BY LIAM STOKES
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.