It is now over a week since the Westminster Hall parliamentary debate on the future of driven grouse shooting. I thought it would be appropriate to offer a further perspective on what the RSPB plans to do next to improve the environmental conditions of the uplands.

As many others have written, it was a deeply frustrating debate – especially to the 123,000 that called for a ban and of course those seeking reform. Our initial reaction tried to pick out some positives, but that was a real challenge. Clearly there is widespread opposition from within the driven grouse shooting community to any real reform. I think that the positioning by a majority of MPs was perhaps inevitable as it was the first proper outing of the issue in parliament. Imagine a parliamentary debate on climate change 20 years ago with lobbyists peddling their various views to MPs. 

Yet, my view is that if pressure for reform remains then the quality of the parliamentary debate will inevitably improve as people won't be able to brazenly ignore the facts like some did on Monday.

Geltsdale by Chris Gomersall (rspb.images.com)

When more crimes get into the public domain it will be harder for MPs to turn a blind eye. We therefore have no intention of changing our current approach of working with local groups to deliver vital monitoring and surveillance through our Life project, and work with the police to investigate crimes. The team do a fantastic job in extremely difficult circumstances.

That is why, this week, we are raising awareness of the fate of the hen harrier Rowan, found dead in Cumbria in October, and which appears to have been shot. The fate of this bird graphically illustrates that illegal killing of hen harriers is ongoing, contrary to the impression given by some MPs in the Westminster Hall debate.

I think change will come if we can find creative and novel ways of maintaining the political and public profile of our concerns about the environmental impact of driven grouse shooting. This is not a party political issue – I am convinced that all parties want the law enforced and many want to see improved standards of land management associated with grouse shooting. 

Clearly legislation is needed, as voluntary approaches have proved wholly inadequate, and Westminster is the legislature for England. That means a cross-party approach will be needed.

We will continue to keep up the pressure on these issues, and will also be talking with others to determine how best to secure reform. 

In summary, we remain appalled by the environmental condition of the uplands and the ongoing illegal killing of birds of prey. Our work in the uplands remains an important strategic priority for the RSPB – we are not going to go away. We believe that licensing is the way to deliver substantial change to the way our uplands are managed and we intend to keep the pressure on to achieve that. The irony is that commitment to reform and serious discussion about licensing is the shooting industry’s best insurance against growing calls for a ban.

In Scotland, I remain hopeful that tangible reform is possible (partly in response to a petition on gamebird licensing which we supported). If change does happens north of the border, it will make it that much harder for a Westminster Government to ignore the positive direction set out in Scotland.

Our commitment is unwavering. But this won’t be a quick fight and we will take the time now to carefully consider what comes next, talking to all those with a stake in this issue.

What do you think is the next key step for delivering reform of our uplands?

It would be great to hear your views.

  • Blanaid Denman's brilliant RSPB blog today says "...the RSPB will keep pushing for the introduction of a system of grouse moor licensing, to support those who operate within the law and effectively enact a targeted ban on those who don't." That's a policy that has a chance of becoming law and driving the improvements in the uplands we all want to see. I hope the RSPB will stick to it.

  • Keith Cowieson says we shouldn't be attacking long-established activities in the uplands 'as long as they are non-damaging'. Well, for RSPB that is the crunch: is there anything more damaging than the effective extinction of Hen Harrier through illegal persecution ? That is the uncrossable line in the sand and if Keith and others think the Hen Harrier plan has any validity without any Hen Harriers to populate it he is living in a fools paradise.  

  • Martin, thank you. I'm glad that the RSPB is in for the long haul and considering its role in that carefully.

    I would like to see the RSPB majoring on 'doing what only the RSPB can do', to use a bit of consultant-speak. The RSPB is itself well-placed to decide what that is, in discussion with stakeholders.

