I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petitions 125003 and 164851 relating to driven grouse shooting.
It is a joy and great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Davies. I thank those who initiated the two e-petitions and all those who signed them, because they have provided us with the opportunity to debate driven grouse shooting today. As with all issues regarding animals, this one is highly emotive and draws out a lot of feeling. One of the things I have been surprised about since being elected is that I get far more emails about animals—be they bees, badgers, foxes, dogs, cats or now grouse—than I do about any issues relating to the welfare of people. Something in our national make-up certainly seems to be drawn out when it comes to animals.
The e-petition to ban driven grouse shooting has received more than 120,000 signatures. The petition states:
“Grouse shooting for ‘sport’ depends on intensive habitat management which increases flood risk and greenhouse gas emissions,”
and kills many mammals, such as
“Foxes, Stoats, Mountain Hares…and…protected birds…including Hen Harriers.”
The petition goes on to describe driven grouse shooting as “canned hunting”, which is
“economically, ecologically and socially unnecessary.”
The other e-petition is in favour of protecting grouse moors and grouse shooting. It states:
“Grouse moors…are an integral part of moorland management both for the grouse and other…wildlife such as lapwing and curlew”.
According to the petition, grouse shooting helps to support local businesses, jobs and rural areas.
I have a keen interest in and concern for our traditional rural way of life, but I have never participated in grouse shooting and, as far as I am aware, I have no links or connections to anyone who has, although I will admit to eating a few grouse on occasion—I found them very tasty. I am opening this debate as a member of the Petitions Committee. I do not claim to be an expert on the subject, but since the petition was brought before the Committee it has been interesting to learn about the issues and listen to views from both sides. The Committee has received numerous written submissions and held an oral evidence session with representatives of those who wish to ban or control grouse shooting and those who support it.
Grouse shooting has existed in the UK for more than 160 years. It is governed by parliamentary legislation and European Union directives, and it is a devolved matter for the devolved regions of the UK. Red grouse are wild game birds that live in the uplands of the UK. In 2009, there were an estimated 230,000 pairs in the UK.
I am hesitant to interrupt such a superb speech, but my hon. Friend mentioned that one of the petitions used the word “canned”, which is surely extremely ignorant and misleading, because the birds are completely wild. Does he agree that there is no logic whatever in saying that driven grouse shooting should be somehow controlled, but that other forms of grouse shooting should not be? There is no logic there, because we are talking about a wild bird, not one that can be reared.
I agree very much with both my hon. Friend’s points.
Red grouse are not found anywhere in the UK but uplands. They live in heather moorland and heather forms the staple part of their diet. Seventy-five per cent of global heather moorland is located in the UK, so in global terms heather moorland is rarer than the rain forest. Heather moorland comprises about 7% of the UK’s land mass, or some 6,500 square miles.
Grouse shooting comes in two forms: walked-up shooting, which involves groups of shooters who walk around a predetermined area and drive the grouse from the ground, and driven grouse shooting, which involves a group of beaters who scare the grouse from the ground towards a line of shooters. One of the petitions calls for a ban on driven grouse shooting, but as my hon. Friend said, it seems slightly illogical to wish to ban only one form of grouse shooting.
Clearly there are informed and strongly held views that grouse shooting is detrimental to our environment and wildlife. Concerns have been expressed about how the way in which the moors are managed contributes to flooding and is responsible for the destruction of other wildlife, including some of our national birds of prey in particular. I am aware that many other hon. Members wish to participate in the debate, so I will be unable to go into all the detail of the issues raised in the time available to me in opening, but I hope others will pick up on the other points. I will deal with what I see as the main issues.
One of the biggest questions, as I see it, is whether the management of grouse moors is good or bad for our environment. First, we have to look at moorland management and whether the moors must necessarily be managed. Moorland looks wild, but in fact it is a carefully managed environment. It is thanks to grouse shooting that over the past 30 years grouse moor managers in England have been responsible for the regeneration of more than 217,000 acres of heather moorland. The petition to ban mentions that such moorland is an important part of the ecosystem and local habitats, so one of the big questions to be asked is, if we were to ban grouse shooting, how would that important habitat otherwise be managed?
I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend. Does he agree that the question is not just how this moorland would be managed were grouse shooting to be banned, but whether it would exist at all or instead be given over to belts of conifers or grazed farmland? Surely the existence of the moorland is a reflection of grouse moor management over generations.
My right hon. Friend makes a very good point, which I will develop later in my speech, and I agree with him completely.
The management of the moorland for grouse provides the manpower to tackle invasive plants such as bracken and ragwort, along with saplings and shrubs of other species, and keeps the heather moorland clear. That level of intervention would not be viable without the grouse shooting industry. In England, grouse moor owners spend approximately £50 million every year on moorland management; in Scotland, the figure is more than £30 million. If grouse shooting were banned, where would the funds to manage the land come from?
Another concern expressed by those who wish to ban grouse shooting is that it causes flooding. I understand the logic of their argument: grouse moor management can increase the risk of flooding, because burning reduces the ability of the moor to absorb rainfall and run-off must therefore increase, leading to flooding further downstream. I suggest, however, that that is too simple a conclusion and that the issue is far more complex. Indeed, peatland restoration is known to help to slow the rate of water run-off. Ending moorland management as a result of banning grouse shooting might actually make flooding worse and more likely to happen. I am particularly interested in hearing the Minister’s views on that when she responds to the debate, because the issue is of great concern to those who live near such moors.
Another point worth making is that many areas of heather moorland are protected in their current state by their status as SSSIs—sites of special scientific interest. If the tens of millions of pounds of income from grouse shooting were to be lost, how would those protected landscapes be maintained in their current state without the cost falling on the taxpayer, something I simply could not support?
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful case. It seems to me that the opponents of shooting grouse want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, because if we destroy grouse shooting, the raptors would lose their food source, local jobs would be lost and, as my hon. Friend is saying, the environment would be the poorer. The argument is not about conservation, but about destruction of the countryside.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Again, I agree with the points he makes.
Another argument put forward by those who wish to ban grouse shooting is that it is damaging to wildlife. The petition to ban grouse shooting states that it causes the deaths of predators such as foxes, stoats and hen harriers. The lawful control of predators is essential to protect grouse, which are ground-nesting birds. That includes the black grouse, which is one of the most endangered species in the UK. Peer-reviewed research by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust shows that as the population of black grouse has declined, they have retreated to managed moorland areas, which now account for 96% of the black grouse population. Predator control also protects other valuable species, such as the lapwing, skylark, curlew, grey partridge and merlin, whose numbers have doubled on grouse moors in the last 20 years.
All wild bird species are protected under law, to varying degrees. The UK has some of the most robust wildlife and animal legislation in the world. It is a criminal offence to shoot, kill or tamper with birds of prey such as the hen harrier—and their nests—without a licence.
In 1999, the joint raptor study on Langholm moor measured the impact of hen harriers breeding on grouse moorland. When grouse management of that heather moorland stopped, there was a marked decline in red grouse, skylarks, curlews, golden plovers and hen harriers. The evidence is clear that birds of prey, including hen harriers, are better off on managed heather moorland. Hen harriers need gamekeepers as much as grouse do. However, gamekeepers on grouse moors are often accused of persecuting birds of prey. As one person who gave evidence to the Committee said, grouse shooting
“is underpinned by wildlife crime.”
There are clearly genuine concerns about the illegal killing of birds of prey on grouse moors. I want to make it clear that I believe that those who flout the law do the shooting community no favours whatsoever. There is no justification for illegal activity. However, I suggest that the illegal activity of a few is no justification for a complete ban—otherwise, we would have outlawed driving a long time ago—but instead a case for more effective enforcement of our current laws.
The key argument on this subject is the economic one. We must always keep in mind when addressing issues of this nature that although many of the key arguments are to do with the environment, landscapes and wildlife, they are also about people and the livelihoods and sustainability of our rural communities. The Moorland Association and Countryside Alliance note that in many cases grouse shooting not only supports but is a lifeline for rural areas of the UK that are cut off from employment streams that other parts of the country enjoy.
We often hear that grouse moors are sustainable because they receive funds under the basic payment scheme, but is it not the case that grouse shooting is not an agricultural activity and is therefore not eligible for such funds?
My hon. Friend makes a valid point, which I will address at the end of my speech. Leaving the EU may give us an opportunity to divert some money to better management of our moorland.
In Scotland alone, grouse shooting supports thousands of jobs that are worth £7 million a year in wages and contributes £32 million to the economy. It is estimated that it supports more than 4,000 full-time equivalent jobs in some of the poorest and most rural communities in the UK. Banning grouse shooting would be an epic gamble with our rural economy.
The Petitions Committee is quite new, but I would have thought that someone opening a debate on a petition on behalf of that Committee ought at least to look at both sides of the argument and not present such a biased argument against the petition. More than 120,000 people signed the petition to ban grouse shooting, and they want a debate that sets out both sides of the argument. The hon. Gentleman is failing them miserably.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. I think I have presented arguments on both sides, and I have not yet finished my speech, so perhaps she should wait until I have before jumping to a conclusion.
Local post offices, pubs, corner shops and primary schools would be at risk if grouse shooting were banned. Although it is correctly argued that many of the jobs linked to grouse shooting are seasonal, it takes place outside the main summer months and therefore fills a gap in local employment by employing people at a different time from other seasonal jobs.
It is clear that part of the opposition to grouse shooting is down to the perception that it is elitist. We have often heard the term “shooting for fun” used in a derogatory manner. Nothing could be further from the truth. Grouse shooting brings rural communities together in areas that struggle with social isolation and a lack of employment. Many of those who work on grouse shoots are students, school leavers or retirees looking to supplement their income. Those people are not rich toffs; they are ordinary people who rely on the additional income that the work brings them. Those who call for a ban have failed to present any credible alternative to that. No case has been made for where the tens of millions of pounds that are spent on the management of the land would come from. There seems to be a romantic view that if the land is left to nature, it will somehow become a natural paradise full of wildlife and people will pay to view it, yet no evidence has been presented to support that notion.
Many of those who support the movement against grouse shooting are also against all other countryside sports. If those people had their way, after grouse shooting was banned, other forms of shooting would be up for bans. I have even heard mention of fishing being on the radar for a ban one day. Many communities across rural Britain rely on grouse shooting. What do those who support a ban want grouse shooting to be replaced with? Who will employ the gamekeepers, the beaters and the land managers? Following the cessation of trips by tourists and visitors to those local communities, who will visit the pubs and shops and spend money in local businesses? The people who support a ban have no answers to those questions. For them, the end justifies the means. They see the countryside as a theme park or museum—something to be watched and visited. They do not realise that it needs constant management. The management of our countryside relies on viable, sustainable communities. People need to be able to live and make a living in the countryside.
It should be noted that, interestingly, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds does not support a ban. Instead, it advocates some form of licensing of grouse shooting. However, little detail has been presented about precisely how that would work or what value it would add, other than another layer of bureaucracy.
I do not support a ban on shooting—our current laws and regulations provide the right balance between protecting wildlife and the environment and supporting our rural communities—but that does not mean that nothing needs to be done. We should certainly take notice of some of the issues raised by the petition to ban and acknowledge the legitimate concerns of many of those who signed the petition. I believe that the Government can do more to address the underlying concerns that the petition expresses. Specifically, will the Minister address the concerns about flooding and the link to heather burning? What steps can be taken to address those concerns? What are the Government doing to enforce the law on protecting wildlife, especially birds of prey, and what more can be done to prosecute those who flout the law? What opportunities does she believe leaving the EU may bring for using agricultural subsidies to encourage land management, which would increase the protection and diversity of our moorlands?
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. As people can see, a considerable number of Members want to speak in this debate. To try to give everyone a fair crack of the whip, I will have to impose a time limit, which will start at seven minutes. I will have to review that based on interventions and things like that. If people can keep interventions to a minimum, that will protect as much time as possible for speeches.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. The moors in my area are characterised by a long tradition of grouse shooting, so I understand the evidence for the sport’s economic impact. Nevertheless, my grouse moors represent a habitat that is badly degraded and needs a lot of attention if it is to be restored to favourable condition status. One is still able to enjoy the wonders of nature on my grouse moors such as curlew, snipe, golden plover and the fantastic mountain hare, but there have not been peregrine falcons or hen harriers for many years.
One of the petitions before us today highlights huge concern over the plight of the hen harrier and other raptors, and rightly so. In 2013, there were no successful hen harrier nests in England, and the numbers have remained stubbornly and pitifully low. Of course, the debate is also concerned with the conservation status of the moorland habitat favoured for grouse production and shooting. There is lots of confusion over the habitat. Grouse moors in my area, for instance, are areas of blanket bog, which also support extensive heather habitat. That is typical of grouse moors, and it is important to understand the need to balance the conservation of healthy heather habitats with the need to restore and maintain our precious blanket bog.
To be clear on this point, the causes of blanket bog degradation are varied. Industrial pollution, over-grazing, wind erosion and drainage in the 1950s and 1960s have played their part. The management of moorland for grouse is one of many factors and it is important to be honest about that, because if we are not, we will underestimate the importance of dealing with atmospheric pollution and climate change when it comes to the maintenance of a healthy environment. However, the management of moorland habitat for grouse has become controversial, not least because increasingly there is the feeling that there has been a significant prioritisation of habitat conducive to maximum grouse production at the expense of the health of our blanket bog. Of course, the burning regimes traditionally favoured as a moorland management tool are at the heart of the controversy.
Much work is being carried out on the science, and references were made in the evidence session last week to the various studies that have been undertaken, but more work needs to be done. I am pleased that the University of York is undertaking a 10-year study, which attempts to remove as many variables as possible from its experiments, especially in relation to pre-management regimes. The study, which is only five years through, has so far been funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but I understand that DEFRA will not fund the next five years, all for the sake of £650,000. I look forward to the Minister’s comments on that in her conclusions and to a commitment that the project will continue. We need to have the science, and we need robust science.
I acknowledge that we cannot wait for the science to make progress. Just 26,000 of our 176,000 hectares of upland blanket bog classified as SSSIs are in favourable condition. When it comes to our wonderful birds of prey, let us remember that we saw only three successful nests this year. We cannot wait. We need to resolve the conflict on our grouse moors now. We need to make every effort to establish management regimes that balance economic and conservation interests, and that are capable of adjusting to the science as it emerges.
A number of options are available as the science evolves. The first involves the voluntary approach favoured by DEFRA. Its strategy for the restoration of blanket bog was published last year, and its vision is worthy because it talks about balancing the economics and the environment. Implicit in the vision is the restoration of a healthy population of raptors on our grouse moors. However, if that is to work, the Minister must show some leadership and demonstrate a sense of her responsibility to do all she can to make it work.
