Slowly, and with a great deal of care, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has placed itself on a collision course with the game-shooting industry. Following an announcement a year ago, the organisation – which is one of the largest conservation charities in Europe – ran a review and consultation with members. At the weekend, its annual meeting was told that unless a licensing scheme can be shown within five years to have lessened the environmental harm caused by driven-grouse shoots to precious upland habitats, the RSPB will push for this intensive form of the sport to be banned. Less intensive “walked-up” shoots would be unaffected.

For pheasant and red-legged partridge shoots, which take place on farmland rather than uplands, a deadline looms much sooner: the RSPB is demanding a reduction in the number of these non-native birds being released, from the current figure of 57 million, within 18 months. Since some of the damage to wildlife associated with the dramatic recent intensification of shooting is widely recognised, it reflects extremely badly on the shooting industry that its initial reaction has been hostile. Even repeated calls to stop using lead shot, which is poisonous, have been resisted, although it is banned in other European countries and by the supermarket Waitrose.

As with other forms of hunting, people who wish to restrict shooting have a range of motives. Some animal rights activists are against all sports that involve killing animals on principle. Other objectors to field sports associate them, like fox hunting, with an out-of-touch moneyed elite, and a model of land use in need of reforming. But while it is true that the owners of England’s 144 grouse moors are among the wealthiest people in the country, conservationists recognise that those earning income from shooting include farmers on much more modest incomes. Pheasant, partridge and duck shooting are part of social life in many rural areas, and there is no threat to these kinds of activities from the RSPB, or even from more radical groups such as Wild Justice, whose crowdfunded challenge to the release of tens of millions of game birds without any environmental assessment of their impact will be heard by a judge next month.

There is no good reason for the oppositional stance that has become a reflex of many countryside organisations. It is the enormous dangers facing the natural world that should concern them, not a confected threat to their way of life. Self-regulation has failed to stop birds of prey including hen harriers from being poisoned by gamekeepers. Nor has it led to advances in land management, despite greatly increased public awareness of the risks of flooding, and the burning of peatlands (carried out in order that grouse can feed on new growth). Even the editor of Shooting Times was moved, in 2018, to decry the “greed that has crept into shooting“.

Ministers cannot continue to look away as landowners dismiss concerns rooted in public opinion and evidence. Conservation efforts must be recognised, and destruction punished. Impartial research into the shooting industry should be ordered. It is reprehensible, given the huge climate and biodiversity challenges facing us, that those who claim to have rural interests at heart appear determined to block progress.

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