My passion for wildlife was stimulated in my teenage years, mainly thanks to my Mum (a biology teacher) who made me look at the world differently and being inspired by writers such as Paul Colinvaux. This early interest developed into biological research in my 20s, when I did practical conservation work in places such as the Comores and Mongolia.
Today, any free time I have I spend pottering around the flatlands of East Anglia or escaping to our hut on the Northumberland coast looking for wildlife and castles with my wife and children.
I studied Biological Sciences at Oxford and Conservation at UCL, and worked at Wildlife and Countryside Link before spending five years as Conservation Director at Plantlife.
I joined the RSPB as Head of Government Affairs in 2004, became Head of Sustainable Development in 2006, before becoming Conservation Director in 2011.
In the run up to our AGM tomorrow, there has been some debate about the RSPB’s position on driven grouse shooting. I am not surprised - this is a high profile issue and everyone has a right to have an opinion. However, I thought it would be useful to re-articulate our position.
In theory, grouse moors, in conservation terms, are not inherently a bad thing. A well managed moor could offer help for curlews, golden plover and allow birds of prey to fly free from harm. Sensitive management of semi-natural vegetation, active restoration of degraded habitats, and a welcome place for walkers and birdwatchers could be hallmarks of good grouse moors. Grouse moors could be striving for the highest standards of environmental management, adapting to new science and information on things as diverse as lead shot or habitat management practices.
But is there a driven grouse moor which does all of the above? If there is, we would love to know. As with any other land management system, there is a spectrum of intensity and not all grouse moors are the same. Some moor owners strive for the above, but it’s clear they are in a minority.
The current voluntary approach to meeting public expectations of what we want from our uplands, is quite obviously not working (see my recent update on the RSPB’s Walshaw complaint to the European Commission here), and the illegal killing of hen harriers and other raptors continues. This is leading some to call for an outright ban on driven grouse shooting. Whilst we do not yet take this stance, we can certainly see their point and the anger about ongoing persecution is shared.
The RSPB, which has always been neutral on the ethics of shooting, has had dialogue with the grouse industry for decades, but laws protecting the nation’s birds of prey continue to be broken. Intolerance of any predator appears to be part of the “business model” of some driven grouse shoots.
Over the last decade we've seen a significant change in the way the industry operates, with intensification of management practices, as expectations of big grouse bags have grown. These include an increase in the frequency of heather burning, often over deep peat soils, the use of grouse medication and, in some places, the culling of mountain hares in a bid to control grouse disease; and even more intensive predator control, including the widespread illegal control of protected birds and mammals.
Any responsible industry would take action to raise environmental standards and put pressure on those that tarnish the reputation of others. While there are those within the moorland community calling for reform, their voice is not loud enough or being heard. What’s worse, is that much of the grouse moor sector seem to be in denial of the impacts this intensification is having on our shared environment and wildlife. While we recognise the potentially significant benefits of grouse moor management, there is compelling and still-growing evidence that the on-the-ground reality of driven grouse shooting as currently practiced in many parts of the UK, is one where damage outweighs any benefits.
Which, if you are concerned about these things, means the status quo is not an option. You can either regulate through licensing, or ban it.
We believe that the effective regulation of grouse shooting and its associated management practices, delivered through a sensible licensing regime and effective enforcement, can deliver a grouse shooting industry fit for the 21st century. We’ve also developed and shared principles for such a scheme (here). This would complement existing legislation such as the EU Nature Directives and domestic wildlife legislation. Only time will tell if licensing is sufficient but it is the most logical next step, and long overdue. And, of course, there are many questions about how a ban on ‘driven grouse shooting’ would work in practice.
Intensive driven grouse moor management, as currently practiced in much of the UK, is environmentally unsustainable and damaging.
Licensing has the potential to deliver all of the benefits I mention at the top of the blog and more – notably healthy populations of upland wildlife of which protected birds of prey, such as hen harriers are a characteristic component. It would also set out what is expected in the wider public interest from this large scale land use in the uplands and that surely has to be a good thing.
Given the growing public profile of environmental harm associated with intensive grouse shooting, a rational industry would embrace licensing and take action to raise standards. Governments across the UK should recognise that growing intensification is incompatible with their environmental and political commitments and as a result, they need to regulate.
Failure to act will simply mean calls for a ban will intensify.
We want licensing and we want it to work.
The status quo is not an option and we cannot allow it to persist much longer.
Many thanks for all your comments. Bob - your analysis is spot on. Making something unlawful unless practiced under a license would be a good incentive to raise standards.
Thomo - I understand, although am not 100% certain. that the intention may be to have alternate AGMs in London. Yes we are off to Birmingham again next year but in three years time we may well be somewhere else. Watch this space.
It was a great AGM and I have just posted a short reflection just now. I hope readers will forgive me for saying that as long as the EU Nature Directives remain vulnerable, this has to remain our number 1 campaign priority. Lose these and we lose the foundation of nature conservation across Europe.
