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Upland life and the future of shooting

Late April on a grouse moor is possibly the best advert for the conservation benefits of the moorland management practices associated with grouse shooting. The flamboyant and faintly farcical black grouse leks, the lapwing chicks, the drumming snipe, oystercatchers, brigades of curlew, silently gliding short-eared and barn owls, pottering grey partridge, the list really does go on and on. 

None of this fantastic show of biodiversity would be possible without the trojan efforts of gamekeepers on all the privately-funded, often interconnecting moors; ideally, it really needs to  be a landscape scale effort for full effectiveness. Without a well thought out and unabating predator control regime, as has been shown in multiple studies, one simply wouldn’t have such a bounteous ecosystem, chock-full of red-listed species. 

That we have such moors, maintained by and for shooting, is in itself a good thing, but the boons of their existence remain in public obscurity. All too often moors are presented in the media as void of life and hope, which can appear to be the case in midwinter. One thing is not taken into account in these presentations, seasons. As in most ecosystems, rich biodiversity is not readily visible in midwinter; birds migrate to warmer climes, plants drop their leaves and store their nutrients until the sun returns. It is vital that those who value shooting and its benefits show the ecosystems begot by shoot management to the wider world when they are in full voice and bloom. The argument for shoot management practices, when done well, becomes irrefutable to even the untrained eye. 

Showing the ecological benefits to the non-shooting world appears to be a somewhat herculean task with the current media atmosphere and the general sense of apathy from urban dwellers towards matters rural. But ask many a country person how they know what they know about the natural world or about shooting, they will usually answer that they grew up around it and absorbed what they know through osmosis in their adolescence. So that may well be the key, we shouldn’t simply focus education efforts on the current crop of voters and policymakers, instead we should be targeting tomorrow’s generation of voters and policymakers.  

Is there space within the school curriculum to give children the opportunity to learn about the goings on and the ins and outs of our woods, fields, hedgerows and moors? The new natural history GCSE would imply yes, and hopefully that will prove to be a great success in years to come should uptake be strong enough. A knock-on bonus of this is that any parent helping out with homework might learn a thing or two as well; there certainly is potential. 

Education seems to lie at the heart of most remedies for the malaise that envelops shooting, education at all levels and to all types, from those unaware of what a partridge is beyond a line in a Christmas carol, to those already au fait with all the regional styles of hedgelaying, everyone probably has something to learn. Tree planting for example, is a complex issue which can yield both benefits and drawbacks, and many remain uneducated on these intricacies. 

Tree planting in some areas can have tremendous positive effects, creating abundant biodiversity, yet if trees are planted intensively on moorland, the effects are unequivocally damaging. Indeed the drying out of peatland from intensive tree planting leads to considerably more greenhouse gas release than the trees themselves can sequester. That is not to say that all tree planting in the uplands is a bad idea, sporadic planting of appropriate native tree species can have its benefits. One particular example is tree planting along upland riverbanks, which serves both to sequester carbon, but more importantly to provide shade for the areas where Atlantic salmon spawn. Rapidly diminishing numbers of Atlantic salmon in British waters have been connected to rising river water temperatures, in part aggravated by lack of overhanging tree cover. Another example would be the planting of thousands of native hardwoods in ghylls and on moorland fringes; the trees provide cover for black grouse, which is why their strongholds are on ground managed for grouse shooting. Done thoughtfully, tree planting in the uplands can have great benefits. 

The ecological benefits of land management practices associated with shooting are but one aspect of the sector that must be addressed in the public domain to help protect its future. The topic of game must also be looked at, with two specific areas requiring the most urgent attention: new markets and lead-free.  

There is much song and dance in the shooting world about getting game into the mainstream through consumers swapping conventionally farmed meat for game when doing their supermarket shops. There is however stock in introducing game to the public through large scale catering. Such an approach stands a better chance of gathering more traction in the short term. If maximum effort can be put towards getting the largest catering companies to put game on their menus, with strong arguments such as the environmental and ecological benefits of game, then a huge quantity of game can then be made available to those who might otherwise not have had any exposure to game.  

Requisite for this is for any progress on this front is confidence in the product, and part of this is being able to say that game is not toxic. Despite the many protests that those who have eaten lead-shot game for years might raise, lead-shot game is a non-starter in the public arena for almost everyone in the non-shooting world. It is for this reason that people shouldn’t be hesitating in making the transition from using lead shot to non-lead shot. Needless to say, heel-dragging is not a good look for shooting from the perspective of those who might seek to further regulate the sector. 

It is worth considering the importance of engagement with those in non-departmental bodies like Natural England, with NGOs and with parliamentarians. We have seen in recent research that those who work for conservation NGOs don’t base their perceptions of the impacts of game shooting on observation, rather on judgement and reports. Perhaps this is because they haven’t had the chance to observe the myriad positive impacts of shooting. There are many working hard to give policymakers that chance, which is essential and laudable work, but the educational work mustn’t stop there. All of those who shoot should consider offering friends or acquaintances who haven’t been lucky enough to experience it directly, the chance to go out and see for themselves how beneficial shooting, its management practices, and the resulting harvested game meat can be. 

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