The Glorious Twelfth: fatal threat to a unique British tradition?

Last Monday the ‘Glorious Twelfth’ ushered in the annual four-month grouse shooting season in England and Scotland, accompanied by a call from the Labour Party to review the future of this uniquely British pursuit.

The shooting season was regulated by the Game Act of 1831 after concerns were raised about the long-term future of grouse amidst declining numbers. Prior to that time, all four of Britain’s grouse species were ‘bagged’ in considerable numbers. In addition to the Red Grouse, Black Grouse and Ptarmigan were pursued, as was the giant Capercaillie. This latter turkey-like species even became extinct in the UK in 1785 before its re-introduction in Scotland in 1837.

Nowadays it is only really the Red Grouse that is hunted. ‘Beaters’ drive the hapless creatures out into the open where the ‘guns’ – typically wealthy aristocrats, businessmen and foreigners – fire at will from behind stone butts, the birds scattering at speeds in excess of 100km per hour.

Unlike pheasants, grouse are not bred for hunts. This makes them a particularly valuable commodity in parts of northern England and Scotland, where the sport is a major contributor to local economies. With grouse numbers declining as a result of weather patterns and habitat loss, local gamekeepers and landowners can hardly afford to lose any of them. This puts them in conflict with Hen Harriers.

Hen Harriers are an increasingly rare bird of prey in the UK and they are particularly fond of grouse chicks. Whilst illegal to kill, Hen Harriers have long been prey to the gamekeeper’s gun. Their vulnerability to illicit slaughter is one of the reason’s cited by Labour for grouse hunting to be reviewed.

On an irrelevant aside, the Bowland Brewery in Clitheroe, Lancashire brews a nice beer called Hen Harrier. At their onsite restaurant, my partner’s father thought that ‘Hen Harrier’ was actually on the food menu…thankfully he does not work in conservation.

Along with the plight of Hen Harriers, Labour argue that precious ecosystems are being destroyed in an attempt to create additional heather moorland, the favoured habitat of the Red Grouse. ‘Viable alternatives’ to live hunts, such as simulated shoots, have been suggested.

Yet perhaps the real reason behind Labour’s stance is that the grouse shooting season is symbolic of the continued British class system. With a daily shoot costing in the region of £30,000 per gun, this is not an inclusive sport. What’s more, the beaters tend to be local farmhands or estate workers. As Mark Avery writes in Inglorius: Conflict in the Uplands (you can guess on which side of the fence the author resides with regard to this issue):

Driven grouse shooting involves a line of relatively poor people, the beaters, walking across a stretch of moorland with flags and whistles and, by so doing, pushing the Red Grouse that live there towards a line of relatively rich people, who then shoot at the grouse as they whizz past them at great speed.

The ‘poor’ doing all the dirty work for the ‘rich’ to revel in their fat-bellied bloodlust, so to speak.

There is undoubtedly more than a grain of truth in the accusations of elitism, and there is no harm in commissioning an independent review of the impact grouse hunting has on habitats, but to simulate this traditional British endeavour would be catastrophic. Not only would it severely damage local livelihoods in the shooting areas – as the appeal would crash without live hunts – it would rip yet another precious vestige of British tradition away.

As the apocryphal saying goes:

If God wanted us to be vegetarians, he would have made broccoli a lot more fun to hunt!

We pursue our quarry as part of a primeval yearning, a prehistoric affinity with the natural order of things. Of course animals should never be unduly harmed – and the ban on fox hunting has a far stronger moral argument – but we are talking about eviscerating a part of British culture here.

A review is a good idea to ensure that the grouse shooting season is continued in a sustainable fashion, providing benefits to people and environment alike…not to mention Hen Harriers, as intended by the Game Act.

To end the shooting season and replace it with some contrived alternative, deprived of any sentimental or sporting value, is not the way forward, and who knows what local landowners will consider as an economically viable replacement. Careful what you wish for.

As the eponymous whiskey distillers laconically market…”Famous for a Reason”. Let us hope that the Red Grouse can continue to thrive without the doomsayers and killjoys triumphing.

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British Dithering on Iran Tanker Crisis Confirms Terminal Decline: Tehran Continues to Defy International Rules

It is ‘impossible’ for the Royal Navy to escort every British ship in the Iranian Gulf according to Defence minister Tobias Ellwood. It may be stating the obvious but it is a sentiment that a UK government official would never have contemplated uttering a century or more ago. Indeed, one wonders whether Margaret Thatcher would have allowed her ministers to be so bold in their pessimism?

Following the Iranian seizure of a British-flagged ship London is, without reluctance, confirming its reduced presence and status in global affairs. The slow response to the hijacking is characteristic of a confused and unassertive foreign policy, something that has plagued successive governments for at least the last 15 years.

Of course the halcyon days of British naval supremacy and imperialistic overreach have long receded into the realms of history. With huge domestic challenges relating to managing the Brexit fallout, and a sluggish economy, Downing Street could be forgiven for wanting to take a step back when it comes to global affairs.

Yet the Iranian ‘state piracy’ – as Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt called it – is such an unacceptable act, contravening all international rules and norms, that it really requires a strong national response. As US Secretary of Mike Pompeo has said, responsibility for safeguarding British ships is the UK’s alone.

Iranian state television has released footage of the multinational crew

It seems as if economic sanctions will be levied on Tehran by the British government. This is likely to be little more than a token gesture, with far more extensive American sanctions already in place against the Iranian economy. Whilst Hunt has declared that Tehran must now accept a ‘larger Western military presence’ in the Gulf, he falls short of stating that additional British warships will be deployed there.

Yes the Royal Navy has been drastically reduced in size in recent years, yet it remains a formidable force. Iran takes notice of force. The Israelis have demonstrated this with air strikes against Iranian assets in recent years. Nobody wants a confrontation to accidentally slide into war but a heightened British presence in the Gulf seems the minimum response to such an outrage.

Israel has made a habit of striking Iranian facilities in Syria

In 1982 the Conservative government responded to the Argentine occupation of the Falklands with an unwavering demonstration of force. The scenario today is different, and the Iranians are a far more formidable opponent than the Argentinians were, but that sort of assertiveness that would reassure not just British merchants but also their allies (the seized tanker is Swedish-owned) is sorely lacking.

HMS Hermes’ triumphant return from the Falklands – even at a time of domestic economic crisis, Britain’s foreign policy retained a consistent assertiveness

With a permanent seat and veto on the UN Security Council, coupled with a strong nuclear deterrent and military bases across the world, Britain would do well to remember its power and global projection capabilities.

Iran is a rogue state. It does not respect its neighbours or any other nation. In 2007, 15 British sailors and marines carrying out anti-smuggling operations in the Gulf were arrested by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, who had no authorisation from Tehran for an act that could have led to war and yet their commander was feted as a hero by the clerical government. Even then, the immediate British response was ponderous and overly concerned with legalities.

The Iranians were destined to breach the nuclear accord negotiated in 2015 and is a sponsor of terrorism in the Middle East. As I wrote at the time, the Obama-era accord had the potential to be a historic mistake. Paying lip service to an agreement that would always be difficult to regulate gave Tehran breathing space to continue its nefarious activities in other arenas.

It is time that nations other than the US and Israel show some guts in fighting back against this pariah. The British show so far has been both embarrassing and sorely ineffective.