Animal Aid

A law unto themselves - the game shooting industry under the spotlight (part 1)

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Gun-happy extremism and the Game Conservancy Trust

Among the shooting industry's most fanatical activities are the so-called 'Species Days'. The object is to shoot as many different species of wildlife as possible over a 24 hour period. Enthusiasts continue shooting at every indigenous animal, fish or bird on the legal quarry list1 until their bag is filled with the greatest variety. According to The Field magazine, a good Species Day hunter requires 'imagination, field craft and cunning, seeing opportunity everywhere'. They will even lower the depth of rivers by opening sluices to get a shot at floundering pike in the shallows.2 The record holder for this bloody pursuit is a man from Hampshire named Richard Wills, who killed a total of 16 different species. In a single day, he shot 30 cock pheasants, a red leg partridge, seven mallard ducks, a gadwall, three teal, four widgeons, four pigeons, one hare, three rabbits, a rook, a crow, two grey squirrels, three fallow does, a roe doe, four brown trout and seven grayling. But he missed a muntjac deer and a jackdaw!

Game Conservancy Trust

Strangely, such bloodlust is not to be despised but admired within the shooting community. Rodger McPhail - best known as 'one of Britain's foremost wildlife artists' - told The Field magazine:"I once saw Richard Wills take a nice grayling with his choke barrel as it rose to a fly."

A man named Richard Wills is a vice chairman of the Game Conservancy Trust (GCT).

The GCT is a large and influential charity, which boasts of its close links to government. It produces widely quoted 'scientific studies' and in 2004, according to its own statistics, generated more than £2.8 million worth of press coverage (the cost of the equivalent amount of advertising space). It describes one of its chief charitable aims as:

'To promote for the public benefit the conservation and study of game species, their habitats and the other species associated with those habitats.'3 Yet, despite its 94 members of staff, an annual income of £5.1 million and assets of £2.4 million, the GCT seems incapable of either confirming or denying whether the Richard Wills who is the celebrated Species Day practitioner, is the same Richard Wills who serves as the Trust's vice chairman. GCT Chief Executive Teresa Dent has failed to reply to two letters from Animal Aid on the subject - letters that asked her also to explain how Species Day shooters could possibly align with the charitable aim of the Trust.4 A letter forwarded to Richard Wills by the editor of The Field magazine has similarly been ignored.

Hypocrisy at the top

A former chairman of the GCT and current 'ex-officio Trustee' is Andrew Christie-Miller. His estate is at Clarendon Park near Salisbury in Hampshire. In October 2003, League Against Cruel Sports investigators reported snaring abuse at Christie-Miller's estate. Around 50 snares - rather than being fixed in place - were set on drag poles (i.e. they were free-moving). Because animals captured by these devices could drag themselves off and hide in the woods, they were likely to suffer more and for longer than animals caught in fixed traps. Several drag poles were set close to an active badger sett. The GCT advises against the use of drag pole snares and endangering badgers.

There's money in this

Other prominent individuals at the GCT include those who profit most handsomely from shooting. Chairman of the GCT Council is Mark Hudson, who was formerly chairman of the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), an organisation with similar aims to the Countryside Alliance (CA).

A GCT vice chairman is the Earl of Dalhousie, owner of one of Britain's largest and richest sporting estates. From Brechin Castle, he sells 'top drawer' pheasant shooting, while from his Invermark Estate, the quarry on offer is grouse.

Barney Stratton is a council member of the GCT. He runs two shoots in Wiltshire covering 12,000 acres8 and, unsurprisingly, is prominent in campaigning for bloodsports.

Child shooter

One of the GCT Council's elected trustees is Richard Burge - a former chief executive of the CA. The CA campaigns for a return of the cruelty of hunting with hounds and hare coursing. It opposes the legislation giving the public improved access to the countryside and coastlines.

A former elected trustee of the GCT is the Viscount Dunluce, who has a major shooting estate in Northern Ireland at Glenarm Castle. A day's shooting of 400 birds with two nights accommodation will cost each individual in an eight gun syndicate £1,795.

