The floods of the last few weeks have been primarily caused by heavy rain – if it hadn’t rained then we wouldn’t have floods. But recent events have made more people realise that the nature of the ground over which rainwater flows is an important determinant of whether and how badly it will cause floods. How we manage our hills affects whether they exacerbate floods or moderate them. And management for the hobby of grouse shooting is a big part of the upland scene. Burning and draining, to create the right conditions for Red Grouse for the rich to shoot, are techniques that are likely to lessen water retention in the hills and get that water off the hills much quicker. It seems that the grouse managers don’t care too much where the water goes, that’s someone else’s problem. That’s why we have governments – to act on behalf of the many even if it doesn’t always suit the interests of the few.
Of course, all that rain in December may or may not be a product of climate change. Grouse moor management has been criticised since I wrote Inglorious by the Committee on Climate Change and the FT reported Daniel Johns, head of adaptation at the Climate Change Committee as saying that ‘grouse moors and sheep farming led water to run straight off hills into populated valleys. Burning back heather reduced its ability to retain water and reduced areas of peat’. Earlier this year the same committee wrote in its report to government ‘The damaging practice of burning peat to increase grouse yields continues, including on internationally protected sites‘.
And the wildlife crime goes on too. Fewer people may care about the beautiful sight of a Hen Harrier floating over a blanket bog than care about their houses being flooded but these people are all on the same side – they should want change in the hills. The momentum is building on just about every front and there is no escape for grouse shooting.
To produce large numbers of Red Grouse for a rich person’s pointless hobby you need intensive management to get the number of birds up. To do that, you need to get rid of as many natural predators as possible, foxes, crows etc legally, and birds of prey if you (or your neighbour) can get away with it (which they usually can) and you need to drain and burn the moors to produce heather monocultures that are good for the production of unnaturally high levels of (increasingly diseased) Red Grouse for shooting.
No-one can justify this use of the hills and no-one will for much longer. Instead, as you have seen, they will play the game of plausible denial. ‘No I don’t kill raptors – just a few bad apples, you know’. ‘Hen Harriers need grouse moors to survive, you know’. ‘Grouse management protects the peat stores, you know?’. ‘We provide beautiful landscapes that deliver far more than just a traditional sport, you know?’.
All this is looking pretty shabby now. The management of the uplands for an entirely pointless sport is an ecological disaster that we taxpayers are paying for several times over: in grants and subsidies to landowners; in the loss of wildlife that belongs to us all; in increased carbon emissions; in water supplies that require expensive treatment; and, yes, in increased flood risk which, when it rains a lot, leads to worse floods. And denial of this package of harmful impacts is no longer plausible.
No amount of brood management will stop flooding, and no amount of blocking of drains will put the Hen Harriers back in the hills. The system of intensive management for driven grouse shooting is a Victorian hangover from the time when women lacked the vote (as did most men), from when the landowner knew best and from when the profession of scientist hardly existed. Continuing to use our hills for a rich man’s hobby when this hobby necessarily disadvantages society as a whole is not just living in the past, it is living in the distant past. If driven grouse shooting did not exist we certainly wouldn’t introduce it to our hills today, so why keep it when we know it to be damaging?
But, as Inglorious spells out, there is no sign that grouse moor owners and managers are ready to change their ways – land management has intensified rather than lessened in recent years and wildlife crime has increased rather than decreased. This is where government needs to step in for the public good.
Defra will have had a sharp shock over the last few weeks, with the increasing focus on grouse moor management because they have, for the last few years, been used to treating the grouse shooting industry as their mates. Take a look at the response of Defra to the e-petition to ban driven grouse shooting and see how a government department reproduces the nonsense of the vested interest of the grouse moor industry. Was this written, in September, by a department that has a clue about the role of land use in flooding and carbon storage, or a clue about how to stop protected wildlife being killed, or a clue about the economic cost of water pollution and flooding compared with the paltry sums from a worthless ‘sport’? You decide.
If you want floods, knackered peat bogs and hills stripped of their natural wildlife (even in National Parks) then you should be quite happy with the inaction of Liz Truss and Rory Stewart (and others before them) who seem to think that throwing a few tens of millions of pounds at the symptoms of a problem is all that is needed when they should be addressing the causes at their source. If you want a more sustainable and ecologically secure future then you might want to give Defra a nudge and sign this e-petition to ban driven grouse shooting.
A year ago I was writing Inglorious. See Chapter 4 for details of the unfolding of the case for protecting the uplands for their ecosystem services. See Chapter 5 for the publication of the important EMBER study. See Chapter 6 for a picture of how the uplands could be without grouse shooting – better and more use to us all. See Chapter 7 for how you can help make a difference.