Year one of the programme was dedicated to a series of “bogathon” events, accompanied by
“active engagement on a suite of sites where positive relationships already exist or are developing and/or there is a significant opportunity to improve the condition of a site in the short term.”
The document goes on to point out that:
“These pilots will be important in demonstrating the benefits on the ground and also in refining the approach and potentially revealing further evidence needs.”
Will the Minister indicate whether those year-one milestones have been successfully concluded? Will she commit to updating the House on a regular basis? That matters, because if the House is to be satisfied that the voluntary approach is working, we have to hear from the Minister that the Government’s own strategy in that regard is on track to deliver improvements.
Confidence matters, because the debate about how best to manage our grouse moors is increasingly contentious. Even those of us who believe in the voluntary approach are beginning to despair. The breeding of hen harriers this year has been poor, and it is becoming clear that progress in delivering a sustainable future for our moorlands is beginning to stall, stutter and shudder to a halt. It will do so unless something is done to stop the persecution of our birds of prey. To put it quite simply, the killing must stop. It must stop. It is quite clear that that is a prerequisite to progress.
Will the Minister therefore underpin the voluntary approach outlined in her strategy by exploring the possibility of introducing an offence of vicarious liability? Responsible landowners have nothing to fear from that and everything to gain. By isolating and effectively dealing with illegal practice, the law-abiding majority on all sides can gain credibility and trust.
That brings me to licensing. There are many regulations pertaining to grass moor management, and I accept that the detail on the licensing system is unclear as to how to streamline that, but will the Minister at least confirm that that must stay on the table as a political option? After all, while the implementation of the blanket bog strategy is built on voluntary partnerships, is it not equally true that legislative options need to be held in reserve? In other words, will the Minister spell out how she will respond if it becomes apparent that her strategy is failing to deliver?
It is a great privilege to be called to speak in this debate about a matter that touches on issues of great importance to this House: biodiversity; the uplands, their fragile economy and the people who live there and make their way of life there; and questions surrounding some of the most magnificent, special wild places in the whole of this beautiful country. May I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) on the measured and careful way in which he introduced the debate?
I should declare an interest in that I am chairman of the all-party parliamentary game and wildlife conservation group and I am a keen game shot. I have had the great joy of spending a good deal of my time in the uplands ever since I was a child. The heather moorland of the sort maintained by grouse shooting is one of the rarest habitat types and enjoys some of the very highest conservation designations. These moors were not designated sites of special scientific interest in spite of being grouse moors but precisely because they were grouse moors. These wonderful places exist only because generations of owners have refused endless blandishments and huge grants from successive Governments to drain them, fence them, plant them with conifers, carpet them with sheep and cover them with roads and tracks.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
I will press on—I am afraid I have not got any time.
The owners did that because they love these wild places and the occasional chance to shoot grouse. Driven grouse shooting touches the livelihoods of thousands of people in the uplands: hoteliers, publicans, agricultural workers, shopkeepers, retired folk, children in the holidays and, of course, gamekeepers and their families. What I particularly want to ask today is: what would happen if driven grouse shooting were to be banned and grouse moor management were to cease?
If anyone wants to see in real life what that would look like, go to Wales, which in many places is an ornithological desert. Indeed, on one 5,000-acre estate in north Yorkshire, there are more golden plover than in the whole of Wales. This May, I walked on a well keepered and managed grouse moor that practises enlightened standards of stewardship. I heard curlew, grouse, golden plover, oystercatchers, skylarks, lapwings and the wonderful grey hill partridge. It was truly a miraculous and unforgettable cacophony of sound; people can see and hear for themselves the beneficial effect of legal predator control.
I pay tribute to the work of the gamekeepers in the uplands, whose contribution to the environment and to natural biodiversity in the hills we ignore at our peril. They are responsible for the control of foxes, crows, magpies and stoats, all of which eat the eggs of ground nesting birds. They are the unsung heroes of conservation, and those who take an interest in the matter without knowing much about it need to remember that man has been dealing with predators for centuries. Other colleagues will deal at length with the question of burning, but it is true that if you cease burning, you get long, degenerate, rank heather, which is unsightly and seriously inhibits the habitat for the very species that we want to encourage. Substantial sums of private and public money have gone into the eradication of bracken and thousands of acres have been controlled. Stop driven grouse shooting and all that work will halt; we will be left with old, rank heather, acres of bracken and, inevitably, an ornithological desert.
Driven grouse shooting plays a major part in sustaining communities on the edge of and in the middle of the moors—something that cannot lightly be dismissed. I am very taken with the views of Mr Avery when he was director of conservation at the RSPB; I understand that he started the e-petition to ban grouse shooting:
“The RSPB and other moorland owners and managers agree about many things—we care deeply about the countryside and are angered by the declines in blackgrouse and wader populations; we agree that grouse moors have prevented even greater losses of heather to intensive grazing and conifers”.
“Grouse moors undoubtedly provide good habitat for species in addition to grouse. Some birds, particularly breeding waders, do well on grouse moors. The package of management, which includes the killing, legally, of certain predator species, benefits a range of other bird species. On the subject of predators the RSPB does not oppose legal predator control and recognises that it is necessary if the objective is to produce a shootable surplus of gamebirds.”
And so say all of us.
Properly conducted grouse shooting is a force for good in the uplands. It would be a disaster for the landscape, biodiversity and many small but locally important rural economies were driven grouse shooting to be banned.
It is a pleasure to be called to speak in the debate. I thank the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) for moving the consideration of the petition.
I am a country sports enthusiast. I do not have time to enjoy it as much as I would like, but it is a family tradition for me to take my son and grandchildren shooting on Boxing day, and to enjoy time together in a natural environment. Anything we manage to shoot is used. Quite often, the girls in the office will see birds of one sort or another—all legal, by the way—hanging in the office to be given to those who want to partake of them; and why should we not do that?
As a keen shooter, I am also a dedicated conservationist, which I mention because I want to tie the two things together. I have planted some 3,000 trees, created two duck ponds, preserved hedgerows and ensured that the habitat is right. The result is that in recent years, yellow buntings and birds of prey have returned. I have no doubt that that is because of the conservation work. That is the kind of thing that is replicated by enthusiasts throughout the UK. The British Association for Shooting and Conservation is clear about the facts of the case: grouse moors are sustainably managed, largely through private investment by their owners, and offer the most cost-effective model of upland management to the taxpayer.
The sale of grouse shooting helps to fund the work of the gamekeepers, which protects the unique upland habitat and the wildlife it supports. It is a pleasure, incidentally, to follow the right hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames), who set out that case very clearly. Grouse moor owners in England spend about £52.5 million every year on moorland management, 90% of which is private investment—the equivalent of £1 million a week. I wonder how those who want driven grouse shooting to end will manage those vast moors, staff their management, and pay for it. Even if they cannot see past the idea of shooting, surely every right-minded person must understand the importance to the environment of the work that is carried out by those involved in grouse shooting. If they do not, they need to.
Grouse shooting is already heavily regulated and controlled. There is extensive legislation, which has an impact on almost every aspect of grouse shooting and grouse moor management, including the possession and use of firearms, the use of lead ammunition, the grouse season, methods of predator control, heather burning, use of medicated grit and the protection of wild birds. Any additional legislation would need to be consistent, evidence-based and principled, with recognition that further controls would add to the cost and bureaucracy of grouse moor management without necessarily improving the outcomes. Many of the existing laws on grouse shooting involve licensing requirements—for example, those on firearms possession and heather burning in environmentally sensitive areas. That has given the UK Government, devolved Administrations and Government agencies considerable control over grouse shooting. In England, it is an offence to carry out burning on a site of special scientific interest unless a licence is obtained. More than 70% of England’s upland SSSIs are managed grouse moors, so that requirement applies in most cases. Clearly, we have good control; we should focus on what we have.
The grouse season is relatively short, as there is a closed season under the Game Act 1831. Additionally, shooting takes place only when grouse numbers are at sustainable levels. If we read the factual evidence, we see that estates already self-regulate by cancelling or reducing their shooting programmes if grouse numbers are low, to maintain a healthy population. There is clearly already a management process in place within the grouse shooting sector, aimed at preserving the sport in the long term.
I have carefully considered the emails that have been sent to me and my conversations with those for and against driven grouse shooting. I can somewhat understand the viewpoints, and people have a right to their views, but my opinion is based on factual information about economics and conservation, and on people’s right to shoot on their land as long as they adhere to the strict guidelines that the House has put in place.
In a debate of this kind, it is easy to get caught up in the web woven by those who refuse to see that the sport brings about any good. I remind the House again that shooting is worth £2 billion to the UK economy and supports the equivalent of 74,000 jobs. In England, grouse shooting creates 42,500 work days a year; more than 1,500 full-time jobs, of which 700 are directly involved with grouse moor management; and a further 820 jobs in related services and industries. Research has also shown that associated spin-offs from grouse shooting in the north of England are worth in excess of £15 million a year. That is an enormous shot in the arm for the rural economy, which cannot be ignored and which benefits a wide range of rural businesses. In these uncertain times, grouse shooting is a sector that is proving its popularity, and its importance to its participants. It is estimated that shooters spend £2.5 billion each year on goods and services overall, and that shoot providers spend about £250 million each year on conservation. Shooting is estimated to manage 10 times more land for conservation than the country’s nature reserves. Shooting and conservation go hand in hand—a marriage made in the right order.
I believe in the natural order of things; I enjoy watching the nature channels with my wife when I get a chance, and I understand that nature can seem cruel. However, grouse shooting adds money and benefits to our economy and I do not agree that it goes against the natural way of things.
The only scientific study of wildlife populations after a driven grouse moor ceased to operate but walked-up shooting continued was done in Wales. The right hon. Member for Mid Sussex referred to it. The grouse moor was Berwyn, where in 20 years the lapwing became extinct, golden plover declined by 90%, and curlew declined by 79%. All three species are now listed as of conservation concern, with both curlew and lapwing red-listed. That is what happens when grouse shooting is stopped. In Northern Ireland, at Glenwherry, through the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, we have a sustainable moor, where there is pest control. That ensures that it can succeed. All the birds of prey are still there in large numbers, but grouse numbers have risen from four to between 250 and 300. That is what can be done; there is evidence for it.
For all those reasons, I do not feel able to support the e-petition. I ask people to look at the big picture, which clearly shows that we must encourage the sport of grouse shooting and enable conservation to be carried out, to ensure that money will be poured into enhancing wildlife and the environment.
I refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I had the honour of holding a similar job to that which the Minister currently holds at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I sought, as I am sure she does, to ensure that the fact that there is more that unites the forces involved in biodiversity and conservation, land management and field sports than divides them, was prevalent in policy making. It is absolutely imperative that reversing the decline in biodiversity continues to be a priority for the Government and for future Governments.
I formed my opinions on this subject through my experience of managing an area of upland for many decades, and also, as a Minister, through working with grouse moor managers, NGOs, national parks and other organisations to restore peat land and to see what water companies and others were doing in the constituencies of Members such as the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith). Her excellent remarks about the depleting state of some of the moorlands over many decades were entirely right.
Good stuff is happening and we do not want to see that reversed, but before we go any further let us accept that there are enormous challenges here. I am the first to say that those who are breaking the law deserve to feel the full force of the law. They are doing shooting no good; they are doing their peers no good; and they are doing the name of conservation no good. We need to make that very clear.
Very little in this place is certain to me—very little in life is certain to me—but one thing I absolutely know is that, if the aims of the petition were realised, it would be a catastrophe for the biodiversity of the uplands. I know that because I have seen at first hand how good grouse moor management results in more curlews, more lapwings and more oystercatchers. In an area that I know well, I have seen eagle chicks fledged and I have seen hen harriers and other birds of prey thrive. However, the most important thing is that no one in the House should take my word for it. A number of people have referred to an excellent piece of peer-reviewed science, “Changes in the abundance and distribution of upland breeding birds in the Berwyn Special Protection Area, North Wales 1983-2002”. What slightly surprised me when reading the transcript of the Petitions Committee’s evidence session for the petition was that the main perpetrator of the petition, who has a desire to ban driven grouse shooting, admitted that he had scant knowledge of that report.
As has already been mentioned by right hon. and hon. Members, the report provides a bleak vision of what would happen to our uplands if there were a ban. Berwyn is a 242 sq km area of blanket bog and upland heath, similar to the one described by the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge. No driven grouse shooting has taken place there since 1990, and I need not repeat the details of the catastrophic decline that we heard from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). Coincidentally, there were increases in carrion crows, as well as peregrines and buzzards, although that is a national phenomenon—a conservation triumph owing mainly to the exclusion of certain chemicals from those areas. Most tellingly in that special protection area, hen harriers declined by 50%.
There is another piece of science that we should consider. It is a very good, peer-reviewed paper, produced by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, called “Waders on the fringe”. I could go into great detail about the paper, but if I could sum it up in one phrase it would be, “If you want to see waders and red-listed bird species, go to a managed grouse moor.”
I will tackle the important point about flooding, because it will be much in the Minister’s mind as winter sets in. I spend a lot of time looking at the devastation caused by floods in places such as the Calder valley, and I am absolutely certain that the arguments around grouse moor management being a cause of flooding are very thin indeed. There may be small areas in certain circumstances but, when I was a Minister, the main problem for the grouse moor owners who battered on my door was that Natural England was being slow or over-bureaucratic in allowing them to block grips or drains. For them, on grouse moor management, “wetter is better”. That phrase resounded in my mind, and I personally have experience of trying to make a grouse moor wetter. We forget at our peril that decisions taken in Parliament or in Whitehall have had devastating effects on our uplands—not least 80%-plus grants for moorland drainage schemes.
I believe that, if many of the people who signed the petition listen to the debate and to some of the experiences of hon. Members, they will feel that there are two very different sides to this argument. I have great praise for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. I worked very closely with it as a Minister and I continue to support much of what it does. Its caution on the call for a ban is something we should listen to. I think movement could be made by both sides, but it is sad when issues are polarised in the way the petition has forced them to be. I believe much more work can be done to get to where we can all agree and can take this forward, as other hon. Members have already said.
It is totally wrong to say that this is an argument between a ban and the status quo. The countryside and the natural world never stand still. Grouse moor owners and managers are constantly trying to find new ways of restoring peat and of increasing the quality of the habitat, not just for the birds that they want to use for sporting purposes but for the wider biodiversity of the uplands. We in the House should be obsessed with reversing the decline of biodiversity in this country. If the petition were enacted, it would work in the opposite way. That would be a disaster for my generation and for my children, who would not be able to see the kinds of birds and wildlife that I have had the privilege to enjoy seeing in our uplands.
