It was a cold morning in rural east Norfolk, two weeks before Christmas. A cordon of beaters – men wearing country clothing and waving red flags – thrashed the undergrowth. A bird soared into the sky and even I felt an adrenalin surge. I have studied and written about wildlife for more than 40 years but this was the first shoot I’d attended. By the close of the morning, I understood better some of the motivations – the unpredictability, the anticipation – that have made the pursuit of game birds one of the most enduring and important factors in the shaping of the British countryside. Who knew what would burst from that final patch of cover? Sometimes only a scattering of hysterical blackbirds or pigeons clattering out the tops; once a Chinese water deer in an enormous headlong drive; occasionally woodcocks, ghosting through like liquid shadows; finally and tantalisingly high came the pheasants.
On the 5,000-acre Raveningham Estate, family seat of the Bacon family, the “guns” told me that this was not your average shoot. One notable feature was their casual approach to the size of the bag. Another was the self-imposed policy of not shooting breeding hens. By lunchtime we had downed barely more than a dozen cock pheasants. Yet elsewhere in Britain an obsession with numbers has become indivisible from field sports.
Game managers rear and release as many as 40 million pheasants and six million red-legged partridges every year. Both of these birds are non-native species. Opening the cage door on all those free-range fowl is the equivalent in weight of releasing 160,000 wildebeest and 58,000 impalas into Britain. On some pheasant estates, in a day, it is routine to shoot 100 to 200 pairs – or “brace”, as they are known – and closer to 500 brace is not exceptional. Since 1900 the average pheasant bag proportionate to land area has increased sixfold in Britain.
There is a much darker side to shooting pheasants. Only a month before my visit to Raveningham and just 12 miles from the estate, a gamekeeper called Allen Lambert was sentenced for killing ten buzzards and a sparrowhawk. The 65-year-old had a lifetime in the profession. At his workplace on the Stody Estate in Norfolk he was caught with a bagful of dead birds of prey, along with a “classic poisoner’s kit”, including syringes and the banned pesticides aldicarb and mevinphos. It was the worst incident of illegal raptor poisoning recorded in England.
In his defence at Norwich Magistrates’ Court, Lambert claimed that he was protecting the partridges and pheasants bred for his employers, the Knight family, to shoot on their Stody property. He was found guilty, ordered to pay prosecution costs of £930 and given a ten-week jail term, suspended for a year. The perceived leniency of the sentence angered environmentalists.
“How bad do things have to get before the government will actually start standing up for nature?” asked Guy Shorrock, an investigations officer at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). “When will they start to create a climate, using suitable legislative and financial pressure, to make errant sporting estates [get] into line and [make] raptor persecution a thing of the past?”
Within the sport, people were also unhappy. “I was disappointed in the decision of the judge,” said Jake Fiennes, the estate manager at Raveningham. “A custodial sentence would have sent a clear message to all those who choose to act outside the law.”
What does the Stody case tell us about British field sports today? That depends on whom you ask. To those I spoke to at Raveningham, Stody’s ex-keeper was a “bad apple”, an exception that proved the general rule of good behaviour among the shooting fraternity. The National Gamekeepers’ Organisation similarly argued that “the selfish, stupid actions of one man . . . must not be used to tarnish the good name of gamekeeping”.
To underpin their claim of good behaviour, gamekeepers can point to the astonishing rise in the fortunes of some British raptors over the past half-century. Birds of prey were among the last of Britain’s avifauna to receive legal protection, not least because they were so detested by game interests. It wasn’t until 1962 that the law was amended to extend protection to the sparrowhawk.
Yet since then, raptors have shown remarkable powers of recuperation. Despite Allen Lambert’s worst efforts on the Stody Estate, his two victim species – sparrowhawk and buzzard – have strongly recovered from historical lows. Sparrowhawks have tripled in number, while the buzzard population has increased at least sixfold and is now Britain’s most abundant bird of prey.
Over the same period six other predatory species – the red kite, goshawk, osprey, marsh harrier, honey buzzard and hobby – have enjoyed range expansions of between 300 and 1,900 per cent. In 1971 there was a single pair of marsh harriers. Today there are more than 380 pairs.
