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Defra cosies up to grouse shooting industry

Defra (Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs), the government department “responsible for improving and protecting the environment”, has announced the appointment of a grouse moor owner to what it describes as a ‘key role’.

Heather Hancock (pictured above), a former Food Standards Agency chair and former Chief Executive of the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority, is owner with husband Mark of Threshfield Moor, a grouse moor right inside the raptor persecution hotspot of (you guessed it) the Yorkshire Dales National Park.

Inside the National Park? Make no mistake, the Dales are shooting country. The region’s unquenchable appetite for killing Red Grouse was memorably summed up in September 2020 when ‘Yorkshire Live’ headlined a story with ‘Grouse shooters welcomed back to Yorkshire Dales’ which opened with “Grouse-shooters were out on the Yorkshire Dales today despite coronavirus regulations, unusual hot weather and a beetle which blights heather growth“.

That’s worth bearing in mind when we consider what the ‘key role’ Ms Hancock will take up involves. She will be “the lead non-executive board member of the departmental Board” (or lead NEBM). Applications for the role closed in March this year, but the criteria and job expectations are still online. They are fairly opaque, but the lead NEBM is expected amongst other things to “Provide external oversight and expertise to the departmental Board, underpinned by consideration from an independent standpoint, which informs the department’s decision-making process” and “Connect​ the Board to people and organisations who can provide different perspectives, opinions and expertise which will assist in furthering the business of the department“.

So grouse moor-owning Ms Hancock, according to the government’s own website, will now be providing independent expertise and a ‘different perspective’ for the current Defra Secretary of State, Therese Coffey (who has made regular appearances on grouse moors over the years), to consider.

Interesting then, given those mentions of an ‘independent standpoint’ etc etc, that Defra’s announcement doesn’t mention Ms Hancock’s involvement with the grouse shooting industry. Or that the moor she owns, Threshfield Moor, has been the subject of two wildlife crime investigations. In October 2017 a young satellite-tagged Hen Harrier ‘disappeared’ on Threshfield Moor never to be seen again, and in January 2020  two witnesses reported seeing a Hen Harrier being shot there (a gamekeeper was arrested but charges were dropped because of ‘insufficient evidence’).

Why should that concern Defra? Well, Hen Harriers are perhaps the UK’s most persecuted bird of prey, and research published by Natural England found that the likelihood of Hen Harriers dying or disappearing is ten times higher in areas covered by grouse moors (tagging has also provided compelling evidence of the link between suspicious Golden Eagle deaths and grouse moors in Scotland). The RSPB recently called the suspicious disappearance of two Hen Harriers in the Forest of Bowland “a huge blow for a struggling species”.

As the government department “responsible for improving and protecting the environment” and which has a direct interest in Natural England’s disastrous Hen Harrier brood-meddling scheme, you might think the activities of moors and moor owners would be on their radar.

But perhaps direct involvement with an unpopular industry that is underpinned by raptor persecution (and which was recently abandoned by United Utilities, one of the nation’s largest landowners) isn’t really a problem for Defra.

After all, the department seems to be joined at the hip with the National Farmers’ Union and is currently overseeing the highly unpopular mass destruction of the UK’s badger population on its behalf. It also regularly ignores public opinion on shooting, leaning heavily on the ‘advice’ it gets on controversial issues like snaring and the shooting of Red-listed species like Woodcock from pro-bloodsports lobby groups like BASC and the Countryside Alliance.

‘Furthering the business of the department”? As appointments go, we might be tempted to say that Ms Hancock could just be perfect…