Tuesday was a hot day.

In a wide-ranging speech delivered in the Nash Conservatory at Kew Gardens this week, the still Environment Secretary Michael Gove outlined what we could expect in the promised and much-needed the Environment Bill.   It included much of what we (including all those that took part in last month’s Time is Now mass lobby) have been calling for including a legally binding commitment to wildlife recovery.  In many ways, Mr Gove's speech reflected the thoughtful, energetic and ambitious leadership that he has offered throughout his two years in Defra.

Yet, it included a major caveat that it would be for the next Prime Minister to finalise and indeed to decide whether to include it in the next Queen’s Speech.  It was therefore, a statement of views of the current Government.  Our hope and indeed our campaign objective must be to ensure that this intent is maintained and turned into law and then action.

And, it will be for the next Chancellor to respond to the letter that Mr Gove explained he had written outlining the case for investment in nature.  While we do not know the content of that letter, it is abundantly clear that there remains a massive mismatch between ambition and available resource (including capacity of our statutory nature conservation agencies).

This means that we are still waiting for the UK Government to deliver the right plan, laws and resources to tackle the ecological and climate emergency.  

There was one line from the speech that stayed with me into the evening when I chaired a debate in the House of Commons on the future management of grouse moors.  Mr Gove had called for action “to repair the damage we as a species have done to the planet that we have plundered”  and I asked the panel to reflect on how the grouse shooting community should respond to the ecological and climate emergency.  This is a question to which all sectors, organisations and individuals must have credible answers.

We had brought together people with a range of different experiences and perspectives to talk about the future of grouse moors.  We wanted to give a platform to different voices in what is already a heated debate.  The RSPB itself took a step back as our views are clearly known but, inevitably, some questions came our way.

It was, as expected, a lively debate, and an important one in light of mounting concerns not just over ongoing illegal killing of birds of prey but also the wider environmental impact of grouse moor management.

On the panel was:

  • Superintendent Nick Lyall, Head of Operations at Bedfordshire Police and National Chair of the Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group
  • Angela Smith, MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge and RSPB Species Champion for the hen harrier
  • Jake Fiennes, General Manager of Conservation for Holkham Estate in Norfolk and Trustee and Director for Norfolk Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group
  • Simon Lester, Head Gamekeeper at Holkham Estate and former Head Gamekeeper at Langholm Moor Demonstration project
  • Richard Benyon, MP for Newbury, grouse moor owner and Trustee of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust

I was grateful for the contribution from all and pleased that there was some common ground: everyone agreed that the illegal killing of birds of prey must stop and the law must be enforced.  Clearly people have different views about how to achieve that, and indeed the relative significance of other aspects of grouse moor management, but it was good that the idiocy and scandal of raptor persecution was noted by all.

You can listen to an audio recording of the whole debate here.

Image courtesy of Tim Melling

If you listen to the recording, you may be able to hear me respond to a few questions that came my way. In the time that we had available, I was only able to give headline responses, but at the bottom of this blog, I provide a bit more detail.

And, for the avoidance of doubt, the RSPB's view is that the UK Government needs to get tougher on driven grouse shooting, to put an end to damaging environmental practices such as burning of legally protected blanket bog and illegal killing of birds of prey. We believe that the status quo is not an option.

We want governments to impose greater deterrents to stop the ongoing criminality taking place on many moors. In Scotland, the forthcoming ’Werritty Review’ of grouse moor management is a major opportunity to build a sustainable – and entirely legal – future for Scotland’s moorlands. The RSPB now wants to see a similar review extended to England.

We believe that if the rule of law is respected and enforced, and steps are taken to ensure these habitats are managed with climate and ecological issues in mind, then grouse moors could play an important role in supporting wildlife and delivering natural solutions to climate change.

However the grouse-shooting industry has to date failed to self-regulate. Laws protecting birds of prey are being continually flouted on grouse moors and important habitats destroyed, undermining the Government’s own ambitions set out in the 25-year environment plan and at odds with the call for immediate action on the climate and ecological emergency.

Many are calling for a ban on driven grouse shooting but the RSPB isn’t. We believe the next step is for driven grouse moors to be licensed, whereby this license to operate could be removed for a time if illegal activity is identified. We believe this would serve as a better deterrent than current legislation.

Quite simply, we want to see driven grouse shooting estates operating within the law. And we want governments to do more to make this happen.

The reality is, and I think that Angela Smith hinted at this at the debate, the longer governments or the industry take to address the conservation and environmental problem associated with intensive driven grouse shooting, the stronger the calls for a ban will become, tension will increase and the more pressure there will be on governments to respond.

Clearly the current system does not work, and driven grouse shooting as currently practiced is unsustainable and at odds with the UK Government’s own ambition. There is recognition from all sides that things are not right. So, with a new Prime Minister starting office soon we want to see, as part of their vision for protecting and restoring the UK’s nature, a new licensing system implemented for grouse moors as a positive step towards rewarding good management and punishing illegal activity. Obeying the law cannot be seen to be optional.

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More detail on questions addressed to the RSPB at the debate:

  1. The RSPB's position on the proposed hen harrier brood management scheme can be found here
  2. The RSPB's position on predator control can be found here
  3. The RSPB's position on the proposed reintroductions (to southern England) of white-tailed eagles and hen harriers is as follows...

“The RSPB is supportive of the principle of white-tailed eagles returning on the Isle of Wight where they have been extinct for hundreds of years. We welcome the news that Natural England have granted permission for the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation and Forestry England project, which will see white-tailed eagles released to their former range.  The reintroduction of any species needs to be carefully managed and done in accordance with international guidelines on reintroductions to ensure that the project works for local wildlife and local people. This isn’t an RSPB project, and instead the RSPB’s focus on the Isle of Wight is to manage the RSPB Brading Marshes nature reserve for wintering and breeding wetland birds, particularly the now locally scarce breeding lapwing and redshank. We are, however, interested to see how this project develops over the coming months.”

"A consortium led by Natural England is currently looking at the feasibility of re-introducing hen harrier to southern England. The species is red listed, and has declined markedly over the past few decades with it's continuing rarity due to ongoing illegal persecution on and around intensively managed grouse moors in northern England.  The current NE feasibility project aims to assess the opportunity of re-establishing a viable population away from the moors, and thus improve the bird’s prospects. Areas being looked at include Dartmoor, Exmoor and Wessex.  The RSPB has serious reservations about this approach to hen harrier conservation in England, and therefore is NOT supporting the project.  Firstly, the RSPB only advocates reintroduction in situations where natural re-colonisation is not possible through other measures. At present, we believe that this could be achieved if persecution in the uplands was stopped. Secondly, the RSPB is concerned that if hen harriers were to be re-introduced to southern England, birds that disperse from their natural areas would be threatened by ongoing illegal persecution in the uplands. Therefore, again, persecution would need to stop entirely before any re-introduction would be viable.  However, the re-introduction project is still at the feasibility stage, and we have yet to see detailed proposals. Although we have serious doubts, to be fair, if the project can address these concerns, which we believe it would need to do in order to comply with IUCN re-introduction guidelines, then the RSPB would wish it every success.  Currently we don’t see how it can do this."

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