It was roasting hot at the CLA Game Fair in Blenheim on Friday.   My failure to invest in a light linen suit and rely instead on my black chords meant that I suffered.   

I participated in the afternoon debate questioning whether the rural economy needs shooting or angling.  The stimulus for the session was a recent update of a report first published in 2006, "The Value of Shooting" (here), by the Public and Corporate Economic Consultants (PACEC) on behalf of a range of shooting organisations.  I was joined on the panel by Rhodri Thomas from Strutt and Parker, Richard Ali, CEO of BASC, Howard Davies, CEO of the Association of AONBs and the event was chaired by Alistair Balmain, editor of Shooting Times.

I gave two answers to the question: a simple one which not many in the audience particularly liked and a slightly more sophisticated response which probably divided the audience.

My simple answer was at that if you stuck to maths, the rural economy could survive and flourish with other land uses. 

For example, if your prime objective was to maximise economic output you'd probably invest in rural broadband: it is estimated that for every £1 of public investment, broadband generates £20 in net economic impact.  

Shooting is carried out over 80% of rural Britain much of which is supported by £3billion CAP subsidy.  The £2 billion shooting purports to generate works out at about £130 per hectare.  A reductionist argument would say that RSPB reserves are more economically beneficial providing £500 per hectare.  So, you could go further say and improve the rural economy by turning the countryside into one big RSPB nature reserve - utopia for some, a nightmare for others.

My slightly more sophisticated response suggested that it was right for the PACEC report to look at the environmental and social contribution of shooting as well. 

While not the subject of the PACEC report, angling is also hugely popular with nearly 3 million people taking part (an estimated 50,000 RSPB fish).  More often that not, the interests of angling and fishing converge which is why we spend so much time working in partnership with organisations like the Angling Trust and the Salmon and Trout Association.

Shooting is also clearly popular: 600,000 people in the UK shoot.  And clearly land over which shooting is carried out does some good things for wildlife... of woodland for some pheasant shoots can improve species diversity

...some farmers, who run shoots, have achieved great things for wildlife supported by agri-environment schemes

...many of our Nature of Farming Award finalists manage farms with shoots on them 

...and of course some birds flourish in the uplands where grouse moor management is prevalent

Yet, a proper assessment of value of any sector must look at the costs as well as the benefits.  And when it come to the environmental costs of shooting, I am afraid I become a little bit like former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld:

There are known “knowns”.  For example, driven grouse shooting is associated with negative environmental impacts: just ten percent of the 162,000 hectares of blanket bog designated as SSSI are in favourable condition, inappropriate management leads to a deterioration in water quality (with associated treatment costs) water contamination and increase in greenhouse gas emissions and illegal killing of birds of prey, including golden eagle, hen harrier, red kite, peregrine falcons and goshawks, continues in some areas.

There are also some known “unknowns”.  For example, we still do not know what the environmental impact of releasing c50 million game birds a year into the countryside.  This amounts to something like 55,000 tonnes of gamebirds versus an estimated total biomass of wild birds in the UK of 19,500 tonnes.  The quantity of gamebirds released appears to have increased by nearly 25% in the past decade. And we seem to know precious little about the potential impacts of the increasing use of veterinary medicines to treat grouse on the wider environment.

Given the trend to more intensive land management, it is unsurprising that we think that more needs to be done to improve the balance sheet of shooting.

While the debate itself was inconclusive and subsequent conversations were good natured, the difference of opinion centres on what to do when environmental damage occurs.  Self-regulation is no longer viable when public goods are damaged by private activity.  Which is why, in the uplands, we have called for the introduction of a licensing system to govern grouse shooting.  In the lowlands, we need to know more about the consequences of releasing large quantities of gamebirds.  With knowledge you can take action. 

It is in the interests of shooting to demand high standards across all parts of the shooting community and to improve our understanding of its environmental impact.  I hope that when the Game Fair marquees, linen suits and hats are packed away for another year, this is where the shooting community focuses its attention.

  • I just about accept it is sometimes necessary to sup with the Devil, but I find this report deeply disturbing.

    Where do some of these figures come from like the '600,000 people in the UK [who] shoot' and the '£2billion pounds shooting purports to generate'?  Does the number of people involved make it right? are both these figures produced by the 'shooting industry'?

    'Management of woodland for some pheasant shoots can improve species diversity' - some, but not all, and surely for  management of woodlands to improve species diversity it is neither necessary or justifiable to have pheasant shoots.

    Similarly 'Some farmers, who run shoots, have achieved great things for wildlife' - but not by running shoots.

    'Many of our Nature of Farming Award finalists manage farms with shoots on them' - Then shame on them and shame on us in the RSPB for praising them, and it is certainly not in my name.

    'and of course some birds flourish in the uplands where grouse moor management is prevalent' - and of course many birds don't in the monolandscape of vast empty moorlands.

    Lastly, 'It is in the interests of shooting to demand high standards across all parts of the "shooting community" '  - What an awful comment from our Conservation Director. So shooting birds is ok as long as there are high standards.

    Who are these 600,000 people who go bird killing, and why are we sucking up to them?

  • Hi Roger, the estimated biomass of wild birds in the UK is based on figures from the State of the UK’s Birds 2012 and includes all wild birds. It relates to native bird breeding biomass.  Hope that helps.

  • The comparative biomass figures are very interesting. Would you mind clarifying the statement "estimated total biomass of wild birds in the UK of 19,500 tonnes"? Is that wild game birds (grouse, partridge, etc) or all wild birds?

  • A very interesting report Martin, glad you survived the heat in all senses. You are absolutely right in saying the the shooting industry,for it is an industry, must assess its impacts on the natural environment, as any other industry is required to do. I have been convinced for a long time that here in the Chilterns where pheasant numbers are very high that they have long been having a serious effect on young reptiles and butterfly numbers, for example.

    As you say, a proper assessment of the effects of the industry needs to be carried out and this must be done independently and paid for by the shooting industry, as any organisation with a potential for its activities to have significant envirnomental impacts, is required to do.