So the “Glorious Twelfth” is nearly upon us again: in a fortnight’s time, on 12 August, the grouse shooting season opens, and the heather moorlands of Northern England and Scotland will ring out to the sound of shotguns firing on the world’s most expensive gamebirds.
This annual ritual has long been part of the caricature of your typical toff, although the shooters today are just as likely to be hedge fund managers, or Belgian industrialists, as members of the aristocracy, as what you need to take part is lots of lolly: a day’s grouse shooting for eight guns can be £35,000. The opening of the season is usually greeted by articles in the right-wing press discussing how good the bag may be, but this year is accompanied by comment of a different nature: a book suggesting forcefully that there is something criminal at the very heart of it.
The book is Inglorious (Bloomsbury, £16.99), by Mark Avery, formerly Conservation Director of the RSPB. It is an attack on the grouse shooting industry, but not for the usual reasons: Dr Avery is not attacking it for the cruelty of the killing, or suggesting that grouse as a species are threatened; he is not even attacking shooting as a sport.
He is alleging something specific: that the particular way in which grouse are currently pursued – driven grouse shooting, in which the birds are flushed by beaters towards the waiting guns – simply cannot be done without breaking the law, and so should be banned.
For driven grouse shooting requires a big crop of birds every season, and a grouse moor is essentially a farm in which they are bred in much larger numbers than they would occur in nature, with gamekeepers ruthlessly killing all their possible predators, such as stoats, weasels, foxes, crows and magpies. This is legal. But there is one major predator of red grouse whose killing is a crime: the hen harrier, one of our loveliest and most charismatic birds of prey, which has been fully protected by law since 1954.
Winners of this year's Travel Photo of the Year competition
Winners of this year's Travel Photo of the Year competition
1/20 Winner: Wildlife category
Red-footed falcon (Hortobagy, Hungary) by John Webster
2/20 Winner: Icon category
Rising (South Bank, London, UK) by Madeleine Fitzsimons
3/20 Winner: People category
The Karaoke King (Hpa An, Burma) by Allan Dransfield
4/20 Winner: Landscape category
Penguins in the South Shetlands (Baily Head, Deception Island, Antarctica) by Fred Barrington
5/20 Runner-up: Wildlife
The migration of locusts (Ranohira, Madagascar) by Michele Martinelli
6/20 Runner-up: Icon
Bo-Kaap houses (Cape Town, South Africa) by Vinesh Rajpau
7/20 Runner-up: People
Chinese night-market (Xi’an, China) by Maarten Boersema
8/20 Runner-up: Landscape
Illuminate the Dead Sea (Dead Sea, Israel) by Daniel Winter
9/20 PORTFOLIO CATEGORY - YEMEN:
Boys playing volleyball, Thula, Yemen, by Matjaz Krivic, Photographer: "Young boys play volleyball in the quiet streets of the historic town. Even when not carrying a pistol or a rifle, most Yemeni males will carry a traditional dagger – a short, broad, curved blade, sheathed on a belt worn across the abdomen and serving as a signal of one’s status within social and tribal hierarchies."
10/20 PORTFOLIO CATEGORY - YEMEN:
Guard, Shugruf, Yemen, by Matjaz Krivic, Photographer: "A young man is guarding the khat fields in the valley below. The weapon is a part of the Yemeni man’s personality. A Yemeni man is strong, and the weapon symbolises strength, pride and manhood."
11/20 PORTFOLIO CATEGORY - YEMEN:
Praying in a mosque, Shibam, Yemen by Matjaz Krivic, Photographer: "The boy that has leaned his rifle against the wall is praying in an old abandoned mosque in the desert, near this historical town in the Hadhramaut Valley. The most common weapon held is the classic Russian-made Kalashnikov, a much-prized weapon in Yemen. Disarmament is not an option, even during prayer."
12/20 PORTFOLIO CATEGORY - YEMEN:
Coming home, Thula, by Matjaz Krivic, Photographer: As the sun sets, the shepherds lead their sheep and goats home.