    In my view the RSPB should place the uplands higher in its strategic agenda. They seem not to be as near the top - in terms of resource allocation across the piece - as I think they should be. Resource allocation should reflect likelihood of success as well as the importance of the issues, and in my view the uplands score high on both.

    As for its specific contribution, the RSPB has resources which others do not. As Mark has demonstrated, resources are not everything, but we may be getting to a stage where they matter more. We need to kill off the specious 'biodiversity is best on grouse moors' argument, and that may still need more science or at any rate a good literature review. There is also the economic argument, of which much was made in the debate. Actually I think it's a false challenge, the answer is that many things will replace driven grouse shooting according to local circumstances, and 'if not grouse then sheep, sitka spruce or wasteland' is just nonsense. Conservationists should not be drawn into saying 'the answer is X’ -  but that does not mean we don’t need to deal with the challenge. And flooding and carbon release/retention of course. I don't mean that the RSPB can or should do or fund all this itself, but it has the ability to lever and engage. By the way, I also thought the work on grouse moor ownership which FoE published shortly before the debate was good and interesting and could easily be built upon bringing in other datasets to good effect.

    Another area where the RSPB could use its financial clout to good effect is careful use of judicial review. Obviously anyone in the charity sector will step carefully here. But, for example, disabilities charities regularly use this weapon against the government and win. One area where this could be deployed to good effect would be in decisions made by National Parks. It seems to me that they persistently fail to follow the Sandford Principle (which is embedded in law) as regards driven grouse shooting and that a well-chosen judicial review would be very likely to succeed. That would change things!

    The other area where I would like to see the RSPB helping is in media presentation. I don't mean just a marketing campaign - though that would be good. I mean addressing what might be called the 'framing' of the debate. It was good to see some trees heading your blog but how often – even above George Monbiot’s pieces – do we see a standard library picture of a dog, man in tweed, gun, dead grouse or any combination thereof?  Unfortunately it seems that the shooters still have all the best tunes, and the dinosaurs attending the debate deployed them to nauseating but – except for those with knowledge – probably good effect. We need to change that, which means addressing some quite broad and deep-seated attitudes – including that there is an equivalence between ‘traditional country values’ and intensive management of the moors for grouse. There’s no such equivalence of course but that does not mean it will be easy to change, especially amongst metropolitan opinion formers who have no relevant reference points. The RSPB has good capability in this area and it would be great to see it brought to bear here. It’s got to be about the uplands, and challenging the mythologies used to such persisting effect by those destroying them.

  • Martin,

    Very good news that you intend to reach out in a more collaborative and inclusive manner to others with shared values.  Capturing and occupying the centre ground is always the best way to proceed – as recent events have proven, emphatically, not least in recent referendums and national elections.    

    A good start would be by attempting to restore broken and strained relationships with government members and other partners of the Defra Joint Hen Harrier Action Plan.

    And you are quite correct, challenging entrenched positions is a must.  They exist at both fringes of the conflict spectrum of course.

  • I find it hard to understand how anybody can possibly believe that reverting to the status quo is acceptable. The DEFRA plan is an embarrassment: what part of there are only three breeding pairs of Hen Harrier in England, none on grouse moors, do they not understand? What part of "the key problem is criminal activity by the shooting industry" have they not grasped? What part of the fact that the Moorland Association and the National Gamekeepers Organisation do NOTHING to control the illegal activities of their members (they might say they do, but there is no sign of any action), makes them suitable partners for a scheme to stop the illegal persecution of birds of prey in the uplands?

    Not only that: how can you work with people who habitually lie and distort data (where is this Utopian grouse moor that is supporting idyllic numbers of Curlew and Golden Plover which has been independently verified by the BTO?); who are destroying populations of mammalian predators and Mountain Hares so HRH and her hanger's on can go and kill 4,500 Red Grouse in 17 days (with taxpayer funded soldiers doing the beating duties for them) in August & September?

    The RSPB has to bang the drum against illegal persecution loudly and continuously: it is about Protection and the cessation of illegal activity.