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The Inconvenient Truth: Grouse Shooting Is Sustainable For Nature And The Rural Economy

15/08/2017 12:11 BST | Updated 15/08/2017 12:11 BST
David De Lossy via Getty Images

One of the great benefits of education is that it equips you with the self-confidence to change your opinion when aware of new evidence. That's why science - natural, hard and social - is a matter of fact and not faith. Of course, there are issues where there is no definitive view: in which case these remain open to further research to scrabble towards the establishment of consensus or a fierce competition of ideas as to the best current explanation of a phenomenon.

As John Maynard Keynes is said to have admonished a critic accusing him of changing his stance on a subject, "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?"

The strange trend that we see in current life is that people with causes which are (at times) claimed to be supported by incontrovertible scientific evidence actually deploy defences founded in faith rather than facts. As the Glorious Twelfth has just passed, the opening of the grouse shooting season in the uplands of the United Kingdom, I have been again reminded of how so many individuals with, or advised by those holding, academic qualifications lack the self-confidence to adjust to facts which blunt their position.

We begin with a protest march. In Central London on the 12th August, a 'March for Wildlife' coalition uniting disparate interest groups opposed to badger-culling, the return of fox-hunting and grouse shooting gathered. In what appeared to be a pre-written newspaper column, one of the organisers Dr Mark Avery states that this attracted "thousands". Unfortunately, a plethora of participants' tweeted photos indicating that a number well below 500 turned out. The mainstream media also evidence rather modest crowds.

So - exaggeration of crowds and therefore support. A small matter, but indicative of a trend, I'd argue. If you can't be trusted to accurately state how many people attended your march and are willing to manipulate that minor fact: how much else that you say can be relied upon?

Interestingly, one of the keynote speakers at the March - Chris Packham (after having equated grouse shooting with slavery, racism and homophobia) - then continues to state that grouse shooters constitute an "unsustainable and criminal shooting agenda". Well, grouse shooting is legal, so that allegation can be put to one side. But 'unsustainable'? In the past, I'd have agreed with that. But only because I had no idea how grouse moors are managed, the abundance of wildlife that thrives due to the careful control of predators who target ground-nesting birds let alone the large number of jobs, trades and crafts that are directly and indirectly assured due to the continued existence of grouse shooting. The populations of certain waders, for example, are only sustainable because of the existence of managed grouse moors. 95% of England's Black Grouse (not the game target Red Grouse) as well as many pairs of the endangered Hen Harrier live in or on grouse moors - because these are ideal habitats for them - solely as a result of professional intervention.

A very impressive film has been produced - 'The Untold Story: Driven Grouse Shooting' - by the Angus Glens Moorland Group which presents how this country pursuit enables a sustainable rural economy for estate employees, their families, service providers and many others. There are no realistic new sources of income: the beautiful landscape, village schools, shops, garages and other businesses rely on grouse shooting. The impressive upland environments that urban folk love to visit exist because of skilled management. The pretty villages often thrive solely because of grouse shooting, other country pursuits and the tourism that is enabled by the work of gamekeepers, farmers, estate managers and many others.

Grouse shooting brings in an estimated £100 million a year into rural economies and sustains around 2500 full-time equivalent jobs. In very real terms, this money is of strategic benefit to parts of the UK which can ill-afford to lose any of this income or these jobs.

So, the inconvenient truth is that grouse-shooting (unpalatable to some for purely ideological reasons) is actually critical to ensuring the sustainability of landscapes, endangered or vulnerable bird species, the rural economy and employees and visitors pay income and service taxes on purchases further helping the Exchequer. In addition, with employment, there are lower benefits costs and medical bills for treatment of depression caused by unemployment, etc..

Interestingly enough, the National Trust is now openly calling for those with ideas about how to manage grouse moors differently to test their ideas on one of their properties. This would be a genuine scientific experiment - yet scientifically qualified anti-grouse shooting activists such as Dr Avery are scrupulously avoiding responding to this genuine invitation. Chris Packham opposes predator control on grouse moors whilst accepting it on RSPB nature reserves (he's vice-president of the RSPB).

In summary, then, the inconvenient truth is that in evidential terms, grouse shooting and the conservation and management of the Red Grouse's habitat is sustainable. Challenging the morality of the sport is another matter - and the sport's detractors should focus on being honest about the real grounds of their criticisms rather than artificially and inaccurately claiming that grouse shooting is unsustainable. It rather appears that a fake claim of unsustainability is being used to disguise a different agenda.