Over the past week I have been contacted by many people through a variety of media about the RSPB’s position on grouse shooting.

It’s fair to say that I have had a mixed response – some offering full support (which is much appreciated), while others wishing we would back the call for a ban (these are also appreciated, especially the polite ones). A flavour of the critique is captured in the comments on Friday's blog but some of the criticisms that we have received (usually via twitter) have been, let’s say, more blunt.

So, I thought that it would be useful to share a few insights into our position.

The RSPB is an evidence-based organisation but also one with values. Our values reflect our charitable objectives to undertake conservation for the public good.

For example, we are supportive of renewable energy in the fight against climate change, but we oppose developments that will impact on wildlife populations and important habitats. On the other hand, we are against airport expansion unless or until it can be demonstrated that a growth in capacity will be consistent with obligations to greenhouse gas reduction targets.

Equally, we are neither for or against organic or farming that uses pesticides or even GM crops. We care about the impact that those farming practices have on the natural environment and we work with any farming system to help recover farmland wildlife populations.

We are also neutral on the ethics of shooting but we do care about the environmental consequences of that activity.

And the growing evidence of the environmental impact of ever intensive driven grouse shooting led us in 2012 to conclude that self-regulation of this industry had failed and so we would advocate a licensing system designed to reduce the negative impacts.

Others, including two of the RSPB’s Vice-Presidents and my predecessor, Mark Avery, would like us to go further and are calling for a ban on driven grouse shooting.

I have doubts as to the viability of such a proposition but I respect their position, even though I disagree with it. What I do not respect, is the drip-drip of scorn that is levelled at the RSPB about our position and our wider work to protect birds of prey.

On this issue and in this job, I have learnt not to get riled by comments but when people have implied over the past week that we do not have the courage to support a ban on grouse shooting, I take exception.

To me, courage is staying up all night protect a hen harrier nest. Courage is managing a nature reserve next to an intensively managed grouse shoot, where the gamekeepers of the neighbouring estate patrol the borders, yes with guns. Courage is installing cameras on estates where bird of prey crime is thought to happen in the hope of catching the criminals in the act. Courage is appearing in a witness stand in the face of a defence lawyer who attacks both the evidence and the character of the person providing it.

This is the courage that RSPB staff and volunteers demonstrate again and again. And I will go further and suggest that courage is looking your friends at Natural England in the eye and telling them that they were wrong to enter into an ill-conceived management agreement with Walshaw Moor Estate and that this would trigger a legal challenge.

It also takes courage when members of the shooting community speak out against others who need to improve the way their shooting estates are managed.

I think that change is coming. In Scotland, the Government is seriously considering whether to introduce a licensing system for driven grouse shooting. This is long overdue but would be a welcome step.

Given our neutrality on the ethics of shooting, we do not make a judgement about the rights or wrongs of people driving red grouse across a moor to be shot (provided it does not affect the conservation status of red grouse).  We focus our efforts on the environmental damage caused by grouse shooting: the peatlands that are damaged by burning, the water that is polluted, the predators that are illegal killed. We believe that a licensing system, a reformed approach to consenting burning on peatlands, restoration of these special sites coupled with better enforcement and tougher penalties for wildlife crime can address these issues. And we will work with anyone to make this happen and give credit when and where it is due.

As I have written previously, if the economics of any business – including grouse shooting – was dependent on environmentally unsustainable practices, then I would argue that it was time for that business to change.

I do not expect that this blog will change the minds of those that support a ban – indeed, that is not my motivation. To those that do not like our position because you want us to support a ban, I at least ask you to respect our position. To those that do not like it because it challenges your sport, I ask that you look at the growing public concern associated with your sport and encourage you to seek reform from within the shooting community.

If you have any comments on this blog, as ever, it would be great to hear your views.

  • Lazywell - again you repeat the myth that in the absence of driven grouse shooting we'd ''end up with the land being turned over to forestry for necessary commercial reasons.''

    You must know that this is simply untrue within designated moorland? If you don't understand that there's a raft of legislation preventing the conversion of designated moorland to forestry plantations then I suggest you investigate the Wildlife & Countryside Act, Countryside & Rights of Way Act and the Habitats Regulations (all domestic legislation) and, for good measure, the EU Birds and Habitats Directives.

    I agree with you that elements of grouse moor management maintain conditions required by breeding waders - no-one disputes this; I dispute that such conditions are restricted to very intensive driven grouse moor management though. You're also quite right to say that some level of localised, highly targeted predator management may be justified, to aid the recovery of ground nesting birds in open habitats - the RSPB has acknowledged this fact for years.