Why is the Game Conservancy Trust a charity?

The Charities Commission provides guidance on what constitutes a charity.9 Charities can have educational objects and research is categorised as such. But a charity may not be set up for the benefit of its trustees, nor shall it be eligible for charity status if it promotes a particular point of view. Trustees need to avoid any situation where charitable and personal interests conflict. Education in the charitable sense may not include propagandist activity. A charity must have exclusively charitable purposes.

The advantages of being a charity are several. Charities, for instance:

  • Do not normally have to pay corporation tax (in the case of some types of income), capital gains tax or stamp duty, and gifts to charities are free of inheritance tax.
  • Do not pay more than 20 per cent of normal business rates on the buildings that they use and occupy to further their charitable purposes.
  • Can get special VAT treatment in some circumstances.

An objective reading of GCT 'scientific' publications reveals a pro-shooting bias rather than a balanced assessment of the facts relating to the impact of shooting. Moreover, as we have seen, it has trustees who have a pecuniary interest in the promotion of game bird breeding, releasing and shooting.

Even if some research that does not align with the charitable objects of the Trust is financed separately, its staff are spread between charitable and business activity. They use the same resources that may benefit from charitable tax concessions.

Animal Aid has written to the Charities Commission formally challenging the GCT's charitable status and asking the Commission to set out clearly which activities currently carried out by the Trust are acceptable and which are not.

The hunting and shooting lobbies prompted just such a scrutiny of the RSPCA because the society's opposition to a government proposed badger cull was considered too political by its opponents.10 This was not the first time that the RSPCA has had to defend its charitable status.

In 2004, its anti-hunting posture raised similar objections from bloodsports supporters. In 1996, the Charities Commissioner wrote to the RSPCA, warning that the Society's assertion that 'the infliction of pain on animals could not be justified even in circumstances in which it confers a higher benefit upon mankind' was not in line with charitable principles.11 'A charity,' the Commission insisted, 'must serve the overriding object of the public good.'

For whose benefit?

To be fair to The Game Conservancy Trust, it makes no secret of its association with 'country sports' and amongst the 44 scientists it employs are some who investigate matters of genuine conservation concern. But this does not alter the fact that the GCT is, in reality, a pressure group for bloodsports. It exists to promote the killing of partridges, pheasants and grouse, not to assess the 'public benefit'. This is why almost every 'scientific study' it conducts amounts to a propaganda exercise in favour of shooting.

Nature's gain

Perhaps no better illustration of the GCT's selective scientific approach is its arguments about grouse moor management. In 2005, the organisation published a glossy summary of its work entitled Nature's Gain, claiming - amongst other things - that grouse shooting helps to maintain uplands and to encourage dwindling breeding populations of golden plovers, dunlins, lapwings, curlews and merlins.

This theme was taken up again, with relish, in an August 2006 article for the Daily Telegraph, written by GCT chief executive Teresa Dent.12

According to Ms Dent, the arrival of the Glorious Twelfth heralds the culmination of 12 months of conservation by gamekeepers and moorland managers. Conveniently sidelining the legal and illegal destruction - through trapping, shooting and poisoning - of a host of indigenous species that interfere with grouse shooting, she again lauded the increased frequency of waders in the artificial habitats created for shooting.

Also conspicuously missing from Dent's article was any reference to the huge damage caused by grouse shooting interests to the peat bogs that are an integral feature of the moorlands on which such shooting takes place.

Britain's peat moorlands, according to ecologists at Cranfield University in Bedfordshire, are natural carbon sinks.13 'In terms of carbon storage, the moors can be thought of as Britain's rain forests,' Adrian Yallop, one of the Cranfield team, told New Scientist magazine. 'Yet gamekeepers are burning the moors at an unprecedented rate to encourage the growth of new heather shoots as feed for grouse. The burning threatens to release millions of tonnes of carbon locked into the peat bogs underpinning the moors. Where burning occurs, the hydrology changes and the peat is open to decomposition and erosion. This strips the moor of carbon as surely as setting fire to the Amazon Forest.'

