The Grouse debate: some follow-up thoughts

Alas, I have been uncharacteristically quiet on the issue of driven grouse shooting of late, though this does not mean I have not been keeping track of the proceedings. I watched the evidence session, the parliamentary debate, and have busied myself today reading through various outpourings associated with the government’s decision not to ban the practice. It’s all rather interesting: providing at times to be educational, frustrating and a little infuriating.

Anyone that knows me will know that I am rather ambivalent when it comes to DGS. I, like many others in my profession, abhor some of the negative side effects of moorland management  – the killing of protected raptors especially so. I fundamentally disagree with the mentality of some shooters and look much more favourably on traditional walk-up shoots. I do, however, and having worked on a number of driven shoots, see promise in certain sites. Having lived among gamekeepers I see the importance of grouse shooting to rural communities and firmly agree that moorland management conducted by such people can and will bring conservation benefits. For embattled Black Grouse, for wading birds, for mountain hares – when they are not exterminated – and yes, for raptors. I also do not particularly dislike shooting and am not overly opposed to the legal control of predators – if only because of the ensuing conservation benefits. All of this, conflicting views and all, has left me bouncing around in a flurry of indecisiveness, agreeing and disagreeing with arguments made by both pro and anti-shooting groups. Something I have come to believe is not necessarily a bad thing. We all, after all, have to base our views on our own beliefs, not those we are fed by others.

As for the debate, I think it is safe to say that even those at the helm of the campaign to oust DGS had predicted the result before the first words were even spoken. Many of us had accepted that a ban would not come to fruition, and I, personally, did not expect nor really hope for one. I signed the petition and wrote to my MP, yes. Because a debate on the subject, in which all were heard, and a collation of the available evidence from both sides was desperately required. But also in the hope that, as is often the case with such things, the axe would fall somewhere in the middle, leading to compromise and cooperation from both sides. This did not happen either, though unlike others I am not blogging about the proceedings overwhelmed with grief.

In my opinion, one of the most promising things about the whole ordeal was the fact a debate took place altogether. Though I disagree with some of his views, what Mark Avery has done in bringing an incredibly contentious issue into the mainstream is wholly commendable. And, values aside, given how he has acted in the face of often odious personal abuse – with integrity and fortitude – he deserves an applause. He has utilised people power perfectly to challenge the status quo in the countryside and, in doing so, has increased public awareness and opened the eyes of many. All of which is rather great, and I am sure he will continue to do so long into the future.

The debate itself followed a somewhat predictable course, I had expected many tory MP’s to turn out in defence of shooting and they did. Though unlike other environmental bloggers, I find myself unable to criticise all for doing so as some made perfectly valid points. Many of which echoing my own worries relating to a ban. Namely, what would become of the land afterwards should a ban take place – with lifeless Sitka Spruce plantations and even worse, damaging upland grazing, not what I would call an improvement. And abandonment, not overly great for upland wildlife either. Secondly, said MP’s also highlighted the positive implications of moorland management, for a number of species. Positives supported by science and not easily bypassed unless, of course, Hen Harriers are the only species on which you place any value. A stance which may be fine for some, but does not sit well with me. On the reverse,  I did, however, also feel that those arguing in favour of a ban shone, with both Kerry McCarthy and Rachael Maskell making some very valid points and the wonderful Caroline Lucus making a few decent interventions in the face of what was, undeniably, a majoritively pro-shooting assemblage. The select few echoing calls for change raising important questions much in line with my worries associated with DGS – yes, I worry about the prospects of a ban, yet, like many, am concerned with the status quo. It’s all rather challenging.

While I agreed or at least sympathised with a lot of the worries expressed from both sides, I cannot bring myself to look upon all those who attended the debate in a positive light however. Many, predominantly tory politicians, acted deplorably. There was an awful lot of rambling, scaremongering and, at times, utter nonsense spewed from amongst their ranks, and for every valid concern there appeared to be a thinly veiled and rather immature attack on either Mark Avery, Chris Packham or the RSPB. All of whom are entitled to their opinions. There were also a few who appeared to show contempt for the debate itself and the individual concerns of their own constituents who brought the issue to Westminister. Particularly from one “honourable gentleman” who appeared to buy into the CA line that many of those who signed the petition “likely know nothing of grouse shooting”. This may be true, though for whatever reason they chose to sign it – class warfare, animal rights, the list goes on – these people are equally entitled to their views. I believe that by dismissing the genuine concerns of the public and thus making a mockery of the political process, certain individuals made themselves appear utterly unfit to hold office. There was also, of course, the issue of vested interests noted by many other bloggers, but when it comes to MP’s such as Richard Benyon and Nicholas Soames were we really expecting anything different? Really, they have made their views quite clear in the past and I would be a hypocrite to criticise them for defending their own interests. We all do the same in our own daily lives.

