Nature Studies: Campaigners are taking aim at grouse shooting, and they're spot on

Although it's not actually the killing of grouse that is the problem – but the impact it has on one of their predators

Michael McCarthy
Tuesday 28 July 2015 21:42
An easy target: the wild red grouse - which lives in the heather-clad hills of the British uplands - is managed not for conservation but for the unsavoury pleasure of City types
An easy target: the wild red grouse - which lives in the heather-clad hills of the British uplands - is managed not for conservation but for the unsavoury pleasure of City types

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.

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.

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