[Relevant Document: Written Evidence: Transcript of a conversation between a member of the Petitions Committee and Chris Packham, on driven grouse shooting, reported to the House on 23 June 2020, HC 546.]
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I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 266770, relating to grouse shooting.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. My role on the Petitions Committee, which I take very seriously, as does every other member of the Committee, is to ensure that petitions with more than 100,000 signatures get debated, and that the arguments put forward by the petitioners are heard and the issue thoroughly debated. That is what I am charged with doing today. As a Member of Parliament for an urban constituency, grouse shooting is not an issue that I know a huge amount about. Not only is it not an activity in Ipswich; it is not an activity in Suffolk, because there are no grouse in Suffolk. However, I am here today.
I thank the 111,965 people who signed the petition. It has taken a while to get it debated, but we are here. The petition calls for a ban on driven grouse shooting, stating that
“Wilful blindness is no longer an option”.
Chris Packham, Ruth Tingay and Mark Avery from Wild Justice
“believe that intensive grouse shooting is bad for people, the environment and wildlife. People; grouse shooting is economically insignificant when contrasted with other real and potential uses of the UK’s uplands. Environment; muirburn impacts negatively upon climate change and drainage leads to flooding and erosion. Wildlife; the wholesale culling of all predators and Mountain Hares has a disastrous effect on the ecology of these areas and the industry is underpinned by a criminal tradition of raptor persecution which shows no signs of abating. It’s time to provide an opportunity to implement immediate, legislative and meaningful measures to address this abhorrently destructive practice.
That is what the petition calls for. For those different reasons, they want grouse shooting to be banned.
There was a debate on this issue in October 2016—I have read the debate in Hansard. To be honest, I do not think the issues seem to have changed much. Probably today we will hear the same arguments put forward from those who want to ban it and probably the same arguments from those who wish it to continue. I appreciate that many colleagues here feel strongly about this issue, which is much more live in their constituencies. I will open the debate and facilitate what I hope will be a scintillating discussion about the issue, but I feel less able to inject personal experience and understanding into it because I have never been grouse shooting and it does not happen in my constituency.
I thought it was only fair to read out the call from Chris Packham and the others who set up the petition, but many people put forward different arguments. Many make economic arguments about the benefits that grouse shooting brings and about the moorland management, effort and expertise that go into preserving these complex habitats. Of course, many of the landscapes are very pleasing to the eye and generate significant amounts of tourism. My understanding is that the North York moors alone often have more than 8 million visitors a year. That does not seem to be an insignificant economic benefit.
My understanding is that grouse moor owners spend more than £50 million a year on preserving these complex environments. Some 42,500 work days every year are generated through this activity, and 1,500 full-time jobs are tied to it—about 700 directly and about 800 indirectly. It is also worth bearing in mind that these are isolated upland communities, so one has to wonder what else would generate that number of jobs. There is that economic benefit, and from my research it also seems that grouse moors often bring people together, so there is a social impact to the economy. Levels of loneliness in isolated rural areas where grouse shooting happens are lower than in other areas.
I did not come across any evidence that said that an alternative use would promote better natural capital than the unique environment that we are dealing with here. I do not really hear what the alternatives would be in those areas, apart from grouse shooting. If rewilding were suggested, we could have pumas, lynxes and honey badgers running wild in these areas. That would be quite an interesting spectacle, so perhaps tourism would continue to be popular, because people would like to see how that happens.
My hon. Friend is making a very good point. Lots of people think that woodland is a habitat for lots of wildlife, but that is not always the case. Coniferous woodland is almost devoid of wildlife. People point to the reforestation or forestation of these areas, but that actually increases the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by four to six times per hectare, compared with moorland.
That is as very good point from somebody who clearly has as level of understanding of this topic that I could only wish to have. Looking at the issue from my perspective, it seems that there are environmental arguments for and against, but the economic argument is unchallengeable, in terms of the tangible benefits that the activity brings to the lives of thousands of people in those areas.
I look forward to this debate. I understand that many people feel strongly about the issue. I do not know whether the debate will really advance things much. I predict—I might be wrong—that it will go in much the same direction as the one five years ago. I am pretty sure that we will be back here again in two or three years’ time, because it seems as though there are some individuals who are incredibly motivated to stop this practice. I fear that, for some, this is more about a dislike of perceived posh people having fun more than about any logical arguments about the pros and cons, and we would not want that kind of class warfare. I open this up to the Floor, and I look forward to the debate.
It is always a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms McDonagh. I took part in the 2016 debate, which I think it is fair to say was not the best-natured debate that we have had in this place—it is an issue that arouses strong feelings. I thank the hon. Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) for at least trying to do justice to both sides of the argument. I wrote to both Mr Speaker and the then Chair of the Petitions Committee after the last debate, because I felt that the person supposedly speaking on behalf of the petitioners sneered at them and spent the whole time rubbishing their arguments. To be respectful to the petitioners, a Member who takes on the role of speaking ought to do a neutral job in outlining what a petition is about. The hon. Member for Ipswich did that. He slightly spoilt it at the end with the argument about posh people, because that is something that was wrongly levelled at opponents of foxhunting. I do not think that is the case, and certainly the people involved in Wild Justice are absolutely passionate about conservation and are genuine in their concerns about the impact of driven grouse shooting.
The petition was interrupted by the 2019 general election. Just after that election, I joined the Petitions Committee for a few months. We were trying to get the petition debated—I think we even had a date in the diary—but covid put paid to any possibility of that. It was a good move by the Chair of the Petitions Committee to ask me to interview Chris Packham instead, and there is a transcript of my putting questions to him that we perhaps could have debated back then, which people can read on the House of Commons Petitions Committee website. I will refer to quite a bit of what Chris says in that interview during the course of my speech.
Chris has had a huge amount of abuse for speaking out on these issues—from dead animals tied to the door of his house, to death threats and so on. Whenever I speak about shooting issues, I get abuse on social media. There was a guy who sent me pictures of bacon sandwiches and spare ribs every day for 11 days—he got bored because I was not paying any attention to him. It does get quite nasty, and Chris has been on the receiving end of a lot of that, which I think is very unfortunate. He has done brilliant work with young naturalists, particularly those from neurodivergent backgrounds, and I pay tribute to him for that.
In the interview—as I said, the transcript is available—Chris started by talking about the fact that we are now facing dual climate and ecological emergencies. People are increasingly worried about what he describes as catastrophic biodiversity loss, and driven grouse shooting produces a very unhealthy landscape. That is the background context to the concerns. I asked him what he thought of the Government response—when the petition gets to 10,000 signatures, there is a brief written Government response—and he said he would be polite, but then he described it as “pathetic and derisory” and said it
“showed a depth of ignorance and wilful blindness that we didn’t want or expect.”
If that is him being polite, I would love to see what he really thinks.