I thank the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) for introducing both petitions, although I find it odd that we seem to be debating two opposing petitions. I am not here to support the ban on grouse shooting. I am a lousy shot but I support shooting. More important, as the hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) has said, we should be “obsessed” with biodiversity.
I want to see us supporting the management of grouse moors much better. I will talk a little about a place in Northern Ireland that I think is the best example of what we should all be supporting, which is Glenwherry. When I was elected to Stormont, I promised in my maiden speech that I would stand up for country values. However, that means listening to both sides, and today we have to pull together in partnership and find the right way forward.
I was brought up by a mother who would not let me look at any wildlife—bird or animal—without knowing how it lived and how we lived with it. I was also brought up in the valleys of Antrim, which are beautiful whether snow-covered or windswept, although it is not necessarily the case that “wetter is better”. Northern Ireland certainly gets its fair share of rain. It is a stunning part of the world, with great green, flowing valleys.
To the north is Glenwherry. There we have a partnership between the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs—what was called the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development; Northern Ireland’s agriculture Department—the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise, the RSPB and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency—all working together on a mixture of private and public land, paid for by the shooting fraternity and the Antrim Estates Company. They manage the hill farms and the bog land. Interestingly enough, the reason I went there was not about grouse. I went to see how they were looking at pollinators and bees. They look at the total management—the bog land, partridge restoration, bees and pollinators and what we are talking about today, grouse conservation.
The Irish Grouse Conservation Trust was set up 10 years ago to save the Irish grouse and to stop them from disappearing. That was done through the organisation at Glenwherry, where there were four pairs of grouse 10 years ago. There are now more than 250. The site holds some 65% of Ireland’s grouse population, and it is learning how all types of farming can operate next to it, whether that is burning, cleaning, clearing or unblocking the old drains that were put in when people were trying to reclaim land. They are looking at everything so that they can manage the ecosystem and preserve all of the wildlife that is there.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need to take account of climate change obligations? The Committee on Climate Change estimates that 350,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide is emitted from upland peat each year, with the majority due to burning on grouse moors.
I certainly take that point on board, but I go back to what I said at the beginning: we all need to listen to one another and find the right way of doing this. In Ireland, we have much more peat than many other areas, but we have to find the right way forward.
The RSPB has been instrumental in this, as has the Irish Grouse Conservation Trust. My feeling today is that we should not all fall out with one another. Let us work together as a team to find the right way of doing this. Burning is well regulated. We have had awful fires on some of the moors in Northern Ireland in the past few years that have had absolutely nothing to do with those looking after the land. We have to find a proper way of protecting it. I believe the proper way of protecting it is those who own the land and shoot on it carrying on as they are at the moment. The same can be said when it comes to looking after birds of prey. It is better if we all work together, pull together and learn from one another.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned working together. Does he agree that a good start would be for the RSPB to come back into the flagship hen harrier joint action plan, which it pulled out of after six months?
I certainly agree. I would like to see the RSPB perhaps being less political and getting more involved in working with all of us.
I think I have made my point. We should work together. We have the skills and we have the regulations. Let us make them work and listen to one another.
There seems to be a common concern on both sides of this debate, which is criminality. Both sides would say that criminality is wrong for conservation purposes. On that point, would those who oppose a ban on grouse shooting support vicarious liability, to make landowners responsible for criminality on their land? Is that not a potential solution we could all work together on?
I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, but all sorts of problems come with vicarious responsibility, such as the cost of insurance and of letting people on to one’s land. That needs to be carefully looked at, and we need to find out what everyone thinks about it. Initially, I do not think it is the right way forward.
Let us learn from one another, as a partnership. Thank you for letting me speak, Mr Davies.
It is very nice to see you in the Chair imposing a time limit on speeches, Mr Davies. That is fantastic; thank you.
I have not shot grouse before, and I doubt I ever will. In fact, I confine myself mostly to shooting clay pigeons. Today, I want to challenge the untruths being promoted by those who wish to ban grouse shooting—people who outside this place knowingly promote cod science in what I regard as a shameful attempt to set community against community and neighbour against neighbour. That wilful cynicism was no better exampled than by the reaction of Mr Mark Avery and Chris Packham to last December’s floods when, at a time of disaster, they took to the airwaves and their blogs to blame that brutal act of nature on gamekeepers and grouse moors. That was a simply unforgivable act of premeditated malice, with two media savvy men using the suffering of real people and real communities to promote their narrow political objectives.
I was driving north on 27 December 2015 through the lakes when I heard those people and their collaborators putting forward their knowingly scientifically dishonest theories—theories that sadly went unchallenged by the poorly briefed journalists interviewing them. This debate provides me with the chance to put the facts behind the Christmas floods before the House. The facts are these. The two-month period of November-December 2015 was the wettest recorded in the north of England since 1910. The December rainfall total at Shap in the single month of December 2015 was 77.3 cm or, in old-fashioned money, more than 30 inches of rain. From 1 December to 28 December 2015, Bainbridge in North Yorkshire received 49.62 cm of rain—three times more than the December average of 15.65 cm—or, in old money, 19.5 inches of rain per acre. Bingley in West Yorkshire received more than 80% of its monthly rainfall in just two days between 25 and 27 December.
In raw numbers, 1 inch of rain equals 113.31 tonnes of water per acre, so each acre in Bainbridge for the month of December received 2,209 tonnes of rain. I know it is difficult for people in this place to imagine what 1 inch of rainfall per acre actually looks like. Well, it is equal to 16 of the largest African bull elephants landing on an acre of ground. So the rainfall at Bainbridge for December 2015 was the equivalent of 312 bull elephants jostling for position on a space the size of four football pitches.
Sticking with totals and elephants, on 5 December, one storm—Storm Desmond—deposited 13.45 inches of rain on Honister pass. That is the equivalent of 212 bull elephants all arriving in the same place, on the same day. That is why there were floods in the north of England—a biblical rainfall falling over sodden ground in a very short space of time. It was nothing to do with gamekeepers, beaters or the people in tweed who like to shoot grouse.
However, Mr Avery and his friends have never paid science and the facts much regard. Only recently, in his blog, Mr Avery stated in relation to run-off:
“Leeds University research, led by Dr Lee Brown and published in 2014, confirms Ban the Burn campaigners’ criticisms of the Walshaw Moor Estate burning.”
The glaring problem—there is only one—with Mr Avery’s posting is that it is entirely untrue. Very kindly, Dr Brown let me have a copy of his headline findings, and what he actually states in his summary is this:
“River flow in catchments where burning has taken place appears to be slightly more prone to higher flow peaks during heavy rain. However, this was not a conclusive finding.”
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No, I do not have time.
As I like to deal in facts, unlike Mr Avery, I have read the excellent and thoughtful Calderdale Metropolitan Borough Council local flood risk management strategy, to which my excellent colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker), contributed. It was published in June this year. I have read all 60-plus pages of it, and the word “grouse” is not mentioned once. However, what is referenced is the 60 flood events in the area since the end of the second world war, with the statement on page 14 that
“flooding has been a regular feature in Hebden Bridge since the 1800’s.”
That grown-up report does not focus its attention on banning anything. Instead, it talks of working with
“land and asset owners to implement natural flood management schemes to maximise water retention, storage and slow flows.”
That is a responsible council talking the language of collaboration, not division, and a council that wants to bring town and rural communities together, not drive them apart.
I will conclude with this. It is a wholly reasonable position for people to dislike shooting birds for sport and the table. It is a position I happen to disagree with, but I can live with disagreement. However, what is unreasonable is for people such as Mr Packham and Mr Avery to disguise their dislike of grouse shooting as part of some wider concern for the environment. That is the lie that needs to be exposed today. These two gentleman are known for their hostility to the farming community and land management. As one farming friend described them to me,
“These two men are not participants in the countryside. They are simply voyeurs.”
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for mentioning Bingley, in my constituency.
Thank you, Mr Davies. Let us be clear what we are debating today. It is not whether people are entitled to shoot for the pot, whether shooting has a role in conservation or the wider issue of shooting for sport. We are not talking today about pheasant shooting, deer stalking or even walked-up grouse shooting. We are talking about driven grouse shooting because particular concerns are associated with it. It is rather disappointing that the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) sat through the evidence to the Petitions Committee and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee last week and does not seem to have grasped that basic point about the petition.
The weight of scientific evidence is that driven grouse shooting damages habitats, pollutes our water, increases greenhouse gas emissions, increases flood risk and, all too often, involves the illegal persecution of birds of prey. As we have heard, shooting estates commonly burn heather and peat on the moors to increase the red grouse population. Reference has been made to the work by the University of Leeds on the effects of moorland burning on the eco-hydrology of river basins—the EMBER study—which concluded that burning reduces organic matter in the upper peat layers and depletes it of nutrients. Heather burning is intensifying as grouse shooting is intensifying.
Water tables were significantly deeper in burned catchments, indicating greater peat degradation and more carbon released into the atmosphere and water. This contributes to both climate change and to our water bills, as the water companies incur additional costs in removing the dissolved carbon. Treating a single drinking water catchment for the effect of peat burning may cost a six-figure sum each year.
The Energy and Climate Change Committee identified the climate threat in its report to Parliament last year and warned that the
“the majority of upland areas with carbon-rich peat soils, are in poor condition. The damaging practice of burning peat to increase grouse yields continues, including on internationally protected sites.”
Burning also reduces the uplands’ capacity to hold water, thereby increasing the flood risk downstream. In his paper calling for a radical rethink of flood defences, Dieter Helm, chair of the Natural Capital Committee, identified the burning of heather on grouse moors as a publicly subsidised practice that pays
“little or no attention to the flood risk dimensions.”
The Government’s national flood resilience review neglected this. The focus seemed to be on slowing down the flow instead of looking at what mismanagement in the uplands caused the flow to speed up in the first place. That is surely the wrong way to go about things.
It is not surprising that the highest number of signatures for the petition came from Calder Valley because it is communities such Hebden Bridge—which was devastated by the Boxing day floods, as I saw for myself when I visited with my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch)—that pay the price for the mismanagement and abuse of the uplands.
I thank my hon. Friend for coming to see the devastation in my constituency in Calderdale in the aftermath of the Boxing day floods. I heard the points made by the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), for whom I have the utmost respect, but does my hon. Friend agree that we are not talking about banning grouse shooting in isolation, but that we must take the management of moorlands seriously as part of a package of measures if we are to have any chance of managing flood risk in future?
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. She will know that Natural England initiated a prosecution, but proceedings were dropped in 2012 and the burning continued.
I thank the hon. Lady for coming up to the Calder Valley during the floods, which was a horrendous time for everyone. I just wonder whether she has had a look at the moors—indeed, any moors—to see what sort of restoration work is being done to restore them.
I went with the Uplands Alliance and the Moorland Association to an estate in Cumbria—we did not have time to go to Walshaw Moor; to be honest, our focus was on people in the flooded areas—so yes, I have visited moors with those organisations.
It is all the more galling that burning not only has costly consequences, but is often publicly subsidised under the guise of environmental stewardship. A freedom of information request to Natural England revealed that in 2012-13, £17.3 million of environmental stewardship funding was paid for land used for grouse shooting. The RSPB says that during the last 10 years £105 million has gone to grouse moors, supporting environmental damage to sites of special scientific interest and internationally protected special areas of conservation and special protection areas. In 2014, 30 estates received £4 million of taxpayers’ money—they included one owned by the late Duke of Westminster, who was worth £9 billion; I am sure that, despite some death taxes, the new duke is still pretty well off—that could be spent on public goods such as restoring wildlife habitats or flood alleviation.
Codes of practice on heather burning are simply not working. We need the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to respect the evidence and deliver a joined-up policy that does not involve the public subsidising practices that damage our environment. Nor can the Government continue to turn a blind eye to illegal practices, or meekly say, as they do in their response to the petition, that
“all those involved are encouraged to follow best practice.”
DEFRA has rightly identified raptor persecution as a national wildlife crime priority, but that is just used words. There is no action. Will the Minister tell us today what resources have been allocated to the national wildlife crime unit to prosecute those responsible and to prevent future persecution? We are told that a taskforce is developing a plan, but can the Minister tell us when that plan will be published, who will be consulted and when and how it will be actioned?
The decline of the hen harrier is the most obvious illustration of the failure to uphold the law on illegal persecution. The RSPB reports that four satellite-tagged hen harriers have disappeared so far this year. Their last known transmission was from areas on or close to grouse moors. According to the Government’s Joint Nature Conservation Committee, there should be 2,600 nesting pairs of hen harriers in the UK, including approximately 300 pairs in the English uplands. Instead, this year there are just three. The RSPB said in its evidence to the Petitions Committee
“a wealth of scientific evidence”
shows that is because of illegal persecution. The RSPB has withdrawn its support for the Government’s hen harrier action plan because it has
“patently shown itself unable to deliver”.
As has been said, the RSPB is not against shooting in general, but has made it clear that the
“the status quo is not an option and that voluntary approaches have failed.”
DEFRA’s initial response to the petition was incredibly complacent. It relied on the industry’s own claims about the benefits of driven grouse shooting and, critically, focused on when grouse shooting is
“carried out according to the law”,
ignoring the too many instances when it is not. The Government’s response cited the industry’s Public and Corporate Economic Consultants report on the economics of shooting sports, but a review by Sheffield Hallam University identified flawed methodology and found that many of the claims were not verifiable or supported by robust data.
Shooting is a diverse industry, and different forms of shooting have different costs and benefits associated with them. Only driven grouse shooting involves such disproportionate costs, illegal activity and environmental harm, which is why the petition focuses on driven grouse shooting.
I want to say something about the density of birds required to make a shooting estate profitable these days. Studies have shown that 60 birds per sq km is optimal, but owners now aim for 180 if not 200 birds per sq km. Owners make money according to how many birds are shot and the sole aim of many shooters now is to bag as many birds as possible. It is not about enjoying the countryside, communing with nature or even demonstrating any real skill, which might be required in walked-up shooting; it is just about blasting as many birds as possible out of the sky so that they can brag about it to their mates afterwards. Many find this so-called sport morally reprehensible, but even those who do not must accept that the driven grouse shooting lobby needs to put its house in order.
The Government could take a number of steps to reduce the damage associated with driven grouse shooting. They could put an end to widespread heather burning and investigate the use of public subsidies for environmentally damaging behaviour, ensuring that it ceases after Brexit. They could demonstrate the leadership we need to uphold the law and tackle illegal persecution through the national wildlife crime unit. They could look at the introduction of vicarious liability, which applies in Scotland, whereby estate owners are held responsible for the actions of their estate managers and gamekeepers. They could work with the RSPB to develop its proposal for a licensing system, although doubts have been expressed by others as to whether that would work. I do not have time to debate this today, but they could also ban the use of snares and lead ammunition, which as we know causes massive pollution to our water supplies as well as contaminating food. The Government must show the political will to uphold the law and protect our environment. If we do not see concerted action and swift progress soon, the only answer will be a ban.
