We take a look at the challenges facing the uplands, both practical and political, and consider how we can safeguard these incredibly important habitats for future generations.

Liam Stokes, Head of Shooting at the Countryside Alliance on how we can ensure a bright future for grouse moors across the British Isles

Grouse moor management is facing diverse challenges across the British Isles. In England and Scotland campaigners are trying to stop it while in Wales and Ireland conservationists are trying to get it going again. Not since the events leading to the Hunting Act have we seen one of our land management strategies so singularly targeted with propaganda and activism, and for the sake of the wildlife, communities and economies that grouse moors support we have to respond appropriately.

Firstly, it is vital grouse shooting does not allow itself to be portrayed as elitist and remote. We know its opponents seek to deploy the rhetoric of class war, just as they did against hunting. We are responding by taking the pro-shooting argument to where the general public are, events such as Countryfile Live, and delivering them in an engaging manner. We are bringing the public onto grouse moors, introducing them to gamekeepers, showing them the conservation successes and explaining the relevance of shooting to the whole community. By breaking down any barriers between moorland managers and the public, we can stop our opponents from exploiting a ‘them and us’ narrative.

While welcoming the public, we are challenging the opposition to moorland management both scientifically and politically. We have huge amounts of evidence pointing to the ecological and economic benefits of grouse shooting, and it is vital this evidence continues to be gathered. This is, however, first and foremost a political battle, and we are always working to place that evidence in the hands of policy makers and the media. We also work with politicians to help them understand the new online campaign strategies being deployed by animal rights activists to generate the appearance of public outcry while actually representing no real electoral threat.

Finally, it is crucial that grouse moor managers recognise that where bad practice does occur, or where science shows there is a better way of doing things, change has to happen. There can be no tolerance of criminality, and the sector is coming together with government and conservation charities to stamp the last vestiges out altogether.

As long as these steps are followed, grouse moor management has a bright future in every corner of the British Isles.

James Legge, Head of the Countryside Alliance’s Political Department, takes a look at the situation for grouse moors in Westminster

As the result of a public petition last year, opponents of grouse shooting were able to engineer the first parliamentary debate in living memory on whether or not grouse shooting should be banned. All sorts of allegations were made trying to link the moorland management associated with grouse shooting with flooding events such as at Hebden Bridge in Cumbria. There were claims that grouse shooting was taxpayer subsidised, not to mention the ongoing and false assumption that a failure of hen harriers to breed in some upland areas is the result of grouse shooting, when breeding failure is just as observable where no grouse shooting takes place. Indeed, contrary to the claims of the antis there is a strong case for grouse shooting in economic, environmental and wildlife management terms. What was remarkable about the debate in the end was the limited nature of the opposition and the large turnout of MPs willing to make the case for grouse shooting. The Government was equally robust.

What is perhaps more interesting politically is how activists are able to manipulate the political process by creating a false impression of overwhelming public interest. All the evidence suggests the opposite. Indeed of 2,046 people asked in an ORB poll what were the most important issues facing the country, not a single person mentioned the grouse word.

Yet, for a lie to become accepted as a truth it only needs to be repeated often enough and in sufficiently emotive terms; and fact, principle and evidence go out of the window. Add to this a dose of prejudice against those involved and you have a dangerous mix. Indeed, Mark Avery, former Director of Conservation at the RSPB, who initiated the petition has referred to grouse shooting as ‘the Tory party at play’, which rather betrays his motivation. Think back to the way in which the hunting ban came about and you will know all you need to know about the tactics our opponents will deploy. We may have won this round, but politically the threat to grouse shooting is not going to go away. We will not always have a Government, or Ministers, so supportive of shooting, and grouse shooting in particular.

Lastly, with the advent of Brexit and the repatriation of powers to the UK institutions, many of the laws which affect shooting and the uplands, particularly the Birds and Habitats Directives, will now be made here. We are likely to see changes to the existing law over time and the politics will be played out at home and not in Europe. For all its faults, Europe entrenched certain principles which provided a degree of ‘protection’ for game shooting, including grouse. This will go, and the future of shooting will be decided in Westminster, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast where changing the law is far easier than having to reach consensus across many sovereign states. Shooting could become a political football. We must not let it become so. The lesson of the hunts must be learnt.

Director of Shooting at the Countryside Alliance, Adrian Blackmore, offers his opinion on the challenges facing English grouse moors

English grouse moors provide an upland landscape that is rich both in wildlife and biodiversity. They are a habitat of international importance supporting a rich variety of flora and fauna, and thanks to their management for grouse shooting this unique heather landscape has been conserved or restored, where elsewhere it has been lost. It is no coincidence that more than 70% of England’s upland Sites of Special Scientific Interest are managed for grouse shooting, and over 40% are also designated as Special Protection Areas for rare birds and Special Areas of Conservation for rare vegetation under European wildlife directives.

