The Driven Grouse Debate: Some Thoughts.

Alas, I have been uncharacteristically quiet on the issue of driven grouse shooting of late, though this does not mean I have not been keeping track of the proceedings. I watched the evidence session, the parliamentary debate, and have busied myself today reading through various outpourings associated with the government’s decision not to ban the practice. It’s all rather interesting: providing at times to be educational, frustrating and a little infuriating.

Anyone that knows me will know that I am rather ambivalent when it comes to DGS. I, like many others in my profession, abhor some of the negative side effects of moorland management  – the killing of protected raptors especially so. I fundamentally disagree with the mentality of some shooters and look much more favourably on traditional walk-up shoots. I do, however, and having worked on a number of driven shoots, see promise in certain sites. Having lived among gamekeepers I see the importance of grouse shooting to rural communities and firmly agree that moorland management conducted by such people can and will bring conservation benefits. For embattled Black Grouse, for wading birds, for mountain hares – when they are not exterminated – and yes, for raptors. I also do not particularly dislike shooting and am not overly opposed to the legal control of predators – if only because of the ensuing conservation benefits. All of this, conflicting views and all, has left me bouncing around in a flurry of indecisiveness, agreeing and disagreeing with arguments made by both pro and anti-shooting groups. Something I have come to believe is not necessarily a bad thing. We all, after all, have to base our views on our own beliefs, not those we are fed by others.

As for the debate, I think it is safe to say that even those at the helm of the campaign to oust DGS had predicted the result before the first words were even spoken. Many of us had accepted that a ban would not come to fruition, and I, personally, did not expect nor really hope for one. I signed the petition and wrote to my MP, yes. Because a debate on the subject, in which all were heard, and a collation of the available evidence from both sides was desperately required. But also in the hope that, as is often the case with such things, the axe would fall somewhere in the middle, leading to compromise and cooperation from both sides. This did not happen either, though unlike others I am not blogging about the proceedings overwhelmed with grief.

In my opinion, one of the most promising things about the whole ordeal was the fact a debate took place altogether. Though I disagree with some of his views, what Mark Avery has done in bringing an incredibly contentious issue into the mainstream is wholly commendable. And, values aside, given how he has acted in the face of often odious personal abuse – with integrity and fortitude – he deserves an applause. He has utilised people power perfectly to challenge the status quo in the countryside and, in doing so, has increased public awareness and opened the eyes of many. All of which is rather great, and I am sure he will continue to do so long into the future.

The debate itself followed a somewhat predictable course, I had expected many tory MP’s to turn out in defence of shooting and they did. Though unlike other environmental bloggers, I find myself unable to criticise all for doing so as some made perfectly valid points. Many of which echoing my own worries relating to a ban. Namely, what would become of the land afterwards should a ban take place – with lifeless Sitka Spruce plantations and even worse, damaging upland grazing, not what I would call an improvement. And abandonment, not overly great for upland wildlife either. Secondly, said MP’s also highlighted the positive implications of moorland management, for a number of species. Positives supported by science and not easily bypassed unless, of course, Hen Harriers are the only species on which you place any value. A stance which may be fine for some, but does not sit well with me. On the reverse,  I did, however, also feel that those arguing in favour of a ban shone, with both Kerry McCarthy and Rachael Maskell making some very valid points and the wonderful Caroline Lucus making a few decent interventions in the face of what was, undeniably, a majoritively pro-shooting assemblage. The select few echoing calls for change raising important questions much in line with my worries associated with DGS – yes, I worry about the prospects of a ban, yet, like many, am concerned with the status quo. It’s all rather challenging.

While I agreed or at least sympathised with a lot of the worries expressed from both sides, I cannot bring myself to look upon all those who attended the debate in a positive light however. Many, predominantly tory politicians, acted deplorably. There was an awful lot of rambling, scaremongering and, at times, utter nonsense spewed from amongst their ranks, and for every valid concern there appeared to be a thinly veiled and rather immature attack on either Mark Avery, Chris Packham or the RSPB. All of whom are entitled to their opinions. There were also a few who appeared to show contempt for the debate itself and the individual concerns of their own constituents who brought the issue to Westminister. Particularly from one “honourable gentleman” who appeared to buy into the CA line that many of those who signed the petition “likely know nothing of grouse shooting”. This may be true, though for whatever reason they chose to sign it – class warfare, animal rights, the list goes on – these people are equally entitled to their views. I believe that by dismissing the genuine concerns of the public and thus making a mockery of the political process, certain individuals made themselves appear utterly unfit to hold office. There was also, of course, the issue of vested interests noted by many other bloggers, but when it comes to MP’s such as Richard Benyon and Nicholas Soames were we really expecting anything different? Really, they have made their views quite clear in the past and I would be a hypocrite to criticise them for defending their own interests. We all do the same in our own daily lives.

So, where do we go from here? Well, those dedicated to the abolition of grouse shooting will likely soldier on. Hopefully deploying civilised, non-intrusive means as opposed to those advocated by certain animal rights groups I have noted voicing their displeasure over recent days. Direction intervention is both illegal and counterproductive and has no place in modern society. Others, on the reverse, will hopefully look to make changes, particularly with regards to raptor persecution. Indeed, if the views expressed by Amanda Anderson and Liam Stokes are anything to go by, the shooting industry is changing for the better. Which, unashamedly, I believe it is, albeit slowly. My experiences of eagles and other raptors accepted on sites such as Invermark, leaving me unable to disregard this.  I do hope, however, hope things change faster and feel that just maybe, Mark Avery’s work and the casting of the spotlight firmly on the workings of sportsmen may speed up the process. There will, of course, be some shooters feeling rather contented by this “victory” though that would be folly. If the campaign to ban DGS has done anything, it has cast the eyes of many onto our uplands and, hopefully, made flaunting the law even more difficult.

I have written, many times in fact, of the need for cooperation between both sides. Criticising both, on occasion, and often resulting in angry messages from both gamekeepers and conservationists – I expect more after this post. Still, I believe that cooperation is key to solving many of the problems discussed during the debate, though by my own admission, such compromise seems almost impossible at present. The polarised views of those at the extreme ends of the spectrum, whether we are talking Chris Packham or Robin Page, creating a rift that will likely take many years to repair. It is, however, up to those occupying the middle ground to attempt to mend this.

I hate to repeat myself, but in the absence of complete political overhaul, or an act of divine intervention I see little choice other than to reach a conclusion that benefits both people and wildlife. And if there was one good thing to come from the driven grouse debate, I hope it would be the realisation that we need to work together. I am not optimistic, but having spoken, quite recently, to a number of gamekeepers with a firm interest in conservation, and separately to a number of conservationists boasting an acceptance of country sports, it is clear that the foundations are there. We should never forsake our values, nor accept illegalities in our countryside, but we should at least consider the possibility that for some species, a united front may be the best option. Or, the only option.

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James Common
James is a nature writer, conservationist, blogger and birder; holding an MSc in Wildlife Management and working previously in the fields of ecology and practical conservation. He maintains a popular natural history blog at, writes regularly for Northumberland Wildlife Trust and, as its managing director, runs New Nature - the youth nature magazine.

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