In the Trenches of the Grouse Wars


The grouse wars were never a battle I wanted to fight. In a landscape as complex as ours, in which competing and contradictory interests are held in tension and resolved through constant dialogue, conflict is supremely unhelpful. There are, however, people who struggle with complexity, people who argue that complicated situations are actually simple situations made to appear complicated by an elite who seek to benefit from them. And, of course, these people often maintain that the situation could be entirely resolved if only their particular brand of secret sauce were applied. This year the complex situation was the role grouse shooting plays in the management of our uplands, the elites were “the Tories at play”, and the secret sauce was a total ban on driven grouse shooting. So, fight we had to, and fight we did.

I’ve written extensively elsewhere about the course of the grouse wars. Essentially throughout 2016 a petition calling for the banning of driven grouse shooting steadily accrued signatures, powered by a combination of animal rights emoting and the social media reach the BBC grants to Chris Packham, eventually reaching the 100,000 required to trigger a debate in Parliament. At the Countryside Alliance we marshalled the scientific evidence and the practical experiences of our members and presented the case for grouse shooting in the media, in our briefings, and in person to a great many MPs. We were also called upon to give oral evidence to parliament, a task that fell to me. It was intense but I was glad to do it, not least because I have lived on the grouse moors of Northern England and knew they were worth fighting for.

I had no involvement with game shooting when I first went to work for the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust in County Durham. My interest was in conservation, and I took a job helping support the Black Grouse Recovery Project and other conservation initiatives in the uplands. I was blown away by the power of shooting as a conservation tool; here were people willing to invest their own time and money into habitat management and predator control. They might be doing it so they could shoot some grouse, but so what? I saw the results on the ground. Sure, rich blokes would turn up to shoot in their swanky Range Rovers, but they were pouring their money into the conservation of the rare species I saw on my black grouse lek counts and wader counts.

This is why the “Tories at play” class war argument stinks. Attempts were made during the campaign to call on urban Corbyn supporters to sign the petition, on the basis that it was “a rich person’s hobby”. And on many driven grouse days the guns are indeed pretty rich. But if grouse shooting were banned it wouldn’t hurt those rich people in the Range Rovers, they’d just spend their money on something else. It would hurt the species and the communities that benefit from that money being spent on grouse. I’m not “the rich” (alas) that the anti-shooting campaigners want to invoke when they come after grouse shooting. I went to a comprehensive school. I taught in a Further Education college. I write for Blue Labour, and have voted Labour. And it angers me to see people with a social conscience being told that banning grouse shooting is a cause for them. Banning grouse shooting would do immense harm to working men and women in areas of our country that otherwise struggle for investment and employment. Grouse shooting provides jobs for people in rural communities, it brings people together in areas where social isolation is a real threat and it supports businesses that rely on shooters in autumn and winter and eco-tourists who come to enjoy the moors in the spring and summer.

Oh yes, grouse shooting should take credit for the eco-tourists. There is a vein of thought that is seeking to become mainstream, one that was very prevalent in the anti-grouse shooting forces, that runs down our British landscapes because they are man-made. I find this infuriating. Tourists visit our beauty spots precisely because they have been uniquely shaped by human hands over the centuries. They are part of our heritage, part of us. Those beautiful moorlands of the North Pennines and the Scottish Highlands have been shaped by grouse shooting, and would be changed utterly and forever if it were ever to disappear. A key weakness in the petitioners’ case was that they had no idea what would replace the management and employment generated by grouse shooting. Intensive sheep farming, forestry, scrubland, windfarms, “rewilding” – all would be the end of the evocative landscapes that draw tourists from around the world, all would be ecological, economic or social catastrophes. I suspect one legacy of the petition will be the entrenchment of this idea that our man-made landscape is somehow inherently deficient. Championing its cause as a living, breathing part of rural life may well be the next key battleground.

