United Kingdom

Conservationist IAN COGHILL blasts back at eco-activists led by TV's Chris Packham

Even now, all these decades later, I can still remember my first sight of a grouse moor.

I was a young boy staying with my grandparents in East Lothian, not on some grand aristocratic estate, but in their council house in Haddington. 

It made a nice change from my parents' council house in Smethwick in the Midlands: it had an indoor toilet for a start.

But, even better, it contained my Scottish grandparents and my two maiden aunts, Chrissie and Kay, great walkers and knowledgeable lovers of the local countryside. 

Quite who suggested a trip to the nearby Lammermuir Hills I can't recall but I vividly remember turning into an old quarry, setting off up a sandy track with one of the aunts and walking out on to my first grouse moor. I found its wildness and beauty stupefying.

Lammermuir Hills (pictured) are under threat. Parliament will debate a petition - signed by more than 100,000 people - calling for driven grouse-shooting to be banned

It was a perfect August day. The heather was in bloom, rolling away in a carpet of purple patterned with greens and browns. The air was filled with the sound of bees and grasshoppers. 

Sand martins flew in clouds, chasing insects over the heather. As we walked, a covey of grouse rose from beside the track with that lovely whirr and glorious rattle of abuse.

I had never seen anything like it but, as I stood in awe of that beautiful place, I knew one thing. I had fallen in love with heather moors, a love that has endured my entire life despite a career that has seen me employed, not in the rolling rural uplands, but in towns and cities.

But now the glorious moors I love - along with millions of others - are under threat as never before. Next week, Parliament will debate a petition - signed by more than 100,000 people - calling for driven grouse-shooting to be banned.

The petition was organised by the pressure group Wild Justice, the highest profile member of which is TV presenter Chris Packham, who is also vice-president of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. 

The views of the RSPB are important. It is a very rich organisation with a great deal of political influence as a result of its million-plus membership.

The petition was organised by the pressure group Wild Justice, the highest profile member of which is TV presenter Chris Packham (pictured)

Not that long ago, the RSPB was very supportive of grouse moor management, recognising the significant contribution it made to upland communities and our cultural landscape.

Sadly - perhaps as the organisation comes under the sway of those without much day-to-day knowledge of the countryside - those days have gone.

Now the RSPB — Mr Packham included — tells anyone who will listen that the way in which grouse moors are run is a disaster. It seems strangely reluctant, however, to provide the evidence to back this contention up. But, make no mistake, a battle for the future of these moorlands is raging.

I should make my own position clear. Despite my council-house upbringing and a thoroughly urban career as a public servant, I do occasionally shoot grouse, although I didn't shoot my first one until the day after my 63rd birthday.

It was a Northumberland morning that dawned so wet the rivers ran over bridges rather than under them and even the dogs wanted to stay in the car. But I'd underestimated the resolve of my host: 'Don't be ridiculous, of course we'll shoot. It could be worse.'

So on that rain-sodden morning I got out of the car and joined my host and his very damp friends, and we formed a line and began to trudge into the wind, hardly able to see.

Few places have as many moods as the moor. I love the drowsy bee-heavy days of summer when your boots are dusted with pollen, and the spring mornings, with the wonderful soundscape of curlew, golden plover and, if you are lucky, the bubble and squeak of the black grouse.

But there is something uniquely exciting about moorland when it is seems to be trying to kill you, or to drive you back where you belong. This was one of those days when the wind was so strong you had to turn your head to breathe in.

When we returned afterwards to the hotel, I changed into dry clothes in the gents and went to express my gratitude by buying everyone a drink. They were not, it must be said, rich, nor were they aristocratic.

A stranger might have mistaken them for golfers, rugby fans or fishermen and would have been right: but it was their love of the grouse and the places it frequents that bound them together — a community I was happy to join. 

The point is that, alongside shooting, I have long been a passionate conservationist.

It's a combination that I know surprises some people — the RSPB and Mr Packham included, perhaps. Indeed, it surprises them to such an extent that people like me are crossed off the list of those seen as trying to make the world a better place.

It's as if they are saying: 'We don't need help from those people because they shoot or fish', and it's a form of discrimination I find both extraordinary and counter-productive.

They are entitled to their point of view, but they are dangerously and demonstrably wrong. As I write, it is still possible for me to park by the old sand quarry in the Lammermuirs and walk out into that immense landscape and see it apparently unchanged.