In the written response, he said, “At least the Government acknowledges the importance of the peatlands and moorlands habitat. Our uplands have 75% of the world’s remaining moorland and about 13% of the world’s blanket bog.” People do not actually realise how unusual the UK is in having that as a natural resource, and we should be managing this precious habitat not for the dubious benefits of grouse shooting, but in the interests of biodiversity and ecosystem services—as valuable carbon sinks, offering flood protection and so on.
I might go on to say why it is problematic in the way they are managed. One of the problems that the campaigners supporting the petition have had is that they have got to the point where they are saying that the only answer is a ban on driven grouse shooting, because the people who manage the moorlands have not been prepared to meet them halfway and to address some of the issues—for example, the hen harrier persecution, the burning of the heather and so on.
On hen harriers, is the hon. Lady aware that there were 50 hen harrier chicks in 2006, zero in 2013 and 60 last year? It is really important that we look at the evidence and do not move to emotive arguments, and it is really important that we look at the facts. Does she not accept that there is work going on to improve hen harrier breeding?
There is work going on, but the hen harrier population declined across the UK and the Isle of Man by 24% between 2004 and 2016, with just 575 pairs remaining. Estimates suggest that there is sufficient habitat and food availability to support a population of over 2,650 pairs. We know that in England there is available habitat for more than 300 pairs, yet we are down to a very small number.
That is the point: the numbers did decline from 2006 to 2013, but now they are on the rise again. It is really important that we look at the positive work that is going on in these areas rather than just thinking that it is all about the way that moors are managed.
The hon. Member says that the numbers are going up, but they are going up from a very small base. As I say, the figures are nowhere near where they should be.
However, the fact is that raptor persecution is illegal and should not be happening, but it is happening on the grouse moors. Regardless of what the numbers are, the death of even one hen harrier is illegal and it should not be part of grouse moor management. That is the point that we should not lose sight of. It is not just a conservation measure to protect these birds; it is illegal to kill them.
Protecting this habitat could allow it to act as a valuable carbon sinks, offer flood protection and so on. I suspect that my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) might have something more to say about its role in flood protection. When I went to those areas after the floods of 2015-16, and when I have spoken to people after the more recent floods in those areas, I found real concern about the impact that the management of the moorlands is having.
As Chris Packham says, a healthy upland habitat should be covered with trees, blanket bog and deep layers of sphagnum moss that act like a great sponge, with deep peat storing all the water. However, the management of grouse moors directly militates against this, with the burning of the heather, the illegal raptor persecution that I have mentioned and the extermination of mountain hares. Chris Packham also spoke about weasels and stoats being caught up in spring traps, crows caught in cage traps, foxes caught in snares and endangered protected species also accidentally being caught up, and about the use of medicated grit and the leeching of toxins from lead shot into the groundwater. The bottom line is that all these measures to protect the grouse are not in the interests of conservation; it is just so that the grouse can then be shot.
Just as I do not accept the conservation argument, I do not accept the economic argument either. As Chris Packham says, the Government have never quantified this matter. The lack of data and the lack of transparency mean that we cannot say with any degree of accuracy how much money is going where, who is benefiting and who is not benefiting.
Chris Packham says that in Scotland a bit more information has been released. Nevertheless, if Scotland was thought to be the size of Ben Nevis, the economic benefit from grouse shooting there would be the size of a small banjo. That seems to be the official interpretation. I do not know why banjos have been brought into it; I do not know the difference between a small banjo and a large banjo. He is saying that, given that the area of land given over to grouse shooting in Scotland is between 12% and 18% of the total land, something far more worthwhile than the equivalent of a small banjo, in terms of economic benefits from that area, could be produced.
I am not sure about banjos, but the premise that the hon. Lady gave before was that grouse management is there for shooting birds. I would say that that is not the case. Shooting is part of the environmental process that is going on. People who engage in grouse shooting involve themselves in environmental management. Just to kill all the grouse would mean, very simply, that there would be no grouse next year. The process has to be managed for the environment.
I do not accept that. If we look at the way the moors are managed, we see that it is to create the largest possible number of grouse, it is to avoid anything that might be a threat to the grouse, including natural predators, and it is destroying a lot of other wildlife at the same time. All that is not so that people can stalk through the undergrowth with their gun, in the way that we might think of the country sport of shooting. It is so that busloads of people can come in, stand there and just shoot, shoot, shoot—it is very much a numbers game. I would not say that has anything to do with conservation.
The birds would not be there in those numbers if they were not being artificially managed, in the same way that we get the imported pheasants and partridges when it comes to that form of shooting; they are there to be shot. As I have said, the way that is managed is related to that intensity and the sheer number of birds that people want to produce, rather than it being about any concern for conserving the natural habitat. As I said, we just do not have the numbers. I do not know whether the Minister will come up with numbers to tell us who is benefiting from this and what contribution it makes.
The hon. Lady asks who is benefiting, but that is quite clear. There are gamekeepers in my constituency and hundreds of people are employed in the broader hospitality sector supported by shooting. Those people are benefiting. If the hon. Lady would like to meet some of the people who benefit economically from this activity, I would be delighted to host her in my constituency, where she could actually meet some of the people involved in the industry.
I suspect they are not benefiting to anything like the same extent as the people who own the land, many of whom are extremely wealthy. They are raking in money from this: I have seen the amount charged for some of the packages for people to come to these areas and take part in shooting days, and I suspect that not an awful lot of that trickles down to the local economy.
We need to see more action from this Government. It is very disappointing that they refused to accept Labour’s amendment to the Environment Bill on the burning of heather and peatlands—again, I think we will hear more about that from the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam. I do not believe the measures introduced by the Government on 1 May go far enough. I note the comments of the Climate Change Committee in its latest report, which was released last Wednesday: that there is an increasingly urgent need to restore degraded upland peatland and manage it more sustainably. I would be interested to hear what the Minister thinks can be done, because obviously, that comment from the Climate Change Committee came after any action that has been taken by the Government to date. I hope that in light of what the Committee has said, the Minister will consider talking to her colleagues in the Lords and strengthening the Environment Bill to address that concern.
Order. A great deal of Members wish to speak in this debate. If you make and take interventions, some of those people are going to be excluded—and we hope to get everybody in. We also hope to keep a good atmosphere in this debate, and not to replicate what I understand happened during the last debate on this issue.
May I say at the outset that to ban grouse shooting would be an act of environmental, ecological and economic vandalism—not to mention a gastronomic disaster for many people in this country? Two thirds of the North York Moors national park is in my constituency—my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) has the bulk of the rest—and 79% of the North Yorkshire moors and the Pennine special protection areas are grouse moors, so these habitats are recognised officially as needing protection.
When the North York Moors national park was delineated in 1952, why was it chosen? Not because it was some environmentally devastated area that needed changing, but precisely because it was the way it is now; the management of that national park over the years has been to preserve it in that way. Part of that has been the way in which the uplands are managed for grouse and the other species that benefit.
