Petitions & Hysteria

Save the blackcock
Save the blackcock

There cannot have been many storms of emotive, knee-jerk lunacy to match that which currently swirls around online on the subject of driven grouse. But put aside the misleading source material on peat formation, water purity and thinly veiled fury over a class system which favours some over others and you are actually left with one or two kernels of interest.

At its root, the drive to ban shooting has become centred entirely on a “flagship” species; the hen harrier. The neat, PR friendly notion currently doing the rounds is that a ban on grouse shooting will “save” the harrier, but this punchy, memorable one-liner is actually something of a weakness.

Being able to reduce an entire argument into a glib tweet is a great asset, but the discussion itself is so complex that this abbreviation makes it nonsense. Grouse shooting is strong and positive enough to challenge any accusations levelled against it, but it is difficult to respond to such a perverse and cynically emotive over-simplification of what is actually an extremely nuanced exchange.

I don’t like to ponder what it says about humanity that we can read 140 characters on a subject and then feel sufficiently well-informed to sign a petition to have it banned. This level of gung-ho self-righteousness reminds me of the entertaining social media hoax currently going around of Steven Spielberg posing in front of a collapsed mechanical triceratops on the set of Jurassic Park. The picture was captioned with words to suggest that Spielberg had shot the triceratops and was posing with his trophy, and several gullible animal rights campaigners howled with anguish that he should have committed such a barbaric act (link is here – it’s a hoot).

Of course it is a lovely idea to think that putting your name down on a list will “save” a beautiful and charismatic species, but harrier conservation and the future of the uplands hang on a great deal more than a simple legal pen-stroke.

It is also a wholly negative dogma to suggest that the current means of managing the uplands is wrong and yet be totally unable to provide an alternative. Repeated failures at flagship reserves have shown that the RSPB’s approach to management cannot produce reliable quantities of anything apart from fox droppings, and we should be very cautious of accepting their “vision” for the future when it is founded on such a poor upland track record, particularly on blackgame.

That is not to say that we need to keep grouse shooting because we can’t come up with anything better, but those of us who love upland birds would be greatly comforted to know that we had a tried and tested “plan B” for managing the moors in the absence of the status quo. Some commentators court us with the whimsical vision of a mini-Scandinavian utopia of semi-wooded moor, but how do we get to this point even if we wanted to? There is no active demonstration to show how this is workable in this country, and the only thing that we have learnt so far is that when you fence off the cloughs and plant them with scrub as the National Trust did in the Peak District, ring ouzel numbers go down. Very reassuring.

We have a sound system in place which, by dint of its occasional stupidity, sometimes persecutes birds of prey. It is surely better to fix this problem than rip it up on account of a single issue which, while emotive and distressing, is a tiny, tiny part of a much larger picture. If we really believe that crippling grouse shooting is necessary, why not retain the foundations of heather management and predator control and work from there, rather than throw out the bathwater, the baby, the bath tub and the bathroom in one go.

The chances of hen harriers springing back into prosperity in the aftermath of a ban on driven grouse are much less than the near certainty that black grouse would be seriously hamstrung. This single-speciesism is great for generating footfall and interest, and I am as guilty as anyone of having chosen my “favourite”, but fortunately, the symbol of the black grouse is a great deal less politically loaded and flexible when it comes to talking about upland management.

Recent Moorland Association figures suggest that more than 95% of England’s black grouse population can be found on the margins of moorland managed for red grouse. The figure has actually risen since the last review was published a few years ago, suggesting that things look pretty bright for blackgame around the moors while declines continue apace elsewhere. This is no coincidence, and given that predator control is the foundation of black grouse conservation, gamekeepers are unquestionably behind this trend.

Anyone can decide what they want to learn from the first Langholm Project and cherry-pick the facts accordingly, but it seems perfectly obvious to me that withdrawing gamekeepers was extremely bad news for all kinds of birds, including harriers. The current move to “save the harrier” by banning driven moors has its roots in frustration that the big-cheeses of upland management appear to be above the law. I understand this frustration, but we have to remember the bigger picture when we look at our moors. At the same time, supporting the plight of the hen harrier is a noble cause, but it would be a shame if it were allowed to become the acceptable face of classism, animal rights activism and social politics.

After all, if we ban driven grouse shooting, who will we blame in twenty years when the tables have turned and there are no breeding black grouse in England? Will we observe “black grouse day” to draw attention to the mismanagement of our uplands which has led to the disappearance of these birds? Will there be a #blackgame?

In a world of single-species activism where harriers are being pitched as the only thing of any value, I can’t help seeing it from a blackcock’s perspective. The link between grouse shooting and good numbers of black grouse is cast iron.



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