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Scientists’ harsh words for Wild Justice, Packham, politicians and the RSPB

This excellent piece by Steve Grant, on the recent University of Northampton report into driven grouse shooting was recently published in the Countryman's Weekly. Hopefully many of you subscribe already (and if you don't, then you certainly should). For those of you who may not have read it yet, we wanted to republish it here for everyone to appreciate and enjoy.

As the Countryman’s Weekly reported last week, a major new report by scientists at the University of Northampton’s Institute for Social Innovation and Impact showed driven grouse shooting (DGS) had positive ‘ecological, economic and social’ impacts on rural communities, including increasing tourism, employment and biodiversity and combatting loneliness.

The report, Sustainable Driven Grouse Shooting? A summary of the evidence is a brilliant rebuttal of all the arguments thrown up by opponents of the industry. I wish we could publish the whole thing but at 242 pages, it’s simply not possible.

No doubt the usual suspects will scoff, but only two of the three authors have any connection to shooting, and it was independently reviewed by a committee chaired by Professor James Crabbe, Emeritus Professor and Supernumerary Fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford University. A consultant and red list assessor with the International Union of the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), he also has no links to organisations either for or against DGS.

Interestingly, these independent scientists were also scathing in their criticism of opponents of DGS – including MPs, Wild Justice, BBC TV presenter Chris Packham and the RSPB – claiming they had been ’very selective’ in their use of research findings or ‘misused’ the findings to support their case.

“Some have even resorted to falsehoods. Such practices are regrettable”, said the report. The authors went on to suggest the claims of opponents were not based on a “full understanding” of the evidence.

“We also wonder if some opponents of DGS might understand much of the relevant evidence but deny or ignore it,” they said.

The authors found opponents of DGS had also used ‘incomplete or misleading evidence’ around muirburn, flooding and mountain hare control to argue their position, including in Parliamentary debates, ‘risking policy decisions being made using incomplete evidence.’

The report’s authors also said it seemed ‘not logical to single out DGS for such opposition in a country that seems happy for more than a billion animals to die each year so they can be consumed as food or used in products.’

They added: “Those opposed to DGS include an element that use methods including violence, intimidation and abuse against gamekeepers and others. Other opponents mount high profile social media campaigns and legal challenges.”

High profile supporters of banning DGS, such as Packham and former RSPB director of conservation Mark Avery, use their power and influence on platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to further their cause. Packham, with his high-profile BBC role, has been accused of abusing his position to further personal views. He has over 450,000 Twitter followers.

The report notes that when such high-profile individuals tweet inaccurate or false information, it could cause ‘particular difficulties.’ It noted the example of Packham who, in 2017, tweeted a claim that lapwings were being shot by people involved in game shooting, in order to encourage people to sign a petition calling for a moratorium on shooting. The claim was false, a fact later recognised by Packham and for which he later apologised. However, this was after the post had been ‘retweeted’ over 250 times.

“The dissemination of falsehoods might encourage people to sign petitions supporters by high profile individuals. It is also likely to exacerbate divisions between shooting and non-shooting communities, with potentially dangerous consequences for the wellbeing of gamekeepers sand others that, legitimately, shoot,” said the report.

It also lashed out against Wild Justice – co-founded by Packham – suggesting its legal challenges were actually against its own stated objective of ‘nature conservation’ when compared to the strategy of the IUCN, the global authority on the status of the natural world and the measures needed to safeguard it and deepened the divisions between those for and against shooting.

“The use of legal challenges by Wild Justice, relating predominantly to shooting and General Licences, has caused conflict between those for and against shooting, caused disruption to agriculture, damage to wildlife, and resulted in few changes to the way the licences work in practice. Those in the shooting community have raised concerns about the use of legal challenges vexatiously to disrupt the operation of their businesses.”

The authors found the suspension of the General Licences in 2019 caused by Wild Justice resulted in ‘damage to crops and livestock’ and resulted in ‘disruption to rural and farming communities, potentially exacerbating division between those in favour and those against shooting.’

To support nature conservation, one of Wild Justice’s objectives, it was ‘important to ensure that vulnerable species are protected using suitable methods, such as predator control via the use of General Licences, making sure abundant species do not thrive at the expense of more vulnerable species, as this would reduce diversity of nature’, said the authors.

“It is difficult to understand how the current legal challenges raised by Wild Justice to these conservation tools align to the organisation’s objectives,” they said.

The authors went on to criticise ‘bias by omission’ by the RSPB in its 2016 paper Environmental impacts of high-output driven shooting of red grouse Lagopus Lagopus scotica which suggested the management regimes associated with DGS had a number of negative consequences. The paper was examined and responded to by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) which noted that while the GWCT would agree with the evidence given, ‘the paper did not present all of the relevant scientific evidence including that which puts forward an opposing views.”

It also called out the RSPB for using a ‘misleading’ graph in a 2019 report showing 122 of the 181 individuals convicted for bird of prey persecution offences between 1990 and 2019 were gamekeepers, in spite of the fact prosecutions for birds of prey persecution were decreasing.

“While this data is factually correct, it is misleading as it does not reflect the reduction in raptor persecution convictions of gamekeepers. Only five gamekeepers were convicted between 2015 and 2019, supporting the view that it is a small number of individuals breaking the law,” said the authors.

“It seems unreasonable for the many hundreds of gamekeepers in the uplands to be accused of regular raptor persuasion, when only five, representing 0.001 per cent of full-time gamekeepers in the UK, have been convicted of offences in recent years. The presentation of data in the RSPB report appears misleading and has the potential to increase conflicts between those for and against shooting, exacerbating division and harming the possibilities for working together to benefit sustainable bird biodiversity in the UK. It should be noted that the RSPB has previously recognised (in its 2015 Bird Crime Report) the fact that it is a small proportion of individuals within the industry who are responsible for illegal persecution.”

They also criticised Sheffield Hallam’s Labour MP Olivia Blake for ‘misrepresentation of evidence’ in a Parliamentary debate about muirburn in November 2020.

“We note with interest that, following this debate, the UK Government announced a ban of cool burning on deep peat, except in specific and limited circumstances. It is of concern to many within the grouse moor management community that misrepresented evidence might have been a factor in this decision,” said the report.

The report also criticised ‘interventions’ by politicians into reviews surrounding shooting, taking decision based ‘not on the evidence’ but on party policies or personal opinions. It singled out Ministers in Wales and Scotland not following the recommendations of independent evidence review panels.

The report also concluded the methods used by DGS opponents were ‘varied, organised and sometimes aggressive.”

It said: “There is a high level of conflict between those for and against shooting and, while conflicts that may appear at first to concern wildlife, they are part of a wider debate concerning land use, land ownership and governance of natural resources.

“The use of selected evidence and misrepresentation of evidence, including in Parliamentary debates, along with the failure of policy makers to accept the recommendations of independent review committees in relation to driven grouse shooting and other shooting regulation, exacerbates the feeling of helplessness and resentment among many people involved in shooting, and increases the conflict between those for and against DGS.

“This potentially increases the risk of gamekeeper abuse, which research has shown is an increasingly problem, that can negatively impact the mental health and wellbeing of individual gamekeepers, their families and others within traditional upland, moorland communities where moor management for grouse shooting is practised.”

We can only hope politicians across the UK sit up and take notice of these findings.


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