Joe Cullum, another Norfolk gamekeeper, has more than 50 years’ experience of pheasant shoots in the Yare Valley, a few miles upstream from the Raveningham Estate. “When I started,” he says, “the old hands told me to kill sparrowhawks and others and that’s what I did, in an unquestioning way. But after a while I came to think it was wrong and I just stopped.”
Now the woods he manages have some of the highest densities of raptors in the region – sparrowhawks, buzzards and marsh harriers – yet Cullum doesn’t believe these have any impact on his pheasants.
His change in attitude has coincided with significant innovations in the way keepers rear young game birds. In spring, the growing poults are held and fed in large release pens, fenced from threat until they are nearly fully grown. According to research, only about 2 per cent of them fall victim to raptors, and rather than waste efforts on time-consuming illegal persecution, the keepers can make good any losses at small cost by adding a few more birds to the pens.
For many in environmental circles, however, Lambert was not a rogue gamekeeper in an otherwise clean sport. To them, he was exceptional only in having been caught and convicted: his behaviour is presumed to reflect a much wider pattern of raptor persecution on shooting estates. Gamekeepers operate in the depths of the countryside, invariably on private land, far from prying eyes. Anyone tempted to stray would face minimal risk of detection. The likelihood of the police or any other agency securing evidence of illegality to stand up in a court would be small.
The author and journalist Simon Barnes, a long-time commentator on the targeting of raptors, thinks the idea that these reported incidents are “the tip of the iceberg doesn’t do the problem any justice”. “The stuff that’s discovered – never mind actually taken to court and convicted – is the tiniest fraction of a percentage of a quantum of a scruple of the amount that goes on. After all, you can’t place coppers all across the whole of our countryside,” Barnes says.
Guy Shorrock of the RSPB recognised a steady improvement in affairs concerning raptors on English lowland estates, especially where pheasants are the main quarry. But he added, “I can also point to a case in which a pair of keepers kept a coded diary of their misdemeanours in connection with management of a Shropshire shoot. Over a single year these two men slaughtered 102 buzzards as well as 37 badgers and 40 ravens, all of which are legally protected.”
The RSPB’s investigations department publishes an annual report on all wildlife crime. The most recent edition, for 2013, documents 164 cases of shooting or destruction of birds of prey in which the evidence points strongly towards the actions of gamekeepers.
Since the society’s audits began in 1990, its records have listed 166 individuals convicted of crimes against raptors. More than two-thirds of them were gamekeepers. If malpractice involves only a few rogue elements, as the shooting fraternity contends, then it is a remarkably persistent element in their midst.
For some environmentalists, these statistics are not the most significant proof of malpractice on game estates. Instead, they point to a population analysis for one of Britain’s most beautiful and vulnerable raptors, the hen harrier. The species is largely confined to a western Celtic fringe and to the more rugged northern uplands, with a breeding heartland on the moors of Scotland. In all, there are between 600 and 850 pairs of hen harrier in Britain. Yet modelling by government scientists, based on the bird’s habitat preferences and on breeding densities studied elsewhere, indicate that there should be closer to 2,600 pairs. That implies that approximately 2,000 pairs of hen harrier are simply missing from our countryside. On the English uplands the population should be 330 pairs, yet in 2014 there were just three. An almost complete absence of the bird from its English range suggests levels of persecution that are long established and systemic.
The fate of England’s hen harriers has bedevilled relations between sporting and environmental groups for decades. A major attempt to resolve the problems was launched in 1992 with a five-year project that involved both the RSPB and the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), which researches and encourages environmental best practice among shoot owners. Officially the project was known as the Joint Raptor Study, although it has long since been identified by the name of the moor on which much of the work took place, Langholm, a southern Scottish moorland and part of the 250,000-acre landholding of the Duke of Buccleuch.
The scheme’s official purpose was to examine the impact of breeding hen harriers and peregrines on moorland with driven-grouse shoots, and to find a way forward for both sides. But Langholm resolved little and, by 1996, each side had generally taken away different conclusions from the work. This much was indisputable: Langholm showed that hen harriers consume grouse in large numbers. By 1996 their predation had reduced game stocks on the moor by at least 50 per cent, and the shoot had to be abandoned.
Andrew Gilruth, director of communications and marketing at the GWCT, said: “The tragedy of Langholm is that we sat down at the end and felt that in many ways it proved that those gamekeepers who killed raptors illegally had in some way been right to do so.”