It is a pleasure to be called to speak in this debate, Mr Davies.
Whenever a ban is proposed, it is incumbent on us all to be certain about who that decision would impact on. To many, the image of the losers of a ban on grouse shooting seems clear: old men of a bygone age, sporting tweed jackets, expensive hobbies and outdated views. Nothing could be further from the truth. The real victims of a ban are not caricatures; they are ordinary working people in constituencies such as mine in North Yorkshire—the farmer’s wife who goes beating at the weekend so that her family can make ends meet through difficult times; the young man able to earn a living, in the community he loves, as an apprentice to a gamekeeper; the local publican welcoming shooting parties with cold ales and hot pies. Let us be absolutely clear: those who support a ban on grouse shooting should do so only if they are prepared to look those people in the eye and explain to them why their livelihoods are worth sacrificing.
There are some who question shooting’s contribution to the rural economy. People suggest that the 2,500 direct jobs, and the tens of millions of pounds paid out in wages, is somehow misleading. I agree: the truth is that the benefits created by grouse shooting go far beyond the direct employment it creates. From the Yorkshire bed and breakfast welcoming ramblers drawn to our area by the moor’s summer blossom to the workshops of Westley Richards in Birmingham or Purdey in London, whose handmade shotguns are the finest in the world, the ripples of employment that grouse shooting creates reach every corner of our country.
However, it is not only to the rural economy that grouse shooting makes an invaluable contribution; it is to our rural landscape as well. There is a tendency among some conservationists to act as though farmers and gamekeepers are somehow trespassing upon Britain’s landscape, yet without their hands repairing our dry stone walls or their dairy cows keeping the fields lush, the rural beauty of our countryside would soon fade. Heather moorland, as we have heard, is rarer than rainforest and 75% of it is found here in Britain. It is a national treasure. From Heathcliff to Holmes, the moors have become a proud part of our cultural heritage.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will not, out of respect to my colleagues, as there are many people still to contribute.
Without the £1 million of private income spent by moor owners on land management every single week, that proud heritage would come to an end. Overgrazed by sheep, used to grow pine timber or abandoned to the bracken, the moors as we know and love them would be lost. That would be a disaster for British wildlife. Academic study after academic study shows that endangered wading birds such as curlew and lapwing are much more likely to breed successfully on managed grouse moors.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will not, out of respect to my colleagues.
Some 80% of rare merlin—the UK’s smallest bird of prey—are found on grouse moors. There has been some discussion about the state of the hen harrier population and although it has increased over the past few decades, more can be done. We must be clear: a Britain without grouse shooting is not a Britain where the hen harrier would thrive. Research carried out on the Scottish grouse moor of Langholm, and published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, found that when gamekeeping ceased, the hen harrier population plummeted. Without gamekeepers to control them, predators multiply and hen harriers pay the price. That is why the participation of 1 million acres of grouse moor in a new hen harrier brood management scheme is the right approach, and why gamekeepers supporting diversionary feeding is the right approach. Conservation will only succeed through partnership with the grouse shooting industry, and not through its destruction.
That does not just go for birdlife; it goes for the land itself. The rotational burning used to manage heather moorland may seem odd to some, but without it our moors would not regenerate and support the rich wildlife and biodiversity that they do. Meanwhile, contrary to what some have claimed, Natural England and others can find no specific evidence that links burning to floods. As for the myth that grouse shooting is somehow unregulated, I would be amused to see what the gamekeepers in my constituency, with literally scores of regulations, codes, licences and Acts of Parliament to comply with, make of that.
Banning grouse shooting would undermine the balanced ecosystem of our countryside. It would not only leave many families poorer, but leave our landscape and wildlife poorer too. A ban on grouse shooting would be a policy with no winners. Instead, only by working together can we ensure a bright future for the rural Britain that we all care so deeply about.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies.
Many people, not least the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), will be aware of the opinion circulating around the Calder valley that one of the big factors that contributed to the horrendous flooding in the valley at Christmas was the grouse moor on the Walshaw estate above Hebden Bridge. As a townie, I thought I needed to go and visit the estate to see how justified the petition is, and to consider what influence the management of the estate has upon the mitigation of flood risk. I have to tell you, Mr Davies, that what I saw horrified me. Actually, I felt quite sick, and not because I saw anything repugnant—quite the opposite. I quickly realised that the petition and much of the information peddled around the Calder valley about the estate are, in many cases, simply untrue and based more on ideology than on fact and reason. The nonsense that people are led to believe could not be further from the truth, and it is time to put some of those things straight.
It is true that our peatland moors are in a poor state, but that is not because of grouse shooting. Rather, it is a consequence of a number of different factors, not least decades of abuse from coal burning, the over-intensification of farming—to name just two—and others mentioned by the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith). So why am I horrified about the amount of misinformation, which is quite frankly breathtaking, relating to the Walshaw estate? Does the estate slash and burn, as is suggested by many? No, it does not. It does, however, use what is called cool burning. The estate works in partnership with Natural England, Yorkshire Water and many other agencies. Everything it does is done under licence and is strictly controlled and plotted by GPS, and mapped, so that no area is burnt out of cycle, which, for active peat, is over 25 years, and, for other areas, is over 20 and 15 years.
Does this contribute to the increased peak flows? Common sense would probably say that it does; as does a study completed by Durham University and commissioned by Treesponsibility in the Calder valley. Although the study shows that burning does indeed have an impact on flows—I say “flows”, and not “flooding”—its methodology is so inherently flawed by a number of omissions and inaccurate assumptions that it is of very limited value. For example, the author of the study does not take into consideration any other burning outside the Walshaw estate. The author assumes that all channels on the moorland are unimpeded and allow the free flow of water; grips, ditches and drains are ignored; bankside areas are all assumed to be unimpeded and free flowing; and, finally, it is assumed that our six local reservoirs are storage neutral and allow for the unimpeded passage of water. As such, before drawing any conclusions from the study, we have to be aware of the significant weaknesses in its methodology.
We know that water does not have an unimpeded flow. There are thousands of acres around the Calder valley that are up hill and down dale and that have thousands of natural traps and bungs. On top of that, our reservoirs are not always storage neutral. Indeed, managing the level of reservoirs can have a significant impact upon mitigating the risk of flooding. Owing to the significant proportion of water on the moorlands that runs through the six reservoirs on and around the estate, if the levels of the reservoirs had been proactively managed last winter, the scale of the destruction caused to the communities in the valley bottom may have been reduced. Ironically, going into this winter, many of our reservoirs are kept low or empty.
As a result of a variety of factors, including the use of cool burning, mechanical cutting and spraying, and the planting of mixtures of new seeds of heather and cotton grass replacement, we have seen a huge influx of bird species back on to the moor. Many of those species have been mentioned today, and none of them have been on the Walshaw estate for decades. I was fortunate to see some of those species during my recent visit. This evidence is contrary to the petition, which states that grouse shooting exterminates wildlife. The careful custodianship of our moorlands is actually supporting and encouraging wildlife in a way that we have not previously seen.
My hon. Friend is making a very important point about cool burning. Does he also recognise that cool burning allows mosses to develop, which has a huge impact on the carbon capture of the moors?
Yes, I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He is absolutely right. A key point about the over-intensification of farming over decades—20,000 sheep were kept on the Walshaw moor during the war and in subsequent years, and the number is now down to 1,000—is that molinia is a huge problem that causes deeply damaging wildfires, so he is absolutely right.
In relation to the petition, I point out that it is already illegal to kill endangered species. Banning grouse shooting will have no influence on this practice; policing of the law that is in place will. Furthermore, it has been alleged that the grouse moors practise “gripping”, which is designed to drain the moor to encourage heather growth and that that, in turn, has contributed to flooding. The opposite is true. The Walshaw estate has practised grip blocking over the last three years. That practice blocks grips that were paid for by the Government in the 1970s to encourage more intensive farming. Over a third of grips have been blocked at Walshaw and the work to completely block the rest will take place over the next 18 months.
Finally, it is worth drawing attention to the very substantial cost of the restoration work and moorland maintenance programme. The seven full-time gamekeepers —I would call them, more appropriately, “custodians”—who carry out the vast amount of restoration work are on constant lookout in the summer for wildfires, which can totally destroy the peat.
Does the hon. Gentleman not acknowledge that although landowners make a significant contribution to moorland restoration, they nevertheless generally do so with a wide range of partners, such as, in my area—and I think in the hon. Gentleman’s too—the Moors for the Future partnership?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. A lot of this stuff is done in partnership with Natural England. Yorkshire Water is a big partner up there as well. Of course, there is also our local council; our full flood catchment plan was released only last Friday and part of that is about working in partnership to manage the uplands.
As I was saying, these guys are on constant lookout for wildfires, which destroy the peat. Were they not there and were the estate not to have grouse shooting, there would be no capacity to prevent the wildfires. In fact, due to the poor state of much of our moorland, because of the factors that have been outlined, not having those custodians would result in the moors degenerating even further. West Yorkshire fire brigade has attended 249 illegal fires around the Calder valley since 2009. Those really do damage moors and wildlife.
Where do we go from here? In common with organisations such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, I do not think that banning driven grouse shooting is the answer. Similarly, I am not convinced that burning is needed to the extent that we hear about, although on the Walshaw estate, that only equates to approximately 2% of the 16,000 acres each year. I understand that there is machinery available that can access hard-to-reach areas, which reduces the need to burn. At the very least, I believe that a reduction in the scale of burning should be worked on and should be achievable.
However, we have to remember that if the current owners of our moors did not carry out the scale of restoration that they currently do, our moorlands would be in significantly worse condition than they are. I do not think that banning driven grouse shooting is the answer—in fact, it would be a sledgehammer to crack a nut—and as far as flood measures go, it would actually be detrimental. Common sense, not ideology, should prevail.
As many will know, driven grouse shooting is a really important aspect of the economy and rural community life in counties such as North Yorkshire. It is so pleasing to see so many honourable colleagues here from our county this afternoon.
Clearly, we have to look at both sides of any argument, but I believe that the petition to ban driven grouse shooting simply does not stand up to scrutiny, and it does not seem to have ignited the enthusiasm of many Members who support the ban to speak here today. The economic impact of banning driven grouse shooting would be disastrous. There are estimates that revenue from walked-up grouse shooting would be less than 10% of that gained by driven grouse shooting. Many grouse moors rely on the sale of grouse shooting days for their economic survival.
Since I was elected to this place, economics has been used to justify dropping bombs, supplying arms, withdrawing tax credits and now killing birds. Does this place ever come down on the side of morality versus economics, or will it always be the case that if it makes a few quid, it is okay with the Tories?
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, but it is probably one of the most nonsensical I have heard in this Chamber in the six years that I have had the pleasure of being here.
The petition’s proposals would result in a huge number of job losses. Grouse shooting supports more than 1,500 full-time jobs and many more part-time jobs, so its proposals would be very damaging. In many cases, these are quality jobs, with most paying above minimum wage and with the benefits of working in a beautiful natural environment. Businesses related to or dependent on grouse shooting in the north of England also generate more local jobs and tens of millions of pounds of income, mostly to small and family-owned businesses. This industry is reasonably run and already heavily regulated, and I do not support a further threat to the jobs that are created.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is nothing moral about knowingly making a decision that will put hundreds of people in some of the poorest parts of our country out of work?
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend, and I congratulate him again for introducing this petition today. I certainly would not want any further excessive burdens to be placed on the approximately 450 estates that offer grouse shooting.
Grouse moor management is conducted in accordance with clear regulations contained within conservation designations, such as sites of special scientific interest and special areas of conservation. That has been shown to be highly effective, with SSSIs that are also grouse moors demonstrating a massive improvement in condition in the last decade. An overwhelming majority are now in either “good” or “recovering” condition, whereas only approximately a third were previously.
The legal predator control and habitat management undertaken by managers of grouse moors is supported by Natural England because these have proven to provide sanctuary and habitat for increased populations of endangered wading bird species, including lapwings, curlew, and other red-listed species, including the red grouse, which is unique to the British Isles.
Additionally, there is little evidence to show that predator species are damaged by the responsible management of grouse moor estates. In fact, studies show that they benefit: breeding merlin pairs were four times as high in keepered moorland than elsewhere, and the control of predators was shown to reduce nest predation, increasing the population of hen harriers and other native birds of prey. When keepering stopped, hen harrier populations did not increase. In fact, they declined alongside grouse populations, because crow and fox populations took over. This petition may be well intentioned, but if its recommendations were implemented, it would end up shooting the uplands in the foot.
Grouse moor managers actively restore peatland and well-maintained peatland helps to reduce flood risk, as we have heard. Those are essential environmental maintenance tasks that the Government do not have to fund, yet they produce huge public benefits—a virtually free service is conducted by grouse moor managers. Grouse moor owners in England alone spend approximately £52.5 million every year on moorland management, 90% of which is private investment. Those tasks would have to be taken up and funded by the public purse or we would face declining biodiversity, increased flood risk and damage to a rare type of habitat on the basis of neglect.
Let me come to those who really matter in this: the local community, many of whom benefit from and enjoy grouse shooting and enjoy living near picturesque, well-maintained heather moorland. It gathers people of all ages together to enjoy the camaraderie of a day’s grouse shooting. Driven grouse shooting brings the rural community together in areas that struggle with social isolation and low levels of employment. It keeps a cultural tradition thriving. Among those who have newly taken up the profession, there are people whose families have been grouse shooting, farming and keeping for centuries.
I will try to put this gently, but I feel that there is a bit of misplaced or inverted snobbery in the petition to ban this practice. There is a sense of knee-jerk opposition without a full understanding of the facts. There is an impression, for example, that grouse shooting involves a bunch of tweed-clad toffs trampling the countryside and killing for fun, but that is a huge misconception. I suspect that those who want to see driven grouse shooting banned, some of whom are given a very regular platform by the BBC to espouse their views, are keen to propagate that image, alongside their dodgy science.
[Mr David Nuttall in the Chair]
The industry is supported primarily by those who have spent their lives living in and working hard for the countryside. All sides—the rural community, the shooters and the gamekeepers—know that their environment and occupation cannot continue unless they maintain good relations with one another and conserve the countryside. The actual business of conservation requires people to get their hands very literally dirty, not simply sign a petition from the comfort of their home.
