Red grouse – asset ID 2104999, Louise Greenhorn (rspb-images.com)
This blog is written by Jeff Knott Head of Policy and Advocacy at RSPB.
As the 2023/24 gamebird shooting season is now underway, we felt it would be timely to publish a series of articles on the topic of gamebird shooting and associated land management. As the topic is too broad to cover in a single post, we intend to write a number of blogs over the coming weeks, each focused on a specific issue – including lead ammunition, burning peatland vegetation and raptor persecution. We start with a look back to the conclusions of the RSPB’s evidence and policy review of gamebird shooting in 2020 and an introduction to an overview of the work undertaken since.
In 2019, the RSPB announced our intention to review our policy on gamebird shooting and associated land management based on latest evidence. Carried out over the following year, the review was not about the ethics of shooting (on which the RSPB is neutral), but rather about the environmental impacts of the most intensive forms of gamebird shooting and how these issues should be best addressed in the context of the climate and nature emergency.
The extensive review included an examination of the available scientific literature on the effects of driven grouse shooting and high-density gamebird releases, a consultation with RSPB members, supporters, staff and volunteers, and also with interested organisations and individuals.
Several things became clear:
First that land well managed for shooting can have considerable wildlife benefits, for example by providing habitat that can benefit species other than gamebirds. We have common ground with many who run well-managed shoots and already work together in partnership projects to improve the conservation prospects of threatened species and habitats.
Second, that the upwards trends in the intensification of land management practices over large areas of land and associated with gamebird shooting seen over the last few decades has been detrimental to the environment. This includes the ecological impacts of the increasing numbers of reared gamebirds birds being released into the wild each shooting season; the burning of peatland vegetation; the ongoing use of polluting lead ammunition and the systematic persecution of birds of prey.
Third, that the evidence strongly suggests that self-regulation by the shooting community has failed to adequately address the negative environmental impacts of the intensification of gamebird shooting. This fits with wider evidence that voluntary approaches are rarely, if ever, an effective substitute for regulatory measures.
Fourth, that most other similar countries to the UK in both Europe and North America had more regulated forms of gamebird hunting to ensure that this activity is conducted both legally and sustainably (see report here). The UK is very much the exception to the wider rule.
Unsustainable and damaging
In October 2020, the RSPB therefore concluded that the intensification of management to maximise the number of birds available for shooting in many places over the last few decades is unsustainable and damaging. The nature and scale of the effects on both native wildlife and on our climate means they are entirely incompatible with the imperative to address the climate and nature emergencies. We were clear that we wanted to see an end to environmentally unsustainable gamebird shooting, that we wanted to see new laws backed up by tougher enforcement to end the illegal killing of birds of prey; the use of lead ammunition; the burning of vegetation in the uplands; and that all intensive gamebird shooting should be regulated to reduce the negative environmental impacts.
Working for change
Since October 2020, we have been undertaking a programme of work in pursuit of these objectives.
In that time some significant things have changed – too much has not.
Pheasant - image number 2127313, Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)
We have seen some of our key of our asks replicated in the recommendations of a United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report on Wildlife Crime in the United Kingdom. The Welsh Government ran a consultation on the licensing of Pheasants and Red-legged Partridge earlier this year which we broadly supported.
In Scotland we have welcomed the introduction of a Wildlife Management and Muirburn Bill which is intended to address raptor persecution and to ensure that the management of grouse moors and related activities are undertaken in an environmentally sustainable manner. This will also include statutory Codes of Practice for sustainable grouse moor management and for vegetation burning.
In England we have seen only the introduction of very limited restrictions on the burning of peatland vegetation.
Meanwhile, the illegal persecution of birds of prey continues unabated, and the evidence from across the UK shows that a voluntary commitment to the phase out of the use and sale of lead ammunition has, to date, failed to deliver. And we have seen the effects of the unprecedented and ongoing outbreak of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza on both wild birds and poultry, where there is a risk of gamebird releases exacerbating the situation (see Defra risk assessment), placing further pressure on our native bird populations.
Over the coming weeks, we will look in more detail at the work that we have been undertaking since completion of our review in 2020, the changes that we have (and have not) seen during that time and providing an update on our positioning in response.
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