You may have missed it, but a significant milestone was reached over last weekend (and I don't mean Bradley Wiggins winning his eighth Olympic gold medal, though that was pretty amazing too!)
Early on Saturday morning, just hours after the official start of the grouse shooting season (the so-called Glorious Twelfth), a petition calling for a ban on this 'sport' reached 100,000 signatures. This milestone means that the government must consider holding a debate on the issue - and we can't wait.
The week leading up to the 12th was quite a bruising one, particularly for Chris Packham, who launched the petition along with ourselves and conservation expert Dr Mark Avery. As a high profile figure, Chris was very much in the sights of the pro-shooting lobby which went after him mercilessly, led, sadly, by former cricketing hero and shooting fan Sir Ian Botham. The attacks on him included Sir Ian saying 'it's only people like Chris who want to sabotage nature'. Let's be frank - who really is trying to sabotage nature, the long-established host of Spring Watch who has brought millions of people closer to the wildlife around us, or the man with a gun?
This is where the argument gets mixed up, because those who shoot grouse (not to mention those who shoot pheasants and partridges) like to claim that the sport is actually good for nature. Their basic argument is that removing predators like foxes and magpies, to protect the grouse, actually benefits other bird species too. And they also claim that it's good for the economy, providing jobs in rural areas. Sounds reasonable - until you find out the facts.
Shooting estates become profitable when they have lots of grouse to shoot. To ensure that happens, they need to provide the best habitat possible for the grouse - this means heather moors. To maximise the heather, moors are burnt. (Just to point out that words like 'profitable' and 'burnt' are words rarely associated with environmental conservation). The result is a landscape ideal for breeding grouse - but pretty much nothing else. According to a 2014 University of Leeds report, burning moors pollutes rivers, contributes to climate change, lowers the water table leading to pollutants being released into rivers, and removes chemicals essential for plant growth.
Once the breeding conditions are right, you have to stop the grouse from being eaten by predators - these include foxes, birds of prey, magpies, stoats and cats. This is done by surrounding shooting estates with snares, the wire nooses that will catch, strangle and rupture anything that happens to pass through - according to Defra figures, around 1.7m animals are caught in snares each year, including young deer, otters, protected badgers, hares and pet dogs. And as is more widely known, birds of prey are illegally shot or poisoned. That's a lot of dead and injured animals to protect a 'sport'.
Basically, the cost of grouse shooting is a desolate landscape, shorn of wildlife and potentially causing flooding in towns downstream from the estates. It's no surprise that the highest numbers of signatures for the petition came from areas where there are grouse moors - including the Calder Valley, which was hit by devastating floods last winter.
In terms of benefitting the economy, the shooting industry tends to use big numbers to hide uncomfortable truths. An analysis by independent economic experts demolished claims of the worth of the shooting industry, saying the industry report contained 'much information that is not testable, robust data, but opinion submitted by a sample with a stake in the outcomes.' i think it's quite clear what they are suggesting here.
Among the things the shooting industry don't want us to know is that grouse moors get significant tax payer subsidies and the jobs that it claims to create are very poorly paid and often seasonal. Their figures also don't take into account the reduction in other income these areas might receive if they were healthy wildlife environments open to tourism.
For example, an RSPB report revealed that re-introduced white-tailed eagles bring £5m worth of tourist money to the Isle of Mull, supporting 110 jobs. Recently, a report showed that sea eagles on the Isle of Skye are worth £2.4m with 200 jobs supported by tourism. Meanwhile, another RSPB report shows that eight golden eagles have disappeared over grouse moors in the last five years, and are highly likely to have been killed to 'protect' game birds (so the game birds could then be shot).
What we have here then are two opposing views, and it must be hard for members of the public to work out who is telling the truth. But I'd say two things - please look at the facts; and also look at the motivation of those involved. Grouse shooting is worth a lot of money to those involved. Saving birds like hen harriers, protecting areas from flooding and stopping animals like badgers and hares from being caught in snares has no financial benefit for people like Chris Packham. Who do you believe?
The tactics being used by those supporting grouse shooting are also dubious. In an article this weekend, Guardian journalist John Vidal exposed a PR company apparently set up just to attack those who threaten the financial interests of the grouse shooting industry. A statement by the British Association of Shooting and Conservation following the petition's success referred to 'celebrity bullies and internet trolls' whipping up an 'extremist' campaign.
I think the British public can spot a bully and an extremist when it sees one, and it isn't Chris Packham, Mark Avery or any of the 100,000+ people who decided that enough is enough when it comes to blowing grouse out of the sky for fun. (That 100,000, by the way, compares to the alleged 40,000 people who actually take part in grouse shooting).
One more thing I've noticed about those who support bloodsports. If you ask anyone who plays any other sport why they do it, the answer is usually 'because I enjoy it'. But if you talk about hunting, or game bird shooting, those who take part usually say they do it 'because it's wildlife management' or 'because it's good for the economy'. Apparently no-one takes part in these 'sports' because they actually like them. Strange that.
Perhaps they just haven't got the guts to admit that they like killing animals for fun. Because bottom line, that's what this is all about. Shooting birds for sport is obsolete, and has no place in modern Britain.