So, where do we go from here? Well, those dedicated to the abolition of grouse shooting will likely soldier on. Hopefully deploying civilised, non-intrusive means as opposed to those advocated by certain animal rights groups I have noted voicing their displeasure over recent days. Direction intervention is both illegal and counterproductive and has no place in modern society. Others, on the reverse, will hopefully look to make changes, particularly with regards to raptor persecution. Indeed, if the views expressed by Amanda Anderson and Liam Stokes are anything to go by, the shooting industry is changing for the better. Which, unashamedly, I believe it is, albeit slowly. My experiences of eagles and other raptors accepted on sites such as Invermark, leaving me unable to disregard this.  I do hope, however, hope things change faster and feel that just maybe, Mark Avery’s work and the casting of the spotlight firmly on the workings of sportsmen may speed up the process. There will, of course, be some shooters feeling rather contented by this “victory” though that would be folly. If the campaign to ban DGS has done anything, it has cast the eyes of many onto our uplands and, hopefully, made flaunting the law even more difficult.

I have written, many times in fact, of the need for cooperation between both sides. Criticising both, on occasion, and often resulting in angry messages from both gamekeepers and conservationists – I expect more after this post. Still, I believe that cooperation is key to solving many of the problems discussed during the debate, though by my own admission, such compromise seems almost impossible at present. The polarised views of those at the extreme ends of the spectrum, whether we are talking Chris Packham or Robin Page, creating a rift that will likely take many years to repair. It is, however, up to those occupying the middle ground to attempt to mend this.

I hate to repeat myself, but in the absence of complete political overhaul, or an act of divine intervention I see little choice other than to reach a conclusion that benefits both people and wildlife. And if there was one good thing to come from the driven grouse debate, I hope it would be the realisation that we need to work together. I am not optimistic, but having spoken, quite recently, to a number of gamekeepers with a firm interest in conservation, and separately to a number of conservationists boasting an acceptance of country sports, it is clear that the foundations are there. We should never forsake our values, nor accept illegalities in our countryside, but we should at least consider the possibility that for some species, a united front may be the best option. Or, the only option.

Red Grouse – Invermark Estate, Angus.


  1. Mike Groves says:

    Surely sensible shooting estates shouldn’t look upon this outcome as an overwhelming victory James – the bottom line is that hen harriers must return to breed on managed grouse moors. Begs the question why can’t we take this perfect opportunity and use the current climate as a platform to thrash out a sensible and potential workable way forward with regards to this long standing grouse/harrier conflict?
    For starters it would be progressive if the likes of the RSPB re-joined the DEFRA Hen Harrier Action Plan?

    1. James Common says:

      Perhaps I worded that wrong Mike, to clarify: I have all faith in many moorlands and many more keepers. Less so in a few unsavory individuals who may aim to set progress back – they do exist sadly. Harriers must return to managed moorland, and other raptors must increase in number yes. RSPB rejoining the plan would be a step in the right direction I believe, and may help inspire some cooperation on behalf of other staunch antis. It’s all very frustrating. Thanks for commenting.

  2. Neil Cairns says:

    The killing will go on regardless. Any animal that gets in the way of most of these landowners profit are classed as vermin. If these moorlands are so good for our waders as they say they are why are most populations in decline. All the gamekeepers say they are doing good for curlew and peewit, but never mention Redshank, Dunlin, Snipe and the humble Meadow Pipit. Poor management of over burning, draining and less tree cover leads to less diversification and benefits fewer species not just birds. These areas could be restored to their former glory creating eco tourism for one, maybe recieving some of the shocking over paid subsidies the land owners already get. I’m pleased there was a debate to bring some attention to the wider public but maybe in another 100 years the penny will drop. I signed the petition and applaud Mark Avery.

  3. I appreciate your pragmatism James, but I imagine that the few apparent positives of the maintenance of grouse moors are being subjectively assigned a much greater value than merited.
    I would rather see a species or two extirpated (yes, the hen harrier much as like the blighters) if it meant more healthy and diverse communities, instead of the persistence of dysfunctional ecosystems.
    But as you rightly implied, sometimes it is a case of Better the Devil You Know.

