Grouse Shooting

Kerry McCarthy Excerpts
Monday 21st June 2021

(2 years, 11 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab)
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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.

Robert Goodwill Portrait Mr Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con)
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Does the hon. Lady agree that those two are not mutually exclusive?

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy
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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.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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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?

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy
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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.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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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.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy
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The figures are nowhere near where they should be, in terms of what we could support, and it is not just—

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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They are going up.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy
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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.

Jonathan Djanogly Portrait Mr Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con)
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Will the hon. Lady give way?

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy
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I hope the hon. Gentleman is going to explain why the banjo comes into it.

Jonathan Djanogly Portrait Mr Djanogly
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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.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy
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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.

Richard Holden Portrait Mr Richard Holden (North West Durham) (Con)
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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.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy
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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.

Siobhain McDonagh Portrait Siobhain McDonagh (in the Chair)
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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.