Why it’s time to license driven grouse shooting

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I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

Why it’s time to license driven grouse shooting

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There was good news earlier this month.  We were able to report on three hen harrier nests in Northern England.  I hope that this is the start of a long road to the recovery of this species.

But, even to guarantee the nesting success of these birds, we have to mount a 24 hour nest watch to protect them.

Hen Harrier chicks. Photo by Mick Demain
Photo by Mick Demain 

And then we wait.  We wait to see if they can survive - once they leave the nest, we can’t do much more than monitor their progress and hope for the best.  

It is ridiculous that in 21st century England, we have to run a round-the-clock surveillance programme.  But we can have no confidence that they are safe on their nest or that they can fly free from persecution (see here).  Driven grouse moors are the most intensive form of game management and the trend from some has been to increase the shootable surplus of birds: burning on peat or non-peat soils, medicated grit, and both legal and, still, some illegal predator control.  Hen harriers are for some grouse moor owners their least loved bird. 

Given the near eradication of the species as a breeding bird in England (see here) and the intensity of the management of our uplands (see here), we cannot accept the status quo.  

The RSPB is 125 years old this year.  It spent much of its first fifty years campaigning for law reform to prevent the wanton destruction of wild birds.  Today, we think more reform is urgently needed.

We need and expect the grouse shooting community to change: the industry must demonstrate they can operate in harmony with birds of prey and help to restore the environmental quality of our hills.

So, today, we have written to the organisation representing the moorland owners of England explaining why we believe it is time to regulate the industry.  A copy of the letter is shown below.  We shall also be writing to the major political parties to urge them to introduce a robust licensing system to govern driven grouse moor management after the election.

We attach great importance to working positively with progressive voices in shooting and our Skydancer programme is just one example of this.  We are delighted that Skydancer is one of the good causes that has been nominated for a National Lottery Award (for which the public can vote)  in recognition of the approach we are taking with our partners.

Yet, no other country in Europe has such lax laws governing hunting with no control on quotas or intensity of management. Illegal killing of birds of prey, including peregrine falcons and goshawks, continues (see here) and our upland environment remains in a parlous state: just ten percent of the 162,000 hectares of blanket bog designated as SSSI are in favourable condition (here), and inappropriate management leads to water contamination and increase in greenhouse gas emissions (here). This was the context for our formal complaint to the European Commission to protect Walshaw Moor, part of the South Pennines Moor SAC, SPA and SSSI. We took this unprecedented step to stop inappropriate burning on degraded blanket bog, which is preventing it from being restored, as required under EU law. We wouldn’t have to take this action if our uplands were being managed properly (see here). 


Intensive burning and drainage measures on a Natura 2000 deep peatland site

If birds of prey populations were flourishing and if our uplands were in better condition, perhaps there would be no need for a licensing system to guarantee standards.  But that is not the case in England, which is why we need a licensing system to govern grouse moor management to deliver environmental outcomes.  This would complement other proposals such as the introduction of an offence of vicarious liability for illegal killing of birds of prey (to match the system in place in Scotland), and greater efforts to restore our peatlands.

The growing concern about hen harriers in England has also seen bird watchers unite to dedicate 10 August as hen harrier day with a series of rallies being organised across Northern England.  We will be supporting the day offering ways for people to get involved and we will be emailing our supporters with more information about how they can support Hen Harrier Day during July.  We want people to unite to call for the end of persecution of this extraordinary bird.  

And we will continue to urge DEFRA to develop the promised robust action plan that will drive hen harrier recovery.  We expect leadership from a government that has committed to preventing extinction from human causes.  But, the grouse shooting community needs to change.

Photo by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
Photo by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

If you would like to support our campaign for restoring the uplands and saving birds of prey, you can do three things...

1. Please take part on hen harrier day by attending an event or show your support through social media.

2. Vote for our Skydancer project in this year's National Lottery Awards (see here)

3. Donate to our appeal which will be launched in the next couple of weeks. This appeal will help us to match EU LIFE+ funding, allowing us to purchase satellite tags to keep track of our hen harriers, survey them on their breeding and wintering grounds, collect new evidence to bring criminals to justice, and raise public awareness of the plight of this amazing species.

We shall provide updates on how you can help our campaign in due course. We shall continue to focus on the state of nature and call for action to reduce the impact of any land use.  It is our job to do whatever nature needs.

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See the letter to the Moorland Association here: Letter to The Moorland Association from the Chief Executive of the RSPB.pdf

  • I believe that this blog and Mike Clark's letter to the Moorland Association mark an important and significant step forward in the RSPB's recent history. Many members are convinced that the RSPB have been working tirelessly behind the scenes to make progress on raptor persecution but have despaired that they have not been more upfront and open with the membership and the general public concerning the dreadful situation on driven grouse moors. I sincerely hope that the RSPB will have a presence at HH events on Aug. 10th and make sure that their logo is predominant in any photos that get in the press.

  • When driven grouse shooting leads to the persecution of birds of prey it ceases to be a legal sport.

    I have voted for Skydancer as well, Redkite.

  • Ian/Thomo, you offer a personal perspective based on your understanding of our Charter. I think it would be helpful if I shared our view of our Charter which states "The Society shall take no part in the question of the killing of game birds and legitimate sport of that character

    except when such practices have an impact on the Objects of the Society."

    Our objects relate to conservation and to education/awareness.

    Our rationale for calling for a license goes like this...

    ...Grouse shooting is legal, popular amongst elements of the shooting community but is largely unregulated.

    ...Management for driven‐grouse shooting is associated with negative impacts on biodiversity (particularly the distribution and populations of birds of prey), unfavourable condition of protected areas and upland ecosystem services (e.g. water quality and greenhouse gas emissions).

    ...the RSPB therefore has legitimate grounds to engage in the debate as to how management for grouse shooting is conducted in the UK’s uplands, and whether the existing, low level of statutory regulation is sufficient.  We have concluded that it is not, hence our call for licensing.

    I hope this helps.

  • I personally think the RSPB should keep out of the Grouse Shooting debate as they are supposed to be neutral on this subject according to the RSPB's royal charter and they should not interfere in a lawful sport.

    Regards,

    Ian.

  • The RSPB is supposed to be neutral on this subject going by its royal charter as this is a lawful game of hunting and the RSPB shouldn't interfere in a subject that is lawful.

    Regards

    Ian.

  • I have voted for Skydancer

  • "Great stuff" RSPB. Nothing but the utmost support for all of this. A vigorous approach to this issue is the only way to tackle what is a diabolical situation on our grouse moors and uplands.I will be taking all three of the above recommended actions in the campaign and will be urging my colleagues and friends to do the same  

  • Martin,  This excellent news and I am pleased to see the RSPB taking a public stand on this.  I have never been in favour of VL believing it to be bad law but this would be a good step forward.  

  • Great blog, difficult to believe that is photo of a site with european nature conservation protection when it looks like the scene of an intensive napalm attack!