  4. Tony says:


    A well-presented post about a topic given lots of coverage in the press, on social media and who knows where else, even down the local I suspect. Speaking of the original petition, I take careful consideration before choosing to sign any particular one that is brought to my attention. I wonder how many take the same care as I do? Do I possess in-depth knowledge of the subject? What are the consequences of the actions implied by the petition, were it to take place? I am very much someone who’s guided by all the available scientific evidence, personal knowledge or observations and through other people’s thoughts on the subject matter and only then, will I sign it. This needn’t take long either, literally a minute to mull it over and decide whether you want your internet history to remember your act of defiance/celebration.

    Sorry, James if it’s a bit of a ramble above but I think your readers get my take on things. On the bigger issue of moving things forward in wildlife conservation and the wider role of positioning at the forefront of people’s minds, I will requote one of my past remarks on a well-known birding website. *If you can see past my bad grammar.

    “For what seems like years now, the bird species have been segregated into two separate parties, a bit like politics I guess. In one camp, the generalists continue to sing to the tune of “The only way is up…up”. The specialists drone “why does it always rain on me”. Oh and to illustrate the specialist’s plight further, there is a verse which goes “I can’t sleep tonight everybody saying everything’s alright”. I don’t do politics, I don’t segregate blacks from whites, and it seems we don’t converse enough about the need for modern-day conservation, either. Things need to change and we need a scientific basis on which to form the new way forward. Best Wishes naturestimeline”

    I still stand by the above, three years on. Despite having grown as a person, listened and learned so much more, my thoughts are still the same to this day and probably will be for as long as I’m breathing.

    Best Wishes

    Tony Powell and naturestimeline

  5. James Common says:

    Indeed we do Tony! I won’t lie, certain aspects of shootings infuriate me. But then again, so do the attitudes of many conservationists. At time it is like dealing with alternate groups of petulent children, unable or unwilling to look past their own beliefs and unwilling to work together for the greater good. This needs to change. I am not quite sure how we would go about changing this but by golly, someone needs to try. James.

  6. Another good read, James – I feel your frustration in the inability (or lack of want) of both sides of the debate to work with each other. However, in my experience as a Countryside Ranger and working with both landowners/conservationists on a near daily basis, the conservationists still have the lead in how open-minded they are to the situation. There are absolutely some landowners and gamekeepers out there who are leading the way in how they manage their land with regards to embedding conservation into their practice. But I have found that there are far more on the other side of the debate who seem to be more open to co-operation. It seems it is the conservationists who have more empathy for their ‘opposition’ in terms of lifestyle, employment, change.

    As for the issue of what would happen to the moors if DGS were to be banned, I think the best outcome for many of these upland sites would be a certain degree of rewilding. Whether this is a realistic view or not, who knows? It would take time, but the potential for some of these moors to become significantly diverse habitats is huge. And from there, what about the potential for these sites to then earn statuses such as Nature Reserves, SPAs, SACs etc? Imagine such a thing…

    I won’t lie, I am against DGS, but not because I am anti-shooting or even because I am pro-wildlife. But because I am pro-habitat.

    1. James Common says:

      Thanks for your very considered comment! I boast no love of DGS, but my main worry associated with the rewilding approach would be lack of suitable breeding habitat for birds such as Hen Harrier. Sure they thrived before we altered our uplands, but if we let said sites become reforested/scrubby surely there will be less available breeding territory than current available? I view managed moorland in more of a “better the devil you know” sense I guess. Indeed, if the day ever comes when all of our uplands fall under SPA status I will be delighted. As for cooperation, I feel both sides act appallingly at times, but have seen glimmers of hope from conservationists. The RSPB especially. Who knows eh? Where we go next I have no idea…

      1. A very valid and true point about the suitable breeding habitat for birds such as Hen Harrier and I understand the reasoning behind the ‘better devil you know’ approach but surely this borders on accepting the status quo, no? I think we should be looking at estates that have successfully taken the leap into other areas of enterprise and picking the best parts of their management plans and collating them to apply to other areas of land. There are lots of land managers in Scotland that have stepped aside from deer management to concentrate on the conservation of their uplands and glens. And although deer management and grouse management are different, they also have a lot of very useful similarities.

      2. James Common says:

        By the “better the devil you know” comment, I simply meant that moorland is perhaps more ‘workable’ for raptors, waders etc than the other options. Though that depends on the attitude of landowners and whether or not they are willing to make concessions. Which many are not. You raise a good point about a shift to conservation – I can’t see it happening any time soon (sadly) but would love to see a shift towards ecotourism. With perhaps more sustainable walk-up shooting operated in conjunction. Basically a softer approach to management.