The habitat on heather moorland—dry heathland moorland, which much of the North Yorkshire moors are—is very fragile. It is rarer than rainforest, and 75% of Europe’s heather moorland is in the UK. Grouse cannot be reared in the same way as we might rear pheasants and partridges and release them: the only way we can get grouse to breed is by creating the environment for them to breed, and that fragile ecosystem needs management to ensure that not only the grouse, but other red-listed species such as the black grouse, the lapwing, the skylark, the curlew and the UK’s smallest bird of prey, the merlin, can breed and survive. Merlin numbers have doubled on grouse moors over the past 20 years; elsewhere in the country, they have halved.
The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) mentioned hen harriers and other raptors. One hundred years ago, there were no hen harriers in the UK at all, but the latest survey—in 2016, I think—showed that there were 545 territorial pairs. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton has said that last year, 60 had fledged. I turn to other raptors. In 1963, there were 360 pairs of peregrines, but there are now 1,750; 20 years ago, there were 160 pairs of red kites, but there are now 4,400; and there are 75,250 pairs of buzzards—a sixfold increase. Recently in my own area, there were 13 buzzards circling in the sky because of the way in which the countryside has been managed and because of the legislation that has outlawed the persecution of raptors.
Why are so many species affected? The Minister and I spoke about lapwings and she remarked that she did not see many in August. The lapwings come and breed in the spring and then go back to their coastal areas, so it is important that we have these areas for birds to breed. Why is that so important? We need to control predators such as foxes, but we also need to ensure that the way the moorland is managed through rotational burning prevents the outbreak of wildfires. Indeed, on Saddleworth moor, there were 10 days of fires. A parliamentary question asked by my noble Friend Lord Botham in the other place received the answer that 72 times more CO2 was emitted over the past five years than previously, with 294,000 tonnes of CO2 resulting from wildfires.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) said at the start, grouse shooting is very important for the rural economy—not just for the gamekeepers and those involved in it, but for the hospitality that supports people when they come and the money that they put into the rural economy. Furthermore, were it not for the mixture of tall and short heather and succulent young heather, sheep farming would become increasingly difficult on the uplands.
Finally, game is a sustainable food. In fact, the other day we found a grouse at the bottom of our freezer, which we very much enjoyed. One problem during lockdown has been that the demand for game has plummeted, which has meant that, for example, the requisite number of deer have not been culled this year. There are 3 million deer in the country, and that is causing a real threat to the forestry industry in Scotland. It is important that we have this low-fat, healthy, natural food produced in an outdoor environment, which is certainly better for the environment and people’s health than a chicken reared in a very intensive broiler house.
In conclusion, the only way that we can protect the environment, the ecosystem and the rural economy is to support grouse shooting and the benefits that it brings.
First, may I apologise, Ms McDonagh? I was presenting a Bill in the Chamber so I could not be here beforehand. I ran the whole way over. Forgive me—I am a wee bit short of breath. I am not as young as I was, so running is difficult.
It is a privilege to speak on this issue. The last time we had a debate on this in Westminster Hall, the right hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill) and I spoke, and it is a real pleasure to be back again. I should declare an interest: I am a member of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, the Countryside Alliance Ireland and Country Sports Ireland. I am a country sports enthusiast and also a conservationist. Indeed, I believe that one cannot be a country sports enthusiast without being a conservationist because they both march hand in hand to deliver what we want. That is why this matter is an important one to speak about.
There is no doubt that degraded peatlands emit carbon. However, it is estimated that 94% of UK peatland emissions come from lowland peatlands, not grouse moors. There is a distinct balance between what happens on grouse moors and what happens on our peatland. In fact, drainage and agricultural practices cause most peatland emissions. Grouse moors are estimated to store up to 35% of the UK’s peatland carbon, meaning that their emissions are well below other land uses. We see a far greater biodiverse habitat of species on a managed grouse moor than on other areas of moorland that are not actively managed.
I have never been on a grouse moor in Scotland. I have never shot a grouse, although I have often wished that I had the opportunity; perhaps some time that will come my way. However, one way or the other I am here to support those involved in grouse shooting. I feel very strongly about it, which is why I wanted to be here to support our shooting comrades.
There are 2,592 full-time jobs in England, Scotland and Wales on the moorlands, with 1,772 actively managing the moors. The economic value per year is worth £67 million. Then there are those who come for tourism—those from the EU and America who come to shoot on the moors and take advantage of that. There are very successful grouse shooting moors across England, Wales and Scotland.
I was interested to learn that the University of York’s peatland study, funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for five years, is now funded by over 20 organisations, including the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, Yorkshire Water, United Utilities and the Moorland Association. I am pleased to see the Minister in her place, as I always look forward to what she says. I know her response today will be well worth listening to and taking on board, and will answer many issues and address the concerns that some people have.
On the pros and cons of different types of management, there is a strongly presented argument against a burning ban on blanket bog. It outlines that burning should remain part of the overall toolkit, and is concerned about the negative impacts that mowing may cause, including increased methane emissions. Over a 20-year time frame, 1 kg of methane warms the planet as much as 96 times more than 1 kg of carbon dioxide. Those facts have to be considered in relation to this petition. It is important to get the balance.
I understand concerns about upland fires, but in my opinion we need more research on the data. Controlled burning causes 68% of upland wildfires, yet only 10% of upland fires have precise data on the cause of fire. Again, that poses a question. A Natural England report specifically states:
“Care is needed in interpreting these findings given the small proportion of overall fires where a specific cause was assigned and potential bias and subjectivity in these assessments”.
According to the same report, only 8% of all upland wildfires occur in the autumn months, when the bulk of controlled burns are undertaken. I commend all of those who are involved in the management of moors for the controlled and cautious way in which they work. Some 92% of wildfires occur during the spring and summer months.
The study calls for a universal categorisation method and better recording, and I support that because it is important that we get this right. Controlled vegetation burning to reduce the fuel load and protect peatlands from wildfire is an essential tool used across the globe. Recent research from the USA shows that controlled burns can reduce wildfire risks on peatland across the globe. The evidential base supports the controlled burning of parts of the moor, so that the moor can regenerate and provide necessary food for wildlife in that area.
The BASC and the Moorland Association are part of the England and Wales Wildfire Forum. Gamekeepers play a key role in preventing and tackling wildfires, with their local knowledge and specialist equipment. When fires happened a few years ago in parts of England, it was the local gamekeepers and those involved in the management of the moors who came to the fore to give the support needed. Some of them worked 24-hour shifts and should be commended for what they did.
We all have a part to play in making the most of our grouse moorlands and it is right that questions are asked, but it is also right that we heed the research work that has been done, to ensure that we are doing our best to conserve and make the most of the phenomenal natural habitat that we have been granted. We are holding the habitat and the wildlife in trust for those who come after.
It is my reasoned belief that controlled moorland management is an intricate part of this. I support those who shoot on the moors, as well as those who manage them and those who ensure that the potential £67 million per year of tourism income is harnessed and delivered safely. Almost 3,000 jobs are involved, and they are very important, as is that potential money from tourism. I support those who ensure that the grouse moors will live on long after this auld boy is away, and maybe after my children and grandchildren.
