Hawthornthwaite Fell-Forest of Bowland 2009

Hawthornthwaite Fell Abbeystead Estate Lancashire. This general area has witnessed the disappearance of two territorial nesting pairs of peregrine falcons in the last 4 years.

In theory, grouse moors, in conservation terms, are not inherently a bad thing. A well managed moor could offer help for curlews, golden plover and allow birds of prey to fly free from harm. Sensitive management of semi-natural vegetation, active restoration of degraded habitats, and a welcome place for walkers and birdwatchers could be hallmarks of good grouse moors. Grouse moors could be striving for the highest standards of environmental management, adapting to new science and information on things as diverse as lead shot or habitat management practices.

But is there a driven grouse moor which does all of the above? If there is, we would love to know. As with any other land management system, there is a spectrum of intensity and not all grouse moors are the same.  Some moor owners strive for the above, but it’s clear they are in a minority.

The current voluntary approach to meeting public expectations of what we want from our uplands, is quite obviously not working (see my recent update on the RSPB’s Walshaw complaint to the European Commission here), and the illegal killing of hen harriers and other raptors continues.  This is leading some to call for an outright ban on driven grouse shooting.  Whilst we do not yet take this stance, we can certainly see their point and the anger about ongoing persecution is shared.

The RSPB, which has always been neutral on the ethics of shooting, has had dialogue with the grouse industry for decades, but laws protecting the nation’s birds of prey continue to be broken.  Intolerance of any predator appears to be part of the “business model” of some driven grouse shoots.

Over the last decade we’ve seen a significant change in the way the industry operates, with intensification of management practices, as expectations of big grouse bags have grown. These include an increase in the frequency of heather burning, often over deep peat soils, the use of grouse medication and, in some places, the culling of mountain hares in a bid to control grouse disease; and even more intensive predator control, including the widespread illegal control of protected birds and mammals.

Any responsible industry would take action to raise environmental standards and put pressure on those that tarnish the reputation of others.  While there are those within the moorland community calling for reform, their voice is not loud enough or being heard.   What’s worse, is that much of the grouse moor sector seem to be in denial of the impacts this intensification is having on our shared environment and wildlife. While we recognise the potentially significant benefits of grouse moor management, there is compelling and still-growing evidence that the on-the-ground reality of driven grouse shooting as currently practiced in many parts of the UK, is one where damage outweighs any benefits.

Which, if you are concerned about these things, means the status quo is not an option.  You can either regulate through licensing, or ban it.

We believe that the effective regulation of grouse shooting and its associated management practices, delivered through a sensible licensing regime and effective enforcement, can deliver a grouse shooting industry fit for the 21st century.  We’ve also developed and shared principles for such a scheme (here).  This would complement existing legislation such as the EU Nature Directives and domestic wildlife legislation.  Only time will tell if licensing is sufficient but it is the most logical next step, and long overdue.  And, of course, there are many questions about how a ban on ‘driven grouse shooting’ would work in practice.

Intensive driven grouse moor management, as currently practiced in much of the UK, is environmentally unsustainable and damaging.

Licensing has the potential to deliver all of the benefits I mention at the top of the blog and more – notably healthy populations of upland wildlife of which protected birds of prey, such as hen harriers are a characteristic component.  It would also set out what is expected in the wider public interest from this large scale land use in the uplands and that surely has to be a good thing.

Given the growing public profile of environmental harm associated with intensive grouse shooting, a rational industry would embrace licensing and take action to raise standards.  Governments across the UK should recognise that growing intensification is incompatible with their environmental and political commitments and as a result, they need to regulate.

Failure to act will simply mean calls for a ban will intensify.

We want licensing and we want it to work.

The status quo is not an option and we cannot allow it to persist much longer.