The Westminster grouse debate – so what happened?

By Andrew Gilruth, GWCT Communications Director

Grouse SHooting DebateFor centuries people have been taking petitions to Parliament. However, it was the advent of social media that has turned e-petitions into a modern campaigning tool. 23,096 have been started in the last 18 months. Of these, 40 have triggered debates at Westminster. 

The most recent was on driven grouse shooting. Before holding their debate, the Petitions Committee asked anyone with an interest to submit written evidence. They received 486 submissions, which have been published (GWCT evidence submissions can be downloaded here). 

The committee also held an oral evidence session to hear the evidence behind the claims being made by each side of the debate. Those seeking a ban on driven grouse shooting were given the opportunity to provide MPs with their alternative vision for the uplands and what the economic, social and environmental benefits would be – and they blew it. 

Supporters of a ban on driven grouse shooting were also challenged on the imbalance of their evidence. Simply repeating assertions made on social media did not impress MPs. On some lines of enquiry, especially flooding, it appeared that the MPs had a better understanding of the available evidence and its limitations (more on this in future posts) than those seeking a ban on driven grouse shooting. 

It came as no surprise that during the subsequent debate not a single MP spoke in favour of a ban (but they did support wildlife law enforcement, the use of voluntary partnerships and moorland best practice codes, etc). These Petition Committee debates end with a government response rather than a vote by MPs. 

Key government response to the debate:

  • No intention of banning driven grouse shooting
  • No plans to introduce licensing (considerable regulation is already in place)
  • Will bring justice to those who break the law

 The grouse enquiry and debate in numbers

  •  123,079 – signed the petition to ban driven grouse shooting (0.25% of adult population)
  • 486 – written evidence submissions (view them here)
  • 12 MPs – attended the Petitions Committee oral evidence session (watch it here)
  • 18,889 – words spoken at the oral evidence session (read it online here)
  • 3 hours – Petitions Committee debate in Westminster Hall (watch it here)
  • 21 MPs – spoke in the debate
  • 7 mins – time limit set for those MPs that wished to speak
  • 9 MPs – explicitly cited GWCT-published science when they spoke
  • 28,885 – words spoken at the debate (read the online Hansard here)
  • Zero – no MPs spoke in support of a ban

Opening the debate

The debate was opened by Steve Double MP, who explained that since he was no expert on these matters (he sits on the Petitions Committee and so hence his involvement), he had to listen carefully to each side’s evidence. He explained that: “Those who call for a ban have failed to present any credible alternative to that. No case has been made for where the tens of millions of pounds that are spent on the management of the land would come from. There seems to be a romantic view that if the land is left to nature, it will somehow become a natural paradise full of wildlife and people will pay to view it, yet no evidence has been presented to support that notion.”

As for the RSPB idea of licensing grouse moors, he stated that: “Little detail has been presented about precisely how that would work or what value it would add, other than another layer of bureaucracy.”

The pragmatic views began to flow

21 MPs spoke. One that follows upland issues carefully (for example here) is Angela Smith. She is both an honorary Vice President of the League Against Cruel Sports (who do support a ban) and a pragmatist. She has been explicit before that this is not a black and white issue. Angela did not support the petition calling for a ban (nor licensing, but did ask that the latter should stay on the table as a future option) but chose to emphasise that: “We need to resolve the conflict on our grouse moors now.”

Sadly, the debate had to focus on the binary question posed by the two petitions (one for and one against driven grouse shooting) rather than discussing the need to resolve the proven conflict between raptors and grouse moors – for the benefit of both.

Since, as Steve Double had already pointed out, the evidence for many of the criticisms of driven grouse shooting are far from clear, accurate or balanced (further research, much of it over the medium to long term, is required) a binary debate was only going to go one way. Not a single MP would go on to offer support for a ban.

Grouse SHooting Debate SoamesThe speech by Sir Nicholas Soames summed up many of the others made: “These moors were not designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest in spite of being grouse moors but precisely because they were grouse moors. These wonderful places exist only because generations of owners have refused endless blandishments and huge grants from successive governments to drain them, fence them, plant them with conifers, carpet them with sheep and cover them with roads and tracks.

“If anyone wants to see in real life what that would look like, go to Wales, which in many places is an ornithological desert. Indeed, on one 5,000-acre estate in North Yorkshire, there are more golden plover than in the whole of Wales.

