This post was updated on 4th November.
Yesterday MPs met to discuss the petition started by Mark Avery to ban driven grouse shooting, and another far smaller petition in support of grouse shooting. By categorically failing to recognise that there are any issues at all that need addressing in our uplands, the debate will further polarise an already contentious issue.
It was a debate that felt about a hundred years behind the times, in which wealthy, powerful people leaned on their friendly, powerful conservative MP friends to stymie debate and protect their interests. The evening was an exercise in whitewashing which deprived the British public of a nuanced, intelligent debate on a hugely divisive issue.
Conservative MPs were tripping over each other to give the highest possible praise to grouse shooters and the gamekeepers who manage their land (‘the unsung heroes of conservation’). They completely ignored or willfully misunderstood the grievances of the 123,077 people who signed Avery’s petition. Briefed by the Moorland Association, GWCT and BASC, Conservative speakers lined up to make four main points:
- The effects of muirburn on exacerbating flooding has been recklessly overstated.
- Ground nesting birds need gamekeepers and heather moorland to exist. Apparently hen harriers would go extinct if it weren’t for all the grouse moors that they are not breeding on.
- If there wasn’t grouse shooting there would be something else on the moors, and whatever it was it would definitely be worse.
- Grouse shooting makes some money, and this is a good thing (but no consensus was reached on exactly how much money it made).It’s not just toffs who enjoy grouse shooting. Well it is, but those toffs employ some people, and that’s a good thing.
It was a well rehearsed, polished performance. However, the speakers ignored the rampant illegal persecution of birds of prey, failed to distinguish between dry heath and blanket bog, ignored the question of carbon emissions, ignored the fact that moor management has intensified markedly in the last fifteen years, ignored the concerns about public money being spent on a private hobby, and wilfully misunderstood the RSPB’s position (the RSPB would like to see licensing introduced rather than an all-out ban). They made a false correlation between private ownership and wildlife conservation. They recklessly conflated driven grouse shooting with walked up grouse shooting. Two speakers even conflated driven grouse shooting with all game shooting, brazenly ‘forgetting’ the subject of the debate itself.
Most irritatingly, the arguments completely belittled the petitioners, defining them at best as naive, deluded citizens ‘tricked’ into signing a petition by nasty, ‘politically motivated’ extremists, and at worst as politically motivated extremists themselves. At one point the term ‘countryside tourists’ was used. Personal attacks were launched on both Mark Avery and Chris Packham, both of whom have campaigned to ban driven grouse shooting.
Meanwhile, the opposition parties were nowhere to be seen. Few Labour MPs turned up. They were represented by Kerry McCarthy and Angela Smith, both of whom spoke passionately and eloquently in the face of what was, essentially, a braying mob, alongside shadow environment minister Rachael Maskell. There were no representatives from the Lib Dems. With no real opposition, there was no balance.
It is perhaps worth noting here the extreme gender bias in the debate. Few women spoke in the debate. Kerry McArthy defended the petition, Angela Smith broadly supported reform, and Therese Coffey, DEFRA minister, trotted out the Conservative party line. No male supporters of the petition made a speech.
The debate descended into farce when one Scottish MP asked for a moral rather than economic argument for driven grouse shooting. The house simply laughed at him.
Ultimately one wonders how far this debate will go towards undermining the positions of both the Driven Grouse lobby and the MPs who support them. For fence-sitters like myself, who would rather not see a ban imposed, it is getting harder and harder to defend an industry that shows a blatant disregard for the general public, is propped up by both big money and public money, employs a PR company to do its dirty work and can rely on the support of their friends in the Conservative party when its pack is against the wall.
History will not look kindly on those who spoke at yesterday’s debate. Democracy was at work, but it wasn’t pretty.
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