Last updated: 16/6/2014
Stopping the intensive farming of grouse
Rob Harrison outlines some new Ethical Consumer research around hen harriers, greed and biodiversity on England's grouse shooting estates.
Last year the RSPB announced that the hen harrier, a bird of prey once common on Britain's uplands, had failed to raise a single chick across the whole of England. This story of near extinction runs counter to a general trend of good news stories around biodiversity in the UK. For example, another bird of prey - the red kite - has been successfully re-introduced across many of its former areas, and regulation has seen fish and other species return to rivers once barren from years of pollution.
The decline of the hen harrier is also particularly curious because it has continued despite a raft of regulations, laws and initiatives designed to protect it. The hen harrier's misfortune, it would appear, is that its natural habitat is heather moorlands which are increasingly being managed by landowners as grouse shooting estates. A recent report by Ethical Consumer confirms that illegal persecution by gamekeepers is a key element, but paints a more complex picture of intensification, greed and ignorance on some of our few remaining wild spaces.
With regulation proving ineffective, Ethical Consumer are calling for a popular campaign of ostracism against the grouse shooting industry until hen harriers have been allowed to return. We also argue that 'perverse' government subsidies of the industry - such as management grants and the gun licence subsidy recently highlighted in the press - should also be suspended.
Decline in wild areas
People in Britain know about palm-oil plantations and threats to the orang-utan in Asia, and of cattle ranching and threats to the Amazon rainforest in Brazil. Yet the same intensification of the wilderness areas at the edges of our 'civilisation', threatening our own iconic 'apex' species, is going on right under our noses in our upland moors. It is high time for a popular campaign to say “Enough. This is where we draw the line.”
It would be ideal if biodiversity could be protected through effective government regulation, but around grouse moors there appears to be long-standing and intractable problems. Boycotts and ostracism are blunt instruments but exasperation at the disappearance of a once common species means they are increasingly being discussed as a means of exerting pressure in this area. They have, after all, proven effective in other areas where government regulation appears to be failing.
Ethical Consumer's in-depth report, published in June, interviewed conservationists, campaigners and wildlife experts across the country. It has also begun to compile lists of businesses linked to grouse shooting. It is calling on supporters to consider avoiding visiting, or supporting, businesses linked to grouse-shooting estates to register their protest. More detailed campaign asks appear at the end of this article. Above all, we want to create a conversation about biodiversity, greed and intensification on some of England's few remaining wild spaces. Join in, and let us know what you think.
How intensive management works
There are four key areas which campaigners have identified as being characteristic of an intensively managed grouse estate.
(a) Burning heather
The preference of managers of grouse moorland is to regularly burn to create a mosaic of the young, more nutritious heather which grouse like to feed on, and older, longer heather for them to nest in and hide in. This reduces the amount of taller plants preferred by the ground nesting hen harrier.
(b) Controlling 'pests'
In order to sustain grouse in artificially high numbers, their natural predators must be removed. Various birds and animals are “controlled as vermin” to prevent them feeding on grouse eggs and chicks. Stoats, weasels, crows and foxes can be legally shot, poisoned or trapped, but birds of prey ('raptors'), another potentially significant group of predators, cannot be. Nevertheless, significant levels of illegal persecution are taking place.
(c) Use of drainage ditches
Though not directly affecting raptors, draining is undertaken to create more dry soil for heather which then enters the burning regime. Campaigners such as Ban the Burn at Walshaw Moor have focussed on trying to stop this practice which can lead to flooding in nearby towns.
(d) Use of chemicals
High density of grouse have meant the some infections (such as Strongyle worm) have become rampant, and these have been treated by 'medicated grit'.
As we will see below, the RSPB are keen to point out that this intensification and persecution affects other species - such as peregrine, red kite, merlin, golden eagle, goshawk, short-eared owl and kestrel. Our report also notes how studies have shown that intensive management also has negative impacts on climate change and water pollution.
Why is it happening?
Ethical Consumer's report looked in some depth at the reasons for hen harrier decline. In many cases, where illegal persecution was taking place, it was traditionally understood as old-school game keeping 'vermin' control practice - handed down from generation to generation - failing to keep up with modern ideas on biodiversity. While this is one element, it doesn't explain the worsening situation now. There is, particularly around the most intensively managed estates, the idea that land is increasingly being used as an investment. Some campaigners point out that - with a brace of grouse commonly valued in four figures - pushing the numbers up pushes up the capital value of a shooting estate. Some commentators argue that this can give a better return than the stock market.
"Because the value of grouse moors is based on the number of birds they yield, injecting cash into intelligent management increases their value in the long term,”
says William Duckworth-Chad, of Savills.
Why is the law not working?
It is no secret that grouse shooting is, by and large, a pastime for the very wealthy. Bankers, aristocrats and business leaders are all involved, and the Ethical Consumer report notes how estate owners have, and continue to hold, positions of influence within DEFRA (the Department for Environment. Food and Rural Affairs), the NFU (National Farmers' Union) and Natural England.
The failure of regulation is therefore commonly ascribed to the arrogance of people who feel they are somehow above the law. While this is likely to be an element, there is more to it since the same people routinely obey other laws. Some of it is down to the difficulty of enforcing laws across thousands of acres of misty hillside. But we also concluded that much of it was down to the mixed messages that the law is giving.
Campaigners that Ethical Consumer spoke to suggested that, for reasons not unconnected to the political clout of the shooting establishment, at least two types of subsidy could be going to shooting estates which break the law, because providing evidence that no persecution is taking place has not been a precondition of receiving these subsidies.