For the record, I declare my membership of the all-party parliamentary group on shooting and conservation, although, like my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), I have never personally been grouse shooting.
The constituency of Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner has no grouse moors, but it is home to many people who have an interest in animal welfare and to a business that supports residents who enjoy shooting as a recreation, albeit with no live animals involved locally. As a consequence, I have had the opportunity hear from constituents on both sides of the debate today.
Humans have shaped our environment enormously over many centuries. As a consequence, all of us living today have a responsibility to protect and enhance our environment whether or not we approve of what previous generations did or of what future generations might have planned for it. Whether our moorlands or many of our fishing rivers, our natural environment has been shaped by human activity over generations. The biodiversity around us today is a result of those actions.
One of the issues cited most often is that of heather burning. That habitat management is required if we want the habitat to continue to prosper. There are clearly two major benefits from the burning. First, it promotes the new growth of heather and grass, which supports a wide range of wildlife in addition to grouse, including curlew, lapwing and golden plover, as well as deer and hares.
Even more important from a human perspective is the prevention of wildfires, as a number of Members have mentioned. Back in 2003, for example, a wildfire on the National Trust’s Bleaklow destroyed more than 2,000 acres of rare habitat and all the heather on the neighbouring 2,500-acre moor. The sad reality is that the CO2 levels—a climate change issue—being released from wildfires has increased dramatically in the last five years. If we want to prevent and reduce those emissions, controlled firebreaks are a necessary part of our toolkit. The practice has many different names depending on where we are in the country, but the idea behind prescribed burning is that it is a quick burn that removes the canopy and does not affect the underlying peat or soil layer that is so important to the biodiversity of our environment.
The other theme running through the debate is our feelings about animal welfare-related issues and the distaste that many people feel about the idea of killing live creatures for fun. Although I share that sentiment, I also recognise that in the UK and throughout the world, different forms of hunting are not just an essential part of good husbandry of nature; they also underpin the funding that enables conservation and biodiversity efforts to proceed, both in the United Kingdom and across the world. Where we humans have created an ecosystem, we have a responsibility to manage it. Those who are proposing bans on the actions that they personally dislike need also to consider who will undertake and pay for the husbandry of those animal populations, so that familiar problems such as parasite infections and out-of-control predation do not simply replace one unpleasant fate with another.
Put bluntly, the ecosystem that we have created requires the management of animal numbers. In my view, it is much better to do that in a way that supports the economy of that ecosystem so that animals killed with a purpose are being eaten, contributing to the conservation and welfare of that animal population, rather than abdicating our responsibilities to the detriment of biodiversity and animal welfare at home and aboard.
To conclude, we need to consider the net effect of our decisions on our environment. It seems clear to me that the proposed ban is likely to produce a net disadvantage to our environment and our biodiversity, and must therefore be opposed.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh, and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds), who made an argument that I entirely agree with far more eloquently than I could. I am also a member of the all-party parliamentary group on shooting and conservation, of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation and of the Countryside Alliance.
Before I get into my main points, I associate myself with the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill) about the value of game meat as a healthy food choice. Although a grouse that has been lingering at the bottom of his freezer for some years is not the best way to be introduced to the wonderful taste of grouse, I heartily encourage everybody who has not tried that tasty, wonderful meat to do so.
Those who understand grouse moor management and the benefits that it brings know full well that the real evidence shows that a ban on driven grouse shooting would make life worse, not better, for the wildlife that the opponents of shooting purport to want to protect. This issue needs to be debated on the facts, not on accusations motivated by a wider anti-shooting agenda. As Members have said, shooting is an integral part of environmental management and conservation. It is the gamekeepers employed by shooting estates who make that happen. It is gamekeepers who maintain the habitat and control predators, which benefits threatened species of ground-nesting birds.
Grouse moor management has played a key role in maintaining our upland landscape and sustaining some of our rarest plants and wildlife. Far from being the baron landscapes that I have heard described by some, grouse moors are incredibly important wildlife havens. Moors managed by gamekeepers support up to five times more threatened wading birds such as the curlew. Merlin numbers have doubled on grouse moors over the last 20 years, and 2020 was the best year for hen harrier breeding in England for two decades, with 60% of their nests on land managed for grouse shooting. I could go on with many more conservation success stories as a result of grouse moors that are well managed by gamekeepers, but time is tight.
It is not as if grouse shooting is not already heavily regulated and controlled. There is extensive legislation in place that has an impact on almost every aspect of grouse shooting and grouse moor management. Licensing requirements are in place across the board. Any additional legislation would add to the cost and bureaucracy of grouse moor management, leaving our moors in a worse condition.
It is important to recognise the economic benefits that shooting sports bring to rural communities. Grouse shooting in the United Kingdom has a direct estimated value of £100 million, creating the equivalent of over 2,500 full-time jobs. Between 60% and 80% of direct spending from grouse moors is within the local area of that moor. It is of greater significance to the local economy and community retention than any other form of activity. Because grouse moors are managed largely through private investment by their owners, they offer the most cost-effective model of upland management to the taxpayer. I genuinely wonder how those who want driven grouse shooting to end would fund and manage those vast moors, staff their management and pay for it.
Grouse shooting brings the rural community together in areas that can struggle with social isolation and lack of employment, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) said. In addition to those who are shooting, a day’s driven grouse shooting involves a large number of other participants, bringing together up to 50 or so members of a local community of all ages and backgrounds. It underpins the social life of many communities and helps tackle rural isolation.
Let us be really clear: grouse shooting is good for jobs, the environment, species conservation and attracting high-quality tourism to remote rural areas—all without being a drain on the taxpayer. Those who are pushing for it to be banned have made no assessment of the ecological, social or economic costs. The evidence shows that the real conservationists are not those who call for grouse shooting to be criminalised; they are the hard-working gamekeepers who manage our moorlands day in, day out. Those calling for a ban on driven grouse shooting need to set out a viable alternative—an alternative vision for our uplands. Our heather moorland is internationally important, and it is widely recognised that grouse shooting has helped preserve it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I will try to be a little briefer than I planned, because lots of Members have made great contributions already, and I do not want to reiterate what they have said.
I am very concerned about the petition and the circle of destruction it would cause for the rural communities in my constituency, both economic and environmental. I am afraid I could not disagree more with the petitioners, mainly because of the huge economic value that grouse shooting has to my constituency. It is not just about the shooting itself and the gamekeepers; it is the huge amount of part-time jobs in the season and the huge amount of trade that comes with the industry, particularly for my hospitality sector. That sector has been absolutely hammered by covid over the past couple of years, and we are trying to push domestic tourism, especially in places such as the north Pennines and County Durham. We are not quite as well known as where my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill) is, down on the North Yorkshire moors, but we should be. This is a real area of growth for us, and something we want to capitalise on, so it is important that we do not start to cut the legs off from under the sector, just as we are recovering from covid.
