A decade ago grouse shooting was having itself a ball. NGOs and campaigners rarely bothered with it. Birdwatchers occasionally raised a sceptical eyebrow, but as most of us scored a Red Grouse in the winter on trips to clean up on Scotland’s endemics it didn’t seem much to do with us. And the public hardly gave it a second thought either, neither in the run-up to or the aftermath of what the mainstream media routinely flagged up as the ‘Glorious 12th’. The twelfth of August was the start (we were told) of a gloriously traditional day out, of chums out on the moors, of sportsmen challenging themselves as the sun shone in blue skies. And we mostly either ignored it totally, or tutted a bit and moved on…
How things have changed. Essentially beginning with Dr Mark Avery’s scathing account of (especially) driven grouse shooting in ‘Inglorious: conflict in the uplands and the first Hen Harrier Day (largely organised by Mark and Chris Packham) plus Dr Ruth Tingay’s increasing focus on raptor persecution on grouse moors, the complex world of farming Red Grouse for the gun has been unpeeled and exposed.
And more and more of us do not like what we’ve learned.
Grouse shooting once appeared as a fairly remote, relatively harmless little hobby that had little consequence in the real world, but we now understand that it is an industry, heavily subsidised and stuffed with lobbyists and marketers determined to keep the ‘traditional’ image alive. Far from harmless, though, we now understand that grouse shooting is underpinned by wildlife crime, possible only on land that has been all but cleansed of native predators, wildlife critical to the health of ecosystems. Hen Harriers have all but been wiped out on grouse moors in England. The spread of Golden Eagles has been suppressed in both England and Scotland. Mountain Hares have been killed in enormous numbers because they might pass on a tick-borne disease to grouse. Estates use vast numbers of snares and traps to purge the uplands of mustelids, foxes, and corvids.
And that’s just grouse shooting’s collison with our wildlife.
Most of us recognise now that we are in a climate crisis, yet every year estates damage huge areas of peatland – much of it supposedly protected as SSSis. Around the globe peatlands store twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests. Britain’s peatlands alone store as much carbon as all the forests in the UK, France and Germany. A combined 3.2 billion tonnes of carbon are locked in our uplands, but decades-long programmes of burning and draining have left only 4% of England’s upland peatlands in favourable condition: many have converted from carbon stores into carbon emitters. That can’t continue.
Local communities are suffering as well. Many towns and villages below grouse shooting estates are liable to flooding after increasingly severe storms dump vast amounts of water onto the desiccated moorlands above them. They find themselves breathing particulate-laden air as tens of thousands of hectares of heather is burnt off so that grouse will have a mix of shoots to feed on and older growth to nest in.
And shooting is the last industry to still spread lead across the countryside. An environmental toxin, lead has been banned in paint, fuel, and water supplies for decades, but shooting lobbyists cling to their use of lead like children clutching security blankets. Taking away our lead, they wail, is just your way of stopping us shooting. We won’t allow it…They can cry all they like, legislation is coming and lead shot will be banned.
And what about all those Red Grouse that are gunned down so a few tweed-clad selfish ‘sports’ people can enjoy a day out? Morally and ethically it disgusts more and more of us that wild birds are farmed simply to be killed. There is an ever-growing understanding that the UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. We stand at the bottom of the G7 countries for remaining biodiversity. Running enormous parts of the uplands (including huge chunks of our so-called ‘national parks’) as shooting galleries appears tasteless and just plain wrong.
Does it matter what we think though? Yes, it absolutely does. As the evidence has mounted up, as the wildlife crime, the climate issues, the deliberate targeting of predators, the wanton slaughter of grouse, and the campaigning has become impossible to ignore, the tide has turned against grouse shooting. Governments are looking at licencing estates. Land owning utilities and local councils are banning burning and looking for more environmentally-friendly ways to use moorland. Rewilding grouse moors so that they do public good and function as intact ecosystems, working for the climate rather than against it, looks increasingly viable.
And the upshot of all of this – according to an article in Shooting UK (Grouse moors: who buys them and are they still a sound investment? 16 June 21) – is that potential grouse moor owners are becoming more reluctant to invest in grouse farming. It’s always been difficult to make a profit from killing Red grouse, but now even buying a grouse moor is becoming risky too. Would-be owners simply don’t know what new laws might be brought in before they’ve been able to take money out of the moor. It could become harder to sell your ‘look at me’ asset in the future as well.
With probably just around 300 grouse moors in the UK, and few coming to market, the article concludes that wealthy investors will still be tempted, but consider where we were at the turn of the century and how much has changed since then. Grouse moors were about prestige and influence. Land was sucking in trailer loads of subsidies. Not any more. Pressure has been piled on estates, and not just from those of us that shooting wants to portray as ‘antis’. Science is weighing in too, with its clear statements about the climate and biodiversity loss. Public opinion has shifted away from indifference to strongly questioning why shooting healthy birds for fun should still be taking place. And politicians are listening and weighing up whether to still listen to lobbyists or take more notice of the voters…
There is little doubt that were Shooting UK to write an updated version of their article in five years time the news for grouse estates would be even worse. The direction of travel is only going one way. Alternative land-uses are more appealing and more useful, particularly if they can keep all that carbon underground. Wildlife is more important to us than ever before. Governments can’t continue to subsidise the wealthy without at least demanding crime-free, pollution-free, public value in return.
Grouse shooting is buckling under the pressure. And fewer and fewer people will weep when it is finally gone.