In the debate, there is an element of seizing upon a convenient, if fallacious, environmental objection as a straw man for some people’s misguided opposition to shooting when, in fact, most country sports contribute massively to conservation and animal welfare. I encourage anyone who is interested to visit a grouse moor and speak with the passionate, hands-on and knowledgeable gamekeepers before leaping to criticise, based solely on a couple of deeply unrepresentative bad examples.
Shot game tends to be of an incredibly high quality and raised to high welfare standards, and is often organic. Almost all game that is shot on such estates, including grouse, gets eaten. A lot of people object to seeing a shooting party carrying home a bird to pluck and cook, but those same people sometimes buy at their local supermarket, without a second thought, eggs and chicken raised in truly deplorable conditions. We must not pander to squeamishness about where food comes from, especially when those ideas are based on uninformed prejudices. Therefore, I am fully in support of the alternative petition to support the countryside and driven grouse shooting.
I draw the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as I am the chairman of the Countryside Alliance. I will not repeat absolutely everything that has been said this afternoon, but I will compare two moorlands, and build on the excellent story that we heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames).
I, too, spent a pleasant day on a moorland—not actually shooting—not that long ago. Many species have been mentioned, and I think I counted 44 in total that day, including mammals and birds. There were blackcock, golden plover, woodcock, snipe, jack snipe, greylag geese, teal, widgeon, mallard, gadwall, pintail and even, right out in the middle of the moor, miles from anywhere, a wild chicken. I am not sure whether there are wild chicken, but there was a chicken that was probably not born and brought up there. There were also a collection of corvids and a few raptors. Probably as important, to pick up on the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams), was the thriving school, the busy shop and a pub that did business not just during the tourist season, but throughout the winter. In other words, the place was a proper community built around the agriculture and shooting activity of the area.
Compare and contrast that with my other experience of a moorland in mid-Wales, where I used to live and where, something like 20 years ago, grouse shooting of any sort came to an end. Now, as we heard from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), lapwing have become extinct on those moors. The numbers of golden plover are down by 90% and curlew by 79%. The moors are dominated by crows and other corvids, as well as ground predators. Biodiversity has been damaged by a lack of investment and overgrazing. A new phenomenon —at this stage being reported anecdotally—is the uninterrupted rock climbing in some of the few cliff areas, which is deterring peregrine falcons from nesting. No malice is intended, but the pretty unlimited and unregulated disturbance each and every weekend is contributing to difficulties elsewhere.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
If it is a quick one. I always regret giving way, but I will do so for the right hon. Gentleman.
The hon. Gentleman has not yet mentioned hen harriers. A lot of my constituents are deeply concerned about the decline of the hen harrier population in England. Does he accept that there is a real concern that grouse shooting is making things worse?
If the right hon. Gentleman—and this is not an insult—had been around earlier, he would have heard quite a lot about that. I suspect we will also hear from the Minister on that point. We have all acknowledged that the problem exists, but hen harriers are susceptible to a number of different things; persecution is but one. I will pass that ball to the Minister to deal with when she sums up.
We are told that there are good alternatives to driven grouse shooting. As far as I can make out, those include forestry, wind generation, rewilding—whatever the definition of that is—ecotourism, farming and rough shooting or walked-up shooting, as some people call it. The point is that the alternative already exists across a lot of the UK, including across a lot of Wales. Therefore, arguments that suggest that somehow there will be a booming rural economy in areas where driven grouse shooting does not take place can be contested, because we have the example already. It is not a case of speculating about what the alternatives may be. We know what the alternatives are because they are out there for anybody who wishes to go and see them, and they do not reflect in any way the suggestions made by those who wish to criminalise the activity.
In the joint evidence session last week between the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and the Petitions Committee, it was pretty obvious to us that the people promoting a ban on driven grouse shooting had made no assessment of the economic or ecological costs, or the social consequences. The Committee felt, I think—I certainly did—that if people are going to make a case that would essentially add to the criminal sanctions of the country, put people out of work and alter the management of the uplands, the very least they could do is come up with a reason that their alternative is better than the existing model that has been tried and tested over some time. Until opponents of driven grouse shooting actually bother to make that case, their argument deserves to fail.
I finish by turning to a slightly more political argument. Earlier this year, the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) produced a document entitled, “Labour’s rural problem”, which was an analysis of why Labour was not succeeding in its electoral ambitions in rural areas. On page 33, she confesses that
“much of the party treats the countryside with a polite indifference.”
The report goes on to state:
“An activist from Labour South West, said...‘in the future we need to ensure that we focus on rural issues that most people worry about. Rural issues shouldn’t be confused with animal welfare issues.’”
And so it goes on.
The report compares interestingly with another document, produced by a former Labour MP, called the comprehensive animal protection review, which apparently has the warm endorsement of the shadow Minister. The author of the report says:
“As part of our wider environmental priorities, we will no longer allow drainage of land to facilitate grouse shooting and landowners will have obligations to restore land to its natural environment... We will introduce a licensing requirement for shooting estates”,
without defining what a shooting estate is. There are various other comments about further restrictions on shotgun ownership and increased licensing costs and so on.
There seems to be a problem. There is recognition that, in order to re-engage with rural communities, all political parties need to do things for them, rather than to them. Sadly, some of the comments today reveal that there is still an ambition to pursue a political agenda under the cover of some kind of ecological argument. Because of that and because of the lack of the proponents of the motion coming up with any more positive alternatives whatever, the proposal to ban driven grouse shooting deserves to fail, and I hope that it does.
I must immediately declare an interest as chairman of the all-party group on shooting and conservation, the sister of the group to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) referred. In his excellent speech, he described, par excellence, the biodiversity that takes place on a well-managed moor. I will sketch for the House—my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak) got somewhere towards it—what the opposite course may entail.
I have been visiting an estate on the Caithness-Sutherland borders almost continuously for 36 years. When I started, there were a few grouse there. It was decided that the estate would gradually be stocked with more and more sheep. Tick numbers went up. Biodiversity on the moor went down. In the early days, there were raptors, skylarks, curlew, oystercatchers—the whole range of birds discussed today—but now virtually none of those birds remains. The quality of the moor has gone down considerably: the heather has got rank because it is not burnt; the number of grass species has immeasurably increased; and the amount of bracken, which is no good for any wildlife, has increased hugely. Without managed moors, I say to the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), biodiversity would definitely go down. I disabuse her of one other fact: without driven grouse shooting, and without proper management, vast tracts of our precious moorland would degrade in the way I have described—we have already heard that moorland is rarer than rain forest and that in the United Kingdom we have 75% of the world’s heather moorland.
Many others have commented on the economic benefits of grouse shooting, so I will not go over that too much, except to say that the £50 million spent on grouse moors, and the associated £15 million spent on ancillary businesses, supports 1,500 full-time equivalent jobs, according to the Moorland Association—my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) may have got the figure wrong in his excellent speech—and some 125 days of seasonal work. Those are considerable figures in some of our country’s remotest areas.
Some 2,715 miles of moorland drainage ditches have been plugged in the north Pennines alone as a result of revegetation with 120 hectares of bare peat, and there has been a reduction in flood risk. Many Members have commented on burning, but it is a fact that just 0.68% of heather moorland in Britain is burned each year. If it is burned properly under proper conditions—Members have talked about hot and cold burning and about rotation around the moor—it should not create the damage that has been mentioned.
On the hen harrier problem, the RSPB came to see me ahead of this debate and pleaded with me to be reasonable. I will be reasonable to the RSPB if it will be reasonable to the grouse landowners. The RSPB pulled out of the biodiversity action plan earlier this year, and I appeal to it to rejoin that action plan because only talking between the two sides is likely to solve the problems. I do not condone anyone who breaks the law, and it is important that we sort out the problem, but the fact that hen harriers do not breed may not in itself automatically be due to grouse shooting landowners. Many other things may cause hen harriers not to breed, including disturbance and weather.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
We are getting close to the end of this debate, so I will move on.
On licensing and regulation, some wish to ban driven grouse shooting altogether, which would be extreme and would be detrimental to the biodiversity of this country. Licensing is an option, but grouse moor owners already have to comply with a panoply of legislation. Like others, I pay huge tribute to the keepers who keep our precious landscape in its current state and maintain its biodiversity. They already have to comply with the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, the heather and grass burning code of 2007 and the close season Acts for grouse. There is a panoply of legislation, and increasing regulation is rarely, if ever, a sensible answer. By using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, the Government would only harm an activity that has immense economic and environmental benefits. Any discrepancy or case of malpractice should be dealt with locally, and I repeat that I do not condone any breaking of the law.
Finally, we have a fundamental choice between thriving grouse and wider bird populations, local tourism, conservation and strong rural economies; and the devastation of some of these remote areas, job losses, the loss of endangered species, an increase in disease and the loss of habitat. It is all too easy to impose a blanket ban on shooting, and it is irresponsible to ignore the hard science and the factual benefits that driven grouse shooting provides to the UK’s countryside.
For the benefit of all Members here, this debate is scheduled to finish at 7.30 pm. Thanks to the brevity of Members who have spoken already, even if Members wish to take an intervention or two, there may be time to fit in all the remaining speakers and to hear from the Front Benchers before the conclusion of the debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. I am pleased to contribute to this debate because the area of Wales that my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) spoke about, the Berwyn range, is well known to me. It is worth remembering that that range, which covers a huge area and is internationally protected because of its significant numbers of hen harriers, has been managed by the RSPB. The peer-reviewed findings of the study between 1983 and 2002 are therefore incredibly important. If the decline is down to grouse moor management, why are we not seeing an explosion of hen harrier and grouse numbers on the more than 312,000 acres of land managed by the RSPB? That is peer-reviewed scientific evidence. The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) failed to say what sources she is relying on or, indeed, whether those sources are peer-reviewed.
Between 1983 and 2002, lapwing were lost from the Berwyn survey area, golden plover declined from 10 birds to one and curlew declined by 79% despite its conservation designations. Carrion crow numbers increased sixfold and raven numbers fourfold, with the number of 1 sq km grid squares that they occupied doubling and trebling respectively. Buzzard numbers increased twofold, and the number of occupied grid squares increased fourfold. Peregrine numbers increased sevenfold, whereas hen harrier numbers declined by half. No significant changes were detected in the abundance of other SPA-designated raptors, merlin and kite.
I appreciate the hon. Lady’s point, but the latest report of the Peak District raptor monitoring group is absolutely clear. The group is frustrated by the heavy focus on hen harriers—I say that as a hen harrier champion—because, despite its best efforts over nearly eight years, merlin and peregrine numbers are going down. A range of significant birds are going down in number.
I would be grateful if the hon. Lady provided me with a peer-reviewed study showing those numbers.
There has been no grouse shooting and no grouse moor management in the Berwyn range, where the number changes have been happening, since the late 1990s. Between upland breeding surveys, red grouse numbers declined by 54% and the occupied range—in other words, where the birds were—fell by 38%. Grouse count data collected on four moors since 1995 show that grouse numbers have remained at low levels on three of the moors. The study is important because it covers an RSPB-managed reserve. Grouse numbers declined, and so did hen harrier numbers.
Contrast that with what happened in relation to the plastic carrier bag charge in Wales, where landowners and the RSPB worked together to protect the black grouse, which was a huge success. There was a big increase in black grouse numbers on one keepered moor; on the three other RSPB moors, black grouse numbers did not increase. On the keepered moor on the Wynnstay Hall estate at Ruabon, the number of black grouse, one of our rarest grouse, increased. That shows what partnership can do, but it also shows that, when the land is not being managed by keepers, or is not where driven shooting happens, there is a decline in biodiversity. The RSPB reserve saw minor increases in black grouse.
This House has a responsibility to judge on proper evidence, not some scientific allegations made by third parties. [Interruption.] I am quoting the scientific facts from peer-reviewed research. I find it difficult that very few RSPB reserves release their data. They do not allow peer-reviewing of their bird numbers. One need only drive down the Llangollen valley to see the bracken on the hills of the RSPB reserves.
I point out to my hon. Friend that the Avian Population Estimates Panel states that 100 years ago there were no hen harriers in mainland UK, whereas today there are around 645 breeding pairs across the country. In 1963, there were 360 pairs of peregrines in the UK; today there are 1,500. There were 160 breeding pairs of red kites 20 years ago; there are now 1,600. Birds of prey are doing well in the United Kingdom.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for quoting those data. I would have referred to them myself. Furthermore, Natural England’s report “A Future for the Hen Harrier in England?” identified six causes of hen harrier nest failure: wildfire, predation, lack of food, poor weather, infertility and illegal killing. Clearly, there is an issue with illegal killing; I do not say by whom. It is interesting that the figures released by DEFRA show that, of 12 hen harrier nesting attempts in England last year, six were successful, of which four were on or immediately adjacent to moorland managed for grouse shooting.
What is happening in the RSPB reserves? What is happening on the more than 300,000 acres of managed land? Why is it not working? The evidence that I have cited shows that the call for a ban on driven grouse shooting is not rooted in science or evidence, and I do not support it.
It is nice to be under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I congratulate my colleague and friend the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) on making an excellent speech using facts and figures. Many of the facts in my speech have already been quoted, so I have spent a lot of my time crossing them out, as I do not want to repeat those points. If I may, I will go through what I have left. The facts are the important part of this debate.
We know that birds thrive where moorlands are managed. Without the conservation management of moorland, there would be no red grouse. They have already disappeared from the south-western moors and most of Wales, and are amber-listed for conservation concern. Many endangered species, such as lapwing, curlew, golden plover, merlin and black grouse, that are in serious decline elsewhere can still be found in good numbers on grouse moors. Research shows that, where predator control is in place on keepered grouse moors, red-listed birds such as the curlew and lapwing are 3.5 times more likely to fledge their chicks. Scientific research also shows that densities of golden plover, curlew, redshank and lapwing are up to five times greater on managed grouse moors, and that there are four times as many merlin, according to breeding records. In the last 20 years, merlin numbers have doubled on areas keepered for red grouse, but halved on unkeepered moorland.
Where driven grouse shooting has been lost in Wales, populations of many of these species have dropped by 60% to 90%. Driven grouse shooting stopped in Wales in the 1990s, and was replaced by intensive sheep grazing. As a result, the all-important conservation management for red grouse also ended, resulting in red-listed species such as curlew, ring ouzel and black grouse plummeting by between 70% and 90% in just 10 years. The lapwing has been lost completely. All that has happened in an area designated as a special protection area for its bird life.
We have heard about the benefits for wildlife. The 2013 Natural England evidence review “The effects of managed burning on upland peatland biodiversity, carbon and water” concluded that there was “strong evidence” that controlled heather burning and predator control correlated with higher densities of red grouse, golden plover, curlew, lapwing, redshank and ring ouzel.