By bringing a de facto end to the shoot at Langholm, the harriers were harming the gamekeepers’ livelihoods. Yet Langholm also demonstrated the effectiveness of an innovative practice, whereby breeding hen harriers could be supplied with alternative prey (domesticated mice or day-old chicks). “Diversionary feeding” was proved to reduce harrier predation of grouse by more than 87 per cent, and is now practised on some progressive estates. It has done little, however, to undermine a widespread perception among shooting estates that hen harriers are just plain bad for business.
Economics is at the heart of the hen harrier debate. On the one hand, shooting estates have made a strong case for their financial and social benefits for decades, pointing to the £65.7m grouse shoots alone generate annually in England and Wales, as well as the 1,520 full-time jobs in rural areas otherwise short of employment opportunities.
Game interests are also an important factor in upland land values, because an estate is costed according to the sum of its wildlife take. A brace of grouse – that is to say, each pair of birds that is expected to be shot on that land in future seasons – is judged to add between £3,750 and £5,000 to the property’s market price. The actual number of grouse also determines what clients pay as a daily rate for shoots. Today, the average charge for a brace of grouse stands at £200 plus VAT (for pheasants, it is £30). It means that on a moor where 100 brace are shot, the price for that day is £24,000. There are, however, routine claims that clients, many of whom are wealthy foreigners, are paying anything up to £100,000 for a single day’s sport on our upland moors.
These prices illustrate the extent to which grouse shooting is the preserve of a tiny elite of the super-rich. It seems more than a coincidence that hen harriers have become the environmental symbol of the day when the gap between rich and poor has such wide political currency.
The financial “logic” of grouse shooting is pushing some English and Scottish estates to pursue ever-larger bag sizes, regardless of methods or the ecological consequences for these upland habitats. A secondary issue that is proving controversial is a huge increase in the slaughter of mountain hares on some Scottish estates. These native animals are thought to play a role in spreading a tick-borne disease known as louping ill virus. The illness can gravely affect annual grouse stocks and, rather than risk potential losses to their bag size and their profits, many landowners are killing hares as a pre-emptive “health” measure.
According to the ecologist and wildlife blogger Mark Avery, there is a fundamental contradiction in the attitudes and methods of some grouse-moor owners and the wild ecosystems they seek to control. “You cannot just privilege one species,” he said, “and manage an entire habitat just to deliver a massive surplus of your cash crop – grouse – however profitable. These owners are essentially applying industrial production methods and attitudes to what is a natural system.” According to Avery, efforts to maximise the financial returns through raised grouse bags explain the systematic killing of hen harriers on northern English moors. Anything that is seen to interfere with profit is eliminated.
One consequence of these heightened tensions in northern England has been an event called Hen Harrier Day, timed to coincide with the start of Britain’s grouse season in August. Last year’s Hen Harrier Day in the Derwent Valley in Derbyshire, which attracted a network of raptor-study and conservation groups, was an opportunity for people to “express their outrage at the illegal killing . . . by grouse moor interests”, said Avery, one of the organisers.
What gave the gathering significance, beyond the 570 protesters assembled, was Avery’s simultaneous launch of an online petition seeking a legal ban on driven-grouse shooting, in which birds are “driven” by beaters – teams of keepers who flush the game out of the cover with a stick – towards the guns, who assemble in hides. (This article deals with that form of the sport; “walked-up” shooting, where the guns aim at what they flush out while on the move, is less popular and results in smaller bags.)
In six months the petition has attracted 20,000 signatures. Though this is far short of the 100,000 signatures required to trigger a debate in parliament, its threat to game interests should not be underestimated. The present owner of Raveningham, Sir Nicholas Bacon, considers the petition to be a form of class warfare. What is indisputable is its radicalism. In the 125 years of environmental activism in the UK, the rights of field sportsmen have never faced so direct a legal challenge.
On his blog, Standing Up for Nature, even Avery has previously described an outright ban on driven-grouse shooting as “the nuclear option”. Explaining his change of heart, he said: “We’ve tried the voluntary and collaborative option for decades and it’s got us nowhere. And, remember, it’s not just hen harriers. Some estates are killing everything: red kites, buzzards, golden eagles, peregrines, wild cats, pine martens – anything that affects their sport.
“It has to end. We all know it’s not all driven-grouse moors, but illegal behaviour is indivisible from the whole enterprise and enough is enough.”