“I am very taken with the views of Mr Avery when he was Director of Conservation at the RSPB; I understand that he started the e-petition to ban grouse shooting.

“The RSPB and other moorland owners and managers agree about many things – we care deeply about the countryside and are angered by the declines in black grouse and wader populations; we agree that grouse moors have prevented even greater losses of heather to intensive grazing and conifers.

“Grouse moors undoubtedly provide good habitat for species in addition to grouse. Some birds, particularly breeding waders, do well on grouse moors. The package of management, which includes the killing, legally, of certain predator species, benefits a range of other bird species. On the subject of predators, the RSPB does not oppose legal predator control and recognises that it is necessary if the objective is to produce a shootable surplus of gamebirds. And so say all of us.”

The Minister’s views closed the debate

Dr Therese Coffey noted that: “We all agree that conserving the upland moorlands is in everyone’s best interests. We will help to ensure that a constructive dialogue continues so that grouse shooting is protected and these valuable moorlands thrive.” 

The government’s position:

  • No intention of banning driven grouse shooting
  • No plans to introduce licensing (considerable regulation is already in place)
  • Will bring justice to those who break the law

In response to some of the arguments made in the debate:

  • Legal control of predators is a legitimate wildlife management practice in some circumstances.
  • Natural England will license the killing of certain birds of prey, although it would not consider licensing any activity that would adversely affect the conservation status of a species.
  • Natural England does not consent to constructing drainage ditches on blanket bog in SSSIs.
  • Natural England’s consent is required to burn on a SSSI.
  • Natural England’s 2013 study on the effects of managed burning found no direct evidence specifically relating to the effect of burning on watercourse flow or the risk of downstream flood events.
  • Upland peat is important for carbon sequestration.
  • Agri-environment payments are not subsidies and they are not paid to support shooting activities.
  • Hen harriers – when driven grouse shooting ceased at Berwyn (North Wales) it might have been expected that the populations would burgeon and start to spread, but that has not happened.

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What's inside your FREE guide

✓ Grouse shooting
✓ Conservation on grouse moors
✓ Heather burning
✓ Moorland drainage
✓ Disease control
✓ Upland predator control
✓ Hen harriers and red grouse
✓ Mountain hares and red grouse
✓ Alternative moorland use
✓ Commonly heard criticisms of driven grouse shooting

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Grouse Shooting Debate

at 17:27 on 15/11/2016 by Kelvin Thomson

This debate was introduced by Steve Double MP in a wholly unacceptable manner (123 000+ people deserved better) and was ended by a Ministerial statement which had not taken on board any of the evidence presented by the petitioner, the RSPB and others. Many of the MP's supporting grouse shooting talked endlessly about waders which are important species, but the point of fact is that there were only 3 nesting pairs in England this year and none on that fantastic habitat that is Grouse Moor. Why so few, because they are being prevented from breeding by illegal persecution. By contrast, in Wales there were 57 territorial pairs as at the last survey in 2010 (32% higher that the last previous survey in 2004), funny that there is no grouse shooting here any more. It was telling that a number of pro shooting MP's made it personal and attacked Mark Avery and Chris Packham for daring to question this activity, why did they do this, well their own arguments were weak!.

Grouse debate,

at 16:39 on 15/11/2016 by John BURROUGHS

It is heart warming to see that country folk can still have a say in there lively hood.

Grouse debate

at 14:45 on 15/11/2016 by Smith Brothers Farms

Congratulations on a well reported debate

Thanks to the protectionists

at 14:40 on 15/11/2016 by Paul mallen

I think the countryside owes its thanks to Avery and the protectionist extremists behind this petition! It gave those who really care and know about conservation, the platform to disprove all his/their spite driven, dishonest claims against Driven Grouse shooting.

Driven grouse debate

at 14:12 on 15/11/2016 by Arthur Branthwaite

A common sense position achieved for the moment, but much more research needs to be done to cement the decision. The Antis will continue their ill informed media assault. The Avery's and Packham's will not give in lightly.

Grouse Shooting

at 13:22 on 15/11/2016 by Edward Byam-Cook

It is good for common sense that 21 MP's have now all spoken and and see no purpose or benefit to ban grouse shooting. Perhaps the RSPB and others can now show more focus on improving the habitat on their reserves to achieve the same spread and quantity of wildlife that now thrives on many of the Grouse moors in the United kingdom instead of trying to ban a legitimate and useful for wildlife sport.

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