Grouse Shooting

Olivia Blake Excerpts
Monday 21st June 2021

(2 years, 11 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Olivia Blake Portrait Olivia Blake (Sheffield, Hallam) (Lab) [V]
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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.

Siobhain McDonagh Portrait Siobhain McDonagh (in the Chair)
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I call the Minister, Victoria Prentis, to respond to the debate.