Driven grouse shooting

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Why are Hen Harrier Days also a protest against driven grouse shooting? Because grouse moors across the north of England and Scotland have the highest levels of wildlife crime, in particular the persecution of raptors and especially the hen harrier. But the problems associated with driven grouse shooting go wider than that and this page provides a little background.

Red grouse are a bird of the upland moors, a UK subspecies of the willow grouse. A ground-nesting bird which feeds mainly on heather flowers, seeds and shoots, it cannot successfully be reared in captivity. It is declining in the UK (roughly, from the south and west towards the north and east) for reasons that are not well-understood but probably include a range of factors including climate change.

Driven grouse shooting is a so-called ‘sport’ in which grouse are driven by beaters towards people with guns standing waiting in prepared ‘butts’ to shoot them.  Fast-flying, grouse are said to make difficult targets, but on moorland intensively managed for them, amateur shooters can kill large numbers.

Grouse shooting is a very expensive activity and shooters expect to be able to shoot lots of birds. But because (unlike pheasants) grouse cannot be bred to order, each year’s shoot must leave enough birds to breed for the next season. So shooting estates aim to produce a ‘shootable surplus’ each year, the bigger the better. Stopping other animals from eating the grouse or their chicks  is central to this and hen harriers (the clue is perhaps in the name) like to eat grouse. Studies suggest that hen harriers may take sufficient grouse chicks to make driven grouse shooting uneconomic. Sadly, therefore, illegal persecution of the hen harrier is rife, driving the bird to near extinction in the 19th century and again more recently in England, with numbers in Scotland in sharp decline too. Other predators may take grouse too and are also persecuted.

For many people, wildlife crime is their main initial reason for opposing driven grouse shooting. But it is far from the only ill associated with the ‘sport’, and some of the others have come increasingly to public attention:

  • Animal welfare. Red grouse are ground-nesting birds and subject to predation from foxes, stoats and other mammals as well as birds of prey. In order to produce the numbers required to be shot, these creatures are mercilessly trapped, snared, shot and sometimes poisoned. Some of this is legal, some illegal: it is always inhumane and often non-target species are caught up in it. Many countries have banned traps and snares, and there are campaigns for that in the UK.
  • Loss of biodiversity. This destruction of so many other species reduces biodiversity across wide areas of our uplands. Whilst a few other ground-nesting species, such as curlew and some other waders may benefit from the intensive management regime, most species do not. It is not just potential predators that are killed indiscriminately. Mountain hares are culled because they are believed (without evidence) to put grouse at risk through carrying disease-bearing ticks. And the burning of the moorland (see below) kills many other species including rare snakes and amphibians. Driven grouse moor is, in the end, much like over-managed farmland except that it is used for ‘sport’ and not food.
  • Burning. Red grouse benefit from heather in varying stages of development, younger shoots providing food and older growth cover for nesting. So, to maximise the number of birds available to be shot, heather is burned on a rotation basis to produce a grid square landscape easily recognised from space and in satellite imagery. Science is now clear that burning is harmful to the environment. It reduces biodiversity, dries the land permanently and has turned what should be bog into drier heathland. Crucially, peatlands have been turned from what should be a carbon sink into a potent source of carbon release. Driven grouse shooting is a significant contributor at a national level to climate change. Natural England and Scottish Natural Heritage are increasingly concerned about this but codes of voluntary restraint have been flouted so legislation is on the way.
  • Flooding. Natural flood management is increasingly understood to be a key component of managing flood risk. A key component is management of water flowing off the uplands. You can’t stop the rain but you can slow the flow. For that you need the moors to be more sponge-like; more sphagnum bog and less dry heathland. Ditches cut to drain the moors for grazing must be blocked, and the upper river courses returned to their natural state (beavers can help with this.) Some grouse moors take government funding to block ditches and the like, but returning the moors to their pristine conditionon a landscape scale is incompatible with driven grouse shooting, so it’s not happening where the ‘sport’ persists.
  • Water quality and public health.  It costs more to clean the water from grouse moors, to filter the residues caused burning – and the consumer bears that cost not the polluter. And in order to maintain high grouse numbers, the birds are given medicated grit to control a parasite that is believed to reduce grouse numbers on a cyclical basis. The veterinary drugs used end up in watercourses with unknown effects. Finally, grouse shooting still uses lead shot. Lead is a highly toxic metal which kills tens of thousands of wild birds each year and which has no known safe lower dose for humans. Some land-owning and shooting organisations now say they will phase out lead in five years – but that’s another 10,000 tonnes of toxic lead scattered across our environment.
  • Economic impairment. Grouse shooting argues for its economic importance in areas where there are few other opportunities. In fact the ‘industry’ is a trivially small employer despite the vast areas of land that it covers, and in reality contributes little to local economies. What is often forgotten is that it crowds out other activities which can bring more benefit, be it walking and hiking, wildlife tourism or others. A study in Scotland concluded that any other activity would bring greater economic benefit.

Awareness of the ills of driven grouse shooting is much greater than it was just a few years ago. Gone are the days when the August press had only silly-season stories about the 'Glorious 12th' to mark the start of the grouse-shooting season. Every story these days – and there are more now – includes criticism of this controversial ‘sport’.

Six myths about driven grouse shooting

Driven grouse shooting is a ‘sport’ of the rich. (It costs upwards of £1,500 for a day’s shooting.) It is also on the defensive – principally because it knows it is indefensible. But because it has huge resources at its disposal – thanks to the extremely wealthy participants – its defence lines are often sophisticated and corrupt. Modelled on the cigarette companies’ ‘merchandising of doubt’ when clear scientific evidence of the link to cancer emerged, driven grouse shooting is adept at producing spurious 'research' and creating its own myths, some of which can be seductive. So here’s a short list of their favourites:

Grouse shooting preserves rare habitat

Heather moorland is sometimes described as ‘rarer than rainforest’. It’s meaningless, a bit like saying ‘saltmarsh is rarer than savannah’. The implication is that without driven grouse shooting it would disappear – but it wouldn’t. It is true that, left to its own devices, much land that is now intensively managed for grouse would change if left alone. But bog is beautiful and essential to our survival, as are trees (which would not anyway occupy the higher ground). There is much heather heathland in the UK and the world which is not grouse moor. So yes, the landscape would change but we would have choices about that which are presently denied.

Biodiversity is greater on grouse moors

This is simply false, an example of a ‘big lie’ seeking to bluster its way through. As discussed above, it is certainly the case that some species such as curlew can benefit from the intensive management designed to benefit grouse. This is not a surprise and has been known for years. But too often the argument goes like this: grouse moors can mean more curlew – more curlew means greater biodiversity – therefore grouse moors mean greater biodiversity. You don’t have to be a master-logician so see why that argument is false.

‘It’s just a few bad apples’

Perhaps the emptiest myth of all. Driven grouse shooting is based on organised crime, and organised crime does not give up its clansmen readily. Omerta rules, there is no instance of whistleblowing in living memory. It is time for the ‘industry’ to ask itself what happens if for years you leave rotten apples in a barrel.

Driven grouse shooting peaked in the 19th century. It is not hunting, which requires skill, and it is not sporting, which requires fairness. It has its own weird rituals derived from the past, making it more akin to costumed historic re-enactments (without the wry self-awareness) than to a real sport. Its appeal is to those seeking real killing and fake fun.

Photo credit: many thanks to Ian Francis, RSPB, for the picture above.