Compelling case for ban on shooting of all birds

Hen Harrier

Two of our most endangered species have been on my mind lately. The first is rather beautiful and if you ever see one in the UK, you should count yourself lucky. The bird is famous for its elegant, long body, the dashes of black on the wings, and its elaborate sky dance. Listen out too for the hen harrier’s call: the sharp, fast, chit-chit-chit. It is the most memorable and beautiful of Britain’s birds of prey.

The second endangered species is a good deal uglier. Generally seen after August 12th, it shares its moorland habitat with the hen harrier, mostly in parts of southern Scotland and northern England, although it is hard to tell precisely how many there are. It costs many thousands of pounds to be a red grouse shooter (a typical day’s shoot will cost you £30,000) which means they are a rather exclusive species. I understand that’s the way they like it.

Red-Grouse-(1-of-1)

The reason I’ve been thinking about these species is partly because I’ve been reading Inglorious, the new book by the former RSPB conservation officer Mark Avery, which gives an account of driven grouse shooting in the UK. I’ve also been writing about wildlife crime and speaking to police, gamekeepers, lawyers and animal campaigners, and I’ve recently been talking to the charity Animal Aid about their National Anti-Shooting Week, which runs until Sunday. All of it leads to one conclusion that’s much louder than the sound of gunfire: sooner or later, a ban on driven grouse shooting, and possibly all shooting of birds, will happen.

It is an outcome that is inevitable, and welcome, for several reasons – moral, cultural, social, environmental and economic. For years, there has been a kind of muted acceptance of the shooting of birds – and there are some people who will even suggest that driven grouse shooting is good for the country – but thanks to the growth of Anti-Shooting Week and Hen Harrier Day, which is held just before the so-called Glorious Twelfth, the case for a ban on shooting has been growing at a remarkable rate.

Grouse

Sign Mark Avery’s petition to ban driven grouse shooting. 

The moral argument against shooting is the strongest: quite simply, what is done for sport is repugnant. There are many different types of shooting, but the vast majority of birds shot every year in Britain are pheasants and virtually all of them are purpose-bred in unpleasant little cages and pens. What’s worse is, that to protect the pheasants once they are released, gamekeepers kill vast numbers of predators – who knows what the real number is, but the point is that none of it has any environmental or ethical justification. All of the killing happens for the most trivial of reasons: to allow rich people to shoot pheasants.

The same applies to driven grouse shooting. Big moorlands in Scotland and England are devoted to red grouse shooting and to protect the chicks, gamekeepers on the estates adopt the same zero-tolerance approach to predators, including the hen harrier. The bird has been protected in this country for 60 years, thanks to Lady Tweedsmuir, the Conservative MP for Aberdeen South who guided the Protection of Birds Act through Parliament in the 50s. But none of that stops the gamekeepers. Where there is no driven grouse shooting, the hen harrier thrives – the conclusion is obvious.

cuckoo-shot

There are also economic and environmental reasons to ban shooting. Although it is often said that it is good for the economy, in reality the contribution it makes is piffling and most Scottish estates do not rely on shooting – for most, it is a sideline to much bigger interests such as commercial forestry, sheep farming or fishing. As for the total contribution of shooting to the economy, the best estimates are that it is £500million a year, which is hardly worth mentioning in terms of the total British economy. And anyway, who wants £500million when it comes with a long list of wildlife crimes?

The environmental arguments are just as convincing (the burning of heather on grouse moors, for example, causes peat to disintegrate and release large amounts of carbon dioxide). But what is most convincing for me is the contrast between the hen harrier and the hunter. The first is a beautiful bird of prey that will travel vast distances to nest; the second is a rather pathetic creature that, on driven grouse shoots, will just stand there and wait for birds to be driven past them. There is nothing natural, noble or beautiful about it and I’m pleased to say that the hunter as a species is increasingly endangered – one day soon, he will be extinct.

This article written by Mark Smith was first published by the HeraldScotland

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