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Guy Adams: It's the shooters who are the true conservators

Upland managed for grouse boasts five times as many threatened waders as unmanaged moors

For the past decade, Mr Gordon Ramsay has been perpetrating a con-trick. He has managed to convince the British public that he's the Vinnie Jones of cooking: a potty-mouthed hard man, who is only ever a few degrees from boiling point and would wrap a cast-iron Le Creuset around an incompetent sous-chef as soon as look at him.

Amazingly, this tough-guy business now turns out to have been a load of cobblers. Mr Ramsay is actually an old softie. The self-styled macho man is in fact what fellow Glaswegians might term a big girl's blouse.

We know this because, on Wednesday, viewers of Channel Four's The F-Word watched Mr Ramsay cart two Berkshire pigs, Trinny and Susannah, off to an abbatoir. Witnessing their final moments, he became a quivering wreck. Ashen-faced, a shaking lower lip declared him to feel "sick as a fucking dog."

Amid the ribbing this incident must now inspire, there is, I think, a serious question raised. It illustrates the confused and sentimental attitude we now adopt towards animals. Mr Ramsay has, after all, been responsible for the slaughter of more pigs, cows and sheep than your average Defra official during a foot-and-mouth outbreak. His kitchens turn out bloody fillets by the thousand. But when shown a dying porker, he collapses like an over-done soufflé.

This paradox is especially pertinent right now since last weekend marked the Glorious Twelfth, the start of the grouse season and a pivotal date in the animal-killing calendar.

From here until mid-December Britain's moorlands fill with damp tweed and the smell of cordite, while up-market restaurants offer the seasonal treat of roasted Lagopus lagopus scotius.

This weekend was different, though. For the second successive season, shooting estates have reported disappointing stocks of grouse. In many places, the Twelfth has been postponed; in some, the entire season has already been called off. Grouse populations, always volatile, may be showing signs of long-term decline. Game returns show that 2005 was the worst season in living memory; 2006 is looking only marginally better.

Some scientists are starting to wonder if global warming may eventually drive grouse - an arctic creature - from Britain altogether. They have reason to worry: grouse parasites thrive in warm wet conditions; its chicks are liable to drown if torrential thunderstorms occur in late Spring. Meanwhile, the heather moorland that dominates upland Britain (the only habitat that grouse can inhabit) may be threatened by minor temperature rises.

This ought to be regarded as an ecological disaster. Yet when reported by this newspaper last week, the reaction from some readers was celebratory. Our mailbag suggested that any future disappearance of grouse is a jolly good thing. It would provide one in the eye for the ghastly toffs who shoot them, and hasten the end of what bunny-huggers call a 'blood' sport.

One correspondent, Kevin Mutimer of London, SE15, caught the general mood by declaring: "If a species is in such drastic decline, continuing to shoot them from the sky - laughably described as "the ultimate sporting challenge" - is a rather perverse method of population conservation."

To Mr Mutimer, killing grouse (or any other animal) for enjoyment is no doubt an unpleasant and possibly sinful activity. He is entitled to hold that opinion. However, to describe shooting as a 'perverse' form of conservation is misguided. For grouse, the twelve bore is, in fact, the only significant tool of conservation.

There are two reasons for this. On a practical level, the financial contribution of shooting is essential to the survival of most moorland habitats. Without conservation work, heather-burning and predator control that 'guns' are prepared to fund (to the tune of £200,000 a year on a top estate), Britain's 459 grouse moors would become environmental deserts.

Heather upland managed for grouse - and Britain has 75 per cent of the world's total - contains 46 other bird species, of which 10 are endangered. Such habitats boast five times as many threatened waders as unmanaged moors.

On a biological level, grouse populations behave in a counter-intuitive fashion. If you leave vast numbers on a moor at the end of one season, you do not end up with vaster numbers there the next. Instead, quite the reverse occurs: the population becomes diseased and crashes. If sufficient numbers of birds are not culled (and in real bumper years they never can be) you are in for thin pickings to come.

Expecting your average Joe to accept such a paradox is a big ask. A far bigger worry for the green welly brigade is the fact that powerful conservation groups, such as the RSPB, are also inclined to ignore it. With an eye to their membership, such outfits adopt a cultural hostility to country pursuits and a sceptical attitude to scientific studies that acknowledge its role in rural conservation.

The difficult truth is that modern living does not sit well with blood, guts, and feathers. Perhaps that's why Channel Four's decision to screen the bloody end of Trinny and Susannah has attracted complaints. Now the tweedy inhabitants of Britain's grouse buts will look at Gordon Ramsay, and worry that in his strange behaviour they can see the way the world is heading.