The research at Cranfield shows that, in the preceding 30 years, the rate of moorland burning has doubled to 114 square kilometres a year. It probably contributes to the increasing organic carbon discolouration of water that has occurred in northern reservoirs over the last 10 years.

The release of carbon from the moors, either in the water or by burning, eventually reaches the atmosphere and contributes to global warming. The carbon content of British peat bogs is as much as 20 billion tonnes, equal to 150 years of burning fossil fuels in the United Kingdom. The annual release of 13 million tonnes is equivalent to 10 per cent of our emissions from fossil fuels. There is also a consensus that burning peat results in changes to nutrient dynamics and impacts upon sustained species. It can cause loss of fire-sensitive Juniper and there is general agreement that blanket burning and raised bog mires can be damaging. Invertebrates and reptile populations are lost.14

Elsewhere on the moors, to develop artificial habitats for game, land managers are cutting drainage ditches. This release of mire-locked water ends in the lowlands where it threatens settlements.15

All of this was surely known to the GCT's Chief Executive since, according to a detailed Independent on Sunday article, the issue of peat damage has for some time been the subject of intense negotiation between the Moorland Association (representing moor owners) and the government agency English Nature, and then its successor body, Natural England. 16If the GCT was unaware that peat bog damage was a high agenda item for shooting, then the relevance and credibility of its research is even more in doubt.

The GCT and hunting

Just as the GCT is less than credible when it pronounces upon the alleged environmental benefits of grouse shooting, so it is equally unconvincing when it links together hunting mammals with hounds and the conservation of woodland flora and fauna. Its 'scientific study' - 'Fox-hunting in England and Wales: its contribution to the management of woodland and other habitats' - included among its many pro-hunting claims that seven times more butterfly species and four more plant species can be found where hunting takes place. To conduct the research, a survey questionnaire was distributed to 163 mounted fox hunts in England and Wales. Only 92 hunts (56%), covering 75,514 km2,returned details on woodland management. These details were "verified" with "on-site" visits.

The focus on butterfly and songbird protection is, in our view, a cynical exercise to gain sympathy and support for bloodsports. If those creatures interfered in any way with the shooting industry's activities they would be destroyed as swiftly and callously as those birds and mammals who are presumed to be a threat.

But while it would be churlish to deny that preservation of pheasant rearing habitat must offer some advantages to some species, it is not in itself a reason to preserve bloodsports. What is needed is a coordinated agricultural policy that encourages the planting of coppice, hedgerow and fauna-friendly local environments for their own sake and not for game management. There are now signs of progress in this direction with the implementation of the Single Farm Payment and the drive for farmers to be subsidised for land quality instead of production. Conservation without killing should be the aim.

Without such a coordinated approach it will be impossible to protect our nation's wildlife.

Moreover, whatever areas of the British countryside are conserved for shooting, they are not preserved for the pleasure of those members of the public who might peacefully enjoy them. On the contrary, shooting is often the pretext for denying access.

Too many birds

In the nearest it has come to criticising the shooting fraternity, the GCT has recently published the results of a study declaring that conservation difficulties can be created if too many birds are released in a limited area. Rather than acknowledge the depth of this problem, however, the GCT pedantically states that the 'main point' of its research was 'to provide a science-based approach to quantifying any negative effects of gamebird releasing and to develop solutions where these effects occur'. What it fails to emphasise is that such releases are commonplace and becoming increasingly so. In 2006 - according to the industry's own estimates - approximately 35 million pheasants and probably at least 5 million partridges will be released for shooting. Often the release takes place in massive numbers over a small area.

Shoots involving 'beaters and a bag of anything from 250 to 1,000 birds' are commonplace (The Spectator, August 3, 2006, p.3). This inevitably creates unnatural imbalances in wildlife numbers, attracting and supporting a corresponding colony of predators. The shooting industry is insensitive to the obvious: that the size of a predator community is related to the size of the food source and that the repercussions of large-scale releases will impact upon all flora and fauna.

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