Terry O'Connor

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Had enough of grousing?


There is a small groundswell of opinion making itself heard to the effect that driven grouse shooting (DGS) should be banned. DGS is the form of shooting practised in many upland areas of northern England and Scotland, in which chaps with shotguns lurk behind cover in a line across an area of moorland while chaps without guns walk roughly towards them making a lot of noise in order to drive red grouse to take flight past the line of guns. In order to ensure that the shooters, who will have paid a lot of money for the experience, bag plenty of grouse, the moorlands are managed to maximise the populations of grouse. A recent survey of the consequences is:
Thompson, P. S., Douglas, D. J., Hoccom, D. G., Knott, J., Roos, S., & Wilson, J. D. (2016). Environmental impacts of high‐output driven shooting of Red Grouse Lagopus lagopus scotica. Ibis, 158(2), 446-452.


Grouse butts on moorland. Photo by Mike Quinn on geograph.org.uk, file 513765.jpg

There lies the problem. Personally, I am not especially fond of red grouse and have little objection to some of them being shot and eaten. However, gamekeepers on shooting estates are tasked with ensuring ample grouse for the guns, and most of them take this to mean that anything else that might eat a grouse or its eggs must be eliminated. As a result, birds of prey – eagles, buzzards, kites, hen harriers – and predatory mammals – foxes, stoats – are variously shot, trapped and poisoned. Can that possible be legal, I hear you ask? No, by and large it is illegal and liable to criminal prosecution under Section 1 of the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act [http://www.cps.gov.uk/legal/v_to_z/wildlife_offences/]. There are circumstances in which an estate can apply for limited permission to reduce predator numbers when predation can be shown to be serious, and some gamekeepers, to be fair, do work to the terms of those licences. Too many do not, however, and the resulting toll on birds that are supposedly protected by law is completely unacceptable. As for putting out poisoned bait for predators, that is poorly targeted and likely to kill all manner of animals. A skim of newspaper records shows that this practice goes on: for example http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/law-and-order/11135056/Gamekeeper-guilty-in-worst-case-of-bird-of-prey-poisoning-in-England.html.

Advocates of DGS trend to use the ‘bad apple’ argument that, for example, it is just the odd chap who occasionally lets the side down, or mistakes a hen harrier for a crow. Besides, they say, where is your eye-witness evidence that a particular shot buzzard or poisoned kite was killed by a specific gamekeeper? That last point is a tricky one in the event of prosecution. Grouse moors tend to be wide open spaces with very few eye-witnesses. The sheer number of illegally killed predators that are found on or near to grouse moors in England and Scotland given the lie to the ‘bad apple’ argument. Some estates would never act in this way, but some do: enough to have a major impact on populations of certain bird species in particular. The only way that I can see the law really taking effect would be if estate owners were liable to prosecution for wildlife crime that happens on their land and is plausibly attributable to their estate staff. As things stand, too many estate owners and managers are complicit in such crimes by default, by turning a blind eye to whatever ‘pest control’ their employees choose to deploy. See, for example, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/law-and-order/11213373/Control-your-gamekeepers-or-face-prosecution-judge-warns-aristocrats.html

If illegal shooting and poisoning were the only issue, DGS might be cleaned up and allowed to continue. However, the practice of burning areas of moorland is a routine part of grouse moor management, and its impacts are diverse and serious. The aim is to quickly burn off the top growth of heather in order to encourage plants to put out the new shoots that provide forage for the grouse. Timing and control are key. The moorland area has to be dry enough for the heather to burn. All too often, this means that the humic surface horizon of the soil is also dry, when it will burn in much the same way as peat. If you walk over recently-burned moorland, it is not unusual to encounter large areas where the humic surface has gone to ash, exposing a loose, often sandy E-horizon to rapid erosion by wind and rain. You may also encounter the charred corpses of animals that failed to escape the fire – a particular problem for adders and commDSCN0806-smallon lizards that ought to be quite common on heather moorland but rarely are on DGS moors. Burning in spring is especially damaging as it disrupts early nesting by golden plover, curlew and meadow pipits, yet it goes on. Once again, some estates act with due care, but too many do not. A recent Leeds University study on the subject, the first rigorous assessment, can be found here: https://www.leeds.ac.uk/news/article/3597/grouse_moor_burning_causes_widespread_environmental_changes

There is more, too, such as the setting-out of feed treated with anthelmintic drugs to reduce the heavy parasite load carried by grouse on some moors. There is no control of dosage, nothing to prevent consumption by other species and no control of those medical compounds getting into soil water and hence into streams and reservoirs. To put it simply, the countryside can no longer afford the damage done by DGS, and too many of the estates concerned have failed either to clean up their own act or to persuade their industry to do so collectively. I am seldom in favour of banning things, but occasionally, as with DDT and lead in petrol, it is the right thing to do, and a ban on DGS cannot come quickly enough.

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