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Rod for his own back - part one

Rod Liddle recently upset quite a lot of his new neighbours in Weardale with a rant fest about grouse shooting and grouse moor management in his column in the Sunday Times.

The piece is an unpleasant mixture of abuse, prejudice, and in parts, demonstrable nonsense, which was widely celebrated by Ruth Tingay's RPUK website. Rod and Ruth do make strange bedfellows.

The essence of the piece is that various forms of rich people wreck the landscape and its wildlife, to produce grouse that are pathetically easy to shoot, and the world would be a better place if the government, (aka the taxpayer), gave the people he attacks huge sums of money to rewild the Dales instead.

It is, as these attacks go, a classic, an unpleasant mix of faux moral outrage, misinformation, and self-serving theoretical nonsense. The Countryside Alliance responded the following day.

Anyone who knows Mr Liddle well enough may be less than enthusiastic about taking a lesson in morality from Rod, but it is worth spending a few minutes checking the accuracy of his assertions where that is possible.

Let us start where he finishes because it illustrates a lot. For decades the conservation industry has failed to satisfactorily answer a very important question. If you stop grouse shooting and grouse moor management, what will replace it?

Here is his plan, “I would argue that we should increase subsidies to the landowners provided that they rewild their estates. Wildlife tourism is far, far more popular-and remunerative-than grouse shooting; last year five times as many people visited a single RSPB reserve (Slimbridge n Gloucestershire) as took part in all the country's grouse shoots”.

Is this a reflection of a reality that is vaguely applicable to the Yorkshire Dales?

Is it indeed a reflection of any sort of reality? Well we would suggest not.

Leaving aside the obvious fact that he has not the least idea of how many people went out on grouse days last year let us begin with one tiny technical point. Slimbridge has nothing to do with the RSPB. It is leased from the Berkeley estate, and is run by the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust.

Not a good start from the point of view of Rod's veracity and attention to detail, but that is what happens when one of the Kingdom's pillars of moral rectitude goes into rant mode.

Secondly, Slimbridge is about as far from rewilding as you can get without a bouncy castle. It is a zoo with captive birds and mammals.

Its most popular exhibits are the flamingos, not, when we last looked, regular members of the UK's avifauna, and all with their wings firmly clipped.

Even the areas that are not pens are managed, in large part as agricultural land, mostly pasture, and both the Trust and the estate undertake predator and pest control. So, rewilding, it is not.

In any case, if you tried to get planning permission to put a Slimbridge in the Yorkshire Dales National Park the roof would fall in and rightly so.

It is of course far worse than that. The answer to the question, 'What happens if grouse shooting goes?', was, and remains, in plain sight.

There are already lots of places where grouse moor management has stopped and the results can be easily inspected and they are all more or less catastrophic.

Parts of the Peak District, the Berwyns in Wales, the Long Mynd in Shropshire, the south western moors in Scotland, including Langholm, and lots more. Go and look.

They are either forests or upland wildlife deserts. Virtually no curlew, no lapwing, no grouse, no hares, even the raptors are going, with nothing left to eat. Just crows and the occasional fox.

But now there is an answer. Rod's rewilding. After all rewilding is the answer to everything. It is perfect, whatever happens it is right. When all the ground nesting birds disappear, as they always do, it’s not your fault, it is what nature did. It was meant to be.

They probably were not supposed to be there anyway. No moral responsibility. 'Nothing to do with me guv'. So like everyone in search of a simple or simplistic answer to a complex problem, Rod turns to the conservationists snake oil. Rewilding.

The way that the conservation industry traditionally makes a profit out of wildlife is simple. They find a honey pot, like the New Grounds at Slimbridge, the Minsmere Levels in Suffolk, or Leighton Moss in Lancashire, where lots of birds go naturally. Usually it has mud and reeds around water, because that makes bird watching easier and more rewarding.

They then build a large car park, a cafe, toilets and a retail outlet. They install hides and crushed stone or tarmac walkways, so that the paying customers won't encounter mud, or feel the merest nervousness about access to the two essentials of modern birding, tea and toilets.

Compared to the wild beauty of the moorlands of the Yorkshire Dales that he reviles, these honey pots with their 'essential facilities' are simply extensions of suburbia.

To be clear about what Rod thinks of the scenery of the Yorkshire Dales, here is what he says, 'It is true that, as the lobby claims, the scenery is unique to Britain- no other country would put up with it', or 'a post-nuclear teletubbies set'.

It is surprising, is it not, that Rod, of his own free will, has chosen to live in a place where the landscape, its management, and the ways of the people who live and work there are so repugnant. But it takes all sorts, and he may see himself as some sort of missionary, sacrificing his happiness, and the happiness of his poor family, to bring enlightenment to the misguided Dales folk.

It is one of life's mysteries that people who move out of cities into the countryside so often feel, when they get there, that the way it is managed is not to their liking, and the people who live there are not getting it right.

Is there not some measure by which we can assess his jaundiced, and I fear, possibly prejudiced view, that the Dales are a mismanaged hell hole, of burnt, wildlife free hills, repugnant to any right minded person?

Well by chance there is. A couple of years ago TripAdvisor did a global customer survey of the popularity of the worlds National Parks. The Yorkshire Dales National Park, more or less 'Grouse Moor Central', was voted the most popular National Park in Europe and second best in the world.

Clearly Rod is a bit of an outlier. But prejudice does that to even the best of people. It rots your judgement glands. Later this week in part two we'll look in detail as some of the other wild inaccuracies thrown at grouse moor management.


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