Paul's Column: Britain's red grouse - dying in the Tory cause?

11 September 2018

Nye Bevan was staying at Wallington Hall and, so the story goes, was asked by the socialist owner Sir Charles Trevelyan if he’d like to join the grouse shoot.  Bevan declined, whereupon Trevelyan proceeded to put his foot in it by asking if the distinguished Labour politician would instead be willing to be a beater?

Grouse moors, such as the Duke of Northumberland’s Linhope Estate, cover an area of England the size of Greater London, just over half a million acres.  An estimated 500,000 grouse are shot in Britain every year.  To rear such a large number of birds an extensive land management programme is necessary and this has historically involved the rotational burning of the old heather to allow the grouse to feed on the green shoots of the new heather and grass.

Not surprisingly, grouse shooting and the management of grouse moors raise strong arguments between the shooters and a powerful triumvirate of animal welfare activists, environmental campaigners and nature conservationists.  For instance bird lovers believe grouse moor gamekeepers are responsible for the illegal persecution of endangered hen harriers and other natural predators of grouse.  Last month gamekeeper Timothy Cowin pleaded guilty at Lancaster Magistrates' Court to two charges concerning the intentional killing of short-eared owls on the Whernside Estate in Cumbria.

Environmentally the biggest worries are around flooding and climate change.  In Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire, which was flooded three times in as many years, there is a ‘Ban the Burn’ campaign aimed at stopping heather being burnt.  Arguably rain water runs off the moors more quickly where the heather has been burnt increasing the flood risk downstream, where people are more likely to be living.

The peatland of our northern English uplands may appear to be ‘now’t much’ but the peat, formed from carbon rich dead and decaying plant material under waterlogged conditions, contains more carbon than all the forests of Britain, Germany and France put together, we therefore mess with it at our peril.  The Committee on Climate Change has estimated that 350,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide are emitted from upland peat in the UK each year of which 74% is due to burning grouse moors.

As anyone who has tramped along the Pennine Way can vouch it’s often very wet underfoot; welcome to an important subset of our peatlands - the blanket bog!  Healthy blanket bogs are rich in sphagnum mosses and are considered a valuable part of the UK’s Natural Capital.  They are located in the headwaters of river catchments and they act to recharge the upland reservoirs that provide drinking water to a big part of the UK population. Our moors are vital for many reasons.

In April 2016 the European Commission took the first steps in bringing a legal action against the UK government regarding the burning of blanket bog in Special Areas of Conservation in northern England. As these activities continued, the Commission issued a final warning – the last step before referring the case to the European Court of Justice. The UK did respond and the proposed measures are now being assessed. But given the often lengthy process of cases against the improper application of law, and with Brexit fast approaching, is there time to see this case through?

Once the UK is outside  the EU, the Conservative government has promised to be “the greenest government ever” but a private meeting earlier this year between environment secretary Michael Gove and a small group of landowners, including the Duke of Northumberland (who records show has donated £11,100 to the Conservative Party), has ruffled feathers. According to the minutes, obtained under a freedom of information request, Gove advised them to “sign up to a voluntary commitment to suspend the practice” of heather burning, as it would “help the government demonstrate its intent” to end it.  His department confirmed that this voluntary commitment would not be legally binding.  This begs the question, is the UK government deliberately dragging its heels to be saved by Brexit? 

My guess is grouse shooting will eventually follow fox hunting with hounds into the history books, but not without a certain amount of hullaballoo before the last rites are read.

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