To Shoot or Not To Shoot, That Is The Question

Hold the phone, rally the troops and draw those battle lines, because here it comes, another article of moorland management and grouse. Oh dear! Haven’t we heard enough? Haven’t we all made our points and decided our opinions already? Well, probably, but as John Humphrys would say: I’ve started so I’ll finish. So what do we know about grouse moorland? Good question! What do we actually know, 100%, full stop know for certain. Not a right lot if we’re honest. But we should admit that. But calm down, put those pistols away, this town is big enough for the both of us (for the moment) and I’m not about to ‘attack’ anyone here. All I am saying is that research into moorland management is very contradictory indeed.

So, moorland management. We know that moorland management boosts red grouse populations massively. Of course it does! Otherwise the management practices that we see today would not have a history spanning 150 years. We’d be rather naive if we tried to dispute such a point. We also know that red grouse shooting pulls in visitors from across the globe! Our moorlands are famous for our red grouse and this can do nothing for the rural economy but boost it. There are always endless figures being spouted about what shooting does for our countryside. So there we already have two arguments that are perfectly reasonable and very true.

But there are other issues here that also deserve their share of attention, whether you want to hear them or not. For example, there is the favoured argument that management boosts non-game species of wading bird and some passerines. Lapwing, curlew and golden plover find themselves among the line up of our usually suspects, being thrust into the debate along with dunlin and meadow pipits. Now, some would claim that this is fact and has been proven by published scientific research. However, proven is an interesting word.

‘Nothing can be proven, just supported through evidence.’

That quote is from my father and as a man of science himself he has drummed these words into me.

But as with any argument, there are two sides. On the flip side of this, there is evidence which suggests that shooting management does not protect these species. That non-game birds are just as high on unmanaged moorlands or prefer different habitat structures. For example, the black grouse is a bird that is rare in this country. If he loved heather moorland he would be thriving in red grouse shooting areas, but he is not. Certainly not where I live. The balck grouse needs a mosaic habitat structure with farmland and woodland edges in order to meet all his lifestyle needs. Not all red grouse moorlands provide this.

So it’s all a bit unclear at times and it leaves many of us with little choice but to make our own opinions, to which we are entitled. Indeed, the world would be a very boring place if we all held the same views and opinions. So, waders may be benefitted, but then again, they may not. Or, as is also possible, they may experience increased populations in some areas, but not in others. The effect does not appear to be uniform. However, another positive is that the controls exercised on grouse moorland to limit predators is a benefit to other birds. Once again, we would expect this.

In relation to predators though, there is another argument that presents itself among many pro shooters, and if we’re honest, its a fairly odd one. Now, we know that raptor persecution is a big problem associated with shooting moorland and for many, this alone is the basis for the call for a ban (not necessarily my opinion). Hen harriers are one of the victims of this and extinction in the UK is already knocking ominously on their door. Consequently, we conservationists find ourselves desperately buying time and trying to block extinction from violently bursting through that door. So what is this argument? And what’s wrong with it? Well, it supports shooting, but it uses raptors as an argument. I have read it many times and the suggestion is that management is good because it would actually work to conserve raptors, minus persecution of course.

Come again? So, grouse moors would be perfect for raptors if they weren’t shot and poisoned? I’m not entirely sure anyone was disputing that were they? Of course raptors would thrive in such areas! Red grouse moorlands would be ideal for our hen harriers, but they take grouse, so they are removed. That is the material point here. Would this not be like me arguing that fox hunting is actually great for foxes, provided they weren’t killed at the end of it of course. All that running makes them super fit and strong. I think not. Now before I get accused of ‘ranting’, I am merely pointing out a fundamental flaw to such an argument. If raptor persecution was halted and shooter and raptor lived in harmony on these moorlands, then there would be a very good argument to support management, but until that happens, this point falls rather flat.

In addition, the general claim that management is good for biodiversity could be argued as a convenient by product, to be referred to as and when it suits. Biodiversity is a term we all know and hear often, but what does it actually mean?

“Biodiversity is a measure of the variety of organisms present in different ecosystems. This can refer to genetic variation, ecosystem variation, or species variation (number of species) within an area, biome, or planet.”

Would grouse moorland be the first thing that springs to your mind? Be honest. In fact, it could be claimed that as long as grouse are thriving, then hunters are happy. But what about when they’re not? What happen’s to biodiversity then? Well, an example of this was seen in Scotland when mountain hares were culled as they are hosts to the looping ill virus that kills grouse. Hares were hunted to such an extent by land owners and managers that in 2013, there were very serious concerns about extinction. Protecting biodiversity? Wafer thin ice.

Grouse are the main concern in moorland management, I would expect that. Everything else will play second fiddle. Too many times have we seen it happen, when there is a threat to red grouse and it is subsequently removed. Indeed, if the question was posed, what would concern you most, loss of grouse or lack of biodiversity?, it would of course be biodiversity taking a rather spectacular nose dive. It’s all rather hazy and it’s all rather uncomfortable. But let’s call a spade a spade, let’s be upfront and say what we really think. We all have our own opinions and many of us are unlikely to change those. Each of us having the opinion of:

“I understand what you’re saying, and your comments are valuable, but I’m gonna ignore your advice.” – Roald Dahl.

Don’t agree with me? That’s ok, after all, I probably don’t agree with you either.


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Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard
I have been a bird enthusiast since I was a child and have just completed my MSc at Newcastle University on 'Biodiversity Conservation and Ecosystem Management.'
Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard

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