Friday, 19 January 2018

Why grouse shooting needs reform

Hen harriers are important, but persecuted predatory birds. Between 2010 and 2017, numbers plunged by 75%, with just three remaining nesting pairs in England.

This is down to a practice called 'driven grouse shooting' - a sport of sorts. Breeding hen harriers target grouse, and grouse shooters ('drivers') don't want this as it reduces the amount of grouse that they can shoot for pleasure and money. So land managers, etc., illegally kill hen harriers, along with foxes, crows, stoats, red kites, mountain hares and other wildlife. The National Trust and private land managers have allowed disease-carrying grouse to flourish, whilst killing many other natural predators, for the sake of respecting a Victorian sport.

Harrier hen in flight. Credits: Radovan Vaclav 

After debating driven grouse shooting in 2016, the government, via Natural England, recently announced a dodgy hen harrier breeding scheme to which the RSPB are adamantly opposed. Their antidote is to remove and hand rear hen harrier chicks and eggs in captivity, then later re-introduce them into the wild. As usual, this avoids the root of the problem: driven grouse shooting, which, as conservationist Mark Avery says, "is underpinned by wildlife crime". The National Trust's policy supports grouse shooting by appealing to "the importance of rural traditions as part of the spirit of many of the places we look after". I'd love to know why rural traditions based on killing and conservation damage are important to uphold.

The land management practices to attract grouse include drainage and heather burning, which is shown to negatively impact the ecosystem services afforded by peat bogs (carbon storage, vegetation growth for water storage, providing soil nutrients), as well as water tables and downstream aquatic food webs.

Heather moorland. Credits: Ian Balcombe

Whilst land managers who want to increase red grouse populations for sport purposes do so by targeting important predators native to the UK, they should rethink their efforts. Reduced grouse numbers are likely a result of afforestation and land conversion to sheep pasture (I swear, it always comes back to sheep farming!) Draining land reduces the boggy plants and insects that grouse chicks feed on.

It's important to say that some heather and predator control appears to increase the populations of several endangered ground-nesting birds, including the Lapwing, Curlew and Ring Ouzel. To manage these trade-offs and protect the Hen Harrier - our rarest bird of prey, the RSPB are calling for a licensing system for grouse moors, "to improve standards in grouse moor management, compliance with the law and encouragement for existing good practice". Other measures could include less intensive burning regimes and lower sheep densities.

There are other reasons to ban driven grouse shooting, but in short, the government are treating this the wrong way. I've been pleasantly surprised by Gove's apparent transition from contentious education secretary government to "full-throated environmentalist" as Secretary of State for DEFRA. Perhaps with a little more persuasion and public will, we could achieve reform in grouse shooting and moor management.

Support endangered wildlife and sign this petition to ban grouse shooting!


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