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In defence of British landowners (and the truth about grouse moors)

I was surprised to read the article by Ben Macdonald in last week’s Spectator urging Britain’s grouse moor owners to ‘rewild’ their estates. It argued that these Tory toffs had spent the past 100 years ‘destroying our natural heritage’, that the UK land under shoot management is an ‘economic desert’ that is ‘destroying both jobs and wildlife’ and that the ‘acts of desecration’ involved in the creation of grouse moors is a ‘debt’ that has ‘never been repaid’.

There was a big clue that Macdonald might not know what he’s talking about early on in the article. Berating the aristocracy for the ‘terrible mistake’ of transforming their hunting estates into merciless charnel houses, he writes: ‘They decided to turn red grouse into the equivalent of living clay pigeons — and shoot them, without skill, in their thousands.’

Without skill? Clearly, Macdonald has never tried to shoot one. They fly towards you at up to 70 miles per hour, usually at head height, and rarely in a straight line. Shooting one involves predicting where it’s going to be by the time the shot reaches it, which varies according to its speed and angle of approach. And given how quickly they are upon you, often in conditions of poor visibility, your window of opportunity is rarely longer than a few seconds. Not for nothing is the red grouse known as the ‘king’ of game birds.

Far from being ‘economic deserts’, Britain’s shooting estates contribute £2 billion a year to the rural economy and provide 350,000 jobs. Incidentally, if you want to check those figures, they’re taken from a 2014 report commissioned by the Countryside Alliance. Macdonald says ‘the staggering economics of our hunting estates… would make any Conservative financier see blue’ because they’re running at an ‘epic loss’. That may be true in some cases — not all — but isn’t that a reason to be thankful to Britain’s grouse moor owners?

Some two million hectares are under active shoot management, about 12 per cent of UK rural land. That’s more than ten times the area of Britain’s nature reserves and the reason they’re so expensive to maintain is because the landowners employ an army of gamekeepers to look after all those copses, hedgerows, headlands, wetlands, ponds and rivers. Does Macdonald really want to shift that cost to the taxpayer?

What about the conservation argument? Macdonald claims ‘our upland wildlife’ has been ‘relentlessly wiped out’ and refers to the number of rare birds killed on the Glengarry Estate in the Highlands between 1837 and 1840. Why doesn’t he cite more recent data? He talks about buzzards and hen harriers as if they’re on the verge of extinction thanks to grouse moor owners who, it’s alleged, instruct their keepers to kill them to protect their beloved grouse. In fact, breeding pairs of buzzards have increased from 14,500 to more than 68,000 in the past 20 years and Natural England figures show 21 of the 34 hen harriers that fledged in England last year were nesting on grouse moors.

Macdonald even has the cheek to mention curlews. Research from the universities of Newcastle and Durham concluded that if it weren’t for gamekeepers preventing foxes, stoats and crows attacking ground-nesting birds the number of curlew chicks hatching in the uplands of northern England would fall by 87 per cent. No bird has become extinct in Europe since 1852, but if you rewilded Britain’s shooting estates the curlew might well be next. Other red-listed species that would be put at greater risk, not less, by dismantling grouse moors are black grouse, lapwing, skylark and grey partridge. The crow shooting ban has already done significant harm.

This is the flaw at the heart of the rewilding argument. The greatest threat to endangered species are not human beings but alien predators. Ninety-five per cent of all bird extinctions in the past 400 years have been on small islands as a result of invasive competitors and predators. The way to protect species at risk is to do the opposite of rewilding, which is to systematically wipe out populations of rats, mice, goats and pigs with high-powered rifles, helicopters and hunting dogs. So far, more than 800 islands have been cleansed of their gravest extinction threat in this way, including the Galapagos. Rewilding might  punish the rich. But it wouldn’t help the numerous species that depend for their survival on the generosity of grouse moor owners.

This article was written by Toby Young, associate editor of The Spectator.


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