But that won't be the case if Mr Packham, Wild Justice and the huge, wealthy and power-hungry organisations who make up what can now only be described as the 'conservation industry' get their way.

The key thing to understand about these rare and beautiful upland landscapes - enjoyed by millions of appreciative visitors every year - is that they only appear to be unchanging. 

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, of which is Mr Packham is Vice President, tells people the way in which grouse moors (pictured: Curbar Edge Heather) are run is a disaster

In fact, they are in a constant state of flux, the result of a long-practised system of land management - involving controlled burning of small patches of heather and legal pest control by experienced gamekeepers - which produces the dynamic habitat not only ideal for grouse but many other species too.

These stunning but thoroughly man-made landscapes also have practical value. They are the source of 70 per cent of our drinking water, store millions of tonnes of carbon in their peat, continue to absorb CO2, and provide food and recreation for millions.

It is this last contribution that is, perhaps, the most significant of all. The moors' most important characteristic is their beauty and the place they occupy in the hearts of the people of Britain. 

Their wonder is recognised not only by designations as Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty but also by the fact that they are the key feature of several National Parks. 

These moorlands are visited by a staggering number of people. The Peak District moors, for example, see upwards of 12 million visitors a year and the figure is rising.

With this in mind, any unbiased observer might assume Britain's heather moorlands and their management would be universally celebrated, admired by the UK's conservation industry.

But they would be quite wrong; profoundly so, in fact. The people who are largely responsible for the survival of this rare and wonderful habitat - the owners and managers of the moors - are reviled, ignored and, at worst, demonised. 

The new petition is just the latest example of that. But ban grouse-shooting and you lose the management of grouse moors, and very soon you'll start losing the moors themselves as heather grows old, the risk of hugely damaging wildfires increases and populations of pests such as foxes, stoats and corvids sky-rocket.

And with the moors will go the abundant wildlife associated with them. Not just grouse but curlews, lapwings, golden plover, snipe, ravens, buzzards, peregrines, kestrels. 

Depending on the location, the list of bird species thriving on grouse moors - established by the independent Breeding Bird Survey - goes on. Peak District grouse moors, for instance, also include short-eared owls, merlins, ring ouzels and breeding hen harriers.

At the moment on those Peak District moors, numbers of the highly endangered curlew (which like the grouse is a ground-nesting bird) have been rising, largely because of legal pest control by gamekeepers. 

Compare this with an estate acquired by the Peak District National Park in the mid-1980s where one of the first actions was to get rid of the gamekeeper.

Over the next 30 years, bird numbers plummeted so sharply that, with local extinction looming for several species, predator control was finally reintroduced in 2017. The RSPB appears to have run into similar problems at its flagship reserve in Wales, Lake Vyrnwy — a huge estate it has managed for decades and which, prior to its taking control, was one of the largest grouse moors in Wales.

In an application for a £3.3 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund for Vyrnwy, the charity said: 'Without the serious interventions the RSPB is proposing... in the next few years curlew, black grouse and merlin will cease to appear as a breeding species in this area of Wales. It is likely the same fate would befall red grouse and hen harrier within the next decade.'

Not long ago, RSPB was supportive of grouse moor management, recognising the contribution it made to upland communities. Pictured: Abbey St Bathans in the Lammermuir hills

In other words, after decades in control of the estate and despite millions of pounds of public money both from the lottery fund and the government, the RSPB is perfectly clear that the land it controls is in a parlous state and the bird species it set out to protect are on the verge of extinction. 

And yet it still presumes to lecture others on how to manage their land.

Compare the RSPB performance with that of Ruabon Moor nearby, where a landowner and friends meet the costs of managing the moor out of their own pockets. 

Red grouse are to be found in their hundreds, curlews are thriving, as are lapwing, redshank and snipe. 

There are even golden plover nesting there. But the jewel in the crown is the black grouse. The bird for which the Vyrnwy estate was once noted and yet which is now virtually extinct there, is thriving.

Although landowners are not perfect — there is always scope for improvement in the way such places are run — the simple fact remains that it is grouse shooting and the management of grouse moors that has produced one of the most loved landscapes in Britain.

Our MPs should remember that when they debate this potentially hugely damaging petition on Monday — the very future of one of our most treasured features of the countryside is at stake. 

Moorland Matters by Ian Coghill is published by Quiller at £25. © Ian Coghill 2021. To order a copy for £21.25 inc P&P (valid to 4/7/21), visit www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193.

Ian Coghill is a former chairman of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust.

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