The following article was published in The Times on the eve of the Inglorious Twelfth:
Gamekeepers are one of nature’s best friends
By Matt Ridley
Tomorrow sees the start of the red grouse shooting season, a sport under attack as never before, with a petition to ban it, and campaigns to get supermarkets to stop selling grouse meat.
As someone who lives in the rural north and knows the issue at first hand, I am in no doubt that the opponents of grouse shooting have it backwards. On both economic and ecological grounds, the shooting of grouse is the best conservation practice for the heathery hills of Britain. If it were to cease, most conservationists agree that not only would curlews, lapwings and golden plover become much scarcer, even locally extinct, but much heather moorland would be lost to forest, bracken, overgrazing or wind farms.
Be in no doubt: management for grouse is conservation. The owners spend money to maintain the heather moors that constitute an ecosystem found almost nowhere other than Britain. They prevent overgrazing, re-establish heather, remove plantations of non-native sitka spruce, eradicate bracken, manage drainage, periodically burn long heather, kill foxes and crows, refuse to build subsidised wind farms, and thus maintain the great open spaces of the Pennines and parts of Scotland where people are free to walk. In the past decade alone, moorland owners have regenerated 57,000 acres of heather.
More than £50 million is spent on conservation by grouse moor owners every year. That’s roughly twice as much as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds devotes to its entire conservation efforts. There is no way the taxpayer would or should stump up that kind of cash to look after heather moors. But somebody has to: there is no such thing as a natural ecosystem in this country and conservation requires human intervention.
Grouse moor owners recoup some of their costs by leasing shooting to wealthy clients, who often fly in from abroad, fill the local hotels and create crucial local employment. In the economy of many Pennine dales, grouse shooting is irreplaceable, adding more than £15 million a year nationally and supporting 1,500 full-time jobs. It redistributes money from hedge-fund managers in the south and overseas to some of the poorest parts of rural Britain. Much as you might wish them to, rich folk won’t spend lots of money in the Pennines to watch rare birds; but they will to shoot grouse.
Astoundingly, golden plover, curlews and lapwings, the three most iconic wading birds of the uplands, live at five times the density and have more than three times the breeding success on moors with gamekeepers compared with moors without gamekeepers. That this is because of gamekeeping was confirmed in a series of experiments by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust near Otterburn in which matching areas of moor were either keepered or not, then swapped around after four years.
These birds would be at risk of dying out if it were not for gamekeepers, as would black grouse, ring ouzels and merlins. Nesting on or near the ground, such birds are vulnerable to foxes and crows that take their young. With unnaturally high numbers of foxes and crows in Britain – because of human roadkill and garbage – the only way the birds can thrive is if somebody controls the numbers of crows and foxes. The RSPB knows this and kills both species on some of its reserves.
As a result, grouse moors in spring are alive with the calls of birds, whereas the moors that are not managed for grouse are ornithological deserts. In Wales, for example, lots of conservation bodies try to manage the hills for birds, but curlew and golden plover are very scarce, black grouse non-existent – in sharp contrast to the grouse-rich Pennines. One grouse moor owner I spoke to last week said he was happy to challenge the RSPB to an ornithological audit by a neutral body of its upland reserves versus his grouse moor.
The RSPB argues that the hen harrier, a hawk that preys on grouse and breeds on moors, is under threat of extinction, because gamekeepers persecute it. Yesterday saw a damp day of protest on its behalf. In fact the British hen harrier population is stable at about 630 pairs and is much higher than it was 100 years ago when these birds were confined mainly to islands like the Orkneys.
Most of them are in Scotland. The only three successful pairs in England this year were on or next to managed grouse moors. They are not breeding on the RSPB’s English reserves because they are too vulnerable to fox predation, so they need gamekeepers as much as curlews do. On a Pennine grouse moor there is ample food – grouse and other birds. On a Welsh bird reserve there’s just the odd meadow pipit to eat. Because hen harriers breed in colonies, as a 1990s experiment at Langholm in Scotland found, they can quickly build up (to 20 pairs in that case) and destroy the economy and jobs on the grouse moor. The harriers themselves would then collapse in numbers for lack of food. By the end of the experiment, hen harriers at Langholm were back to two pairs.
You can see why gamekeepers dislike the idea of being done out of a job by a bird that cannot thrive without their protection; little wonder that some must occasionally be tempted to deter or even kill harriers. A sensible compromise is on the table, and moor owners are ready to sign up to it: they would allow low densities of harriers on grouse moors, removing the excess chicks to repopulate Wales or Cornwall and providing “diversionary feeding”. Everybody gains. All that’s needed is the RSPB’s agreement, but it is being obdurate and demanding unworkable preconditions.
The red grouse, the bird at the heart of all this, is an amazing creature. It’s wholly dependent on grazing heather, it cannot survive in captivity, it lures people to invest heavily in conservation in the north, which supports the economy and benefits other wildlife, and it’s found nowhere else in the world – unlike the hen harrier, which is common across two continents. The grouse population can be heavily cropped, just like sheep, to provide fine, free-range meat.
The campaign against grouse shooting makes no ecological or economic sense. Surely it is not a cynical attempt to raid urban wallets with an emotive anti-rich campaign like the RSPCA’s campaign against foxhunting. Surely not.
