Criticism of management of shooting estates could damage game meat sales
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is urging Marks & Spencer to consider where the grouse they sell comes from. Philip Bowern wonders what it might mean for other game meat sales in the Westcountry.
Shooting organisations like the British Association for Shooting and Conservation and the Countryside Alliance have been steadily improving the image of game meat like pheasant and partridge in recent years to make it more appealing to the general shopper.
As a healthy, low-fat and tasty meat it ought to be an easy sell. But for years, game – particularly pheasant – has been seen as a rich man's food, strong in taste if hung for too long, expensive and widely misunderstood. BASC's Taste of Game campaign with easy-to-follow recipes and endorsement from top chefs, helped to break down prejudices. The Countryside Alliance's Game to Eat initiatives had a similar impact.
But game was only ever going to take off in a big way once the supermarkets started to stock it and that has now been happening for a number of years with plucked and dressed birds available in many of the big stores.
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Marks & Spencer, underlining its place as a purveyor of premium food, recently went one better, stocking freshly shot grouse from the moors of Northern England and Scotland soon after August 12, the start of the grouse shooting season.
But the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and its former conservation director, Mark Avery, now an environmentalist in his own right, have both raised issues with the store, warning it against contributing to the illegal persecution of species that share the grouse moors, in particular, the hen harrier.
It is a complicated story. Some conservationists believe that management of grouse moors, which includes rigorous control of predators like crows, jackdaws, foxes, stoats and weasels, helps both the grouse and the upland birds that live alongside it in the heather, including the endangered hen harrier.
But others suggest that because hen harriers will take grouse, gamekeepers target the birds of prey to protect their valuable game birds, which wealthy guns will pay thousands of pounds every season to shoot. This year, heightening the tension, England's only two nesting hen harriers failed to produce any chicks, prompting conservationists to warn that the species faces extinction.
The RSPB accused private shooting estates of trying to "remove this bird since it recolonised". The Countryside Alliance said the RPSB was wrong to blame grouse moors and hen harriers were not facing extinction. It said the issue was about "breeding failure, not extinction".
And the Moorland Association pointed out that some grouse moor managers, including one responsible for land next to the ill-fated nesting site in Northumberland, were protecting grouse populations by providing nearby hen harriers with alternative food sources.
The RSPB is clearly not convinced, however. A spokesman said: "We are very concerned, specifically about some estates where the intensity of management seems to be going up and up and up to realise the maximum amount of grouse. We are concerned that Marks and Spencer, as an impeccable brand, has lent its name to practices that are potentially very suspect."
To drive home the doubts many consumers will be feeling, Mark Avery dropped in a further 'warning' about lead shot.
"The birds are shot with a toxic metal which the people engaged in the sport think is fine and don't appear to acccept any worries about health as a result," he said.
Shooting organisations – and many medical experts – have dismissed fears about the possible ingestion of relatively tiny amounts of lead in game meat shot using the metal, but such comments help to undermine confidence in some shoppers.
Marks and Spencer rejects any criticism of its source of grouse, replying that it worked with its supplier to ensure birds were sourced from estates which "protect and enhance natural habitats for a bio-diverse landscape".
It's an argument that could yet break out later in the autumn when Westcountry pheasants start to appear in the shops. Shooting organisations – and the shoots themselves – will point to the conservation work that goes on, controlling predators and creating and maintaining wildlife-rich areas that support both pheasants and other birds that might otherwise fail to thrive without the shoot. But might some conservationists take a similar stance to the one adopted over grouse, warning that managing shoots is not compatible with wider conservation aims and calling for a boycott of the meat?
With hundreds of pheasant shoots operating in the Westcountry alone the potential to provide a significant amount of game meat, humanely reared, cleanly shot and environmentally friendly, is significant. But if differences between the shooting community and a large and influential body like the RSPB cannot be settled, an important and growing market may be thwarted before it takes flight.