Another point to make is that almost all our landscapes in the UK are managed to a greater or lesser degree. As hon. Members have said, the danger of non-management is that huge increase we have seen in wildfires. That is the real danger, which comes from the release of carbon into our atmosphere. Heather burning is an issue. When a wildfire catches in deep peat, that really is an issue, and something with which proper management by gamekeepers and the communities in my upland areas is really helpful.
Another issue that is a major concern is over-management, as we have seen in the past. The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) wondered whether there might be more productive things we could do with the uplands. Well, we tried that back in the 1950s, when we put grips into the peat moorland to drain it for sheep grazing. We saw an ecological catastrophe, with millions of tonnes of peat washed down the rivers and off the moors over the succeeding decades. Peat is one of the biggest carbon capturers and stores in the country. In January last year, I was lucky enough to have the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs up in my constituency, seeing some of those grips being filled in, so now we have peat returning as a massive natural carbon capture and storage facility.
Recently, I visited the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Dehenna Davison) to see some well managed moorlands, and the lapwings and the oystercatchers there. It shows a degree of ignorance of the facts when, clearly, so many communities are involved and so many gamekeepers work on these estates. One of the secondary things that states are increasingly looking to do is to support birding—people doing birdwatching and that sort of thing. That is a major driver locally for a lot of people to come to the north Pennine moors.
I will pick up on something that a couple of my hon. Friends mentioned, which is the game itself. Obviously, we need to make more positive moves—steel shot is part of that—to increase the reusable meat. However, we also need to sell it properly, and that is something that we as parliamentarians could definitely be involved in, including here in Parliament.
From Muggleswick to Wearhead in my constituency, I support those in my villages who work on the moors, whether full time or during the season, and I support my local hospitality sector in North West Durham, which benefits from that. I ask the petitioners and those who support them to think again about the actual economic and environmental impacts of what they propose on communities such as those I represent in the north of England.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate with you in the Chair, Ms McDonagh.
I do not accept that we should ban driven grouse shooting, and nor do I accept that there is a wilful blindness to the issues. I point out to the petitioners that, although I am sure their concerns are earnestly expressed, there is a blindness in some quarters to the positive impact on the people, economy, environment and wildlife of these areas from our management of grouse moors.
To take matters in turn, I think the petition says grouse shooting is “bad for people”. My right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill) referred to our constituencies jointly covering the beautiful North York Moors, and I fail to see how it is bad for people that tens of thousands of them enjoy the beautiful purple and green-carpeted North York Moors, which for their wellbeing alone must have huge value. The landscape would simply not look like that if it was not managed in that way.
I have been up to the moors with the gamekeepers on a number of occasions, looking at different parts of the moors in my constituency. The parts that are being managed are green and purple; the areas that are left unmanaged as trials have increased canopy, and they are very grey and very poor in terms of wildlife—it is completely different. Left unmanaged, the moors just would not look like they do today, and visitors would be far less likely to come.
Of course, that would affect the farming communities, which are deeply embedded in the world of conservation. In my view, the people who understand conservation more than anybody else are the people who have lived in these areas all their lives, not necessarily the people who are opining on this stuff from further afield. The point has been made that leaving the moors unmanaged would be tremendously bad for the people who work in the supply chain and all the businesses.
The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) made a fair point: perhaps those people would find other jobs. I really do not see where they would find other jobs in North Yorkshire to the level that they have. A huge number of people are employed in the hotels and restaurants and as caterers, beaters or gamekeepers. People from all different social strata are involved in the whole economy around the grouse moors and grouse shooting. As pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt), the sector provides £2 billion to the UK economy and 1,500 full-time equivalent jobs. There are huge benefits to people in constituencies such as mine in terms of the wider economy and their wellbeing, so I do not accept that grouse shooting is bad for people.
I also not do accept that grouse shooting is bad for the environment. The point has been made that the moorlands are rarer than rainforest, and they host a huge amount of flora and fauna, but also wildlife. Again, I saw two patches when I went up to the North York Moors. In the patches that have been managed, there is a proliferation of curlews, golden plovers and lapwings literally teeming round the moors. In the areas that are deliberately not being managed as a trial, however, there is very little wildlife. The moors are very conducive to wildlife, and I think the statistic is that there are five times as many rare birds in the managed areas as in the unmanaged ones.
The estates in my constituency are Snilesworth, Bransdale and Spaunton. As has been mentioned, they have an important role to play in preventing wildfires, which can be hugely damaging. The Climate Change Committee commented on this issue only this month in a report on climate risk. It highlighted the prospect of increased frequency and intensity of wildfires, stating:
“we can manage habitats actively to improve their resilience, for example through…the removal of…fuel loads that risk wildfire.”
That is what happens when a canopy gets too big. The canopy then burns and burns the peat. What the people who manage the moorlands do is called cool burning, which takes away the canopy without burning the peat. That is absolutely critical. It is carbon-neutral, because the new growth absorbs the carbon that has been emitted, but there is no release of carbon from the peat layer, which is hugely important.
The other point about CO2, which we are all obviously increasingly concerned about, comes from a report by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust on alternative uses for the moors, which states:
“Peatlands managed for cropland, grassland, forestry (for example afforestation of moorland) or fuel harvesting emit many times more at around eight to 39 tonnes CO2 per hectare per year”
versus 2 to 5 tonnes on moorlands, so it is clear that there are climate change benefits here as well.
On wildlife, my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby is absolutely right. When I was child, we never saw buzzards. I do not remember ever seeing a buzzard as a child, even though we spent most of our time outdoors. Now, there are a huge number always circling in the sky. Some relevant statistics come from Spaunton Moor and George Winn-Darley, who is the representative of the North York Moors to the Moorland Association. In a single year, there have been 1,552 sightings of birds of prey, including 10 hen harriers, three white-tailed sea eagles, 70 merlins, 193 kestrels, 16 short-eared owls, 163 barn owls, 84 peregrines, 14 marsh harriers, one osprey, 50 red kites, 57 tawny owls and 726 buzzards—I could go on. Extrapolated across the whole moor, that would be 25,000 sightings of those very rare birds. As I mentioned, the number of hen harriers is on the rise.
The hon. Member for Bristol East is absolutely right that we should work together to clamp down on wildlife crime against birds of prey and any kind of crime against wildlife, but the incidence is very low. No incidents at all were reported in 2018-19.
I will conclude on this point. It is absolutely right that we should clamp down on any wildlife crime, including against birds of prey. Wild Justice was responsible for some changes to general licences that make it much more difficult to control other types of birds, such as gulls, which have a devastating impact on chicks—grouse chicks, lapwing chicks and curlew chicks. We have to ensure that we take steps carefully, and they must be evidence-based.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. Thank you for giving me permission to be excused at the start of the debate—I was in the main Chamber speaking on a private Member’s Bill.
The petition states:
“grouse shooting is bad for people, the environment and wildlife”,
while arguing that it is “economically insignificant”. I am afraid I must dispute that in the strongest terms, and I will outline my reasons. Just last year, Professor Simon Denny and Tracey Latham-Green of the Institute of Social Innovation and Impact at the University of Northampton concluded an economic study looking at the social effects of integrated moorland management, including grouse shooting, on moorland communities, and I want to share some of their findings.
