by Tim Bonner

A lucky few will be out on the moors tomorrow chasing that extraordinary quarry, the red grouse. Not many of us ever get to shoot a grouse, and for those of us who do it is usually a rare and special treat, but grouse shooting has become a totemic issue because it illustrates all that is good about game management, and all that is bad about rural politics.

The development of moorland management to produce greater numbers of grouse in the mid-19th century had a significant environmental and social impact on much of upland Britain. Heather moorland had only previously had value as low-grade grazing, mostly for sheep. However, there was a transformative discovery which established it was possible to produce large surpluses of birds that could be harvested by shooting. This was possible by simply rotationally burning heather to provide a mosaic which provided new growth to feed grouse and longer heather for them to nest in, whilst controlling the predators which prey on grouse. The subsequent development of driven shooting only made the management of moorland for grouse even more attractive.

From the North coast of Scotland to the Brecon Beacons, the management of moorland for grouse developed on nearly every patch of heather. In the days before World War I, with a ready supply of rural labour to work as gamekeepers and, to modern eyes, a broad approach to predator management, large numbers of grouse could be produced even at the margins of their range.

Grouse shooting recovered after the first war, but World War II saw a collapse in the number shot as nearly all management ceased and whilst there was some subsequent recovery in numbers there was a further decline from the 1970s as a result of commercial forestry, greater grazing pressure and an increase in predator numbers. By the end of the 20th century, management for grouse had retreated to the most productive areas with moors in Wales and the far North of Scotland no longer able to sustain shooting. There had been something of a renaissance in these core areas since the turn of the century, but a series of bad breeding seasons since 2016 has put somewhat of a dampener on recent seasons.

The reason that grouse shooting remains so important is that management for grouse creates a perfect environment for a whole range of species, especially ground nesting birds, which are increasingly rare in nearly every other habitat. Walk through Teesdale in the spring (sticking to footpaths with your dog on a lead) and you will experience birdlife and biodiversity which it is almost impossible to find anywhere else in Britain. This is the result of active, and often quite intensive, management.

Yet, sadly, many who claim to be environmentalists oppose grouse moor management on principle. Some because they are signed up to the cult of ‘rewilding’ and cannot accept human intervention in natural processes even where they deliver obvious results. Others, even more bizarrely, because grouse shooting has become a cypher for wealth and privilege and the politics of who shoots grouse is apparently more important than the environmental and social benefits that result. The ensuing attacks on grouse shooting are fairly relentless, but the evidence for moorland management only grows and gives the Alliance and our partner organisations the ammunition to fight them off.

The news from the moors this summer has been encouraging with a recovery from recent bad seasons predicted in many areas. This is of huge importance to many marginal rural communities which are sustained by the income that flows from shooting, and for the continued diversity of our uplands. Those lucky few who are venturing onto the moors tomorrow and in the coming weeks can therefore do so in the full knowledge that they are engaged in the most sustainable of activities.

One way to support the Countryside Alliance's Campaign for Shooting is through buying a Season Badge. The sale of this year’s badge, which is in the official colours of Her Majesty’s Platinum Jubilee, will go directly towards our work. Buy yours now.

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