Grouse Shooting

Robert Goodwill 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.

--- Later in debate ---
Robert Goodwill Portrait Mr Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con)
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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.