First, on the positive impact of grouse shooting on the rural economy, the direct economic benefit of grouse shooting to rural communities is estimated to be £67.7 million per annum. The direct impact is thought to be as high as £2 billion to the country. In England, grouse moor management is responsible for more than 1,500 full-time jobs, of which 700 are directly involved in grouse moor management, and a further 820 are in related services and industries. That has a huge impact on remote rural communities, which would otherwise have limited economic opportunity.
Research has shown that the associated spin-offs of grouse shooting in the north of England are worth an estimated £15 million a year and benefit a raft of rural businesses, including game dealers, the hospitality industry, equipment suppliers and transport operators, many of whom are based in the most remote areas. As one of the joint authors of the report concluded,
“grouse moor management is part of an integrated system of activities”,
including a whole range of things benefiting health, wellbeing and the economic prosperity of local communities.
That brings me to my second point, on the positive impact on moorland management of grouse shooting, and on wider conservation measures, which include peatland restoration, carbon sequestration and improving habitats for many other ground-nesting birds. More carbon is stored in peat in UK moorlands than in the combined forests of Britain and France. Therefore, careful management of moorland as part of grouse moorland management is essential to preserve the carbon that is locked up in the underlying peat. Grouse moorland managers have been actively working on a number of projects, including revegetating bare peat and blocking up moorland drains to raise water tables to encourage the growth of sphagnum moss, which helps the flow of surface water and filters out any discolouration. In the north Pennines alone, I know from my own experience that grouse moor managers have blocked more than 2,500 miles of drain ditches, and 300 acres of bare peat have been revegetated, with plenty more still planned.
Research has shown that where moors are managed by groundkeepers, ground-nesting birds, such as curlew and lapwings, are three and a half times as likely to raise a chick to fledgling. A survey of upland breeding birds in parts of England and Scotland has found that the densities of golden plover, curlew, redshank and lapwing are five times greater on managed grouse moorlands than on unmanaged moor. As my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) said, the mosaic of species of flora and fauna is widely known on managed grouse moorland. All of that is possible only where moorland is carefully managed, with the income gained from grouse shooting put back into helping to cover the costs associated with managing the land, protecting that carbon storage.
To conclude, it is vital to take a wide-lens approach to grouse shooting, rather than look at it from a headline political point of view. It creates jobs and is good for the rural economy, the environment, conservation and carbon storage.
Thank you, Ms McDonagh. I declare my interests as they appear in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as a game shooter and as a member of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation.
This has been a good-tempered and interesting debate, but it is unfortunate that the premise of the petition lacks the understanding—or perhaps the willingness to acknowledge—that grouse shooting is all about working with the environment. Specifically and directly on the moors, where the game birds live and breed, grouse are not imported. They are natural to their moors, and great respect must be given to maintaining that environment. That is why they are magnificent parts of the country to visit. The environmental care of grouse shooting is very strong, and it seems that to argue otherwise is more about being anti-shooting than pro-environment.
The problem with the premise of the argument of the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) is that I think she said something about rich people maximising the number of birds to be killed for profit. Actually, very few grouse shoots are run at a profit. They are run by people who are passionate about their sport and about managing the environment. It is about peat, other species, local jobs and preparing the ground for walkers and tourists. It is simply untrue to say that this is just about shooting game. It is about preserving for future generations some of the finest environments in the UK by effectively managing them.
Thank you for making this a bit easier to chair, Mr Djanogly. I think I am right in suggesting that the next speakers can have nine minutes each, leaving one minute for the summing up. I call Dave Doogan of the Scottish National party.
Thank you, Ms McDonagh. It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair. I am happy that this debate has received a substantive airing and am grateful to the hon. Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) for advancing it in his role on the Petitions Committee. I understand and respect the fact that he had no control over the title of the petition, which personally I find a little troublesome, because it gives the sense that if I do not see things in exactly the same way as others see them, I am somehow wilfully blind. That is not a very appropriate start to such an important and nuanced debate.
Turning to legislation, in a whole host of ways the UK’s bureaucracy and Executive trail in the wake of Scotland’s dynamism under 14 years of SNP Government. Members can take their pick from policy areas, including net zero targets, social care reform, tuition fees, rate relief, tree planting—the list goes on, and it includes the ambition for grouse moor management. By contrast, the dead slow and stop approach by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to the challenge is unacceptable and does not benefit anybody on either side of this challenging debate.
In Scotland, the independent grouse moor management report, which is also known as the Werritty report, was published at the end of 2019. It took a comprehensive and consultative evidence-based approach to key issues surrounding the management of grouse moors in 21st-century Scotland. After careful consideration of the report’s recommendations, the Scottish Government will look at implementing a licensing regime for grouse shooting, providing a framework to the sector that will assist it in combating illegal persecution of raptors and related wildlife crimes. Grass moor estates found to be non-compliant—those that practise the types of behaviours that nobody wants to see—would face the prospect of not having a licence, whereas those that uphold the very best practices would be endorsed and licensed as undertaking a legal and productive activity. Those changes are designed to apply an achievable balance; the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talked at length about the importance of a balance, and other hon. Members have discussed the need for evidence.
This approach is designed to apply that achievable balance on protecting wildlife and natural habitats, while ensuring that business adheres to the agreed standards on grouse shooting. Importantly, the report did not recommend that grouse shooting be banned, consistent with the remit to ensure that grouse moor management continues to contribute to the rural economy of Scotland, but it did recommend that heather burning be subject to increased legal regulation applicable to all moor burning, not just grouse moors.
As with all good debates, there are pros and cons; positives and negatives. Scottish Land and Estates will maintain that raptor persecution on Scottish grouse moors has been addressed in recent years. Police-recorded crimes are at their lowest level ever. It will cite evidence that predators such as foxes and crows are managed on grouse moors to maintain a favourable balance with their prey, and that is scientifically proven to save rare and declining birds such as the curlew, lapwing, golden plover and black grouse, as well as mountain hares. Many hon. Members, especially the right hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Robert Goodwill), cited the recovery of some of those important breeds.
The British Association for Shooting and Conservation will definitely share the views of a Scottish Land and Estates. It will share its view that muirburn supports other species and prevents larger fires from occurring. Both would contend that in moorland areas, grouse shooting is one of the most economically significant land uses, bringing in full-time permanent jobs and supporting local communities. I know that to be true.
As cons, the League Against Cruel Sports would claim that driven grouse shooting depends on creating artificially high numbers of grouse in order to make it commercially viable. That is achieved by large-scale elimination of natural predation and the engineering of environments in their favour. The petitioners will highlight what they suggest would be significant public support for an end to shooting of game birds such as grouse for sport. I have seen a figure of 69% of the British public in favour of a ban. Those questions need to be nuanced and contextualised for the consequences, not just the broad and bare ambition and aspiration. Finally, on the cons, the annual “Birdcrime” report by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds said that in 2009, four of the five worst areas in the UK for raptor persecution over the previous 10 years in Scotland were the highlands, the Scottish Borders, Aberdeenshire and, I am afraid, Angus.
