Is Westminster losing sight of the facts?
Former Shadow Secretary for the Environment Kerry McCarthy displayed her woefully inadequate knowledge of grouse shooting last week, during a particularly heated meeting of the Agriculture Bill Committee. The Labour MP accused moorland estates of importing ‘millions of grouse’ to the UK to be shot on ‘away days’, despite the fact that grouse are a native British species – something anyone who works so closely with Defra should know.
Sadly such ignorance has not always limited to the opposition benches. In 2017 George Eustice, now secretary of state for the environment, accused grouse moor owners of being ‘slipper farmers’, waiting around for their EU subsidies. The remark was promptly corrected by the Countryside Alliance, pointing out that grouse moors collect no such subsidies, but it is still indicative of the kind of harmful stereotypes drawn around grouse shooting.
It would be easy to laugh off these mistakes as mere political gaffes, like Ed Miliband failing to tackle a bacon sandwich or Theresa May frolicking in a field of wheat. But they represent a far more pressing problem in Westminster of the ignorance surrounding moorland communities.
This in turn isn’t helped by the information fed to politicians in supposedly reliable briefings. The Revive report, for instance, called on government to reforest Scottish grouse moors in order to reduce carbon emissions and bolster rural economies. Setting aside the £23.3m grouse shooting contributes to Scotland’s GDP, this purportedly scientific review ignored the serious ecological advantage peatlands have over forested areas. A recent study by the journal Nature estimated that peat bogs trap twice as much carbon as the world’s forests do, despite covering only 3% of the earth’s surface.
So with all this misinformation, it is perhaps little wonder that MPs have now called for a review of grouse shooting under the present agriculture bill. The amendment, if passed, would have the environment secretary publish a report on the environmental and economic impact of grouse moors, with a policy statement to follow three months later.
Unsurprisingly the amendment was suggested by MPs from constituencies with no moorland communities, and who have little experience or knowledge of the uplands. A review may be no bad thing if it can get the facts straight in Westminster but the present levels of ignorance are worrying. With heather burning and the release of game birds already under threat, politicians need to get a grip of the facts sooner rather than later.