Why we can no longer ignore the terrifying impact of the lucrative grouse-hunting business

Grouse hunting is being managed on an agri-industrial scale to maximise profits and government funding.

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Earlier this year, a long-term study of satellite-tagged hen harriers revealed that, from a sample of 58 in total, 42 birds (72 per cent) “were either confirmed to have been illegally killed or disappeared suddenly”. It is shocking to realise that the hen harrier, one of Britain’s rarest and most beautiful birds of prey, is being persecuted so relentlessly by hunters – a group that always claimed a special kinship with the countryside and with the creatures that live there.

After all, is it not a common assertion that it is the hunter who best preserves the integrity of the land, just as the fisherman cares for the river because it is in his best interests to do so? As the American author George Bird Evans once remarked: “A gunner owes consideration to the birds and to the land itself… In a strange way he possesses a grouse covert as he is possessed by it, holding special title to that particular corner of this Earth, a carry-over from the age when man discovered wild land and made it his.” Of course, this observation was made by an old-time huntsman, a “gunner” accompanied by trained bird dogs, from a tradition that valued a fair chase, and honoured not only the prey he pursued but also the others he encountered in the wild.

In Britain, however, grouse-hunting (or rather, driven grouse shooting) has become a lucrative business, managed on an agri-industrial scale to maximise profits and government funding (grouse moor management affords eyewatering subsidies to landowners – most of whom are very rich – for reasons that are hard to fathom).

What brings this to mind is the publication of Rebirding: Rewilding Britain and its Birds by Benedict Macdonald, a visionary yet practical book that outlines a cogent and persuasive argument against practices in grouse moor management. With admirable calm and using a wide range of trustworthy data, Macdonald points out that just 30 UK estates received £4m in taxpayer-funded subsidies in 2014 alone, even though driven grouse-shooting has almost nothing to offer the economy in steady employment, and its ruthless management methods (burn, poison and slaughter) have led to the disappearance of an “extraordinarily rich heritage of wildcats, golden eagles, hen harriers and many other species”. Indeed, as Macdonald observes, “the scale of wildlife removal has been as breathtaking as it was entirely optional”.

For those who follow it, of course, this system is seen as both traditional and wholly inevitable. But its roots lie in the growth of the railways in the mid-Victorian era, while the ungainly and lazy method of having beaters drive grouse to the guns is pretty much unique to these islands. Elsewhere, a more honourable tradition (of skilled tracking, hunting with trained dogs and the ethics of the fair chase) results in a very different approach and, drawing on models from Scandinavia and elsewhere, Macdonald shows how grouse-hunting could be pursued with minimal damage to the ecology of our uplands. How little it would take to fill those uplands with curlews, golden eagles, hen harriers and black grouse, not to mention elk, lynx or wild boar. How little to save near-threatened mountain hares (currently under attack because a tick they carry is thought to threaten the farming of red grouse) and with it, our humanity, as we learn to live – and, if we must, hunt – in a land that is genuinely fit for human habitation. 

Next week: Stefan Buczacki on gardening

This article appears in the 03 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, A very British scandal