The hon. Gentleman has talked a lot about evidence, as have previous Conservative speakers. Can he say something about the evidence on the climate impacts of grouse shooting? Precisely the moorland management that he is extolling is destroying heather uplands. We know that, as a result, layers of peat are releasing large quantities of stored carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, driving climate change. If he wants peer-reviewed documents, I have some here from Leeds University. What does he say about the evidence on the climate impact?
I am grateful for that intervention. If the hon. Lady will wait, I will come to that point, and I will try to answer it for her.
A 50-year study of Scottish moorland in the July 2016 Journal of Botany concludes that
“to maintain diversity, timely burning is recommended.”
The RSPB has a controlled burning programme at Loch Garten and Hobbister
“to increase the suitability of the reserve for key breeding birds such as hen harriers, short-eared owls, merlins and curlews.”
Strictly controlled and regulated heather burning from October to April ensures a mix of older heather for nesting, younger heather for feeding and fresh burn for regrowth. Using patchwork burning and reseeding creates a mosaic of niche habitats, so that one acre can contain red grouse, curlew, lapwing and golden plover. Research by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust shows that rotational heather burning prevents wildfires, which are likely to burn the peat beneath, damaging the ability of the peatland to store water and carbon.
Written evidence submitted to the Petitions Committee by the Northern Farmers and Landowners Group states:
that is, gamekeepers—
“are the ones with the local knowledge, specialist skills and equipment on site which can be deployed, in tandem with the NFRS, to tackle wildfires in the most efficient manner”.
The Moorland Association has employed 25% more gamekeepers to manage the heather and protect vulnerable ground-nesting birds including curlew, lapwing and golden plover from predators, increasing their populations by up to five times compared with moorland areas without gamekeepers. Legal control of foxes, stoats, weasels and carrion crows on grouse moors is proven to benefit a range of ground-nesting birds, such as black grouse, lapwing, skylark, curlew, and grey partridge. Scientific research shows that endangered ground nesting birds such as curlew and lapwing are 3.5 times more likely to raise chicks successfully on managed grouse moors.
The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 protects all wild birds, including harriers, falcons, golden eagles, sea eagles, ospreys and many other moorland birds, with fines and six months’ imprisonment for illegal killing. I, too, condemn any illegal activity, and I suspect, although I do not know and it is hard to prove, that on many occasions, illegal killings in large areas are done not by gamekeepers, landowners or anybody else, but by people off the land. I shall leave those listening to conclude who could be doing it, but the evidence and the numbers show that those wild birds are increasing.
A colleague just mentioned historical trends in population numbers, and it is important to go over them again. Whereas 100 years ago there were no hen harriers on mainland UK, today, there are around 645 breeding pairs across the country. Internationally, they are resident in 87 countries across the northern hemisphere, with a population of 1.3 million. In 1963, there were 360 pairs of peregrines in the UK; today there are 1,500. Over the past 20 years, breeding pairs of red kites have increased from 160 to 1600, and pairs of buzzards from 14,500 to 68,000.
As we have heard, heather moorland is rarer than rain forest and threatened globally. Some 75% of the world’s remaining heather moorland is in the UK and viewed as globally important. It is widely recognised that grouse shooting has helped to preserve it. Written evidence submitted to the Petitions Committee by the Heather Trust states:
“It is clear that the best management takes place where there is private funding available and a passion to apply it for the improvement of moorland. This normally means that there is a sporting interest, either grouse or deer.”
With 30 seconds to go, I regret that I have not quite got to the point that the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) asked me about, but I am happy to talk to her after the debate.
Regrettably, my time has run out, although I would like to say an awful lot more. In conclusion, common sense is the solution to what is perceived by a few people as a problem. Wildlife in this country is in safe hands, and there is nowhere better to be than on a driven grouse moor.
I am very pleased to take part in this debate. As befits the Member of Parliament for Aldershot, I engage in shooting, although I tend to confine myself to pheasant, partridge and the like, sometimes at the kind invitation of my friends. Grouse shooting is not something with which I am so familiar—the grouse with which I am most closely familiar comes in a very fine bottle from Scotland that has “Famous” on the side of it. However, I come from a long line of Scottish border farmers and I have a cousin, Will Garfit, who is not only one of the most exceptional shots in the country but a famous artist. He is also responsible for a magnificent, award-winning small sporting estate, which he has transformed from a gravel pit. He illustrates the association between shooting and conservation that is exemplified by the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, which also kindly invites me to go shooting from time to time. The contributions we have heard today strongly illustrate how shooting and conservation go hand in hand.
I believe that people should be free to decide for themselves whether to go shooting. It is currently lawful, it should remain lawful, and it should be a matter for individuals, unless there is damage to the environment. I have been impressed by the speeches of so many right hon. and hon. Members in this debate, particularly that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames), who knows a huge amount about the subject. The collective wisdom produced today must provide very compelling evidence to those who have signed the petition. I have had a handful of identical emails about the petition but, as we know, our constituents have not written them; they have simply been fed them by the League Against Cruel Sports and have duly ticked the box and sent the emails winging their way to us.
I want to come back to the point about climate change. When the hon. Gentleman talks about scientific evidence, he makes it sound as if grouse shooting is good for the environment. However, the Committee on Climate Change’s 2015 progress report to Parliament notes:
“Wetland habitats, including the majority of upland areas with carbon-rich peat soils, are in poor condition. The damaging practice of burning peat to increase grouse yields continues, including on internationally-protected sites.”
That is the kind of evidence that the hon. Gentleman is talking about, but it shows exactly the opposite conclusion to the one he draws.
All the hon. Lady has managed to do, I am afraid, is illustrate her complete and utter obsession with climate change. It is an important subject, but the science is not settled. If she is saying that burning 0.6% of heather in this country is contributing to climate change, I am afraid to say that I, for one, do not believe it.
I do not want to make a long speech, but I have a couple of observations to make. First, moorlands account for something like 4 million acres across the whole United Kingdom, as we have heard, and they employ something like 2,500 people—1,500 in England and Wales and more in Scotland. These are some of the most remote parts of the kingdom. So many of the people who write to us about these matters obviously feel emotional about it but do not understand what it is like to have to farm the countryside to maintain its beauty. As my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak) so rightly pointed out, it is people in the farming community—the agricultural community—who tend the land and make it such a magnet for those in the rest of the country to go and visit. They manage the moorland 24/7, 365 days a year in all weathers, to the benefit not just of the landscape, as my hon. Friend pointed out, but of the birds.
The role of gamekeepers, whom my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker) described as custodians, really needs to be emphasised. A conversation with a gamekeeper is absolutely fascinating, because gamekeepers have so much knowledge, understanding and passion for the countryside. If shooting were made unlawful or banned, it would be hugely to the detriment of the quality of the management of rural countryside in this country. The case for that has been made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax), who cited the statistics. My noble Friend Viscount Ridley had an excellent article published in The Spectator in August, in which he pointed out that on a North Pennine moor,
“a survey of breeding birds was carried out this spring. The results have gobsmacked conservationists. On this one grouse moor, there were at least 400 pairs of curlews breeding. This is about as many as in the whole of Wales. There were 800 pairs of lapwings, 100 pairs of golden plovers, 50 pairs of oyster-catchers, 40 pairs of redshanks, 200 pairs of snipe, 50 pairs of woodcocks, 60 pairs of common sandpipers.”
That is an illustration of the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) about the fantastic effect that conservation and shooting have produced in the countryside. Viscount Ridley’s article continues:
“In the early 2000s, at Otterburn in Northumberland, the trust”—
the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust—
“did a neat experiment in which two areas had gamekeepers and two did not, then they swapped for four years. The results were astonishing. With gamekeepers, the breeding success of golden plovers, curlews and lapwings more than doubled, and their numbers rocketed.”
I think the case is made.
I fear that opposition to driven grouse shooting is founded not on concern for the stewardship of upland Britain but on emotional hostility to those who participate in shooting, and that the science is being twisted to fit the case for a ban. My right hon. and hon. Friends in this Chamber today have produced a compelling archive of the reasons why this emotional campaign is ill-founded and, if listened to and acted upon, would be seriously damaging to the very countryside that its supporters understandably wish to see preserved.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. In a constituency such as mine, this debate is of great relevance and importance. Let me state from the outset that I am in favour of driven grouse shooting and all the benefits it brings to communities such as mine in the High Peak. However, I will qualify that and outline some of the issues, as I see them, and what I have learned over the past few weeks as I have looked into the matter in greater depth. Although many of the points I wish to make have already been made by my right hon. and hon. Friends, some of them need adding to or repeating.
My support for grouse shooting is matched by my support for enforcement of the law against the killing of birds of prey: kestrels, peregrines and hen harriers, to name but a few. They are majestic animals—seeing one is a fantastic experience—and anybody caught killing one must feel the full force of the law. That is not in dispute.
As I understand it from the representations I have received in the High Peak, opposition to driven grouse shooting exists for three principal reasons. The first is the persecution of birds of prey: it is alleged that they are being killed to protect grouse from predation. The second is ecological: the maintenance of grouse moors harms the environment. The third is the objection on philosophical grounds.
I suspect that my remarks, along with those of colleagues, may incur wrath on Twitter, because many proponents of banning driven grouse shooting tend to use Twitter as a method of expressing their views. However, I reassure them and others that my views are not preconceived ideas; they are the result of extensive discussions with people on both sides of the argument. I have met constituents who asked to see me on the matter, regardless of whether they are for or against driven grouse shooting, and our discussions have generally been cordial and reasonable.
I pay tribute to all those who have taken the time to come to see me on this issue. I thank them for their time and interest. As with any issue, I am always impressed when people feel impassioned enough to come to talk to me about it because it is close to their heart. In a world in which it is easy to just click and send an email, for someone to physically take the time and trouble to make their case in person always resonates more with me than an intemperate email.
In addition to meetings in my constituency office, I have been out on the High Peak grouse moors over the last two weeks to see how they are managed. There is a deluge of conflicting evidence on this issue, both authentic and anecdotal. As ever, as parliamentarians we have to digest it all and formulate our own views on that basis. I make the following observations on the three issues I have highlighted.
On the persecution of birds of prey, claims have been made about gamekeepers killing birds willy-nilly to protect the grouse from predation. I am not saying that all those claims are without foundation, but we cannot assume that all gamekeepers are going round killing birds of prey. That would be ridiculous. Having met gamekeepers, landowners and tenants over the last few weeks, I am convinced that that is not the case.
I have seen and heard of raptors living and being encouraged on grouse moors in my constituency and others. The hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) says there are no hen harriers in her constituency at all, but on Friday I saw a video of five hen harriers that had hatched there. I was assured that they were in her constituency by the chap who discovered them. That is what I have been told and I will happily discuss it with her after the debate.
I feel the need to respond to that point because I have been named. That just is not true. There are no hen harriers in my constituency. They have not nested in my constituency for years. There have been just three nests across the whole of England this year, and none of them is in the Peak district. The hon. Gentleman ought to talk to the national park in which he and I are neighbours to establish the truth. The Peak District national park is on the point of walking away from voluntary partnerships because we are not getting the success on hen harrier nesting that we deserve.
I refer the hon. Lady to an article that appeared in The Derbyshire Magazine written by Jim Dixon, who is the former chief executive of the Peak District national park. The article is about hen harriers, and the last sentence says:
“These harriers raise their precious family on a grouse moor in the Peak District.”
That was what the then chief executive of the Peak District national park wrote in 2014.
In the Peak district, not in my constituency.
The hon. Lady just said that there were none in the Peak district. I shall confirm it with the chap who found them, but he assured me. He actually said that he would be happy to speak to the hon. Lady if she wanted to. I have seen and heard of raptors living and encouraged throughout my constituency. The management of grouse moors requires the control of predators such as foxes, weasels and crows, which actually aids and promotes the survival of birds of prey.
I have seen the ecological benefits that the management of the moors can bring. There are claims that the burning of heather can result in the burning of the peat and so on. On Friday, I saw evidence that that is not the case. When it is done properly, the cool burning of heather does not burn the peat. If we left the heather unburned, it would grow longer and become more of a fire hazard, which, were it to catch light, certainly would burn the peat. The burning of heather, little and often, does not have an ecological impact.
As we have heard, there is also a philosophical opposition, which can be applied to many country sports, from grouse shooting through even to fishing. I have never been grouse shooting. My only experience of shooting is a couple of attempts at clay pigeon shooting that were not successful, so I have no vested interest other than the impact on my constituency. Shooting as a whole makes a contribution to country life and the rural economy.
Those who seek to ban driven grouse shooting, such as Mr Avery, who my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) referred to earlier, argue that walked-up shooting could be a practical alternative. Does my hon. Friend agree that that argument simply flies in the face of basic economics, given the obvious reduction in the bag and the amount of money that a day’s walked-up shooting would take compared with a driven day?
I completely agree. I think the figures cited earlier were that that alternative would account for only 10% of the economic benefit of driven grouse shooting.
On enforcement, does my hon. Friend agree that trying to write a law that defines shooting a grouse that is flying towards one as a criminal offence, but leaves it perfectly legal to shoot it when it is flying away, could pose some difficulties?
Yes, that would be completely unenforceable and probably slightly ridiculous.
Grouse shooting makes such a huge contribution to country life. Not only does it provide employment and people’s livelihoods, but it helps with social cohesion in rural areas. I fully respect those who hold the view that we should not hunt, shoot or fish any animal, but there is always the alternative. Look at the benefits to rural areas such as mine. Shooting providers spend millions every year on the conservation and management of some of the most beautiful areas of the country, which are often the hardest to maintain.
I have studied this matter in some depth. I have listened to all sides of the argument and I have been out to the moors to see things for myself. I have met many people; at this point I shall mention Mike Price from the Peak district raptor monitoring group, to whom other Members have referred. He came to London to see me and articulated his concerns. The report referred to by the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge actually says that the group does not currently support a ban on driven grouse shooting, although Mr Price expressed a desire to see stronger penalties enforced for those who transgress the law. I thank him for the time he took and for his reasoned approach.
As a result of all the discussions I have had, I conclude thus. Grouse shooting provides economic, ecological and environmental benefits not just to the areas where it operates but beyond. The shooting community continues to make its case and should continue to demonstrate zero tolerance of those who break the law. Similarly, opponents are free to make their points and voice their opposition, but it should be based on rigorous evidence that would stand up in a court of law. It cannot be anecdotal, but should be strong enough to lead to prosecution, if required. It is not only possible for birds of prey and successful grouse moors to co-exist; in many ways, they are necessary for each other to survive.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. I thank the Petitions Committee for selecting this topic for debate. After nearly two and a half hours, most of what is to be said has already been said.
