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.