Information request from Mark Avery, has singularly failed to impress anyone other than the shooting industry with their brood meddling ‘plans’ – see his post ‘Natural England and Crowdfunding‘).

And what if Natural England decide to act? We’re not lawyers, but we’ve been around long enough to know just how convoluted an appeal process can be. The shooting industry will typically first deny any crime, then dispute how evidence of wrongdoing was collected and whether persecution actually took place on the estate under question anyway (maybe the dead raptor flew in from next door on its broken wing before dropping dead. they will play the hardship card (just think of all those below minimum wage beaters who’ll be laid off m’lud’). And if the evidence is incontrovertible it will scapegoat a gamekeeper while shuttling them off to a mate or allowing them to sneak back before the end of the season (in a recent clear-cut case involving the shooting of a Goshawk, ‘action’ was taken against three gamekeepers: one ‘worked his notice‘ before resigning, the other two were ‘reinstated following their colleague’s resignation and ahead of the start of the grouse season’). It will take years to remove a licence or shut down an estate if it can be done at all….

If we’re utterly sceptical about regulatory enforcement, how about police enforcement? Or enforcement via the RSPB Investigation Unit? The RSPB’s team are above reproach as far as we’re concerned (we know a number of them personally and have recorded numerous podcasts with them – see eg Ian Thomson (RSPB) | Sorting Fact from Fiction), but they are fighting a wall of silence from the estates, lawyers routinely claiming they’d made mistakes collecting evidence, and intense lobbying efforts to discredit them and their motives. Luke Pollard MP acknowledges there are ‘fewer’ police now, which makes licencing enforcement via the police even more unlikely. The police are making (some might say, are at last making) efforts to tackle raptor crime nonetheless and we recognise that. Operation Owl has brought together a number of forces, and police in persecution hot spot regions like North Yorkshire have recently cracked down on eg poisoning incidents. But the suspicion remains that some senior officers (who shoot) may not be all that interested in spending time trying to get licences withdrawn from shooting estates. Given the recent rise in illegal persecution/wildlife crime that’s perhaps not an unreasonable suggestion for us to make…


Licencing misses the point

Surely, though, the most important question to ask is: how does licencing help protect wildlife better than banning grouse shooting outright? The answer is that it doesn’t. It is intended to protect birds of prey (which are already protected in law but are being killed anyway) but does absolutely nothing whatsoever to protect the unknown numbers (because estates aren’t required to keep records) of native predators and mountain hares that are routinely killed to ensure artificially high numbers of birds (real, live birds, not some stock unit known as a ‘grouse’) can be sold off to be shot.

Now we love raptors. We love Hen Harriers and Golden Eagles, and Goshawks and Buzzards and White-tailed Eagles (all of which vanish over grouse moors) – but we also love foxes, badgers, stoats, weasels, corvids and whatever else is out there. Licencing is all about sticking to legal requirements (you know, those laws we should all be sticking to anyway), and will do nothing to protect the huge numbers of animals that the government allows the industry to kill legally. Kill legally simply to protect shooting industry profits.

And of course, and this is a point we have argued with the likes of the RSPB on many occasions, how does licencing grouse shooting protect grouse? As many as 700,000 Red Grouse might be shot in a ‘good season’ (not our words, that’s how the industry describes so much blood-letting). Don’t they count? Don’t they warrant protection? Conservation organisations argue that they don’t have the resources to protect all species, just ones of conservation concern. That’s an argument we fundamentally disagree with anyway, but what additional resources would it take to allow Red Grouse to breed in relative peace on the moors they’ve bred on in relative peace for thousands of years? If the habitat is lost because it’s not torched every year, if chicks are taken by predators, if grouse numbers decline – well, that’s nature, that’s natural. It’s normal. Simply ignoring the shooting of over half a million Red Grouse because they’re not rare enough is not a position we can support. It’s not ethical. It ignores the advances made in the understanding of animal sentience. Of the right to not have your life taken by a human being on a day out.


While we applaud the work that has been done to bring this about, while we welcome signs that political thinking is changing, licencing says that it is okay to kill vast numbers of animals – and that is not okay with us.