Areas of Outstanding (Un)Natural Beauty

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A vast treeless landscape, the ghost of a disappearing bird and the missing link in a real-life crime drama.

All sorts of places get used as units of measurement.  Existing areas of rainforest are quoted in multiples of ‘the size of Wales’, and the scale of deforestation is presented in football fields. I want to take you to an area of the UK over 7 times larger than the Lake District. That’s 8% of the land area of England and Scotland.

In England alone, the area I’m talking about is greater than the size of Greater London. The landscape, though, couldn’t be more different. Mighty hills scour the skyline. The treeless plain is broken only by occasional hamlets; the silence is broken only by the relentless wind. Welcome to the UK’s grouse moors.

The Red Grouse is a special bird. Whilst it doesn’t count as an endemic species on account of being a subspecies (our sole endemic bird species is the Scottish Crossbill), it’s still uniquely British. If you haven’t been to the Pennines, the Yorkshire Dales or another such high-altitude area of the UK you may never have seen one, but in their preferred habitat of heather moors, they are incredibly numerous.

Perhaps too numerous. Their excessive numbers point to the sinister side of these vast swathes of rugged tranquillity. The reason for their abundance is the same as the reason for the apparent lack of any other wildlife here. In fact, in many places, it’s the only reason this stark, treeless, artificial landscape exists at all: grouse shooting.

Shooting these prized, fast-flying game birds has a 250-year-long history in Britain. These days it may be well hidden, out of sight in lonely rural hills and exclusive wealthy circles, but it still exists. Some 500,000 grouse are shot each year in Britain between the 12th August and the 10th December.

And it turns out grouse shooting can involve shooting a lot more than grouse.

There are two main types of grouse shooting: in “walked-up” shooting hunters stroll across the moor, flushing and shooting grouse as they go. In “driven” grouse shooting, hunters are stationed in hides, called ‘butts’, whilst a line of people known as ‘beaters’ flush the birds towards the butts.

The distinction between the two types of shooting is important. In walk-up, a day’s shooting might yield 20-30 birds. On a driven grouse shoot, hunters can shoot hundreds or even thousands of birds in a day. Consequently, moors with driven grouse shooting are managed intensively to sustain an unnaturally high number of grouse. But driven grouse shooting is important economically because it is more expensive and takes far less skill, making it accessible to wealthy city businessmen.

It’s increasingly contentious to talk about the ethics of killing animals and rightly so. However, even as an ecology student, I don’t think grouse shooting needs to be inherently ‘bad’; I’d certainly rather people ate a grouse that’s had a life in the wild than a battery-farmed chicken. But there are reasons why grouse shooting has environmental implications that reach far wider than the heather-smothered hills.

Especially when you consider that most grouse are shot with lead, so are unusable as food anyway.

If you haven’t seen a Hen Harrier, you’re not alone. The elegant, long-winged birds, are not common. And they’ve been getting rarer. The reason why is only just becoming clear: because of their diet of grouse, gamekeepers routinely kill Hen Harriers in order to maintain the grouse numbers.

It was always likely to be the case. ‘Predator control’ has been a part of grouse shooting for nearly 200 years, and exists today, unabated by the 1981 countryside act which makes it illegal to kill wild birds. And Hen Harriers aren’t the only wildlife persecuted by gamekeepers in a bid to saturate their moors with grouse. From golden eagles and goshawks to stoats and weasels, from buzzards and owls and to hares and foxes, anything that might harm the all-important profits from driven grouse shooting is liable to be trapped, poisoned or shot.

And it wouldn’t be an environmental issue without problems with climate change. Contrary to popular belief, our largest ‘sink’ of carbon in the UK is not our woodlands and forests but our peat bogs. Peat is a type of soil formed of plant matter, prevented from decaying completely (and releasing carbon back into the atmosphere) by the waterlogged conditions. Because the plants don’t decompose, all the carbon is sequestered in the soil.

The carbon stored in UK peatlands is equivalent to 8 years of total UK carbon emissions.

Managing moorland for the sole aim of achieving excessive grouse numbers interrupts this process, because in order to maximise the number of young heather shoots on which the grouse feed, large areas of moorland are burned every April. This not only releases carbon dioxide from the heather but also dries out the peat, reducing its capacity to absorb atmospheric carbon.

In a country committed to carbon neutrality, this is a big deal.

Petitions to ban driven grouse shooting were launched in 2016 and 2019, and both obtained over 100,000 signatures. The government debated the issue in October 2016. The response was underwhelming, and the mainly conservative MPs in the room where it happened defended grouse shooting as being important to the rural economy.

However, hiding behind a veil of economic productivity doesn’t really make sense either. Grouse shooting is heavily subsidised, and most of the money earned goes straight into the pockets of the landowners. A typical gamekeeper’s annual salary is only £11,000. The 2,500 jobs supported by the industry are a small number when you consider the scale of the land that we’re dealing with.

There’s a deeper cultural issue here, too. Grouse shooting is not cheap, especially  £175 per brace (pair) of grouse. A day’s shooting can cost thousands of pounds. It’s a status symbol amongst the wealthy, an elite club of rich men masquerading as sport.

It’s easy to hate the ‘bad guys’ whether it’s the filthy rich oil companies, the arrogant politicians or the wealthy aristocratic landowners with shotguns. It’s not easy to feel the same way about the deer whose burgeoning population does so much damage to Scotland’s forests. Grouse shooting is an issue that has been scarred by the bitter conflict between the hunting industry and nature conservationists.

But there are so many reasons why driven grouse shooting is sapping the UK of its precious natural resources. Hidden away in desolate upland wildernesses, a group of the elite upper class are quietly chipping away at our carbon reserves in the name of ‘sport’. Grouse shooting can exist in a natural, wildlife-friendly, carbon-neutral environment. But not without significant change. Before we start complaining about China, the USA and multi-national corporations, perhaps we should realise what ecological damage is being done in our own backyard.

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