Grouse Shooting

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Monday 21st June 2021

(2 years, 11 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Siobhain McDonagh Portrait Siobhain McDonagh (in the Chair)
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Sorry—I am just reading from my list.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
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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.

Siobhain McDonagh Portrait Siobhain McDonagh (in the Chair)
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I thank the Minister and apologise once again for getting her name wrong.