A response to Mark Avery’s second news letter by John Miles

Mark has taken on the role here of ‘informant’ now he has left the RSPB and wants to convey the true story of what is happening around the world regarding nature conservation. In his latest ‘news letter’ [not blog] he talks about Red Grouse and Hen Harriers. Sadly Mark has missed a golden opportunity by omitting many important aspects, which may be due to his lack of experience in the field. I was disappointed when much of what is known about Red Grouse moors was not included in what he did write down.

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The biodiversity on a majority of England’s heather moorlands used for shooting have been destroyed to

accommodate large numbers of Red Grouse at the expense of countless numbers of “protected raptors”.

First of all Mark tries to make a point about ‘driven’ Red Grouse which he does not explain in detail. This is the fact that shooting ‘driven’ grouse is a relatively new shooting activity, which first began in the Victorian era. Before that all Red Grouse were shot via ‘walked up’ or rough shooting which is the accepted practice undertaken in Scandinavia/Iceland for shooting Willow Grouse.

If ‘driven’ Red Grouse shooting was banned due to the resulting massacre of birds of prey on Red Grouse moors admitted by so many landowners, there would still be the traditional type of shooting which would bring in the same amount of money. If the guns were charged for a day out on the moor, not per brace shot, this would in my view resolve a lot of the problems resulting from the persecution of raptors on Red Grouse moors in this country.

Not only would there be more days shooting available, there would be no need to destroy SSSIs, SPAs, AONBs and other designated areas by creating access roads to drive the guns to the butts. Red Grouse shooting would then be seen as a ‘healthy’ way of enjoying our moorland uplands, not just a way of destroying them along with the raptors which breed there.

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There is no doubt the Red Grouse is a very iconic game bird. We must not forget however large numbers

of “protected” birds of prey are then sacrificed to enable a small minority in our society to enjoy their so-called sport.

Another important point, the tourist season could be extended as the days increased for shooting on the moor which in turn would then bring more money into the local economy. Bags would be for a hand full of Red Grouse instead of the 3000 brace [6000 birds] shot, which unfortunately many estates expect these days.

Remember ‘driven’ Red Grouse shooting is unique only undertaken in this country because this is a game bird so British it is not found anywhere else in the world. So by removing ‘driven’ and replacing it with ‘walk up’ the guns wanting to shoot Red Grouse would still be able to do so. Another aspect of ‘walked up’ is the use of dogs especially pointers to locate the birds. It then becomes a much more challenging sport requiring knowledge of the birds themselves.

The shooting fraternity want to call ‘driven’ Red Grouse shooting a sport. Well, most sports actually are an activity not just transporting the guns to where they are able to shoot. Health is a big problem in today’s society. ‘Walked up’ Red Grouse would challenge most people’s physical ability, but would in my view be much more enjoyable overall.

As estates currently ask for payment per brace when shooting driven Red Grouse, this means one Peregrine or Hen Harrier, if present, can remove from the estate a certain % of the estates yearly income from Red Grouse. ‘Walked up’ shooting would not require the high number of Red Grouse, so the pressure would be removed from the estates to kill these iconic birds.

Another major stumbling block on all this is the ‘back handers’ given to keepers. This is again locked in tradition if you can call it that. Satisfied shooters after a good day out on the moor give ‘cash’ to the keepers as a way of rewarding their services. Such tax-free rewards are given to keepers according to how well the shooter has enjoyed his or her day out. On one occasion during the search of a gamekeeper’s home by police officers in connection with other criminal activity, they discovered £4000 in cash hidden in the bottom of a table draw. Such ‘tax free’ money which supplement a keeper’s annual wages are well known and provide the keeper with an incentive to remove protected raptors that predate Red Grouse, species killed include anything from Kestrel to Golden Eagle. 

Most estate owners know this practise takes place but all too often turn a blind eye to it until a keeper is caught killing birds of prey. Then it is often the keeper who suffers the consequences not the owner/shooting tenant. The keeper can lose his job, his house, his land rover and any chance he may have had in finding another job keepering on another estate. Given the tiny number of keepers that are apprehended and successfully prosecuted for the persecution of protected raptors, the tradition and motive to kill raptors will continue.