The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) highlighted the lack of a UK Government economic impact assessment. That same absence is not evident in Scotland. The economic impact of the sector in Scotland was set out by research commissioned by the Scottish Government and published in autumn 2020, “A summary report of findings from research into socioeconomic and biodiversity impacts of driven grouse moors and the employment rights of gamekeepers”. The case study used in that published research showed that grouse shooting can generate a significant economic impact for communities, with impacts being generally localised.
Reflecting on my own constituency, I know very keenly how important employment on the estates is for communities in the Angus Glens—for the schools, hotels, shops and the petrol station. The total absence in those communities of alternative employment means that the number of potential job losses is not as important as the effect of those job losses on those communities.
We must not let anyone kid themselves that this is an issue of just one job here or another job there; it is about the living viability of very fragile, very rural communities and economies. No sector can operate in isolation, indifferent to the public opinion or the evolving nature of society and the division of standards of normative behaviours. An honest assessment would identify the fact that the industry has made improvements to its operating model, as has been set out. That must continue, especially in the light of the challenges around muirburn, lead shot and losses to natural predation, particularly aviation predation. Any demand for outright bans on established economic models, with the jobs and livelihoods of my constituents at risk, leaves me very concerned. Reforms, if required, need to be evidence-based and founded on consensus.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms McDonagh. I thank hon. Members for their excellent contributions to a good-natured debate on a hot topic. I thank the petitioners for signing the petition and the Committee for arranging time for us to discuss this important issue.
I have lived near the moors all my life and I recognise that they are special places, particularly given my Yorkshire heritage. They have inspired great works of literature, songs, and so much more. We have heard many Members speak passionately about how the moors matter to them, including the right hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill) and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). It is really clear that they are rich environments that people are keen to see protected.
It is perhaps obvious to say as a starting point to any sensible policy on grouse shooting that grouse moors are not natural landscapes. They are a form of managed land, and how they are managed has consequences for how we deal with the twin emergencies of nature and climate. The UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. Protecting biodiversity, halting the decline of nature and restoring habitats and wildlife are a priority, not just because they are key to tackling the climate emergency, which I will talk about shortly, but also because it is intrinsically important to protect species and ensure that wildlife can be enjoyed by everyone.
Unfortunately, despite the efforts of DEFRA on crime, the persecution of birds is still a huge issue. As a hen harrier champion, I feel obliged to highlight the fact that the hen harrier is one example of a species under threat in the UK. As we have heard from many Members, between 2004 and 2016, the hen harrier population dropped by nearly a quarter—I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) for highlighting that. Natural England has shown that hen harriers are 10 times more likely to die or disappear on grouse moors—that needs to change—and found that 72% of birds that were tagged were either confirmed or extremely likely to have been killed illegally.
Although chick numbers have been increasing, unfortunately, moorlands are still described as black holes for certain species. Since the 2018 launch of the controversial brood management scheme, which involves removing chicks from their nests, a further 56 hen harriers have been killed, or their satellite tags have stopped working with no evidence of malfunction, mostly on or next to driven grouse moors. The illegal killing of protected wildlife, especially birds of prey and other predators, seems to be routinely linked to areas where there are grouse moors. We need to ensure that we take more action to prevent those crimes, which I think is a sentiment that has been shared throughout the debate.
This is not just about hen harriers. A Scottish Government study found that a third of golden eagles fitted with satellite tags disappeared in suspicious circumstances. Those are just a few examples of lost biodiversity because the land seems to be managed to eliminate predators to provide more fertile grounds for grouse. That is illustrative of how illegal habitat management can damage the abundance of a species.
As I said, the nature and climate emergencies go hand in hand. Last week, the CCC report was clear that protecting our peatlands is a precondition for meeting our net zero obligations and mitigating the effects of the global heating that we already see. There is a huge amount of work to be done, and there is therefore a huge opportunity for jobs in conservation in our uplands. The majority of our peatlands are in poor condition, even in sites of special scientific interest, and as the CCC says, the effort required to restore them all will be huge.
Post-war draining and burning over the years have also had a huge impact on flooding. It is rare to observe healthy peatlands that store water effectively. Rewetting our peatlands would not only be good for other species, such as curlews, but would help with flood prevention. That is why we must see an end to heather burning being used to create a suitable habitat for grouse. I must say that a number of colleagues who have spoken today seem to be a bit behind their own Government on this issue, as the Government have introduced a ban, although it has limitations that I will come on to later.
We have seen huge amounts of carbon being leaked into the atmosphere over the years, with increased burning year on year. Burning releases roughly 260,000 tonnes of carbon per year, but that is compounded by the damage to the peatland that follows. Our degraded peatlands release 10 million tonnes of carbon per year. Not only does heather burning make the climate emergency worse but it makes the effects of the climate emergency more dramatic.
We have seen that the damage to sphagnum mosses on peatlands causes water to run off the uplands, taking peat with it and affecting the quality of our water, which we have to spend a lot of money on to clean up. Species loss, peatland degradation and higher flood risks are just three costs of managing the landscape artificially. Despite that, however, the shoots remain almost completely deregulated. There are few mechanisms to encourage good behaviour and there is very little to discourage bad behaviour, and the criminal activity does not seem to be ending.
Although Labour has pushed in the Environment Bill for a fuller ban on burning, alternatives such as rewetting and cutting must be supported more fully to reach their full potential, economically and environmentally. In addition, I think the idea that the grouse are ending up on our plates is quite misleading. Only a very small number ever end up entering hospitality settings, unfortunately, and the use of lead is questionable, with even low levels of exposure to lead being linked to health problems. Indeed, even those just using lead shot can develop health conditions.
That is why today I ask the Minister whether she will introduce licensing for grouse shoots in England, as is Labour party policy. Licensing would provide another method to ensure that these habitats are managed responsibly and that the system is more regulated. I also ask her what the plans are to phase out the use of lead shot in grouse-moor shooting. What plans are there to protect valuable non-bird species as well as bird species, such as mountain hares, and if there is to be no licensing, what steps will the Government take to ensure that those who illegally kill protected species and other birds of prey and predators are brought to justice? One issue that has not been mentioned is the steps that the relevant regulatory authorities will take to ensure that residues of other medications used for the rearing of grouse do not get into the wider upland environment, particularly as much of it is in drinking-water catchment areas.
Finally, I make a plea to the Minister. When she responds to the debate, rather than rattling off a list of initiatives that are loosely connected to peat—we have read the peatlands action plan—I would specifically like to hear what the Government will do about the 60% of peatlands that remain unprotected from burning under the so-called ban that was recently brought into law. I thank Members for the way in which they have conducted this debate today; I know that it is a very emotive topic.
Thank you, Ms McDonagh; it is actually Rebecca Pow.