My constituency is in mid-Wales and is very rural. Several grouse moor owners and workers live and operate in Brecon and Radnorshire. Having grown up in rural Wales, I am keen on rural pursuits, although I have never engaged in a driven grouse shooting day. I have the pleasure of sitting on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. Only the other week I had the privilege of attending the evidence session on grouse shooting. Several right hon. and hon. Members have already referred to Mr Mark Avery, who was on the first panel to give evidence, along with the RSPB. I understand that he is a former employee of the RSPB. It was interesting to hear his evidence, which seemed to be based on ideology and prejudice. He wanted driven grouse shooting to be banned, whereas his former employer wanted no such thing. I want it to go on record that the RSPB does not want to see grouse shooting banned.
There are many different views on grouse shooting—as we have heard today, although I was expecting to hear more from the Opposition—and the perceived ideas that go with it. As I say, I am a lucky man to sit on the EFRA Committee: for many hours and days over many months we conducted an inquiry into flooding, which took us to the south and north of the country. We interviewed people who had been affected by flooding—people whose houses had been flooded right through and businesses that had been flooded and so had to cease trading—and many environmentalists. There are four members of the Select Committee present, and they were involved in that inquiry. I cannot remember one person who shouted from the top of a grouse moor that it is the grouse moors that are causing floods throughout the country. We need to put the evidence into perspective. The flooding this year was caused by many other issues, not by grouse moors.
The problem is the grips on the land, which are basically big ditches that were dug out of the moors. They are responsible for water draining off the moors. When they are blocked up, sphagnum mosses help to absorb the water and lessen the risk of flooding. As seen in Mynydd Mynyllod, much of the necessary work on grouse moors is being carried out in co-operation with private landlords.
I agree with my hon. Friend. When wearing another hat, I am the chair of the all-party group on forestry, and I would love to see a lot more planting of commercial forests in this country. However, that should never be at the expense of grouse moors, because they add a completely different package. At the end of the day, one thing that we seem to have tilted away from in this country in many different spheres is balance. We need to have a balance right across this country, and grouse moors play their part in that. We all want to see flora and fauna in Britain thrive, while also protecting and preserving our rural way of life, which has existed alongside them for centuries. So what can we do? The way I see it, the issue comes down to one simple word: preservation—the preservation of land, the preservation of livelihood and the preservation of our legacy.
The preservation of land is essential to the survival of a number of species of animals, not just grouse. Research from a number of studies has shown the benefits of having properly managed moorland. For example, Natural England has said that an area about the size of 22,000 football pitches has been repaired and revegetated in the north of England alone.
I draw hon. Members’ attention to two moors in my constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire. I sat on the Brecon Beacons national park authority before coming into this place and I had to face a debate exactly like the one we are facing now, only there was a vote at the end of it. Sadly, the national park authority decided by about 18 to six to ban grouse shooting on one of the moors in the Brecon Beacons national park. I could take you there now, Mr Nuttall, and you would see that there are no grouse; in fact, it is a grouse moor in name only. Indeed, not only have the grouse disappeared but so have many other forms of wildlife, including ground-nesting birds.
By contrast, in Radnorshire, there are the hills that surround my home, where I have lived, walked, ridden and hunted for my whole life. I went up there only in the summer with a keeper on that moor and, my goodness me, I saw more in that afternoon—bear in mind that I have lived near that moor and been involved with it all my life—through the professionalism of a keeper, who showed me more and from whom I learned more, than ever I had seen before. As has already been pointed out today, that demonstrates the true professionalism of the keepers on our wonderful grouse moors.
I thank my fellow member of the Select Committee for giving way. Only 12% of blanket bog in sites of special scientific interest in England is in favourable condition. I am not in favour of a ban on driven grouse shooting, but I am absolutely clear that although there is some very good practice in the management of our grouse moors, it has to be accepted that a balanced position in this debate would suggest that there is still a lot to learn, that there has to be compromise on both sides, that the economic and environmental interests of the grouse moors must be balanced, and that we have a long way to go on this issue. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with that point?
I am delighted to hear my fellow member of the EFRA Committee talking so much sense. Yes, of course I agree—I have already touched on this; in fact, I have forcefully said so—that balance should come back into the equation and back into British life, certainly in the countryside.
I also condemn the persecution of birds of prey, as have other Members, on both sides of the Chamber. There is no room in grouse shooting or any other form of shooting or countryside activity for the persecution of birds of prey. In fact, if Members come to my driven grouse moor in Radnorshire, they will see that kites in particular are now in abundance, whereas they were not before.
The second form of preservation is the preservation of livelihood. As a rural MP, I have seen the benefits of this great industry at first hand. Studies show that the industry creates over 40,000 days of work for many thousands of people in rural England and Wales. That is not to be sniffed at when one considers the number of jobs available in very rural areas. I know first-hand, from a number of constituents who have spoken to me, how difficult it can be to find work in areas without large banks, businesses or warehouses. Our rural areas are the most beautiful places to live, but they are also among the most challenging places to live in.
With farm-gate prices low—as we are seeing, they are slowly rising with a weaker pound, although we will not touch on Brexit in this debate, Mr Nuttall—many farmers have found that they need to diversify in order to make ends meet. Participating in the grouse season is one way of diversifying to keep a farm business running.
Others have given evidence that young people who have worked as beaters have had their first jobs out on the moorland or in the hotels that supply those who go on grouse days. Therefore, the industry fosters an attitude, from a very early age, that work pays. This is not just one-track economic activity; in whole villages and sometimes whole areas, many rural people rely upon grouse shooting for their livelihoods.
Those who take part in grouse days need accommodation, food, clothing and equipment. Often, this is all supplied by local traders and in many isolated areas in our country, grouse shooting has encouraged regional growth. Therefore, we should ensure that we preserve the livelihoods of those in the most rural areas by making sure they have access to economic opportunities for generations to come.
Finally, we must preserve our legacy. We are all concerned about the world that we will pass down to our children and our children’s children. None of us wants a world in which we cannot spot rare and beautiful birds or wander in ancient and well managed woodland and moorland. We each want the world we pass down to be better than the one we came into. However, if we were to outlaw the income that provides us with well managed moorland, I am not sure that the world that we would pass down would be one that we would like to see passed down to future generations. Therefore, it is vital that we also preserve our legacy.
In order to achieve the goals that we set in this sector, we all need to work together, as the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) stated. There is no use calling for grouse shooting to be banned on spurious grounds, any more than there is in calling for deregulation to free the industry to do what it likes. We need a balance between the two approaches; balance is key.
Ultimately, we need action to preserve the three aspects that I have referred to in my speech: the land, the livelihood and the legacy of our rural areas. Two endangered species are affected by this issue—the birds and the rural way of life—and we should do all we can to protect and preserve them both.
We now move to the speeches from the Front Benches.
As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall.
I thank those who took the time to petition their MP about the subject of driven grouse shooting, whether they are among the 123,000 people calling for a ban on it or the 20,000 people who expressed a different view. I am sure that all of them have done their own research into the subject. Therefore, I take issue with the insults that have been made against those who choose to petition their MP through the internet.
I also thank all hon. Members for their contributions today—
I think the hon. Lady’s remarks referred to me. The only point I was making was that, as my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham) said, if people come to an MP’s surgery and talk to their MP, or if they write in their own terms, one is much more prepared to listen to them than to people who have simply ticked a box and then an email is automatically dispatched, maybe in the middle of the night.
I say to the hon. Gentleman, do not make assumptions about the research that constituents make in order to make their point to their MP. All have an opportunity to petition; it is a formal mechanism that this Parliament recognises as a means of forwarding debate. Therefore, it is the duty of this House to respect that process.
Clearly, this debate is needed. There are areas on which everyone can—
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I am going to move on. There are areas on which everyone can agree, such as the need to ensure that raptor protection, hydrological management and the wider management of moorland are sustainable. However, there are clearly areas of disagreement, too.
Labour believes, above all, that more research is needed and that is certainly our biggest call on the Government today. However, we also believe that there are some key principles that need to be considered urgently and some areas where the Government must take action now.
Will the hon. Lady give way on that point?
If I may, I am just going to make my opening remarks.
Taking no action over driven grouse shooting is not an option and tighter conservation measures are imperative. Every action taken has consequences on others, and we have heard references to the importance of balance in today’s debate. Our fragile biodiversity and the wider ecosystem demand that we study the evidence.
We have heard again today that historic upland management has undoubtedly been damaging, whether it is about drainage and gripping, or about the industrialisation that we have seen on the moorlands over many centuries, which has been deeply damaging to our environment. However, there are also questions to be asked about land management today.
We have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) about the degradation of her local environment and her local moorland, and about the real need to see conservation creating a more sustainable environment there, so as to protect its unique biodiversity. We talk about moorland as if all moors were the same but they are, of course, all different, with their own characteristics. Yes, we must be obsessed with the conservation of this land.
The big issues that need to be addressed are soil, drainage and hydrology; conservation and biodiversity; wildlife crime; and our wider concern about sustainability. On soil, drainage and hydration, the Boxing day floods brought into sharp focus for me, as for many MPs, the need to concentrate again on the causes of so much flooding. It is Labour Members who have consistently called for further action on catchment management. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for raising their concerns about the impact of land management on flooding.
As I said in my speech, we saw flooding in December 2015 because it had been the wettest two months for 105 years. In some parts of the country, 30 inches of rain fell in a single month. That is why we had flooding; there is no other reason.
I listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s speech. Yes, there were unprecedented levels of rainfall and, yes, we are seeing climate change that is bringing increased rainfall. The Environment Agency’s mapping shows that we should expect to see more heavy downpours. However, importantly, the causation of some of the flooding—not all of it—is how the uplands are managed. I took time over the summer to visit the sources of some of the rivers that feed into my city, which also flooded. I observed the deep peat bogs and both the post-industrial land and the driven grouse moorland, recognising the differences in the land use, and also pulled on the evidence that we have much debated today.
I also visited my hon. Friend’s constituency during the Boxing day floods. During that period we had, I think, two Opposition day debates, at least two statements and an urgent question, and all the Government Front Benchers acknowledged that upland management was an issue and that we had to look at the role played by tree planting and other forms of upland management when considering flood protection. I am surprised, therefore, that the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) does not acknowledge that.
That is very much what the former Minister said in every single contribution we heard about the need to use upland management to deal with flooding. We continue, therefore, to press the issue, and are very disappointed that in the national resilience plan, the decision about how to address the catchment areas was deferred.
A number of interventions are clearly needed. We have heard about “slow the flow” schemes and hydro-retention schemes, but we also need to consider upland management. We are not looking just at the flow of the water, but at the soil and vegetation, and at how we hold the water in the uplands. The research by the University of Leeds on the effects of moorland burning on the ecohydrology of river basins—the EMBER research, as it has come to be known—is one of the most comprehensive studies out there. It shows that where there is heavy rainfall, there is more water flowing more rapidly downhill, contributing to flooding. The research also states that the burning of heather has an impact on hydrology, peat chemistry and physical properties, water chemistry and river ecology. As we know, the University of York is also carrying out a study, which is even more comprehensive and sustained, and we must see the completion of that evidence base as well.
The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report into flooding will be published the day after tomorrow. I obviously cannot comment on its conclusions because they are embargoed. Would the hon. Lady at least agree to read that cross-party report in full and consider any future comments on grouse shooting in the context of what she discovers in it?
I will, of course, read the report as soon as it is published because, I, like so many MPs, have been waiting for a long time to see the outcome of that investigation. I thank the hon. Gentleman for drawing our attention to the report.
We also know that because of heather burning, water is more acidic and contains a higher concentration of minerals such as manganese, silica, iron, aluminium and dissolved carbon, and that it is left to the water companies to purify it, at the cost, of course, of the consumer. The cost of flooding is huge to the public purse—we have heard about the £2.5 billion that the Government have paid out or will pay out over a 12-month period—and also to the insurance industry and individuals themselves. Driven grouse shooting cannot be held responsible for all of that, but it can be a contributory factor, which is why we say that more research is needed.
I absolutely agree with much of what the hon. Lady has said about the need for a wider catchment plan. I am a bit surprised though to hear that she is disappointed with the Government’s response, when last Friday we saw a wider catchment plan for the Calder valley produced, delivered and on the table. That plan includes upland management, and the hon. Lady’s constituency, which also suffered from the floods in December, is covered by a wider catchment plan that is being put together as we speak.
Indeed. I have been one of the proponents of the need to get on with the wider catchment management of water and flooding, but the national resilience plan talks about a delay beyond this Parliament, which is why it is really important that we press on with the necessary changes. Winter is encroaching upon us and our constituents are clearly concerned.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I want to move on to the next issue. I have limited time and I have generously allowed interventions so far.
The use of lead shot has been much debated in this place, including last December, in a debate led by my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones). Lead remains a major pollutant, with 6,000 tonnes being discharged into the environment each year, 2,000 tonnes of which is from game shooting. Research is conclusive as to the environmental detriment caused by lead shot usage, and further concern has been expressed by the Food Standards Agency about the way in which the lead enters the food chain. Lead shot has been banned in Denmark for 20 years. We need to see progress on that.
I want to put it on the record that Labour recognises the conservation work that is being done on the upper moorland, and the professionalism of gamekeepers in executing that work. Conservation concerns have been expressed by Members from both sides of the House today.
We also need to look at cost. The cost is not just to the landowner, as many Members have indicated; there is a cost that is met from European Union funding, including money from the common agricultural policy, which, as the Secretary of State will want us to acknowledge, is public money in the first place, from people across our communities. The money also comes from non-departmental public bodies, such as Natural England and the national parks, and from the voluntary sector. Money from the public is, therefore, very much invested in the uplands. In other words, if the public are funding upper moors activities, they must have a say in how the money is spent. If the impact they see is detrimental, we can expect them to sign petitions calling for change. They have done that, and Parliament must listen.
Therefore, change we must, to ensure that soil, vegetation and hydrology are greatly improved. That must be a prime interest in land management, and if it means a move away from current business models, that is what must happen. I take issue with many of the contributions today about the all-or-nothing approach: either there is driven grouse moor shooting or we leave the land barren to develop itself. It does not have to be an either/or model. Thousands of volunteers work in conservation across the country, including in the upper moorland, and there are other opportunities for managing the land. We must recognise the volunteers who spend hours of their own time preserving our countryside. It cannot be an all-or-nothing approach, and the choice that has been put forward in the debate does not reflect the reality. I will give way on that point and will then conclude my remarks.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way right at the end. On the all-or-nothing point, does she accept that while there are problems—some more real than others—a ban on driven grouse shooting is not the way forwards in terms of biodiversity?
The hon. Gentleman may have heard me calling for more research to take the whole debate forward. That is important.
