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WHAT is happening in the British countryside? Posh food supermarket Marks and Spencer has announced that it won’t be selling grouse this year because it is unable to find enough birds that have been ethically shot. What a condemnation of those charged with looking after our wonderful land.
Last Tuesday, August 12, saw hundreds of tweeded toffs, including plenty of Tory MPs and not a few government ministers, taking to the grouse moors of our countryside to blast as many small birds out of the sky as they possibly could.
The day will have cost each of them — or more likely their commercial or political sponsors — at least a couple of thousand pounds per gun. Most get the day’s shooting free, paid for as corporate hospitality and set against tax.
But as Marks and Spencer has showed us, not everyone is happy with the way these shoots are being run and the very close relationships between the ministers charged with protecting our countryside and the rich landowners who own and control the shoots.
Since the 2010 general election we have seen a procession of ministers at the Department of the Environment and Rural Affairs swing the balance in our countryside away from conservation and promoting biodiversity towards protecting so-called sporting interests.
Nowhere has this been more blatant than on the big shooting estates and grouse moors.
We have seen bodies like Natural England — on the face of it responsible for protecting our diverse wildlife — issuing policies and licences to kill or control all sorts of magnificent creatures, particularly rare birds of prey.
No wonder organisations like Britain’s biggest conservation charity the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) are calling for an official licensing regime for grouse moors and shoots.
BBC Springwatch presenter Chris Packham too has been leading a series of demonstrations to highlight the plight of the hen harrier, which is being persecuted into oblivion by rogue shooters, many of them gamekeepers and others associated with grouse shoots.
These majestic birds of prey are a protected species but are still being persecuted illegally because they are known to take a few grouse chicks.
As the bloody slaughter on the moors started, Packham told us: “We need a total ban on this type of shooting until they can prove they behave themselves.”
During the closed season grouse shoots will have engaged in the legal and illegal destruction of many of Britain’s wonderful birds of prey like hen harriers and buzzards.
We can no longer rely on bodies like Natural England to be on the side of wildlife. Their Con-Dem political masters have instructed them to take the side of the shooters and rich landowners.
RSPB conservation director Martin Harper said: “The hen harrier is one of our most charismatic birds of prey enjoyed by many visitors to the uplands.”
A government scientific study, the Hen Harrier Framework, suggested that there is capacity in the English uplands for over 300 pairs of hen harrier.
This study blamed illegal persecution through shooting, trapping and disturbance as the main reason for the hen harrier’s decline in England.
Crimes against birds of prey, including the hen harrier, are common, with many gamekeepers ending up in court, but few if any ever going to jail. Fines or suspended sentences act as little deterrent.
Their bosses, the shoot managers and landowners who condone this persecution, are protected by law.
That law needs to be changed to introduce vicarious liability — making landowners legally responsible for the actions of their gamekeepers — to improve protection.
More than 80 years ago the trespassers on Kinder Scout, itself a huge grouse moor, won perhaps the most important battle for the fight for public access and public protection for our wonderful countryside.
We owe it to the memory of those trespassers to continue the fight on the grouse moors, particularly after the slaughter of August 12.
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