Tim Bonner looks at the perceived elitism of grouse shooting and the benefits the sport brings to the rural economy
Over 600,000 of us shoot game every year in the UK and there are less than 500 grouse moors in England and Scotland. It is not, then, difficult to work out that a very small proportion of shooters will be shooting a grouse this, or any, year.
Grouse shooting has always been considered exclusive and as moors have continued to be bought up by the international super rich that perception has only been strengthened.
But the red grouse is more than a rich man’s target. It is a wonderful bird not just in looks and taste, but also in the benefits its popularity bestows on the places where it thrives. Upland areas that hold grouse have been protected and pampered for generations. They have not been vandalised with monoculture commercial forests like so many hills and mountains, nor were they subject to the worst impacts of overgrazing created by subsidies encouraging farmers to put more sheep on the hills.
Instead, the power of the grouse enabled moor owners to ignore the advice of their accountants on the tax benefits of forestry, and even pay farmers to remove sheep from moors to reduce stocking densities.
Meanwhile, there is a host of evidence to prove that habitat management and predator control carried out by upland keepers has huge benefits for other species. Ground nesting wader species such as lapwing, snipe andthe threatened black grouse, whose numbers have dropped sharply across the UK still thrive on grouse moors and breed more successfully than they do on moorland managed by organisations like the RSPB.
At the same time the grouse provides jobs and incomes in areas where alternatives to farming are few and far between. There are the gamekeepers, and the casual shoot day workers drawn from the local community, but the benefits spread to pubs, hotels, shops, taxi drivers. Nearly every family in the remote communities surrounded by grouse moors gets some sort of economic benefit.
The money rich owners pour into their moors is a huge benefit to the environment and local communities, but with the cash comes controversy. As anyone who following the debate over hunting knows, most ‘animal rights’ and ‘environmental’ campaigns focus on the perception of those people who take part in an activity, rather than its actual impact on animal welfare or the environment.
Grouse shooting is seen as the pastime of the privileged and that is the catalyst for attacks on it. The focus of the attacks is largely irrelevant. At the moment the conflict is between grouse shooting and the hen harrier, which was persecuted to extinction as a breeding species on the UK mainland in the 20th century. The RSPB has also attacked the rotational burning of heather, which is critical to grouse moor management, claiming that it damages habitat and contributes towards global warming.
Even if these criticisms were correct, their impact should be weighed against the undeniable benefits of grouse shooting. Some, however, cannot bring themselves to carry out that calculation, not because it isn’t relevant, but because it involves rich people at play. The management of the uplands, like the killing of foxes, is becoming a proxy battleground for class warriors. n