    2. Tony says:

      I agree with The Sometimes Hillwalker. If we were to classify such areas as nature reserves, keepers would likely still be required if the places are to thrive for breeding birds. It can be stated in the same breath, that a significant number of shooting enterprises, both large and small (not specifically grouse shoots) are sustaining higher breeding rates of wild bird species annually than many local nature reserves ever achieve. One shooting enterprise I had previously surveyed hosted over 80 species on site during my spring season surveys. Another couple of farming enterprises with shooting interests sustained counts in the seventies. This was to include many a breeding rarity on the current Birds of Conservation Concern listing.

  7. The question to ask is: if there is to be a change in the way a landscape is managed, what will replace it? I realise that for economic reasons land owners feel the need to get a return, but when this is not the case, why not allow some places to return to wilderness? There is a general feeling that wildlife needs to be managed in order to be successful and in some cases this is true, but there is also a good argument for leaving at least some areas to regenerate without interference. The natural world did pretty well before we started meddling and will probably do so again. When you see an open area smothered with a dense cover of re-colonising trees, the new environment looks far too dense to be useful for anything other than hiding, but it is necessary to consider how that place might look in a 100, or perhaps a thousand years from now. Maybe our short life spans come packaged with a certain degree of short sightedness and an inabliltity to imagine what is possible when we leave things alone.

  8. Tony says:

    Stephen makes some good points above, but this comment is well off target if you ask me. “The natural world did pretty well before we started meddling and will probably do so again.” I guess by putting the word “probably” in the comment, indicates some uncertainty and for me, management is the only viable option left as we cannot simply leave nature to care for itself. If we could, we would’ve already done so; it should be deemed as a regressive conservation option, you mark my words! An imbalance is already rife, ground-nesting species and potentially many a songbird on farmed lands face innumerable threats from within their own genera. Places overrun with corvids, mammalian predators, dog-walkers, growing populations of raptors will never be welcoming places for our rarest of bird species. The only way is up, up, up for the generalists (adaptable types) and down, down, down for the special few. A managed nature reserve or farmland habitat will have many more desirable species than non-managed lands, simples. All my humble opinion of course, but it is an observation which I’ve made over many a year, and the imbalance issue is widening. There is room for all species to thrive within a large scale habitat but a balance has to be created by ummm man and woman.

    1. stephenbolwell says:

      Well, I used probably because nothing is certain. Sure you have to have management in some areas; I’m not suggesting that everything be left to go back to the wild, but many people in Britain don’t have the opportunity to appreciate wilderness in quite the same way as those living in many other parts of the world, simply because they have wilderness (although essentially much of what remains is now rapidly going down the pan). In recent time Britain has experienced high levels of land management and most of that is not management for wildlife but management for hunting and agriculture, with for centuries, wildlife hanging on as little more than a by-product. Sure you have nature reserves, but they are tiny and mostly over managed. I appreciate that without the appropriate predators in place you have to do a bit of work, especially controlling the deer population, unless there really is going to be a wolf re-introduction, which of course there won’t be on a scale that would be helpful. Most of the management that is necessary relates directly to the fact that Britain has lost almost all of its larger predators, equivalents of which can be found in many other places in the world – even mainland Europe. The other problem is that wilderness isn’t an overnight fix – you really do have to leave it for the long term to get a result. The reason there are problems with many bird species, in particular song birds, can be traced directly to farming: with insecticides and herbicides used increasingly from the mid-20th Century onward causing considerable problems, and more recent changes in agricultural regimes that now provide even greater productivity, but allow far less time for areas to remain fallow. And yes, I am aware that Britain has a huge cat problem and that has also had a major impact. Anybody in the U.K. can take a look out of their window and won’t fail to notice that the town environments, where they are not covered in concrete are made up mostly of tidy lawns and the countryside isn’t a whole lot better – what isn’t put to agriculture, is for the most part completely grazed out. But of course if you go to the Lake District and see it as a wilderness rather than just another overgrazed unnatural landscape then there is no point in continuing to argue my case here. Wilderness always shows an increase in diversity from the ground up, providing the right predators are in place at the top end – and that can’t really be argued against – it is simply a matter of fact. What you have noticed in terms of a loss of specialists and an increase in generalists is essentially a product of managed environments, although environments where the wildlife is all too often of secondary importance. I won’t dispute that some managed environments show good returns for certain species – so once again I am not arguing the complete abandonment of management in all areas – diversity is always a good thing. I appreciate you taking the trouble to respond to my previous comment. With all good wishes. S.B.

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