The debate surrounding grouse shooting

The debate on grouse moors was demanded by more than 100,000 people but, apart from offering the odd amusement at Labour MPs’ gaffes when discussing our industry, did it serve any purpose? Not really, reckons Caroline Roddis.

The not-so-successful Lake Vyrnwy estate is run by the RSPB (©Alamy)

I can never decide whether or not I feel sorry for MPs. On the one hand, they have a pretty thankless task that requires long hours, endless social media abuse and constant compromise, which must inevitably feel like it erodes the values for which they got into politics in the first place.

On the other hand, they’re very well paid, get large amounts of holiday and—as Matt Hancock’s recent escapades so neatly if grotesquely demonstrate—they’re not exactly keeping their noses to the grindstone at all times when in the office. In fact, I don’t really want to think about where their noses have been. 

I did, however, feel very sorry for MPs the other week when, once again, they had to debate a petition on grouse shooting that had received more than 100,000 votes. Reading the petition, which so closely echoed the one from 2016, I bet they wished everyone involved would simply do what we’ve all been doing with our favourite content over lockdown and watched it on repeat. 

Who you gonna call?

But the antis insisted on a remake and the 2021 debate was a bit like the all-female version of Ghostbusters which came out a few years ago. No one wanted it, no one needed it and the public chose simply to ignore it. The media seemed largely uninterested in the debate too, perhaps because of the widespread coverage of the arguments for and against burning moorlands in recent months, or perhaps merely from a weary sense that they had seen it all before. 

Prior to the debate there were few articles of note about the upcoming event, a far cry from the build-up to the first one in 2016, and the piece on MirrorOnline outlining both sides has just three comments. The subheading for the article, incidentally, is “Campaigners, including TV presenter Chris Packham, want the bloodsport axed, warning it harms the environment and wildlife”, again showing how essential the use of Packham’s fame is to catching public interest in the subject. 

One article that did receive hundreds of comments and was widely shared on social media, however, was the piece in the Daily Mail entitled “Zealots threatening the magic of the moors: conservationist Ian Coghill blasts back at eco-activists led by TV’s Chris Packham who are threatening the future of a wonderfully wild part of Britain’s landscape”. 

Of course, the comments underneath aren’t all positive—expecting that would be like expecting MPs to keep their hands off people who aren’t their wives—but that doesn’t matter. What does matter is that Coghill lucidly puts forward the idea that people who shoot grouse aren’t toffs, saying of the party on his first trip: “They were not, it must be said, rich, nor were they aristocratic. A stranger might have mistaken them for golfers, rugby fans or fishermen and would have been right: but it was their love of the grouse and the places it frequents that bound them together”. He also pointed out that the antis’ approach to moorland management doesn’t work. 

Coghill provides concrete examples of the latter—something that the other side are hard-pressed to do in the articles they write and promote—and focuses in particular on the RSBP’s management of Lake Vyrnwy, previously one of the largest grouse moors in Wales and now the subject of an RSBP appeal for millions of pounds from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The funds, the RSPB states, are for ‘serious interventions’ to stop the breeding populations of curlew, black grouse and merlin dying out in Wales over the next couple of years.

With devastating effectiveness, Coghill makes a simple contrast: “Compare the RSPB performance with that of Ruabon Moor nearby,” he writes, “where a landowner and friends meet the costs of managing the moor out of their own pockets. Red grouse are to be found in their hundreds, curlew are thriving, as are lapwing, redshank and snipe. There are even golden plover nesting there. But the jewel in the crown is the black grouse. The bird for which the Vyrnwy estate was once noted and yet which is now virtually extinct there, is thriving.”

Side hustle

Reading that you might think no debate on grouse shooting is necessary, but go ahead it did. Ninety minutes of rehashing the same old ground at vast expense to the taxpayer with no earth-shattering outcome—which sounds suspiciously like some kind of sporting tournament which is allegedly taking place at the moment. Let’s just hope we don’t have to keep doing this every four or five years too, although if we do I reckon there’s a good commemorative T-shirt side hustle to be had by some enterprising young person. 

Much as prior to the debate, the media coverage following it was largely unremarkable. That wasn’t to say it was a bad debate and, indeed, the 13 MPs who attended should be praised for the time and effort they took to turn up and contribute. But given that the petition’s proposal to ban driven grouse shooting was rejected, there wasn’t an awful lot of breaking news for the press to cover.  

I did, however, greatly enjoy the Steerpike column in the Spectator, which pointed out some of the participating Labour MPs’ gaffes around how grouse shooting operates. Writing about the shadow environment minister Olivia Blake’s turn at the podium, it noted that “Blake managed to make a number of somewhat misleading claims in her eight-minute speech, including references to the ‘rearing of grouse’ (a wild native bird), that grouse ‘shoots remain almost completely deregulated’ (they’re not) and that ‘only a very small number end up’ on ‘our plates’ (almost all of them do, as evidenced by high market value).’ 

As Steerpike notes, this is all pretty embarrassing for people whose job it is to be informed about the subjects on which they speak, not to mention a demonstration of why Labour is failing to connect with rural communities. And, let’s face it, anyone who isn’t John Bercow. 

Perhaps I shouldn’t feel sorry for MPs after all. Although, as it’s depressingly likely that the Packham camp will manage to find a way to drag the same topic before them yet again in the near future, at least they’ll have time to brush up on their knowledge.

‘Shooting In The Media’, is an opinion article in which journalist Caroline Roddis explores topical issues.


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