In addition, there have been recent revelations about a split in the coalition over reducing the current annual 'subsidy' of £150 for every UK gun licence issued. The idea that these subsidies are going to fund “sports” which must be involved in illegal persecution has not yet really entered the debate. George Monbiot's comparison of the gun-licence subsidy with a new proposal to make people buy their own crutches to save the NHS money, is illuminating of the quite astonishing thinking inside the current administration.
Arguments in favour of intensive estate management
The Moorland Association claims criticism of grouse estates is wrong for two main reasons: jobs and the other species which thrive on more intensively managed estates. Although the estates do provide "jobs in rural areas which are relatively marginal for farming", with only around 150 grouse moors in England and an industry generating a relatively tiny £67 million annually, such jobs will be few - especially when compared to tourism locally.
It should be noted that most campaigners are not seeking to ban grouse shooting, they are simply arguing that it needs to reduce its focus on numbers killed per shoot ('bag size') at all costs.
The Moorland Association is also quick to point to other species that do well on intensively managed uplands (e.g. some waders) and that hen harriers breed successfully elsewhere ('500 pairs in Scotland'). By and large, the argument that an endangered species is doing well somewhere else and therefore its decline can be ignored in one area, is controversial in biodiversity management circles. Growth in populations of less-threatened species is also not an obviously strong argument. Nevertheless there may be some who choose not to support a campaign of ostracism because of these claims.
Why greed lies at the core of this conflict
Grouse moor owners commonly maintain that permitting hen harriers and other predators on their estates would mean the death of the shooting industry. And whilst there is evidence that it could significantly reduce 'bag size', this does not mean that all shooting would be threatened. Indeed, on both sides of the debate are people who can see a return to a less intensive, more leisurely, pastime.
A former shooting-estate employee is quoted in the Report as follows:
"Working on an average 200 [bird a] day shoot [a low total by modern standards]...I never once heard anyone complain that they wished they had shot more birds....I believe times and attitudes have changed for the worse on Grouse moors, that greed has taken over, you only have to read Savills brochures, The Field or Shooting Times to see estates boasting that they recorded record bags"
The fact that a less intensive management system is possible but not chosen is likely to be caused by a number of factors. Some of it will be ignorance. some of it will be fear of change, but it is most likely that greed lies at its core.
When land becomes just another commercial investment - as it also has in the case of palm-oil plantations elsewhere - it is possible to create higher returns by maximising your 'crop'. This is entirely consistent with the picture we are currently seeing with grouse estates. To chose intensive management over other less profitable - but more sustainable - options just looks like greed.
A boycott call
As we have mentioned above, with regulatory routes failing, supporters of biodiversity in the UK are left with few other options than a general campaign of ostricisation. It is a choice of last resort - an act of desperation and frustration.
While some shooting estates are clearly more intensively managed than others, evidence in this area was often anecdotal. In any case, the absence of any successful hen harrier breeding attempts showed that the problem was endemic to all driven grouse shooting estates. As the Report explains "Although there is a lot of indignation around raptor conservationists 'tarring everyone with the same brush', landowners/estate managers who genuinely wished to bring about raptor-friendly grouse moors would need to be a lot more vocal in condemning the current re-emergence of historical malpractice."
There are some financial companies we have found with ownership connections to grouse estates. Prudential and M&G both have consumer-facing products. Property firms including Savills and Knight Franks are involved in selling grouse estates.
Ostricism can also work on a smaller, more local, scale. In Appendix I of the Ethical Consumer report we have begun to list some businesses linked to grouse moor owners. If you want to support this call to action and live around or visit these upland regions, check out this list and maybe add some ideas of your own.
Given that grouse shooting is a sport of a tiny minority, and that protection of endangered species generally and of birds particularly is a widespread concern, we are optimistic that a popular campaign will play an important role in contributing to the aggregate pressure for change.
Call to action
We would like our readers to give their input into how best to target or focus this campaign.
We have so far identified 4 possible campaign directions.
1. There are consumer-facing businesses connected to grouse shooting. The Prudential, Liverpool One Shoping Centre, and Boundary Mill Stores are three such. But they are not high profile brands which everyone can easily avoid.
2. Some high-profile landowners such as the National Trust and the Queen permit grouse shooting on their land. Perhaps we could lobby them to stop granting licenses for driven grouse shooting on their land. A consumer boycott doesn't seem quite right in this kind of case.
3. There are local pubs and hotels which provide services to the grouse shooting industry. Perhaps some kind of tourism boycott for people visiting these areas might work?
4. Perhaps you can think of another course of action that we haven't identified.
We are interested in hearing your thoughts and ideas on this issue.
Please add your comments to our forum
For more information read:
our full Report on Hen harriers, greed and biodiversity on England's grouse shooting estates (34 paged PDF)
Appendix 1 to the Report listing people and businesses connected to the grouse shooting industry.
The RSPB campaigns against persecution of raptors and other species and has produced detailed reports on the subject.
Animal Aid campaigns against 'game' shooting and has also produced specific research on grouse.
Ban the Burn has been campaigning on intensive management of upland estates around Hebden Bridge.
Mark Avery is a former conservation director at RSPB calling for boycotts around the hen harrier persecution issue.
A full selection of links and sources appears in the Ethical Consumer Report available here (34 pages PDF). Appendix 1 lists some linked business interests.
Stand up for British birds of prey – Hen Harrier Day 10th August
Birders, naturalists, and animal rights campaigners are joining together to create the first Hen Harrier day. Co-organised by naturalist Dr Mark Avery and campaign group Birders against Wildlife Crime, this will happen during the weekend before the “Glorious” 12th – the day on which the shooting season starts. Hen Harrier day is being touted as both peaceful protest and a celebration of this bird, known lovingly as the skydancer due to the way it seems to float in the air.
There are various events going on around the UK on the 10th August, to find out more and to get involved see the Birders Against Wildlife Crime website.
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