Because of time, I will move on. We need to be cognisant of tomorrow’s debate on sustainability, and the points that Members have made on climate change are important. We have to understand the urgency of the issue. Conservation must be the prime driver and main consideration of our management of the uplands, as opposed to the pursuits carried out on the land. It is a matter of urgency, and we cannot just focus on the economic issues. The economic issues and the environmental issues are of equal importance. The crisis happening across the globe should focus everyone’s attention as a prime issue.
My question to the Minister is: how systemically is she prepared to look at the issues? Can we allow the burning of heather, which reduces the carbon storage properties of soil, impacts on hydrology, removes some mosses and leaves degraded soil and habitats behind? Is that acceptable? We would say no. Heather burning has also been cited by the Committee on Climate Change due to the depletion of carbon-rich peat soil, so how can we sustain that activity?
We know that some landowners will burn peat under agreement with Natural England—that is how the codes are managed—but we heard in the evidence session that some of those burnings go outside the allowed perimeters. We know that there are wider issues, too. We need to know how effective the codes are at managing the land. If there is further, conclusive evidence that peat burning causes environmental harm, will the Government call for a ban? In this post-referendum era, what further obligations will they place on upland managers to revegetate, to protect species and to hold more water in the uplands? This cannot just be a debate about choices and freedoms, as some Members have argued today. It must be seen as a matter of urgency to rescue our consumerist society from draining more natural resources.
Turning to raptors, it is of great concern that just three pairs of hen harriers were found on the moors in the past year. I am told that there should be 300 pairs —100 times the amount. Some 149 moors have no hen harriers at all. The numbers have fallen from last year, when there were 13 pairs. We are losing the species. It is a crisis. Numbers of peregrine falcons, white-tailed eagles and the awesome golden eagle—I once saw a pair soaring as I was hillwalking in Scotland—are declining, too. We need to ensure that we get on top of the issue of predation by humans.
I want to turn to the peer-reviewed research by Dr Ruth Tingay of the University of Nottingham. She has produced 30 peer-reviewed papers and 24 research papers. She highlighted how there have been 252 incidences of raptor persecution over the past 10 years. She highlights whether they were shot, disappeared, poisoned, caught by illegal pole traps and so on. The law is not effective, and we need to move it forward.
I am sure no one in the Chamber would condone wildlife crime, but positive action is needed for the hen harrier. The hen harrier action plan is not working in delivering an increased population, and that must be of great concern to everyone. What additional activity is the Minister prepared to undertake to ensure that we see the hen harrier population increase and tougher penalties on those who abuse the law? Financial penalties are clearly not enough. It is important to apply restrictive penalties, such as removing the right to manage a grouse moor. We also need to look closely at the Scottish licensing system and the shifting of responsibility around vicarious liability. We have seen two strong prosecutions in Scotland under the scheme. We need to look at whether that would lead to better managed moors as we move forward.
In the main Chamber, we have debated the use of snares and the impact that that has, but we need to look at the wider impact on wildlife. We have not heard about the mountain hare and the impact that culling is having on that species.
On a point of order, Mr Nuttall. The Labour Front-Bench spokesperson has been very generous in giving way, but she has now been speaking for 19 minutes, leaving less than 15 minutes for the Minister.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that point of order. I am sure that the shadow Minister is coming towards the very end of her remarks, because she has been posing a lot of questions and she will be keen to hear the answers.
Thank you, Mr Nuttall. I am just coming to my concluding remarks. There are many issues that we would want to discuss if there were more time, but time is limited today. A responsible Government must recognise that land management cannot just be a balance of choices. We have to address the ecological crisis facing our nation. I will watch the Minister closely and listen to her response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall, in this debate, which was chosen by the Petitions Committee and ably opened by my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double). It was triggered by a petition to ban driven grouse shooting, and the Committee also selected the petition to protect grouse moors and grouse shooting for debate. I thank all 20 right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken today, especially those who made full speeches and stayed the course. We have heard speeches with passion, insight and clarity. I particularly commend my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham), who described the extensive research he undertook for this debate. Members made a number of points during the debate, and I will respond to them during my speech.
The level of interest has been considerable, and we have had contributions from all parts of the United Kingdom. Not everyone who intervened has stayed. I thought we had got away from that habit in the previous Parliament. It used to be the Liberal Democrats who popped in, intervened, left and proclaimed proudly that they had spoken in the debate. They are an endangered species, and not one I am trying to save, but it seems that the Green party is adopting similar habits.
As set out in our manifesto, the Government support shooting for all the benefits it brings to individuals, the environment and the rural economy. We are also clear that wildlife should be properly respected and protected. We expect anyone involved in these enterprises to uphold the law in deed and spirit. According to a report by Public and Corporate Economic Consultants, which I recognise was criticised by the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), shooting as a whole is estimated to be worth about £2 billion a year to the economy, supporting more than 70,000 full-time equivalent jobs. It is also involved in the management of about two thirds of the UK’s rural landscape. The Moorland Association estimates that the grouse shooting industry supports 1,520 full-time jobs.
Much has rightly been made by hon. Members, and by my hon. Friends in particular, of the supporting economy, which must be recognised, particularly in the most remote parts of rural England—too many Members spoke about it to name now, but their contributions will all be on the record. The hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Richard Arkless) did not do so, although he seems very happy to have huge taxpayer support for the oil industry currently helping Scottish jobs in a fossil- fuel, carbon-busting economy. However, he is no longer in his place.
On moorland management, I think we can all agree on the importance of conserving the habitats on which grouse shooting takes place. It is undertaken on moors in several parts of the United Kingdom. Moorland management is vital for a biodiverse landscape, as has been extensively described. It can offer important benefits for wildlife and habitat conservation—for example, healthy heather provides good habitat for ground nesting birds and attracts butterflies and bees. The control of predators such as foxes also helps ground nesting birds, and without active management and conservation of the land, the landscape would quickly change and biodiversity would be lost. No one wants to see the landscape degrade, as my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) eloquently illustrated after his visits to the moors on the borders.
Extensive mention has been made of the importance of managed grouse moors to the preservation and increase of numbers of several species of bird, such as the golden plover, the curlew and the merlin, a bird of prey. I support the consensus on the importance of healthy, active peat, which provides good habitat for grouse and other wildlife, as well as numerous benefits to the environment and ecosystem services. Dry, degraded peat helps no one. We are absolutely committed to protecting and restoring these soils and have invested millions in large-scale peatland restoration projects, such as the Dark Peak nature improvement area. The Government will continue to work with moor owners and stakeholders to further improve management practices and peat condition.
The vast majority of grouse moors are in sites of special scientific interest, with Natural England’s consent required for management actions on these sites which could impact their important wildlife.
Will the Minister give way?
With respect to the hon. Lady, I have less time than the shadow Front Bencher took, so I will try to get through the points. If there is any chance I can take an intervention at the end, I will. On moorland management and the evidence of non-compliance on burning, if the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) can share that with me, I will share that with Natural England.
The issue of agri-environment funding has been raised. I expect we will continue to support our environment once we have left the EU and that, in the meantime, payments will be made to support environmentally beneficial land management, including the management of specific wildlife habitats, and works to improve the quality of the environment for wildlife, water quality and carbon capture.
As was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin), the uplands have complex land ownership and tenure arrangements, with many areas designated as common land. Many agreements result in funding going to grazing tenancies, which are critical to undertaking the beneficial management of the moors. I disagree with the hon. Member for Bristol East, who suggested that grouse shooting has been subsidised. I want to make it clear that agri-environment payments are not subsidies and they are not paid to support shooting activities.
Will the Minister give way?
I am afraid I will not give way to the hon. Lady, who was not here at the start of the debate.
Grouse moors contain a range of habitats that require different management methods. Rotational burning is considered to help to maintain healthy heather on the moors at different heights. Short heather provides food for sheep and red grouse and shelter for some ground-nesting birds. Tall heather provides shelter and nesting for other birds. The tapestry, if not the kaleidoscope, of heather plants at different stages of regeneration is achieved by rotational burning, and was cited as key to the success of the Glenwherry project that was referred to by the hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan). My hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) referred to the successful preservation of black grouse in north Wales.
Burning takes place over winter and early spring when there are no birds nesting and the soil is wet. I understand that the peat itself is not deliberately burned and that there is a strong presumption against rotational burning on sensitive areas such as blanket bog, as noted in the heather and grass burning code, which recommends the cool burns that several hon. Members referred to earlier. Natural England’s consent is required to burn on a site of special scientific interest. I note the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker) on alternatives and a reduction in burning. Heather could be cut as an alternative to burning, but that can be achieved only on suitable topography, and it may leave highly combustible material behind if not removed. He will know that several fires have been accidentally triggered. They have taken much resource to tackle and left damaged habitats that have taken years to recover.
A DEFRA-funded project is currently looking into the costs and effects of cutting as an alternative. I know the benefits of peat restoration for absorbing water, but, to be clear—I will cover this again—we know that upland peat is vital for filtering our drinking water, of which 70% comes from the uplands. We are committed to restoring and protecting that upland peat.
The 2013 Natural England study on the effects of managed burning found no direct evidence specifically relating to the effect of burning on watercourse flow or the risk of downstream flood events. It is the study to which my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) referred. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) talked about cod science; I thought he was in a fishing debate. However, he rightly referred to the sustained rainfall that was the decisive factor in the unprecedented flooding in modern times, and he challenged the selective use of statistics from reports. He gave us some interesting analogies to do with bull elephants. I heard an analogy the other day about the River Wear in the north-east, which suffered flooding last year: something the size of the Royal Albert Hall would have been filled full of water in less than a minute, such was the torrent suffered in the north-east.
Drainage damages blanket bog, and Natural England does not consent to constructing drainage ditches on blanket bog in SSSIs. Grouse moor owners and other stakeholders are currently carrying out programmes of ditch blocking across the country, helping to restore peat condition. My hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley referred to the levels of reservoirs, which takes me to another debate. Perhaps he might apply for another debate another time. The hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) referred to continuing funding for the York University study. No decision has yet been made, but I note her concerns on that matter.
On the “bogathon” milestones, I must admit I did not know about them; I will look into them. My officials assure me that stakeholders are carrying out valuable work to look at ways of restoring peat, including through the “bogathon” events. We are committed to working with moor owners and stakeholders through the blanket bog restoration strategy.
Will the Minister give way?
I cannot, but I promise to come to the hon. Lady at the end if I have time.
Upland peat is important for carbon sequestration. That is why the Government are committed to working with moor owners and stakeholders to further improve management practices and peak condition. As has already been mentioned, burning is done for heather management, although cool burns are recommended, as I have already said. I absolutely recognise the impact of climate change, but we should also recognise the importance of biodiversity, without which the world would cease to exist.
Although we have heard much about improvements in the numbers of birds, described in detail by several of my hon. Friends, including my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax), I have heard the concerns of some hon. Members that birds of prey, particularly hen harriers, are deliberately being killed. The Government take the illegal persecution of raptors very seriously. On the missing hen harriers in the last fortnight, the matter has been referred to the police. The local wildlife team has been involved and the national wildlife crime unit is aware. I can assure hon. Members that wildlife crime is a Government priority. We recently confirmed £300,000 of funding per annum for the NWCU for the next four years. Raptor persecution is one of six wildlife crime priorities for the UK. The unit has a dedicated group chaired by a senior police officer, with representatives from Government and NGOs working to deliver progress against this wildlife crime priority. It is building an intelligence picture and is due to advise on further action.
We recognise that the legal control of predators is a legitimate wildlife management practice in some circumstances. That is why Natural England will license the killing of certain birds of prey, although it would not consider licensing any activity that would adversely affect the conservation status of a species. My hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury referred to the Moorland Association study in Berwyn. The issue of hen harriers in Wales is interesting. When grouse shooting stopped, it might have been expected that the populations would burgeon and start to spread, but that has not happened. The populations have stabilised and they have not spread from the area that they occupied.
On the decline in the hen harrier population in England, the Government are committed to securing the future of this bird. That is why we took the lead in developing a hen harrier action plan, which was launched earlier this year. The plan sets out six complementary actions designed to increase hen harrier numbers in England, alongside the continuation of driven grouse shooting and the environmental, social and economic benefits that it brings. The plan is still at an early stage. Many factors can affect the successful nesting of hen harriers—food supply, weather conditions, predation and persecution —but we absolutely believe that the plan remains the best way to safeguard the hen harrier in England.
The Government have no plans to introduce licensing. As has been said, considerable regulation is already in place. Several Members referred to vicarious liability. I am aware that this principle was introduced in Scotland, but there is little evidence to suggest it has had an impact on the conservation of birds of prey. However, we will continue to monitor the situation and will consider whether the approach is necessary and proportionate to assist in tackling wildlife crime here.
Since the introduction of the offence, there have been two prosecutions, but the RSPB’s report suggests that there continues to be persecution incidents. In 2013 and 2014 a total of 18 poisoning incidents were recorded in Scotland. One particular incident involved the poisoning of 12 red kites and four buzzards, which I am sure we all deplore.
The professionalism of keepers has been extensively referred to; I wish to add my contribution to that. I thank hon. Members for debating the petitions today. I am sorry I have not been able to take any interventions in the short time I have had. However, it has been useful to hear the views of Members from across the United Kingdom regarding moorland management for driven grouse shooting. This is not a binary debate. The Government want to see a vibrant working countryside that is enhanced by a biodiverse environment. The uplands are a treasured asset prized by people for their tranquillity, quiet enjoyment, inspirational nature and recreation. They are also a vital source for goods and services, particularly food and drinking water, and make a major contribution to overall livestock production in the UK.
Central to the provision of services and assets that the uplands provide is the active management of the land by farmers, landowners and land managers. Successful upland policy is dependent on upland communities, particularly farmers and land managers, whose rural businesses are fundamental to the rural economy and whose role in managing the land in the long term will ultimately determine the value of the environmental outcomes.
I will finish by stating that the Government have no intention of banning driven grouse shooting, but we have every intention of bringing to justice those who break the law. We all agree that conserving the upland moorlands is in everyone’s best interests. We will help to ensure that a constructive dialogue continues so that grouse shooting is protected and these valuable moorlands thrive.
Mr Double, you have about 30 seconds to wind up the debate.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who contributed to the debate. It is good to see a lively debate with strongly held views. Everyone spoke up on behalf of our rural communities, our environment and the diversity of our wildlife, so it has been a very good debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petitions 125003 and 164851 relating to driven grouse shooting.
Monday 31 October 2016
[Philip Davies in the Chair]
Driven Grouse Shooting
[Relevant document: Oral and written evidence from the Petitions and Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committees, Grouse shooting, HC 670.]