What may ultimately have a deeper impact on shooting estates is the principle of “vicarious liability”. This was introduced into Scottish law with the Wildlife and Natural Environment Act 2011. Under its provisions, Scottish estate owners can be held responsible for the actions of employees.
The first conviction of a Scottish landowner for wildlife crime perpetrated by another person occurred in December 2014. A Dumfriesshire landowner, Ninian Stewart, was found guilty for the poisoning of a buzzard by his former employee Peter Bell; Stewart was fined £675.
The RSPB’s Shorrock believes that the Scottish law should be adopted across Britain. “It would close a major loophole in legal proceedings, whereby errant owners simply pass blame and responsibility down the line to the keepers and pretend they know nothing about what’s happening on the ground,” he said.
When I raised the subject of vicarious liability among the beat keepers at Raveningham in Norfolk, it was the day’s single source of tension. No one wanted to discuss it, even though it is something that should bring clarity and security to all parties involved in field sports, especially employees. Gamekeepers such as Joe Cullum in the Yare Valley welcome it as a way to ensure that employees like him could not be made scapegoats in cases of wildlife crime.
Some landowners have also embraced it. Sigrid Rausing, the publisher and landowner, who has a shooting estate in the Monadhliath Mountains, south of Inverness, said: “Vicarious liability was long overdue and a good development. It was all too easy for landowners to hand down vague and euphemistic instructions about ‘doing what it takes’ or some such. But the landowners I know and like are passionate about wildlife and conservation: it’s not the case that all landowners are villains.”
Another important initiative from the Scottish Parliament involves what is known as the “General Licence”. For gamekeepers and landowners this is a vital piece of documentation, enabling them to carry out measures such as control of “vermin” – for instance, crows and magpies – which have an impact on game-bird populations. Without the permit, estates find it almost impossible to function. Yet in areas where there is evidence of illegal persecution which is sufficiently strong to meet a civil standard of proof, Scottish Natural Heritage can withhold the permit.
“This new measure is designed to be a further tool in the box to tackle the illegal killing of wild birds,” said Scotland’s environment minister, Aileen McLeod. “It’s a very light-touch form of regulation. The Scottish government is committed to bringing an end to the illegal killing of birds of prey. My predecessor Paul Wheelhouse was clear that if the current measures do not put a stop to this form of wildlife crime, we will not hesitate to bring forward further proposals.”
There is as yet no appetite in Westminster for similar measures: in fact, the reverse. In 2012 the then wildlife minister, the Conservative Richard Benyon, refused to outlaw carbofuran, a known poison of choice in many incidents of raptor persecution. Another of Benyon’s proposed measures was intended to make it easier to remove or disturb breeding buzzards under licence if they were perceived to interfere with game interests. Eventually Benyon, a millionaire landowner in his own right, with an 8,000-acre grouse moor in Scotland and a pheasant shoot in Berkshire, gave way on the matter after strong criticism, but his actions were seen to reflect wider sympathies among members of government.
At root, the campaign to halt the killing of wild birds of prey touches on issues that are historically embedded in English society. Resistance to what is viewed as wider social interference in their private liberties is a long and impassioned cause for the landed interest in Britain. Modern conservationists seeking a quick fix in matters of raptor politics would do well to reflect on the campaign for a general right to roam in our countryside.
The first bill to grant public access to uncultivated ground was submitted by the Liberal politician and pioneer rambler James Bryce in 1884. Proposed legislation was laid before parliament and defeated by landed interests 17 times between then and 1939. Bryce’s vision did eventually come to pass with the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (or “right to roam”) – 116 years after his first attempt.
Birds of prey are controversial precisely because it is in their nature to kill other animals. They are climax predators, sometimes competing with us at the top of the food chain for prey such as grouse or pheasant. Yet they also possess beauty, drama, majesty, charisma; and more than almost any other wild creatures they symbolise our wider relationship with place. Their free-flying presence among us, circling over moor or mountain or woodland copse, expresses a kind of hope that modern Britain can be something more than a functional estate, managed to suit ourselves. The killing of raptors is a crime, but it is also a failure to imagine a landscape as being about anything other than property or money.
Mark Cocker’s latest book is “Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet” (published by Jonathan Cape)
This article appears in the 01 Jul 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Crisis Europe