Britain’s wild and beautiful places on Friday will echo once more to the sound of gunshots as a Barbour and tweed army go shooting. The “Glorious Twelfth” is upon us. After months of freedom scooting about the hills and glens, low-flying moorland birds find that they are fair game once more.
This year, though, there will be an edge to the frivolities. For the hunting and shooting community are beginning to experience something of what it must be like to stare down the barrel of a gun. A campaign to ban outright driven grouse shooting has been gathering momentum these past few years and its champions are finally beginning to smell blood.
A broad coalition of wildlife groups has launched a petition in the Scottish parliament urging the Holyrood government to act against landowners and their estate managers who have been killing eagles, red kites and hen harriers. They want a licensing system that would bar them from participating in sporting shoots on grouse moors.
Despite being protected by increasingly tougher legislation, raptors remain a target for some landowners who blame them for reducing stocks of the game birds on which they prey. Very few convictions have resulted where raptors are found to have been unlawfully slain. Wildlife groups claim that 10 birds of prey were poisoned and more than five were shot in Scotland in the past year.
The Scottish Raptor Study Group, comprising 300 experts who monitor birds of prey, lodged the petition. It wants “urgent action to introduce a state regulated system of licensing of game bird hunting”.
Earlier this year an e-petition, backed by a powerful lobby of conservationists, animal welfare groups and television naturalists, was launched asking the UK government to ban driven grouse shooting. Thus far it has gained almost 75,000 signatures. It followed the news that the National Trust had banned shooting on landed property it owned in Derbyshire. This was in response to claims that illegal shooting of hen harriers was taking place there. If it reaches 100,000 signatures, a debate in parliament must ensue.
The organizers of the e-petition are clear about what they stand for. “Grouse shooting for ‘sport’ depends on intensive habitat management which increases flood risk and greenhouse gas emissions, relies on killing foxes, stoats, mountain hares, etc in large numbers and often leads to the deliberate illegal killing of protected birds of prey, including hen harriers.”
The landed community, however, are having none of it. They believe that the campaign is a manufactured one, fueled in the main by the politics of class prejudice and by an implacable anti-shooting group who simply want to damage the shooting community at any cost.
On Friday they started their fightback with an important courtroom victory. Following a high court ruling, for the first time ever in the UK buzzards can be shot under license to protect young pheasants, a move that will benefit game shooting. The case was brought by a gamekeeper who claimed his livelihood was being damaged by buzzard attacks. The RSPB condemned the ruling. Its conservation director, Martin Harper, said: “It sets a worrying precedent. What will be next? Red kites, peregrines, hen harriers?”
Tim Baynes, director of the Scottish Moorland Group which is part of the influential Scottish Land & Estates, was highly critical of the role of the RSPB in the campaign. “This body is supposed to be concerned with the welfare of all species of birds, but recently it seems to be championing the concerns about raptors above all others.
“Why aren’t they concerned about falling numbers of wading birds like curlews, lapwings and golden plovers. If they were, they’d know that on managed estates these birds are plentiful. In Scotland, too, the numbers of hen harriers are healthy at about 500 pairs. Indeed Scottish Natural Heritage is currently carrying out a survey which we fully expect to show further increases.
“We are working with SNH in a project where 13 estates across Scotland will monitor nesting pairs to discover why some nests fail. The evidence we have so far is that the two biggest reasons are inclement, wet weather and predation by foxes.”
The RSPB rejected these claims. Duncan Orr-Ewing, head of species and land management at RSPB Scotland, said: “The UK and Isle of Man population of hen harriers declined by 20% between 2004 and 2010, evidenced by national survey data, with a breeding population around one third of what it should be. It is wrong to speculate on the results of the current national hen harrier survey undertaken in 2016 as the results are only now being collated. There is a significant and increasing body of scientific evidence, including government-commissioned research, data from satellite tagged birds and documented incidents of wildlife crime, to show that the relentless illegal killing of hen harriers on land managed for driven grouse shooting is the main factor limiting the species’ population. To suggest otherwise is misleading.”
Scottish Land & Estates claims that field sports in Scotland’s glens are worth £155m in tourism and that this will rise by another £30m by 2020. It has received a degree of succor in its fight to preserve its ways by Scotland’s rural economy minister, Fergus Ewing.
In comments that hint at a clash of interests inside the SNP between countryside and reformers, he said: “Our tourism sector is a vital strand of the rural economy and country sports represent a significant proportion of this. Forecasts suggest this area is set to continue to grow over the coming years, which will bring further gains to rural communities in terms of employment and economic benefits.”
All the signs, though, are beginning to point in the direction of change on the moors. Perhaps, like many other old habits, this one has had its day.
One of the first signatories to the e-petition on grouse shooting was Bill Oddie, the celebrated bird-watcher and naturalist. “At a time when wildlife is being abused all over the world, killing for fun is surely sacrilege,” he said.
The reintroduction of the red kite to England and Scotland has been one of the major conservation success stories of the past 20 years. In the 1930s only two breeding pairs of red kites were known to survive in the British Isles, both in central Wales. Today the Welsh population is thought to number between 750 and 900 pairs in Wales, while the first reintroductions to England and Scotland took place in 1989. There are now believed to be around 2,700 pairs across the country.
The hen harrier is one of the most persecuted birds of prey in the UK. It is the subject of intense monitoring by various conservation bodies. As it feeds on grouse, it has been a target of gamekeepers seeking to protect numbers on shooting estates which specialize in driven grouse shooting. In the breeding season UK birds are to be found on the upland heather moorlands of Wales, Northern England, Northern Ireland and Scotland. In winter they move to lowland farmland, coastal marshes and river valleys. Those found in eastern and south-east England are probably mostly visitors from mainland Europe.
There are thought to be about 440 pairs of golden eagles nesting in Scotland, the majority in the Highlands and Islands and Caithness and Sutherland. Golden eagles became extinct in England and Wales owing to persecution by sheep farmers in the 18th century and gamekeepers in the 19th century. The Scottish Raptor Study Group believes in Scotland the eagle is scarcest in areas where field sports are most prevalent.
- The Observer