So, what came of the debate? Well it was a resounding success for grouse shooting and upland management. MP after MP stood up to refute the claims of the petitioners and point out the benefits of driven grouse shooting. Even the most pointedly anti-shooting MPs couldn’t bring themselves to call for a ban. The anti-grouse shooting campaign came to nought. The only real impact has been to toxify the relationship between conservation organisations, birdwatchers and the working countryside. The task now is to rebuild those relationships and get back to working together towards an even better future for our upland wildlife, improving land management techniques in line with new and emerging research. As that great work goes on we will continue to make sure people hear about it. The anti-shooting activists aren’t going anywhere, but neither is grouse shooting, nor the wildlife and communities it supports, nor the beautiful landscape it built.

Liam Stokes (pictured below) is Head of Shooting Campaigns for The Countryside Alliance


10 thoughts on “In the Trenches of the Grouse Wars

  1. Excellent article Liam. Great to see you standing up for the shooting community and all the work done to keep the British countryside working, rural folk busy and the landscape looking just the way we like it!

  2. Last week I wrote a lengthy reply to Peter Glenser’s article on why he thinks “those who shoot” are the true custodians of the countryside. I pulled him up on a few things where I thought he was either missing the point or glossing over “inconvenient truths” with his own particular bias towards field sports and its implied role in conserving the British countryside. So far, he hasn’t replied. To be fair, Peter is a lawyer, not an ecologist, and he is probably just regurgitating the received wisdom handed to him by those who wish to justify management of our wildlife for their own shooting interests and then dress it up as conservation. You can read Peter’s article here and my reply here

    This week it’s Liam’s turn to tell us what to think.

    He starts off by telling us that our landscape is complex, which is true (aren’t all landscapes?), and then tells us that “competing and contradictory interests are held in tension and resolved through dialogue” wherein conflict is seen as “supremely unhelpful”. Again, true enough though I wonder as to whom it is unhelpful and why. He then starts to lose me by implying that just because I don’t necessarily subscribe to his view of the situation, then I am somehow wrong. As an academic and techno-geek I might at this point direct him towards the Cynefin framework for he’s missed out the fourth domain state: that of chaos. This is where we’re headed if the two warring factions on either side of the conservation battlefield cannot move closer together in identifying some common ground (or at least allow one another to step over the wire into non-man’s land with getting shot at, to maintain the trench-warfare metaphor).

    Solutions to conflict require goodwill and compromise by *both* sides. Chaos lies in blindly insisting one is right and your opponent is wrong; witness the ongoing crisis in the Middle East (and here we should acknowledge the role of British diplomats for creating the unholy mess in the first place, clearly not social geographers trained in the art of recognising social and cultural tensions). No amount of marshalling of scientific evidence, or hearsay as to what one can see from the kitchen window, is going to convince either side to lay down their guns (pardon the pun, though it is rather one-sided) and capitulate. This is particularly true in today’s social media fuelled post-truth climate and especially true if and when you fail to acknowledge when the other side has a point.

    I remember when we first discussed the issue of unnatural game bird numbers and the role this has played in increasing predator numbers by symbiosis and the associated spill-over predation on species of conservation concern such as lapwing, plover and curlew (see my reply to Peter Glenser). At the time you agreed with my analysis but pointed out that “the UK is essentially a man-made landscape, with no area untouched by development [and in so doing we] have created a paradise for predominantly k-selected generalist species such as rats, pigeons, some species of corvid, foxes etc.” But you then retreat to the same old argument that the “conservation function of game management … is to incentivise conservation on land that might otherwise be intensively farmed or forested (the latter in the case of moorland) with catastrophic effect, which is why keeping it economically viable is so important.” All of which is, of course, dependent on external income from wealthy guns willing to pay through the nose for a day’s driven grouse shooting or “do a Macnab” and rich land owners who can afford to write off the outlay for the privilege of owning our hills. That this then supports a peculiar aspect of the upland economy and jobs in often remote rural communities I do not doubt for one second, but I do question your assertion that it somehow can take credit for eco-tourism.

