Is shooting in the UK out of control?

There are real conflicts of interest between shooting and conservation in the UK, notably wildlife crime, the use of lead shot, the continued harvesting of endangered species and the ecological impact of non-native game species. Central to this is a lack of regulation. The UK has some of the most intensive game bird management systems in the world but they are very poorly regulated compared to other countries. This lack of regulation thus contrasts sharply with the licensing systems in place overseas. In the UK game shooting is only controlled by having an open and closed season, which restricts the time of year when birds may be shot, and firearms legislation which places restrictions on who may have access to guns. There is some other legislation covering the use of traps and snares but this is rarely if ever enforced. In contrast in Germany and Spain there are powers in place to remove hunting licences and firearm certificates where wildlife crimes are committed and strict habitat management plans and game bag returns are also required in order to inform real co nservation for the populations of shootable species. So what should we do?

Introduce licencing for shooting estates and individual licenses for shooters including a two-part practical and theoretical examination to ensure suitability and competence. Implement the ability for regulators to permanently revoke a licence for an estate or individual if the law is broken. Introduce strict harvest quotas and independently scrutinised bag monitoring to better understand the impacts of shooting and inform conservation. 

There are other serious issues concerning shooting which deserve urgent attention.

The public subsidy of the UK shotgun licence should be ended immediately to bring it in line with other unsubsidised licenses such as the driving licence and passport.

The cost of shotgun licence renewal is £49 but police forces say the administration cost can be in excess of £200 meaning that they and the taxpayer shoulder the burden. Further, as part of the application process our beleaguered NHS GP’s are required to supply information about patients seeking a licence but are not paid for this. 1,2 I believe that the NHS should not be subsidising non-NHS work but recognise it is obviously important that relevant medical conditions should be flagged to police. Thus in line with applications for pilots, divers, parachutists and other private hobbyists, shooters should also be fully charged for their medicals.

A moratorium on the shooting of Woodcock and Common Snipe should be implemented immediately and the impact of shooting them measured through rigorous and independent research. Both these species can be legally shot in the UK despite declines in their UK populations between 1974 and 1999 of 76% and 67% respectively. 3 , 4 Woodcock are red listed and snipe are amber listed. The reasons for their decline include habitat loss and drainage – not solely shooting. Woodcock shooters claim that shooting after December 1st avoids killing UK breeding birds but their own data confirms that 17% killed are resident birds. 5 The migrant populations may also be declining. Some shoots have voluntarily ceased hunting these species but the numbers shot are at a historically high level. The effects of this harvesting on the population are unstudied and unknown. The effects of introducing a minimum of 44 million non-native Ring-necked Pheasants and 9 million Red-legged Partridges* into the UK countryside each year should be immediately measured through rigorous and independent research.

* Figures range from study to study, with an average of 35 million Pheasants released each year, 6 to supplement the ‘wild’ population of 1.9m pairs. Taking into account the chicks they produce during the spring and summer which survive to the start of the shooting season (chicks numbers vary greatly from place to place, year to year, study to study, and range from 0-7 chicks/hen Pheasant), then we could say that a ballpark working estimate of 9 million shootable ‘wild’ Pheasants enter the shooting season. In late summer, before the shooting season opens, we could then say there are roughly 44 million Pheasants in the UK. Vast numbers of these birds are released to be shot, presumably because native species such as Grey Partridge, Black Grouse, woodcock, etc have all but vanished. But in line with the lack of regulation in UK shooting we don’t actually know how many of these birds are released to be shot nor what impact they have on the ecology of our countryside. The releasing of other non-natives is strictly controlled or illegal. Given the available, but incomplete,data we can estimate that more than half the biomass of our British birds in late summer is made up of Pheasants. Their sheer numbers suggest they compete for resources with other seed eating birds and small mammals. Near their release sites, they have been observed to alter woodland flora 7 and to impact invertebrate communities 8 and hedgerow ecology 9 . They have also been linked to a decline in woodland birds 10 and there is anecdotal evidence to implicate predators which in turn have a disproportionate impact on rare native species. 11,12 And to ensure enough survive to be shot (sic) hundreds of thousands of native mammal and bird predators are legally killed each year. Millions of shot birds, mostly Pheasants, are wastefully dumped because the market is so saturated they have no financial value. 13 And because they are killed with lead shot consuming them represents a public health risk. (See Ministry of Lead)

Driven grouse shooting should be banned.

This intensive practice is so destructive in so many ways that its tenure has long expired. The on-going and serious criminal persecution of protected birds of prey is limiting their population recoveries or driving them towards extinction. 14 , 15 , 16 The wholesale slaughter of mountain hares – to supposedly reduce the transmission of disease to red grouse – has reduced their population density in parts of north-east Scotland to 1% of its 1950s level. 17 Upland areas are damaged by grouse moor management which drains moors leading to flooding downstream. 18 , 19 , 20 The burning of moors to benefit grouse exacerbates climate change and destroys internationally important blanket bogs. 21-24 The excessively high densities of grouse encourages disease which is transmitted via medicated grit trays. 25 , 26 There is an almost complete lack of monitoring to test whether these veterinary medicines reach the human food chain. 27 And we pay for it, the ten largest English grouse moors are paid more that £3 million in farm subsidies every year. 28 The best way to deal with this litany of environmental destruction is to ban driven grouse shooting.

All forms of snaring should be outlawed immediately in line with most other European Countries.

In 2012 a government study found that only 32% of the animals trapped in snares were the intended targets – normally foxes. The remaining 68% caught, severely injured or killed in these nooses included hares, badgers, family cats and dogs, deer and even otters. It is estimated that snares may trap up to 1.7 million animals every year. 29 The House of Commons debated the use of snares in July 2016 and MPs advocated a ban. However, the government ignored the vote and pushed ahead with the introduction of a revised voluntary code of practice. A study by the shooting industry revealed that less than half of the gamekeepers polled had ever read the code. Currently 77% of the British public think snares should be illegal and 68% of MPs also support a ban on snares. 30 , 31 The UK is one of only 5 of the 28 EU member states where snaring is legal.