Five years on: the landslide grouse debate

Gareth Dockerty

Gareth Dockerty

Gareth is head of uplands at BASC. Having joined the organisation in 2016, Gareth’s role focuses on ensuring decision makers, stakeholders and the public understand the benefits of shooting for upland habitats and rural communities.

Yesterday’s long-awaited grouse shooting debate in Westminster turned out to be something of a landslide.

With opposition MPs few and far between, the benefits of grouse shooting were championed across Parliament with no rebuttal.

But what of the individuals who did stick their head above the parapet to express their disagreements with grouse shooting? Their arguments were swept away on a tide of evidence presented in support of grouse moor managers and conservationists.

Significant differences to grouse debate 1.0

The debate was an exact replay of the one from 2016, albeit with two significant differences.

Firstly, there was the afore-mentioned much-reduced opposition. Secondly, the debate was a showcase for the progressive work being undertaken by landowners and gamekeepers responsible for maintaining our most precious peatlands.

Most speeches made by MPs supported the net benefits of grouse shooting. Using updated research, figures and statistics, they spoke of conservation, economics and social well-being.

Notably, there was not a single speech that supported the motion of a ban.

BASC’s brief prepared ahead of the debate, and a catalogue of work undertaken by BASC, was well referenced throughout, alongside other shooting and rural organisations.

Why did a second grouse debate take place?

The debate was scheduled due to a petition started by Wild Justice back in 2019 titled ‘Ban Driven Grouse Shooting Wilful blindness is no longer an option’

Having reached 100,000 signatures, the petition then triggered a parliamentary debate, not before three false starts in its scheduling due to the pandemic.

Since the petition’s inception, Wild Justice has launched and threatened numerous legal challenges against shooting and, subsequently, a clear change of approach from its side. Despite this, the petition authors promoted the debate heavily on social media in the lead up. 

In essence, this was a chance to see how the debate on grouse shooting has moved on in the last five years.

Focusing on the facts

The last debate in 2016 was described by some as heated, and this was acknowledged by various speakers this time around. There was a clear intent to ensure the sequel was conducted in a calmer manner, focusing on the facts rather than emotive arguments.

Ironically, the only derogatory language used was by MP for Bristol East, Kerry McCarthy. In reading a transcript of her conversation with Chris Packham, she quoted him as describing the government’s initial response to his petition as “pathetic and derisory”.

The debate’s speeches focused on the net benefits of grouse shooting and how the shooting community has moved forward in five years.

The upward trend of hen harrier numbers in England was among the evidence cited. 2020 saw a 20-year breeding record, with 19 successful nest and 61 chicks fledged.

Grouse shooting is a key solution to big challenges

It was also clearly articulated how grouse shooting can be a key solution to some of the big challenges of declining species, habitat protection, carbon storage and broader climate change issues.

Indeed, the sticks used to beat the shooting community in 2016 have now become our focus points.

Presenting clear facts and robust scientific research demonstrates how sustainable grouse shooting can reduce the devastation of wildfires, while locking in carbon and slowing the flow of water downstream.

Rebecca Pow, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, responded on behalf of the government, saying: “there is a great deal of strong feeling about the issue”. She continued: “by managing those moorlands to create the optimum habitats for grouse, land managers can play a really strong role in conservation.”

Work yet to be done

Undeniably, there is work yet to be done and this is only really the start.

However, it is worth reflecting and thanking all the shooting organisations and individuals who lobbied and sent in key facts to MPs. The evidence supplied enabled each speaker to make personal points about the net benefits of grouse shooting and specific comments about their constituents and constituencies respectively.

It was apparent that MPs realised how important grouse shooting was to their communities, providing the best and most viable option for employment, tourism and businesses to thrive.

Kevin Hollinrake, Thirsk and Malton MP, talked about the well-being of those who visit the “beautiful purple and green-carpeted North York Moors”. He said: “left unmanaged, the moors just would not look like they do today, and visitors would be far less likely to come.”

Tom Hunt, Ipswich MP, who introduced the debate, summarised it as follows: “What is not clear is that banning driven grouse shooting would be good for the environment: in fact, I think, on balance, it would be harmful.”

On this note, I extend a personal thank you to BASC’s political team who did a sterling job of getting our brief out to MPs.

A full transcript of the debate can be read here with the recording available to watch back here also.

Moving forward

This was not the first grouse debate, and it will not be the last.

Inroads into conflicted areas have been made over the past five years, and it is essential that we continue to scrutinise our activities to ensure the highest level of sustainability.

We must work collectively towards common goals, investing in robust and independent research to ensure the peatlands remain protected.

It is vitally important that decision makers for and against grouse shooting visit grouse moors. Meeting the gamekeepers on the ground will afford the opportunity to listen to their passion for the habitats and species they curate.

The day job at BASC continues with a spring in our next step, and we will be using this debate as a platform for meetings, dialogue and continued engagement with key stakeholders.

Licensing, as is being introduced in Scotland, is a very real risk in England and Wales, it is the job of all of us to show that the shooting community offers a solution and not an obstacle.

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