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Could eco-tourism really generate enough income to fund the UK's moorland?

The statement that driven grouse shooting, together with its accompanying moorland management, is an economic boost to upland communities is something that it’s impossible to argue with. As we have written time and time again – and as both research and personal accounts display – it is not just those employed by moorland estates who benefit. Local businesses, from restaurants, pubs and B&Bs to tailors, garages, gunsmiths, caterers, and the side-businesses, like those who conduct tick counts, for example. As well as full-time estate workers, there are thousands of people up and down the UK who gain ad hoc employment from days on the moor.  

The statistics might be dull, but shooting is worth £2 billion a year (Gross Value Added) to the UK economy and supports the equivalent of 74,000 full-time jobs. People who shoot spend £2.5 billion each year on goods and services. Associated spin-offs from grouse shooting in the North of England are worth in excess of £15 million a year, and £1m of private income is spent by moor owners on land management every single week. In Scotland, around £23m flows directly into local businesses in trade generated by the grouse estates' activities. This is all in remote, upland areas, where work and trade is hard to come by.  

As Curtis Mossop said in the recent Fieldsports video based on the recent University of Northampton study, if grouse shooting were banned, "we would descend into the dark ages… there are no big employers and no infrastructure to support employment...People would be lost and the ground would just grow fallow."

But if grouse-shooting were banned, and replaced by other activities, how would the moors be funded? Who would fund the work needed to look after the moors? Even if you don’t conduct the moorland management which creates the biodiverse habitats that wildlife thrive in, there is still upkeep needed. And what of local businesses? The answer proposed by Mark Avery and Wild Justice, are that eco-tourism will take its place. The wildlife of the moors will flourish; reintroduced beavers will damn the streams which will end flooding in the valley towns. Vultures and white-tailed eagles will fill the air, lynx and wolf will roam free, trees will be replanted, and people will pay thousands for the privilege of coming to see them. 

Take the picture painted in Mark Avery’s fictional tale of a keeper in the uplands, ‘Inglorious’. In his imaginings, the keeper writes: “The campaigns run by the Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB to encourage tourism in the national parks where raptors were left alone made a big difference to the local economies of the Peak District and the Yorkshire Dales – people flocked in… with their wallets… the grouse-moor owners didn’t realise that townies would pay good money to see a few foxes up close.” Talking about the imagined missing out on a bid to have the first reintroduced Lynx, the fictional keeper writes, “that would have been an enormous money earner.” It’s not just in his fiction writing that Avery thinks like this. Eco-tourism is widely touted as an economic alternative to grouse-shooting.  

But let’s take the recent visit from a bearded vulture, or lammergeier, to our shores as an example. Anyone who follows any kind of related new reports, whether that’s stories related to the uplands, or ornithological news, would have been hard pressed to avoid reports that this “nine-foot-winged bird of the Alps and Pyrenees; a bone-eating, tortoise-dropping inhabitant of wolf-haunted montane crags” had made its way to the UK, and was currently living in the Peak District. Even the national news reported it, and birdwatchers “flocked” to Derbyshire to catch a glimpse of it.  

You would think that local businesses would benefit from all these visitors – and after all, the chance to earn some cash after a hard few months dealing with Covid would have been hugely appreciated. But that’s not the case. The vast majority of visitors drove up in one day – often leaving at 3 or 4 in the morning – bringing their own thermoses and sandwiches with them. They found their lammergeier, got their shot, and pootled back down the motorway to sleep in their own beds. Of course, everyone understands that as belts are being tightened, not everyone can afford a holiday away, even a ‘staycation’. But stories like this do rather blow a hole in the oft-cited argument that rewilding will fuel a booming eco-tourism industry of its own.  

Take the long-term reality, too. On Skye, sea eagles attract tourists. It’s estimated that there presence has generated £2.4million for local businesses, and created 200 jobs. This is good news; but there are two issues here. Firstly, those numbers are nowhere near the income or job numbers created by grouse shooting. But secondly, how many times can this scenario be recreated. If people can see sea eagles in Yorkshire, they won’t then go to Skye. There is one pot of bird watchers and nature lovers, and simply put, if you spread out their money, it won’t go far enough. And here’s the problem with the eco-tourism argument. People will go once; will they go every year? They will travel – in a day, spending no money – to see a rogue vulture. But will they repeat that next time it appears? The answer, of course, is no.  


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