The hunting community’s defence of its pursuit can provide valuable lessons, says the Countryside Alliance’s head of shooting, Liam Stokes
THE benefits associated with all forms of game-shooting are undisputable but the benefits of grouse-shooting are surely clearest of all. Yet the desire to ban grouse-shooting has recently inflamed the passions of the animal-rights community. Not since the events leading to the Hunting Act have we seen one of our countryside pursuits so singularly persecuted with propaganda and activism. We at the Countryside Alliance are uniquely placed to learn the lessons of the fight for hunting and apply them to the current challenges facing grouse-shooting. We remain at the forefront of the campaign for hunting and the promotion of grouse-moor management.
Together with Jim Barrington, former executive director of the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS) and current animal welfare consultant to the Countryside Alliance, we identified three key areas in which grouseshooting can benefit from the experiences of the hunting community.
Welcoming in the public
From the 1960s to the early ’90s the hunting world was reluctant to engage with the public. There was a sense that if people kept their heads down, the scrutiny and the animus would pass. Unfortunately, this led to the idea that hunting was the preserve of the wealthy and of no interest to anyone else.
It is vital grouse-shooting does not allow itself to be similarly portrayed as insular and remote. We know its opponents seek to deploy the rhetoric of class war, just as they did against hunting. Tweeds and plus fours can be as incendiary as red coats and horses to a certain kind of activist.
We must take the pro-shooting argument to the general public, at events such as Countryfile Live, and deliver them in an engaging manner. We need to take people onto grouse moors, introduce them to gamekeepers, show them the conservation successes and explain the relevance of shooting to the community. We have begun arranging such events and the barrier-busting conversations we’ve seen have been a joy to behold.
Challenge the antis
By the time the anti-hunting movement was seriously challenged, politically and scientifically, a great deal of the damage had been done. Politically, LACS had a free run at all the party conferences (Labour in particular) for years. Had a suitable pro-hunting person been put in the mix it might have neutralised some of the anti’s propaganda in the eyes of sensible politicians. A consequence of this failing, as far as the Labour Party is concerned, is a view that “LACS stuck with us through hard times, we’ll stick with them when in power”. We have to be fearless in taking our message to all points on the political spectrum. We had a Labour MP join a panel debate on the contribution of hunting, shooting, fishing and farming to conservation at the 2015 Labour Party Conference. Conversations like these prevent the abolition of grouse-shooting becoming a rallying point for any one party.
Scientifically, the anti-hunting movement was not sufficiently challenged in the early days of the debate. The science used as the basis for the ban can now be shredded but this was not done soon enough. The antis were able to portray shooting as the “humane alternative to hunting” rather than the equallyhumane alternative that it is, without presenting evidence to back their claims up. Similarly spurious claims are now being levelled against grouse-shooting and it is vital that we counter by deploying the enormous body of economic and ecological research that supports moorland management. We also need to tailor our arguments to the audience. The conservation benefits of shooting are proven and accepted within our own community but the social and economic arguments often resonate more with the general public.
However, this cannot simply be a rearguard action. The question of what should replace hunting in the countryside was never really put to the antis during the pre-Hunting Act era, and that mistake cannot be repeated. Particularly where banning driven grouseshooting would be destined to result in thousands of hectares of sheep grazing, intensive forestry and scrub.
In any human activity there will be failings. There can be good and bad in shooting, hunting, farming and conservation practices; addressing faults should be the aim of reform, not a series of laws that ban one activity, only to move on to the next.
Previously, there has been a reluctance to accept that anything might be wrong with any hunting practices or practitioners but internal reform would have done the hunting campaign a favour. It is important that shooting does not fall into the same trap. The Hen Harrier Joint Action Plan, and the new willingness of Natural England to issue individual licences to control birds of prey where absolutely necessary, mean gamekeepers now have recourse within the law when they really need it. There can be no doubt that occurrences of raptor persecution are toxic, there can be no tolerance for criminality or bad practice.
As long as these lessons are heeded, grouseshooting will have a bright future. Although it is certainly in the antis’ sights, the campaign is nowhere near at the fever-pitch level that saw the introduction of the Hunting Act. There is still plenty of time to win hearts and minds, and to ensure the valid arguments for proper moorland management are given a fair hearing. Once heard, those arguments will ensure that there are plenty more Glorious Twelfths to come.