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Government response: not so much poor as awful.

Les Wallace’s epetition, having secured over 10,000 signatures, was entitled to an honest, serious and lucid response from Defra but it failed to get one. We know that these responses are signed off by government ministers and we assume that this one was signed off by the minister responsible for the areas covered by the question, Therese Coffey. The Defra response was, yet again, risible as far as actually answering the questions posed – the answer for which Therese Coffey is responsible is evasive and, frankly, insulting to the public. It is the latest in a long line of responses which suggests that Defra really doesn’t care whatsoever about the evidence-based approach which they claim to have, doesn’t care whatsoever about the petition system which was brought in by parliament but does care about the unsustainable and damaging grouse shooting industry and is quite prepared to spout nonsense in its defence.

Let’s just look at that government response in more detail, remembering that the successful petition asked for an independent economic assessment of the impacts of grouse shooting on the economy. Here is the government response with my comments in red.

The Government has funded independent reports on this issue including the EMBER Report.

The EMBER (Effects of Moorland Burning on the Ecohydrology of Rivers by Leeds University) report and a wide range of other studies are indeed highly relevant to a proper economic evaluation of the impacts of driven grouse shooting but they are not economic evaluations themselves. EMBER looked at what economists would describe as some of the externalities of grouse moor management including reductions in water quality, increases in flood risk, loss of peat, increases in carbon loss, reductions in aquatic biodiveristy – all these things could be assessed in economic terms. That’s the point!

We recognise there are differing views on shooting but do not believe it is necessary to fund further research.

There are differing views on shooting and one of the areas where opinions differ is on the economic value or cost of intensive grouse shooting on the environment and local communities. Where opinions on the facts of a matter differ it is often because the relevant research has not been carried out or because people have no confidence in its quality, and yet Dr Coffey (yes, remember she has a science PhD) thinks that no further research is necessary.

The Government appreciates that many people have strongly-held views on the issue of grouse shooting.’

That’s big of the government.

The Government considers that shooting activities bring many benefits to the rural economy and can in many cases be beneficial for wildlife and habitat conservation.

I consider that to be true too, up to a point, but I also believe that it is true that shooting brings many costs to the local and national economy which should be assessed and weighed in the balance. This petition is calling for an assessment of the net benefits or disbenefits and Defra is avoiding even addressing that request.

Intensive grouse shooting also has well-known, well-documented harmful impacts on wildlife. This response from government doesn’t sound very impartial already – why does it stress the beenefits of grouse shooting so much (though there clearly are some benefits) and ignore the disbenefits completely? And why has the response switched to talking about shooting in general whereas this petiton was about a particular form of shooting only practised in the uplands of Britain and with its own particular impacts on the environment?   

Restating that shooting (although it is driven grouse which is the subject of this petition, not shooting in general) has benefits and refusing to acknowledge in this response that there are also disbenefits merely reinforces the need for the study called for in the petition. We don’t expect the grouse shooting industry to admit any of the disbenefits but we should expect government to acknowledge them and to acknowledge the need to weigh them up in a proper appraisal of costs and benefits. This response could have been written by the vested interests of grouse shooting and it is shocking, though commonplace for Defra on this subject, that it sounds like a vested interest in replying to the voters and the public. It is shocking and we should not become accustomed or accepting of it.

We also recognise the important (sic) of the ecosystem services provided by the natural environment and are working to protect and maximise these services. We will continue work to ensure a sustainable, mutually beneficial relationship between shooting and conservation.

Protecting upland and associated ecosystem services –

Grouse shooting takes place in upland areas, which are important for delivering a range of valuable ecosystem services, including food and fibre, water regulation, carbon storage, biodiversity and recreational opportunities for health and wellbeing. The Government is committed to helping create a more sustainable future for the English uplands, including by restoring peatlands through development of the UK Peatland Code, which brings in private sector sponsorship from organisations, as well as through Government funded grants.

The Government is aware that the UK uplands have 75% of the world’s remaining heather moorland and about 13% of the world’s blanket bog. 70% of the UK’s drinking water is provided from upland catchments, and tourism brings in an estimated £1.78 billion to England’s upland national parks.

The Government recognises that healthy, active peat provides good habitat for grouse as well as numerous environmental benefits and ecosystem services. Natural England is working with landowners of grouse moors to develop voluntary agreements, which include vegetation management principles for the various habitats on grouse moors. These agreements aim to reverse habitat degradation and help landowners sustainably manage and restore upland peatland habitats. The Government encourages land managers to work closely with Natural England to put voluntary agreements in place for all the benefits they bring to moor owners and to the environment.

To help achieve our policy goals the Government is committed to expanding the understanding of upland ecosystems and the ecosystems services they provide. Helping fund reports like the EMBER report ‘Effects of Moorland burning on the ecohydrology of river basins’ forms part of a wider uplands works programme.’

All the above says is ‘the uplands are important for ecosystem services’ – agreed. This petition asked for those ecosystem service to be quantified and the impacts of intensive grouse shooting on the value of those services to be assessed (and EMBER would be a helpful source of information). Maybe the next paragraph, because we are getting near the end of this response, will say that – let’s see.

A report by the UK shooting community (Public & Corporate Economic Consultants report 2014: The Value of Shooting) concludes that the overall environmental and economic impact of game bird shooting is positive; the industry has estimated that £250 million per year is spent on management activities substantially benefiting conservation. For grouse shooting in particular, according to the Moorland Association, estates in England and Wales spent £52.5 million on managing 149 grouse moors for shooting in 2010. Scottish landowners manage a further 150 moors for shooting grouse. The industry also supports 1,520 full time equivalent jobs and is worth £97.7 million across Great Britain.

Indeed, that is what the vested interest of the shooting industry says, and what the vested interest of intensive grouse shooting says, but government must know that the PACEC report is flawed beyond belief and surely the government is not simply going to rely on that nonsense? Why does this response not mention the critique of PACEC carried out by economists and academics funded by LACS, a body with a different view of the whole subject? After all, the point of this petition was to ask for a proper independent evaluation of the subject in the public interest. Maybe that will be in the last paragraph of the response because we are nearly there...

The Government recognises the benefits that grouse shooting, and shooting more widely, bring to individuals, the environment and the rural economy. The Government therefore continues to support shooting, recognising it is vital that wildlife and habitats are respected and protected and we ensure a sustainable, mutually beneficial relationship between shooting and conservation.

That’s it? This amounts to ‘this is an important area where there is a poor non-independent study and the government is going with that rather than doing the job properly’. In fact this official government response, as in many previous responses, spouts the grouse shooters’ side of the argument and fails even to mention the other sie of the argument. Brazen isn’t it?

It is brazen and we should not fail to be shocked by jow rude, dismissive and biased this response is. I’ll come back to it later today.

But let’s end by saying ‘Well done Les Wallace!’ for giving Defra the opportunity to move from their untenable position that grouse shooting is an economic and environmental boon. Defra could have edged away from that position but instead chose to side with grouse shooting yet again and make it even clearer that this is not an evidence-based approach but is one which is entirely political.

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