13/20 PORTFOLIO CATEGORY - YEMEN:
Shugruf Palace, Shugruf, by Matjaz Krivic, Photographer: "The morning mist rises mystically from the valley towards the small town in the Haraz Mountains. Yemen, where the architecture is among the loveliest and most fascinating in the Arab world, is the second most heavily armed country per capita, after the USA."
14/20 PORTFOLIO CATEGORY - INDIA:
Roll over the colour, Nandgaon, Uttar Pradesh, India - A man bathes in bright ‘holy’ colours after the Holi Puja ceremony. Photographer, Jan Kostal, Tour guide
15/20 PORTFOLIO CATEGORY - INDIA:
Devotees, Nandgaon, Uttar Pradesh, India - Pilgrims and devotees, photographed from the balcony of Bankey Bihari Temple in Vrindavan. Photographer, Jan Kostal, Tour guide
16/20 PORTFOLIO CATEGORY - INDIA:
Ecstasy, Nandgaon, Uttar Pradesh, India - The ecstasy of a woman who glimpsed the deity statue for a while during the ceremony. Photographer, Jan Kostal, Tour guide
17/20 PORTFOLIO CATEGORY - INDIA:
Hands, Nandgaon, Uttar Pradesh, India - Ladies' hands after prayer. Photographer, Jan Kostal, Tour guide
18/20 PORTFOLIO CATEGORY - INDIA:
Endless crowd, Nandgaon, Uttar Pradesh, India Hundreds of people rush to a Hindu temple to celebrate Holi Puja. Photographer, Jan Kostal, Tour guide
19/20 AMATEUR CATEGORY - ICON
Temples at dawn, Bagan, Burma (Myanmar) – Andy Ferrington, Airline pilot: "There is nothing more awe-inspiring than watching sunrise from the top of one of the 2,000-plus temples at Bagan. This was my third consecutive 5am start to climb yet another temple in the cold, dark morning in bare feet. I opted for a super telephoto shot as I wanted to really pull the punch of those warm orange sunrise colours, and with the highest contrast I could achieve. Tracking the flight path of this solo balloon, I estimated it would pass between the perfect gap in the temples. With the tripod locked and exposure set, all that was left was to wait for that perfect moment..."
20/20 AMATEUR CATEGORY - ICON
Twin pagodas, Ngwe-Saung Beach, Pathein, Burma (Myanmar), by Zay Yar Lin, seafarer: "This photo was taken just after sunset, when stars were visible. I managed to include the Milky Way in this photo, as if the magical rays were coming out of one of the pagodas."
Grouse moor owners long contended that hen harriers took large numbers of expensive grouse, especially the chicks: conservationists said they were exaggerating. But the owners were proved right, by an experiment in Scotland, (supported by both sides of the argument), where hen harriers on Langholm Moor, when left alone by gamekeepers, increased in numbers from two pairs in 1992 to 20 pairs in 1997, by which time they were taking so many grouse that the moor was no longer economic.
But what the Langholm study also demonstrated was that to be successful, any grouse moor had to have its hen harriers killed; and it dawned on the conservationists that this must have been happening for all the years the bird had been legally protected. It is Dr Avery’s contention that it is continuing today, systematically. The direct evidence is slight, but the circumstantial evidence is overwhelming, and is set out in detail in Inglorious: for example, there is suitable habitat in England alone for 330 pairs of hen harriers, but only four pairs nested successfully in 2014, and only two pairs the year before; this year, three nesting males have mysteriously disappeared.
A week on 9 August, Dr Avery will be heading up Hen Harrier Day, when a series of demonstrations across the country will demand that this most beautiful of our birds of prey be protected from persecution as the law requires. Dr Avery himself will be in the Goyt Valley, near Buxton in Derbyshire; if you want to go along, look at Birders Against Wildlfe Crime.
The conclusion of his riveting book is simple: driven grouse shooting requires the suppression of hen harriers, which is a crime, and so should itself be outlawed. The logic is impeccable.