    Look at your history books. If it wasn’t for the great social movement of the mass trespasses, the post-war Labour government and the resulting National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act (1949), and more recently the Countryside Rights of Way Act (2000), then we might still not have freedom to roam on your beloved grouse moors and deer stalking estates. But change happens, and nothing in nature or society stays still for long. And so it might be with the great tradition of driven grouse shooting which only really came into its own with the invention and mass adoption of the breech-loading shotgun in the 1870s.
    Please don’t kid yourself about the motivations of those who don’t shoot. These tourists don’t visit our upland landscapes because of driven grouse shooting, rather they do so in spite of it. The heather monoculture of grouse moors and any other cultural landscape is just a thin veneer laid over the stuff that real countryside is made of… geology shaped by millions of years of erosion by weather, water and ice, soil created by nature and the plants and animals that are able to inhabit that space. It may be pretty and people may love it for that, but equally they will continue to love our upland landscapes when covered in a few more trees and less heather. This kind of change happens slowly and people have short lives and even shorter memories. What is it that Abraham Lincoln said? “Laws change, people die, the land remains”.

    And so I return to the great British landscape. As one who has been lucky enough to travel outside of these islands (often in the course of my work) I have been in real wilderness and have seen firsthand raw nature that is able to decide its own trajectory. I miss that here. Our natural history is constrained by the misguided thinking that everything should somehow be managed and manicured for human benefit. Compared to what could be, many of our landscapes are dead, dying or depauperated by years of misuse and so-called management. Now, you know I don’t maintain we should rewild everywhere (I’m too fond of my food for that), but rather only where possible and where appropriate. We have discussed this and you, if I may quote you directly again, have said that you think my “view of rewilding is certainly one that could be brought to the table and discussed in an interesting and hopefully productive manner”. What brought this on? My views and ideas on rewilding can hardly be described as extreme or uninformed it would seem. What I said is this (and here I quote myself)…

    “I don’t want to see all game management for sport shoots banned as some extremists do, rather I would like to see driven shoots replaced (gradually as necessary to make the change easier to manage and more palatable) with walked-up shoots with the associated de-intensification of management (less burning/cutting, less predator control, less treatments) and reduction in game species numbers to more natural levels (acknowledging that pheasants are a non-native introduction from Asia). This would result in a more diverse and ecologically interesting uplands (think mosaic of heather/moor grass heath, shrubs – juniper, dwarf willow/birch, etc.) and trees creating what must be more challenging sport for walked up shooting (something I would consider doing myself… a few birds for the pot… rather than target practice stood in a butt or at a peg). I’d call this rewilding, with a whole raft of associated ecosystem services producing knock-on benefits downstream such as better water quality, flood water retention, higher biodiversity, better and more varied wildlife habitats, more carbon storage and sequestration, better erosion control, nutrient balances, better recreational environments, better aesthetics, etc etc.” What’s not to like? An ecological truce.

    Yet the model of the British countryside you describe here is- like Peter’s – that shooting interests act as some kind of benevolent custodian; all seeing, all knowing, all powerful. You manage the landscape for the benefit of those species you like to shoot, accept those of no discernible economic value if they are otherwise benign, and control those that compete with you for your sport. If you want to find compromise, as I believe you are suggesting, then you perhaps need to realise that this cannot persist in perpetuity and that you have look towards crossing the fence and meeting in no-man’s land to shake hands and, while agreeing to disagree, give ground (in both the literal and physical sense) to the other side of nature conservation.

  3. When I met Jeremy Corbyn recently in Jarra, the talk was of little else but grouse shooting…

  4. Congratulations and well done for standing up for grouse shooting and upland management.

  5. I agree with your point Liam that political party affiliation is irrelevant regards grouse shooting. It’s a bandwagon that Corbynistas and Tories, at different points of election cycles, try to jump on. That is neither fair nor helpful. The logical conclusion is that a countryside political party should be formed that represents exurbanites, which can then negotiate from a position of strength as to which party it sidles alongside in coalition. That would be what you are implying and that would seem to be quite some way off.

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