And that is the problem Bob. If the RSPB mention taken the Grouse from the schedule, it might make some people think that the RSPB shouldn't even get involved about talking about removing the Grouse from it's schedule and some people might ask why the RSPB want to take the Grouse from the schedule and the reasons why. It's very risky indeed doing that indeed!
An excellent blog.
There is some misunderstanding about what a Licence is and does and this may be reflected in your heading. You cannot licence something without it being unlawful in the first place and we operate under a licensing system so often we tend to forget that. The obvious example is the driving licence. Is it unlawful to drive a car on road; the answer is actually yes but pass a driving test and the Govt will give you a licence to do so. If it wasn't unlawful there would be no point in taking a licence away. Licensing is actually a very strong tool for enforcement.
So Grouse firstly has to become unlawful to shoot and I suspect the legal definition of 'driven' is such that you can't really separate that from general grouse shooting.
The obvious way would be to remove all grouse from their protection under the WCA schedules and leave them back in the general sections of the WCA. Having done so design a licensing regime that lays out the restrictions and requirements that must be adhered to. We do this with gun licensing, sale of alcohol etc so there is ample precedent for such licence requirement and the WCA operates in that manner anyway for other birds.
I have signed Mark's petition because something needs to move on but
Licensing does have an appeal and there would be little need for a separate VL option as this could be implicit within licence removal.
In answer to Ian, the RSPB does have to stay within the remit of the Charter but removing the Grouse from the schedule is something the RSPB would be entitled to comment on as it would be addressing the needs of a wild bird and not making any comment on shooting specifically.
I would love the RSPB's Annual General meeting to come to Newcastle Upon Tyne one day, just as it took place in Birmingham in 2014, as London is a bit to far. The National Trust always hold there Annual General meeting in different areas of England, Wales and Northern Ireland every year and it has taken place in Newcastle Upon Tyne twice of which I attended on both occasions. I do hope the RSPB start moving the RSPB's Annual General Meeting to different areas of the UK every year just as the National Trust have done as long as I can remember since I first joined in the 1970's. The RSPB's Annual General Meeting has always taken place in London except in 2014.
Great blog Martin, thank you so much. I do hope that the status quo not being an option means that the RSPB will in due course if necessary allocate resource to public awareness of this issue. It is one thing to have a policy position on an issue and quite another to throw the weight of the organisation behind it. As happens I support a ban, for well-rehearsed and in my view unassailable reasons. I respect the RSPB's position even though I disagree with it. But either way, by far the greatest difficulty in making progress on this is lack of public awareness of the issues. That is where the RSPB can make a big difference and I very much hope that it will soon decide to make that contribution.
I agree with the ban on driven grouse shooting (note "driven" Thomo), but also agree with Mark's Christmas deadline.
To put, "And, of course, there are many questions about how a ban on ‘driven grouse shooting’ would work in practice" another way...."how will licensing work in practice"?
Laws and rules are widely ignored throughout like in 21st century UK. I would suspect licensing would be a frivolous irrelevance to many in the industry. Breaking the law currently is, so how is licensing any way forward?
An excellent AGM and members day. The usual first class presentations of all the major projects that the RSPB undertake. The frustrations about the situation in the moorlands is beginning to show, don't let the pressure drop RSPB. Great stand up comedy from Stanley Johnson!
I'm afraid the RSPB has to accept that Grouse Shooting is lawful within the UK and has to stay neutral. If Birds of Prey are killed which is against the law then the RSPB can take action if there is evidence. But the RSPB has to stay within the remit of it's royal Charter.
I agree with Mark that the RSPB now needs to put a deadline on its stance and change plans if the driven grouse shooting industry continues its current behaviour.The supporters of our wildlife need to make their voice heard when it is obvious it is being so seriously threatened.The RSPB has shown remarkable patience but this needs to show some reward.
Great to see a stronger position from the RSPB. I hope that you are ready for the fight though as like with Fox Hunting I feel the DGS community will offer nothing as they think it's their right to do as they want with OUR wildlife. Let's get it banned.
Let us not play their game any more. They won't change so we have to campaign to get driven grouse shooting banned. It has gone on too long.
Problem is, Thomo, the RSPB cannot remotely remain neutral on the subject of the illegal killing of our native birds of prey - which so frequently happens on moors where grouse are shot.
Excellent, Martin. Looking forward to the AGM tomorrow. Who worries about Royal Charters anyway, no organization should be hampered in taking the correct and ethical action.
As a life member of the RSPB. I think the RSPB has to be neutral in the shooting of Grouse on UK moors. As it is in it's royal charter it's got to remain neutral, otherwise it would be at odds with the law of this country and if the RSPB changed it's view, could then there be a possibility that the RSPB could lose it's Royal charter.
The British grouse 'industry' - at least, the majority of it - is just sniggering at the idea of any part of our current government actually having the backbone to take them on. It's high time such a hideous 'sport' was consigned to history along with cock fighting, bear baiting and all the rest.