‘Catastrophically stupid’: how a ban on grouse shooting could destroy the countryside

People in Britain’s uplands are nervous. On the Glorious 12th, the date that launches weeks of the grouse shooting they enjoy, the annual glory is giving way to fears that the sport’s days may be numbered.

The people are nervous because they are the ones most at risk from restrictions on grouseshooting. That’s the conclusion of new research [PDF, 13Mb] by the University of Northampton.

A recent spike in anti-grouse shooting media reports is, on the day, emphasised by news that the Labour Party wants grousemoors licensed.

Labour announced its policy based on allegations from the RSPB that gamekeepers on grousemoors are killing raptors. The RSPB produces no evidence apart from unsubstantiated reports.

The hills are alive: a grousemoor in Lancashire

The RSPB does not mention that raptors are thriving on grousemoors, as Fieldsports Britain has reported numerous times – their numbers boosted by the hard work of the very gamekeepers accused of killing them.

Gamekeepers are just one cog in the machine driving driven grouse shoots. Attempts to slap controls on shoots or even shut them down would have a devastating effect on countryside communities.

“It would be a catastrophically-stupid short-term decision,” says Professor Simon Denny, who co-wrote the Northampton study released last week that examined grousemoor shooting and the people who rely on it.

‘No pessimism’: study co-author Simon Denny says rural communities robust

“Grouse shooting does not happen on its own, it is part of a system of integrated moorland management which has a whole range of economic and social impacts which result in short and long-term financial benefits.”

The study, co-written by Tracey Latham-Green, is the first to examine the social impact of grouseshooting on nearby hamlets and villages across Britain. It finds that people are generally healthier and more positive, says Denny.

Estate of mind: not much not to like about this

“We were gathering data at the height of the pandemic and lockdown just started, and a report had come out by the Royal Society of Arts that had looked at job losses by local authority area and the four highest job loss areas were all in the upland areas of England. So we expected to find depression, pessimism and a real sense of concern about the future… And we didn’t find these negative pessimistic feelings at all… Compared to the national average [during normal times] Moorland communities in a time of pandemic have a stronger sense of identity, a stronger sense of individual belonging [and] higher sense of wellbeing.”

‘Priceless’: BASC’s Duncan Thomas puts a value on the benefits of grouse shooting

“How on Earth do you define community?” asks BASC’s Duncan Thomas. “Very difficult… but if we think of all people involved in a well-managed grousemoor… all the infrastructure that goes into maintaining these amazing wild places and promoting the incredible range of biodiverse species up there, how do you put a value on that? It’s priceless.”

Charlotte Burch of the Forest of Bowland Moorland Group, says an important factor is people watching out for each other and tackling issues like loneliness.

Neighbourhood watch: Charlotte Burch of the Forest of Bowland Moorland Group

“As we get older, we’re more and more isolated,” says Burch, “but I don’t think that happens so much with the grouse community as you’re always looking after someone else… Also, as a multi-generational group, when you have those people coming together it definitely helps to curb that loneliness.”

Dog trainer John Cavana compares the community spirit to that on the moors on shoot days.

“The team functions as a team. We can’t do one part of it by ourselves and at the end of the day we all get that benefit – the social wellbeing of being part of that team is a fantastic thing to do.”

‘Lifetime commitment’: no age limit here, says dog trainer Steve Cavana

“There are no age limits,” he adds. “We can get children coming out and enjoying it and we get people in their 80s coming out and enjoying it. It’s a lifetime commitment.”

But as the grouse season opens, it’s not all good news.

“The prospects for the grouse are a bit patchy in certain areas,” admits Forest of Bowland Head Gamekeeper Scott Patterson. “The dry weather in the spring went on a little bit too long, so it’s affected some of the brood sizes. Then we had some terrible weather in June and July and that’s had a knock-on effect… so I don’t think the prospects are looking great.”

‘Broods affected’: prospects look shaky, says head gamekeeper Scott Patterson

Charles Bowman, owner of the Inn at Whitewell, echoes Patterson’s concern.

“It’s been very weird,” he says. “That lovely dry weather we had, which was the perfect hatching time, you would have thought – they didn’t get flooded, they didn’t get too cold, all that sort of stuff. There’s no fly life, so they came out of their shell and they basically starved because it was so dry there wasn’t any aphid life, so… boom.”

‘It’s been weird’: Charles Bowman describes the weather’s affect on grouse numbers

Bowman adds that the hot spring dried up the moors, leaving the birds little to drink.

“And when they’re tied to nests, you get mortality in chicks and hens. But in the west, where we are, it’s a bit wetter so hopefully we might have a bit more of a season.”

In the end though, what’s most important, says Denny, is that grouse shooting continues, for the sake of the countryside.

He says: “We gathered data from 73 moor owners or tenants – every one of them said they regarded themselves as a custodian. They see themselves as part of a long line of temporary owners… They say ‘We want to leave this place better than we found it’.”

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