As for the information about Hen Harriers referred to by Mark, the first Langholm project did not finish in 1997 but was carried on by naturalists after this date. In addition there was no mention of the 24 pairs of Hen Harriers mentioned by Mark Avery which then soon fell back to normal breeding levels of 2 pairs after the scientists left. The reason for this decline was natural predation which could not happen during and throughout the first Langholm project as 5 game keepers were killing all the ground predators on the moor. To give an example in 3 years 200 Foxes at least were killed by keepers at Langholm. At this point in 1998 all 5 keepers on the Langholm estate lost their job resulting in an increase once more in predator numbers in this area, except for the Hen Harrier, which then once more became a controlled species.

Foxes and even Ravens were seen to remove Hen Harrier eggs at Langholm. I personally witnessed a similar decline in ground nesting raptors in new forestry plantations, not by trees closing in, but because of an expansion in numbers of ground predators. Species like Fox, Stoat and Weasel removed the ground nesting Short eared Owls. Even Short-eared Owls have an ability to disperse when food becomes harder to locate in one area. They then congregate in a new area once a new food supply is found, for example here at Geltsdale at the present time where there are no keepers.

Massive increases in Hen Harriers numbers were only ever recorded historically in ‘New Forestry’ plantations, not in areas away from Red Grouse moors. Again this was due to the explosion of the vole population but as the trees grow larger they remove the light from the ground, in turn removing the voles and all predators. Mark Avery also fails to point out in his newsletter that the natural biodiversity is being totally destroyed on heather moorland to accommodate this expansion of unnatural numbers of Red Grouse. This is an issue which even Dr Helen Phillips, the Chief Executive of Natural England, has consistently failed to grasp.

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This year in Lancashire’s Forest of Bowland no less than 14 Peregrine Falcon territories are known to have failed;

so far no one from Natural England has bothered to ask Why!

So the facts are that these, the claims being made by estate owners that their Red Grouse are being destroyed by birds of prey is totally wrong. It is in fact the estates and their keepers that are destroying the natural balance of England’s uplands. Red Grouse is the only bird that needs heather. None of the other 39 species put forward by Des Thompson of Scottish Natural Heritage are related or have a natural association with heather habitat. For example Merlin are really tree/crag nesters throughout their world range. They are forced to nest on the ground in heather due to the lack of trees. The same missing trees that made Black Grouse decline by 60% in one winter in England.

Burning heather is now being brought into question, as the real uplands are loosing their ‘sponge’ effect caused by massive draining programmes which were being paid for by the tax payer to increase heather growth. Already the public have seen their homes flooded down stream in cities like Carlisle where in 2005 3000 homes flooded resulting in £billions in costs due to this drainage and just for a few extra Red Grouse which could then be shot. 

 Estates will no doubt cry ‘we are loosing our income’ but that income can be replaced with ‘walked up’ shooting in a real wilderness not something crisscrossed with roads and shooting butts.

You can find Mark’s Web Site here:

4 comments to A response to Mark Avery’s second news letter by John Miles

  • Coop

    Good piece John. Although I must add: Stuff walk-up shooting. Get the buggers off our moors completely. Then, and only then, will the problem go away. The same goes for other ecosystems that have been knackered by the shooting industry. Conservationists have been forced to compromise time and again. We must now draw the line and say “no more”. I take my hat off to anyone with the courage to go out on the 12th and do everything in their power to ruin these degenerates’ day.

  • gamehawker

    Coop
    August 4, 2011 at 12:38 am · Reply
    Good piece John. Although I must add: Stuff walk-up shooting. Get the buggers off our moors completely. Then, and only then, will the problem go away. The same goes for other ecosystems that have been knackered by the shooting industry. Conservationists have been forced to compromise time and again. We must now draw the line and say “no more”. I take my hat off to anyone with the courage to go out on the 12th and do everything in their power to ruin these degenerates’ day.

    come on coop don’t act the Pratt,
    find out the difference and benefits of dogging moors before coming out with posts like that.

  • Coop

    “dogging moors”? sounds interesting!

  • paul williams

    ” dogging moors ” Is this what they mean by the Glorious 12th. Its worth a day off work! interesting as you say Coop.