This matter comes under my portfolio. There seems to be a little bit of confusion, but I am Rebecca—just in case there is any confusion about that. I see that Minister Prentis’s name was written on the details for the debate. Anyway, that is the least controversial of the issues that we are discussing today. Having said that, I thank all hon. Friends and hon. Members who have contributed to this debate, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt), who made a very clear and balanced opening speech.
Clearly, there is a great deal of strong feeling about this issue and people approach it from different perspectives. However, I think that everyone agrees that we want to protect our uplands, the wildlife that thrives there and indeed the people who live there. Grouse shooting, which is what we are talking about today, takes place in one of our most iconic landscapes—the uplands. The uplands are composed of multiple habitats: dry heath; wet heath; and blanket bog.
Blanket bog is rarer than the tropical rainforest and we have a very large proportion of it in the UK, with 13% of the world’s total. The uplands are very precious and accommodate a wide range of activities, which we have heard about today: hiking, all forms of tourism, shooting grouse, grazing sheep, and many more. Blanket bog provides a rich habitat for many species and sequesters carbon, as my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore) mentioned, filters out drinking water and helps us with our flood control. The grouse shooting that many people inevitably get involved in attracts people to these treasured habitats. They are engaging with nature, which I see as a good thing.
The activity of grouse shooting does indeed bring jobs to the area, and we have heard different numbers—from 1,500 to over 2,000—from different colleagues. It also brings investment to some of the remotest areas of the country, particularly in the north of England. That was mentioned by many Members, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), who has a great deal of experience, and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). The matter is devolved, but it is the same issue. It was also mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden), particularly with respect to the wider tourism element, and my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), who summed it up so well. It is about close working between land managers and stakeholders to ensure that the landscapes in those areas are protected both for conservation and for shooting, and that they can work together for a sustainable outcome.
One of the ways in which moorlands have been managed for grouse shooting is by burning vegetation, which has been touched on by many Members. The Government have always been clear about the need to phase out rotational burning on protected blanket bog and to move to a regime of cutting. There has been a lot of debate and discussion about that with stakeholders, and they are clear about that now. It is about conserving habitats on the protected sites of blanket bog. There is established scientific consensus that burning of vegetation on such sites damages the environment in a variety of ways—hence the move to cutting. The Heather and Grass etc. Burning (England) Regulations 2021 came into force on 1 May and represents a crucial step in meeting the Government’s nature and climate change mitigation and adaptation targets, including the legally binding commitment to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
We are of course aware of the Climate Change Committee’s views, as flagged by the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy). I want to give assurances that we are taking extremely seriously peatland restoration, as flagged by the Committee. We had already allocated £10 million between 2018 and 2021, which will lead to the restoration of 6,500 hectares of peatland, but we have also committed to a further 35,000 hectares of peatland restoration under the new Nature for Climate Fund. We have just allocated the first tranche of that £50 million to be spent over the next four years on peatland restoration, and it will happen in lots of the areas that we are all talking about. That will be by 2025, so we have made a very serious and clear commitment. It will also have benefits for carbon sequestration, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley. As has been alluded to, there are a few specific and narrowly defined areas where burning may be permitted on protected sites. We have published guidance and are still working on it closely with everybody involved because we need to get this right for a sustainable future.
The issue of wildfires was rightly raised by many Members on both sides of the House, particularly my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby, the hon. Member for Strangford and my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds). The Government are of course acutely aware of the wildfire risk presented by the dry conditions on moorlands. Some of the clearest evidence points to the fact that improving the resilience of our peatlands to wildfire, by ensuring that they are wetter and in their natural state, is one of the ways to control wildfires. Our recently released peat action plan encourages all landowners and land managers to have good-quality wildfire management plans in order to look out for that risk. Under the regulations, the Secretary of State may grant licences where he is satisfied that it is absolutely necessary or expedient for the purpose of preventing wildfires, with the very careful management required should that take place.
I want to talk a bit more about the peat action plan, which was published in May and sets out our long-term vision for the protection, management and restoration of our peatlands. That is there for all to see, and it is very clear about what our ambitions are. That action plan also contains strong measures on delivering nature-based solutions so that lots of the activities we do on peat will work towards this whole nature restoration move. Obviously, there will be an important emphasis on rewetting and working with hydrology so that we get our moorlands back to their natural state.
By managing those moorlands to create the optimum habitats for grouse, land managers can play a really important role in conservation, particularly for ground nesting birds, as has been referred to by many Members. Heather moorlands are important habitats for some of our most iconic birds of prey, such as hen harriers, and there has been an increase in hen harrier numbers. That has been clearly highlighted by my hon. Friends the Members for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) and for Buckingham (Greg Smith), and by a number of other Members. We have also seen an increase in the numbers of a whole range of other bird species, including buzzards and peregrines.
That is not to say that there are not issues of persecution. We are aware that those issues exist, and the Government take wildlife crime extremely seriously. Since 2016, DEFRA and the Home Office have contributed £300,000 annually to the National Wildlife Crime Unit. I campaigned for that as a Back Bencher, and the Government have listened. We are still funding that work, and it is really important. Under the regime, the police are working very hard to protect our birds and prevent the illegal killing of birds of prey. I hope that the hon. Member for Bristol East welcomes that funding. The five species identified as of particular concern are the golden eagle, the goshawk, the hen harrier, the peregrine, and the white-tailed eagle.
Turning to the issue of wider biodiversity, our aim is to address the overall decline of species in England. We will therefore amend the Environment Bill to include an additional legally binding target that aims to halt the decline of species by 2030. We will also introduce, through the Bill, a new species conservation strategy to help with that, as well as a Green Paper setting out our framework so that we might better deliver species protection in the round. I am sure that all hon. Friends and Members will welcome that. The Joint Nature Conservation Committee is working on that issue right now and will make recommendations towards the end of this year.
To touch on the Werritty review, mentioned by the hon. Member for Angus (Dave Doogan), we do not have plans to introduce similar measures, but we are watching Scotland closely. We can all learn lessons all round in whatever we do, and we will be watching to see how that proceeds.
There are strong views on either side of this debate, and I welcome the fact that it did not get really heated today. We need to have understanding on either side, and I hope that, as the Minister, I do have that understanding. We need to look after and protect the environment, while looking after our rural communities and enabling them to survive and thrive. That is so important. For me, the key word in all of this and, indeed, almost everything I do in DEFRA is sustainability. I will conclude there, and thank everyone who has taken part.
I thank the Minister and everyone who has contributed to this debate. Well, there we have it: with respect to the petitioners, there is clearly not support in this House for the petition. In fact, there is probably less support than there was four years ago. What is not clear is that banning driven grouse shooting would be good for the environment: in fact, I think that, on balance, it would be harmful. What is very clear is that banning it would seem to provide very little gain for a great deal of pain, and from what I can see the pain would be in those isolated rural communities. The people paying the greatest cost would not be the richest; they would be the very people who, right now, we should be thinking about helping. After quite a balanced opening, and having listened to everything, I would like to say that as an individual Member of Parliament, I oppose this petition.