A debate on a ban on grouse shooting, following a petition which was signed by over 111,000 people, has brought UK opposition parties together to call for licensing of grouse estates across the country for the first time.
Grouse estates depend on having ‘unnaturally high densities’ of red grouse which live in artificially maintained landscapes rich in heather, requiring burning.
Last year, the SNP announced a strict licensing scheme would be rolled out in Scotland, and the Labour Party has also signalled it would support similar legislation in England.
Shadow environment secretary Luke Pollard told The Independent: “Labour is in favour of licensing grouse shooting to ensure these habitats are managed responsibly and birds of prey are protected.”
He added: “Peat moor burning also causes environmental damage and is a huge threat to our wildlife.”
The petition was launched by campaign group Wild Justice, made up of naturalist and TV presenter Chris Packham, scientist and author Dr Mark Avery and conservationist Dr Ruth Tingay.
It called for a ban on the practice of driven grouse shooting – where large numbers of red grouse are driven into the sky above people with shotguns.
Dr Avery told The Independent: “Scotland has gone for licensing and Labour now supports it too. That would be a big step forward in England.
“Driven grouse shooting is coming to an end – it’s bad for the climate, bad for flooding and simply bad, as it’s underpinned by illegal killing of birds of prey such as harriers, falcons, kites and eagles.”
The practice is highly controversial due to the numerous impacts on the upland regions where grouse estates operate.
Conservationists argue that practices such as burning heather – which causes the plant to produce fresh green shoots the grouse eat – kills off other vegetation and species, dries out critical peatlands increasing surface water runoff, and reduces biodiversity.
Furthermore, raptor persecution – the illegal killing of birds of prey – as well as legal killing of other animals including cats, foxes, badgers, hares, stoats and weasels, is concentrated around grouse estates, as gamekeepers seek to protect the valuable grouse and their eggs from predators, or disease.
The debate follows a partial ban by the government on burning heather and grass on peatlands, which was introduced in January this year. The ban only applies to specific areas of “blanket bogs”, but caused outrage among the grouse shooting fraternity.
The RSPB has long called for licensing to reduce the impacts of grouse moor land management on the natural world.
Martin Fowlie from the RSPB told The Independent: “Reform is urgently needed, and the RSPB is determined to work with governments, members of the shooting community, and other conservation organisations to bring this about across the UK. In short, we want to see an end to environmentally unsustainable gamebird shooting.
“For driven grouse shooting we think that reform leading to an improvement in the environmental condition of our uplands will most effectively be achieved through the introduction of licences for ‘driven’ grouse shoots. These would set minimum environmental standards which, if breached, would result in losing the right to shoot. Failure to deliver effective reform will result in the RSPB eventually calling for a ban on driven grouse shooting.”
Labour MP Kerry McCarthy told the debate: “We need to see more action from this government – it’s very disappointing that the government refused to accept Labour’s amendment to the Environment Bill on the burning of heather and peatlands… I don’t believe the measures introduced by the government go far enough.
She quoted the Committee on Climate Change’s recent report which said there is “an increasingly urgent need to restore degraded upland peatland and manage it more sustainably.”
Wildlife Campaigner and director of Ban Bloodsports on Yorkshire’s Moors, Luke Steele, told The Independent: “Labour, the Conservatives and the SNP have come together to say ‘we need more regulation of grouse moors’, which is unprecedented.
“What we’re seeing is that the opposition parties are going further than the government in that by saying we need to license grouse moors so we can give proper robust powers to shut down grouse estates that are implicated in wildlife crime and environmental damage through burning, but also, compel those landowners to migrate the uplands to a healthy state.
“Raptor persecution is an ongoing issue. With hen harriers alone we should have 300 breeding pairs, and we’ve got less than 50 birds overall, in terms of chicks hatching. The bigger picture is that there are buzzards, goshawks, peregrine falcons and other species being shot, poisoned and trapped.”
He added: “To maintain a grouse moor you need an artificially high number of red grouse to shoot. To be able to shoot them you need to kill off all the predators and burn the peatlands to create that habitat and encourage the population to reach those unnaturally high densities.
“It contributes to flooding… because the peatlands have been damaged and don’t hold back the huge amounts of water they should do. On top of that, the burning releases climate-altering gases into the atmosphere, driving climate change.”
Labour MP Olivia Blake told the debate that hen harriers were 10 times more likely to disappear over grouse moors. “That is something that needs to change”, she said.
“While chick numbers have been increasing, moorlands are still described as ‘black holes’ for certain species.”
She added: “The nature and climate emergency go hand in hand. Last week the CCC report was clear: protecting our peatland is a precondition of meeting our net zero obligations and mitigating the effects of global heating we’re already seeing. There is a huge amount of work to be done and therefore there is a huge opportunity for jobs in our uplands in conservation.”
However, the debate dismissed the call for an outright ban on driven grouse shooting as the petition called for, while environment minister Rebecca Pow said the government currently had no plans to introduce licences for grouse shooting in England.
Nonetheless, she said the government was “watching Scotland closely and we can all learn lessons all round”.