    Trouble is, the extraordinary densities of one species - red grouse - demanded by your high-paying foreign and city shooting clients is resulting in very intensive grouse moor management, to the detriment of just about everything and everyone other than red grouse and a very small number of wealthy shooting folk.

  • Prasad, it is precisely because we are unique in this country in being able to offer driven grouse shooting that people come from all round the world to enjoy this inimitably challenging sport, and are prepared to pay a significant premium to do so. That is what helps to pay for the management which in turn provides the further conservation benefits I have referred to.

    It is no coincidence, incidentally, that one of the primary objectives of Langholm 2 (where the RSPB has been an important partner) was to restore the moor as a viable DRIVEN grouse moor. I am afraid to say that the less intensive kind of management one finds on moors that only practise walked-up shooting does not deliver anything like the same range or quantity of biodiversity. And if you had no management at all on these moors, as you and George Monbiot seem to advocate, far from being the wonderful nature reserves you suggest, you would either find the depressingly barren scenario that obtains in the Berwyn area of Wales (with the exception of Ruabon, where there is a gamekeeper), or else end up with the land being turned over to forestry for necessary commercial reasons.

    For what it’s worth, I have no criticism of the RSPB’s own science in this field. For example, they did terrific work in Northern Ireland in the 1990s on the devastating impact of predation on curlews. My gripe is that they have a tendency to delay unduly in converting the findings of their science into effective prescriptions on the ground.  

    That said, I am pleased to see that they are gradually becoming more forthright in acknowledging the importance in certain circumstances of undertaking effective predator control. They have learnt, for example, that habitat management by itself is not always the way to reverse the remorseless decline in some of our species of greatest conservation concern (Fisher & Walker; Conservation Evidence (2015) 12, 48-52).

  • I should just like to add Martin that I totally back your comments on the courage of the RSPB staff and volunteers who work to try to protect or moorland wildlife. For example, the RSPB Investigations department do a fantastic job in my view in circumstances which I am sure often demand real personal courage for I think it likely that in a few situations and with a very few unscrupulous individuals employed In the shooting business, violence is not that far below the surface.

    As you say Martin,  whether the RSPB supports a call for a ban on driven grouse shooting or not as in this case, has nothing at all to do with courage it is simply a matter of judging what approach is likely to produce the best results for our moorland wildlife.Based on this criterion, I therefore think your call for a licensing system is the right one.

  • Rob - you appear to be against both Mark's call for an all-out-ban on driven grouse shooting and also the RSPB's far more moderate call for licensing. I'm surprised that neither is acceptable to you.

    We know that management of moorland within designated sites - SACs, SPAs and SSSI's - has been cranking up to deliver ever greater densities of red grouse. These practices are unlawful. The situation is now so serious that the UK government is facing infraction proceedings and the UK tax payer faces huge fines. These places aren't grouse factories, there to serve one (small) interest group at the expense of everyone else.

    Both Rob and Lazywell warn of disaster unfolding on grouse moors should driven grouse shooting interests be required to reduce the intensity of moorland management - the place will be overrun with tax-paying hill walkers; raptors will drive everything to extinction; trees will start to grow; it'll all be ploughed up and packed with sheep. Rest assured, moorlands will still be moorlands, they'll just be healthy. The UK is required by UK and EU law to maintain these uplands in favourable condition - no one can go in and plough up designated sites these days, Offham Down saw to that, nor turn them into sheep pasture or forestry plantations.

    The RSPB has done a brilliant job of getting the EC to act, and deserves our support. Let's hope that the UK government acts in response, and quickly. If the government fails to act, to address the damage to designated sites, and to bring in a licensing scheme in England, they will have shown that they are incapable of moderating the impacts of driven grouse shooting - that driven grouse shooting is unfit for the uplands - and an all-out ban will be the only option left.    

  • Lazywell, please could you explain how other countries, in fact the whole world seems to manage fine without it.

    We seem to be rather backward. I believe the RSPB has fallen into bad science with this. The belief in the wonders of grouse moors seems to be closer to a religion than science.

    Comparing managed grouse moors with unmanaged moors is only looking at one model and only looking at the short term.

    We could be aiming for something closer to Norway's uplands where Willow Grouse are pretty scarce but absolutely wonderful habitat. Numbers aren't everything. I wouldn't even mind fewer Hen Harriers if that is what happened if wild nature balanced out that way. Grouse moors could become wonderful nature reserves.

    There is a whole other way of looking at this and George Monbiot has described it well in Feral.