Our grouse moors are sustainably managed, predominantly through the private investment of their owners, and they offer the most cost-effective model of upland management to the tax payer. With the right conditions and management, grouse populations can flourish, and produce a surplus which enables shooting to take place, the sale of which helps fund the essential work that is undertaken by those protecting this unique upland habitat. Whilst the benefits to conservation are beyond doubt, so too are those that it brings to numerous upland communities, where it really can be the main economic driver.

Although the science and evidence are on our side, there are those that are working hard towards seeing an end of grouse shooting and its associated management, on the grounds that it supports a sport, and those that participate in it, that they instinctively hate. Despite claims made to the contrary, there is no proven link between grouse moor management and flooding. The work being undertaken to re-vegetate bare peat and block moorland grips to raise water tables actually helps slow the flow of water through catchment areas, and in doing so both reduces sediment run-off, and encourages the growth of mosses to filter out discoloration. Calls for further legislation made by the RSPB, based on data that can be both misleading and unsubstantiated, also appear to be more about ideology and politics than the conservation of species. There can therefore be no room for complacency. The online petition to ban driven grouse shooting, promoted by a vocal minority using the power of social media, which triggered last autumn’s debate in parliament, should be a wake-up call to us all.

Director of the Scottish Countryside Alliance, Jamie Stewart, explains what the future looks like for grouse in Scotland

I cannot think of any other species that has been at the centre of such a vitriolic campaign where those defined by their own operational protocols to promote the protection and, wherever possible, the expansion of our native and migratory avian species campaign to the detriment of such a target species, the iconic red grouse.

Scotland’s upland moorlands form much of the imagery used to market the country at home and wider afield. Those blessed with the stewardship of much of this romantically wild and windswept landscape are equally cursed in that it has little productive value in relation to agricultural enterprise and is often too far from infrastructure to make rotational forestry a viable alternative; but it is the preferred habitat of red grouse. Red grouse are an important part of our natural environment, and they are viewed by the public as one of our most iconic species, thus having significant cultural value; and when managed sustainably offer employment opportunity and a financial return.

It would seem, however, that red grouse, or rather those managing land for red grouse shooting, are fair game to those who would demonise the annual harvest of surplus birds. In recent times the RSPB, the League Against Cruel Sports and other politically motivated organisations have mobilised campaigns to have the sport further restricted through additional unwarranted licencing, publically smeared by pressure groups – and celebrity figureheads in relation to Raptor persecution – and subject to the reinstatement of sporting rates taxation.

But it’s not all bad news… Scotland’s gamekeepers and sporting estate owners have been at the forefront of driving progress in our rural economy through the provision of sustainable country sports. Independent research has qualified that country sports in Scotland supports over 8,800 FTE jobs (PACEC) – many of which are gamekeepers looking after the nation’s moorlands. There can be little doubt that the grouse season is one of the major catalysts behind the creation of rural employment opportunities across Scotland.

A greater commitment to the scientific understanding and practical management of the habitat and species has achieved the wider recognition that our moorlands are considered to be of high conservation value for their habitats and associated biodiversity, whilst they are also important stores of soil carbon.

It is clear that we still have much to achieve, but it is widely recognised that the gifts that grouse provide to Scotland are many. The presence of grouse on the nation’s moorland is unrivalled internationally and the subsequent benefits that flow to our rural areas are unsurpassed.

Director of the Countryside Alliance in Wales, Rachel Evans, is hopeful for moor management in Wales

It is well documented that grouse moors produce flourishing levels of biodiversity; rich in wildlife where ground nesting birds such as the curlew and lapwing stand better chances of successfully raising their chicks. They are also funded mainly through private investment making them very attractive to tax payers. Yet over the past 100 years with the considerable loss of heather – habitat for the grouse – through forest planting and bracken encroachment many uplands have been abandoned and feel more eerie than inviting.

Welsh Government introduced the Nature Fund in 2013 as a response to the State of Nature report, which in that year – written by 25 different conservationists – warned that the demise of many upland iconic birds, all of which thrive under the umbrella of grouse management, are in crisis.

The Nature Fund was unique in that it asked farmers and landowners for their views on how to stop the serious decline. And they responded.

Today there are two clusters in mid and north Wales covering a landscape scale area of 50,000 acres where active management is being supported working alongside graziers to determine optimum grazing densities.

“It won’t happen overnight and it will take years before a surplus of grouse can be shot,” says David Thomas, Gamekeeper at Llangunllo in Mid Wales. He believes that moorland management is an immediate benefit for the health of the moor and its people who will be able to engage with these uplands now that they are being cleared and made much more accessible.

The Future’s Generation Act want more people outside to get fitter, to learn and care by connecting with nature. We completely agree, but must not forget these areas are also where 70% of our drinking water comes from and where the flow of water is determined as well as where carbon is stored in the undergrowth peat. These uplands have a much bigger story to tell. The grouse is just the beginning and work is at last under way.

This article featured in the Countryside Alliance magazine ‘My Countryside’. Download a copy or subscribe online for just £15.95 per year.