Wednesday, 10 January 2018

The National Trust - gunning for trouble

It was very disappointing today to receive an emailed media statement from the National Trust and to discover it remains entrenched in its wish for the hobby of grouse shooting on its Peak District Estates to continue. The ‘No Moor Shooting’ campaign last year by Moorland Vision involved thousands of local people, outdoor and wildlife groups as well as visitors to the Peak District.

Over 7,500 people signed up to tell the National Trust that they no longer wanted to see grouse shooting and the associated illegal killing of birds of prey on these iconic landscapes in their ownership. Even the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, who submitted a bid to the National Trust to help manage these moorland landscapes around Kinder Scout and Bleaklow for wildlife conservation, had its imaginative proposals rejected. It is sad that the National Trust is under the misguided impression that people intent on shooting one species of bird – the red grouse – just for a sport can do a better job of protecting and enhancing these habitats and ecosystems than the expert wildlife groups and NGOs with whom it would normally cooperate.

Petition at the Snake Pass
It’s unbelievable that the NT media statement quotes Regional Director, Andy Beer as saying: “We’ve made our decision based on what we think is best for nature”. So, this is either a sad reflection on the NT's understanding of what’s best for biodiversity, or naivety over why many species of birds of prey (as well as mountain hares) are killed to protect grouse on our moorlands. Or maybe it's a worrying reflection of their confidence in the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, with whom they could so easily have partnered to create something amazing here?

For many years there has been a dark cloud of illegal raptor killing, of peat burning and of habitat damage through over-management hanging over these Peak Districts moorlands. Peregrine falcons, goshawks and hen harriers have stood no chance in the Dark Peak against the combined guns and concerted work of gamekeepers determined to eradicate predators, and to increase grouse numbers to unnaturally high densities on both privately-owned grouse shoots and on National Trust-owned land. Because of continuing wildlife crime to support this hobby, these birds are rarely even seen there nowadays, let alone manage to breed.

The eviction by the National Trust of its previous commercially-motivated shooting tenant (Mark Osborne) – following release of a video of a camouflaged gamekeeper with a gun lying in wait with a bird of prey decoy on NT land - would have been an ideal opportunity for the National Trust. It could have chosen not to seek another tenant, but to create a vast moorland nature reserve in the heart of the Peak District (albeit still surrounded on three sides by continued shooting on other moorland estates.) Here, all wildlife could have been protected and the moorland SSSI restored to a better balance of species,  where anyone seen with a gun would clearly have been up to no good. That was what our campaign tried  to  achieve.
All National Trust-owned land in the Peak District shown purple.
In dark purple are the two NT estates being discussed here.

Sadly that opportunity to work with other conservation partners to help re-wild this part of the Peak District will not now happen. We've been told by NT's Andy Beer that they will now work with new tenants and will run three different models of killing grouse – one walked up shooting, one shooting over dogs,  and the third a predominantly driven shoot. The latter is especially disappointing as evidence has clearly shown that driven grouse shooting is also the 'driver' for so much wildlife crime.  Should raptors fail to return as the  NT vaguely  hopes they  might,  where would the finger point, we wonder? "Wasn't me, guv. Nor me. Me neither".

We have lost an opportunity. An oasis of wildlife restoration in the Peak District could have been created amongst a sea of private shooting estates. The vote at last year's  AGM clearly shows the National Trust remains rooted in its early 20th century attitudes of  supporting hunting by any means possible, and this deplorable decision affecting the Peak District is the latest expression of this.

The illegal shooting of raptors and the cruel snaring of ground predators seems likely to continue. How will the National Trust police the activities of their  new tenants, we wonder? Will they be kicked  off when raptor numbers fail to recover. Unlikely.

Grouse butts and over-managed moorland on
National Trust land in the Peak District.
As yet, we do not know precisely which areas will be excluded from shooting, or where less intensive management for ‘walked-up’ shooting will take place. But intensive, ‘driven’ shooting will remain in parts, and NT-owned moorlands will no doubt be closed for access on hobby days, and predators still exterminated by the tenants or their employees who'll want a profitable shoot. Somehow this doesn't seem like a well-designed and controlled experiment on moorland management techniques. It's true that these wonderful and iconic landscapes around Kinder and Bleaklow are generally  in a far better environmental  condition than the privately-owned shooting estates that surround them. And that's the point - driven grouse shooting and burning already goes on all round these NT-owned moors, and wildlife crime will no doubt continue to spread out from there too. With four different shooting tenant groups  soon to be on their land, the National Trust really are gunning for trouble when it comes to determining which of  them should be held to account the next time we see birds of prey being  illegally killed to protect red grouse.  Perhaps they'll all be thrown off? Doubt it.

Sadly, the ambitious proposal put to them by Derbyshire Wildlife Trust to partner together to create an oasis of well-managed uplands (where birds of prey at least stand a small chance of survival) will have to remain a dream, for now.  The National Trust says it will be transparent in its workings, so we would like to know precisely  which areas of land will be managed for what activity, and by whom, and when  moorland access will be restricted to the general public and NT members. And what are the  measures of success? How many breeding peregrines or  hen harriers? We wonder whether the same old set of local gamekeepers will be re-employed to continue the bad old habits of the previous tenant, or whether fresh faces and new attitudes will genuinely bring at least a few benefits to nature, without all the wildlife crime and habitat over-management we have seen in the past.

Moorland Vision continues to support most of the National Trust's own 'High Peak Vision' to restore our upland moors, and we recognise some really  huge steps forward have been taken to achieve this. But with this one step backwards, we remain of  the view that it has missed a great opportunity to show that it really is a major  conservation organisation of the  21st century, rather than one still steeped in the ways of the late 19th and early 20th century.

Update: We appreciate Andy Beer forewarning us of this media release and his  invitation to speak with him. As yet we've not taken up that offer,  but note that Mark Avery has. His blog post (here) indicates the following:
  • some land, on the Kinder plateau, will be taken out of shooting altogether (Hooray!)
  • another parcel of land (the Back Snake – north of the A57) will be run as a walked-up shoot by a local farmer/gamekeeper (is this a new shooting area?  We weren't aware of shooting happening there before.)
  • another parcel of land (south of the A57 area of the Hope Woodlands) will be run as a driven grouse shoot by a consortium of GWCT members  (watch out for the NT being sucked in to 'Brood Meddling' to deal  with an imaginary excess of the Hen Harrier - nearly extinct as a breeding bird in England)
  • a fourth parcel of land (known as Park Hall) will be shot by the age-old method of shooting over dogs.

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