For a man of Mr Ridley’s scientific credentials, this opinion piece is shocking. It seems he’s just as good at doing his background research as he was at chairing the Northern Rock bank. The article is so full of holes it resembles a hen harrier gunned down on a driven grouse moor. It would take too long to pick through it all, so here are some highlights, in addition to those identified yesterday by Mark Avery.
Let’s start with his header: “Gamekeepers are one of nature’s best friends“. Does that include the following 26 gamekeepers, all convicted in the last 3.5 years of wildlife crime?
Feb 2011: Gamekeeper Connor Patterson convicted of causing animal fights between dogs, foxes and badgers.
May 2011: Gamekeeper Ivan Mark Crane convicted of using an illegal trap.
May 2011: Gamekeeper Ivan Peter Crane convicted of using an illegal trap.
May 2011: Gamekeeper Dean Barr convicted of being in possession of a banned poison.
May 2011: Gamekeeper James Rolfe convicted of being in possession of a dead red kite.
June 2011: Gamekeeper Glenn Brown convicted of using an illegal trap.
October 2011: Gamekeeper Craig Barrie convicted of illegal possession & control of a wild bird
Dec 2011: Gamekeeper Christopher John Carter convicted of causing a fight between two dogs and a fox.
Dec 2011: Gamekeeper Luke James Byrne convicted of causing three animal fights and possession of three dead wild birds (heron, cormorant, buzzard).
Jan 2012: Gamekeeper David Whitefield convicted of poisoning 4 buzzards.
Jan 2012: Gamekeeper Cyril McLachlan convicted of possessing a banned poison.
April 2012: Gamekeeper Robert Christie convicted of illegal use of a trap.
June 2012: Gamekeeper Jonathan Smith Graham convicted of illegal use of a trap.
Sept 2012: Gamekeeper Tom McKellar convicted of possessing a banned poison.
Nov 2012: Gamekeeper Bill Scobie convicted of possessing and using a banned poison.
Jan 2013: Gamekeeper Robert Hebblewhite convicted of poisoning buzzards.
Feb 2013: Gamekeeper Shaun Allanson convicted of illegal use of a trap.
Feb 2013: Gamekeeper (un-named) cautioned for illegal use of a trap.
May 2013: Gamekeeper Brian Petrie convicted for trapping offences.
June 2013: Gamekeeper Peter Bell convicted for poisoning a buzzard.
July 2013: Gamekeeper Colin Burne convicted for trapping then battering to death 2 buzzards.
Sept 2013: Gamekeeper Andrew Knights convicted for storing banned poisons.
Dec 2013: Gamekeeper Wayne Priday convicted for setting an illegal trap.
Feb 2014 Gamekeeper Ryan Waite convicted for setting an illegal trap.
May 2014 Gamekeeper Derek Sanderson convicted for storing five banned poisons.
July 2014 Gamekeeper Mark Stevens convicted for setting illegal traps.
And how about his statement that “grouse moor owners refuse to build subsidised wind farms” – does that include the following wind farms which are all either operational, under construction or proposed, all situated on grouse moors?
Calliacher Wind Farm, Perthshire
Crossburns Wind Farm, Perthshire
Fallago Rig Wind Farm, Borders
Moy Wind Farm, Inverness-shire
Dunmaglass Wind Farm, Inverness-shire
Farr Wind Farm (+ Kyllachy/Farr Extension), Inverness-shire
Farr is especially interesting as since the wind farm became operational, the estate appears to have greatly increased the intensity of its grouse moor management (gritting stations, moorland grips, predator destruction) – perhaps with the help of the lucrative funds generated by those turbines?
But finally, perhaps the statement that most reveals his failure to keep up to date is this: “In fact the British hen harrier population is stable at about 630 pairs and is much higher than it was 100 years ago when these birds were confined mainly to islands like the Orkneys“.
Hmm. Why is he using a 100-year-old benchmark to measure the population’s current status? If we all used 1914 as a reference point then we’d probably understand why 21st Century gamekeepers often claim that raptor populations have enjoyed exponential growth. Since 1914, of course they have, because by 1914, thanks to the efforts of gamekeepers conducting what was then legal persecution, most raptor species had either been completely (white-tailed eagle, osprey, red kite, goshawk) or almost completely (peregrine, golden eagle, hen harrier, buzzard) eradicated from these isles!
How about we use a more recent (and therefore relevant) reference point, let’s say 2004, to assess whether the British hen harrier population is “stable“. According to research published by Hayhow et al (2013), a national survey in 2010 revealed that the UK hen harrier population had suffered a significant decline of 18% since the previous national survey, which was conducted in 2004 (see here).
We’re missing an estimated potential population of 1600 pairs of hen harriers in Scotland and England combined, according to the government’s Hen Harrier Conservation Framework. That’s over 3,000 individual birds. I suppose you could argue that because the harrier population is being constantly suppressed at an artificially low level (by illegal persecution), that amounts to some sort of ‘stability’, although not the sort of stability that has any meaningful conservation value and certainly not an indication of lawful grouse moor management!
If, like us and 14,000 others, you’ve had enough of the frankly piss-poor ‘explanations’ from apologists in the grouse-shooting industry of why there are so few hen harriers on driven grouse moors, here’s your chance to do something about it. Sign the petition to ban driven grouse shooting!