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Grouse shooting and management: review and consultation

Part of Agriculture Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:45 pm on 5th March 2020.

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Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby 2:45 pm, 5th March 2020

My North Yorkshire constituency includes about two thirds of the North York Moors national park and vast areas of heather moorland, which is a glory to behold in late summer when the heather is in flower. Indeed, many people flock to the area to see the natural beauty of the landscape and to enjoy all the activities that take place there.

A grouse moor is a fragile environment. Historically, much of the area was forest. It was only when the trees were cut down for domestic fuel or to turn into charcoal to smelt with the limestone that was mined in the area that the forest disappeared. If we do not look after the heather in the right way, we will not keep it for very long. It needs managing not only for grouse, which cannot be reared artificially—it is an indigenous species in this country and needs to be reared in the wild—but for other species, particularly ground-nesting birds such as golden plover and lapwing, which rely on that fragile environment.

I join hon. Members who condemn the illegal persecution of raptors, but it is the case that by managing the moorland, the small mammals, birds’ eggs and other prey that the raptors feed on are facilitated. When we consider how to maintain those areas, it is important to listen to the experts. In an article, the North York Moors national park ranger David Smith said:

“Controlled burning is used to manage the heather better. After 15 to 20 years the heather gets old and leggy and you need different age structures for the wildlife that lives on the moor.

Grouse shelter underneath the older heather and the fresh new heather is more palatable for both sheep and grouse. What people don’t realise is that the North York Moors is a managed moorland. If you don’t stay on top of it, it would turn back to woodland, with birch and rowan trees quickly re-establishing themselves.”

The article continues:

“Cutting the heather, the alternative to burning, does work, but on very stony ground or uneven ground…it’s impractical”.

David Smith says:

“If you only cut the heather, you leave smaller vegetation close to the ground, it doesn’t destroy everything which is needed to give the new growth a fresh start.

Controlled burns flash across the top of the moor. They don’t destroy the seed bank. If you cut the heather, brash is left behind and smothers what’s underneath. It stops it from regenerating and slows down regrowth.”

The article concludes:

“Another reason for controlling the heather is to allow the sheep to move about more easily” and to provide tender young growth for the sheep, particularly the young lambs, to graze.

We have obligations regarding CO2 and we need to protect our peat areas, but the deposition of new peat is glacial in pace. If we want to use those areas as a carbon sink, we should follow the advice of George Monbiot and plant more trees. Perhaps we should plant more trees, but not at the expense of our traditional moorland. We should also make a distinction between blanket bog, such as the bog on Saddleworth moor, which tends to occur in the west of the country, and the dry heathland found in other parts of the country, particularly in the east. We saw on the news the apocalyptic scenes on Saddleworth moor when it was on fire in February 2019. During the recent fires in Australia, much criticism was made of the absence of what they called back burning. I maintain that the controlled burning of small areas of the moorland, at a time of year when those fires are unlikely to get out of control, means that we have natural fire breaks. I suggest that the new clause is not needed.

I suggest that there are those in this country who oppose grouse shooting for reasons that are not particularly environmental, but are to do with animal welfare or with the people who go shooting, whom they may not like. We should not use a false environmental argument to stop the traditional management of the moorland. My wife’s grandfather managed a moor at Troutsdale until he retired. That moor is not a moorland now; there are no grouse, there are no lapwings; it is brash and trees are growing rapidly. If it is not kept on top of and managed, that type of habitat, which is unique in Europe, is not preserved. We need to protect it.