sunday-book-review-–-moorland-matters-by-ian-coghill

I enjoyed reading this book very much. It immediately gets into my list of books of the year although I’d be surprised if it gets to the top of that shortlist, but you never know. I enjoyed it for three main reasons. First, it is a good read, clearly expressed and argued with some passion and that makes it stimulating. Second, it is always interesting to read the case against one’s own views and be reassured that there isn’t much in here that I hadn’t encountered or thought about already. And third, if this is the case for intensive grouse shooting then it cannot survive very long, as we are seeing all around the UK right now.

Ian Coghill is a former chair of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust and so he has quite some background in the issue of grouse shooting and fully deserves the opportunity to set out the case for driven grouse shooting. And the sub-title of the book, ‘The battle for the uplands against authoritarian conservation’ is a good one and shows where he is coming from – apparently scientists, conservationists, statutory agencies and even politicians are all ganging up on the poor gamekeeper (and the landed gentry). That is another way of describing public opinion, and I agree, it is turning quite strongly, so this book may come to be seen as a farewell note from grouse shooting to society that was really saying ‘It was fun while it lasted’. But judging from this book there is plenty of life in the old grouse shooting ways yet.

Coghill is very clear, and I like this, that this book is full of his opinions. And they are strongly held opinions, and I like that too, there is nothing wishy-washy about this book of opinions. It is, therefore, a good read. He writes well, in my opinion, and that makes it a good book even if I disagree with a lot of it. I would, of course, defend to the death etc etc Coghill’s right to hold any opinions he wishes, although I’m not sure he would do the same for me as it strikes me that it is not conservation that is authoritarian but the views of Coghill and others, but that’s just my opinion.

The book is structured in 19 chapters with titles such as ‘Does grouse shooting cause floods?’ (Chapter 3), ‘The road to hell is paved with regulation’ (Chapter 9), ‘Raptors’ (Chapter 11) and ‘Ethics and politics’ (Chapter 18) and this works well. What the book sadly lacks is an index and that is a structural shortcoming that will mean that when I revisit this book, as I most certainly will, it will be slightly difficult to relocate some of Coghill’s better arguments.

It would take a book to respond to all of Coghill’s opinions with the facts that undermine some of them and I won’t do that here, but here’s one I prepared earlier. Noticeably, my book on the same subject is ignored pretty much completely and does not find its way into the rather paltry reference section. I can tell you that if I were re-writing Inglorious today, Coghill’s book, because it is a serious book with opinions, would definitely be in my reference section.

Of course, although we can all have opinions, some of those opinions, for all of us, are grounded in values and some are grounded in facts. It’s possible to discuss values amicably, but one rarely changes someone’s values by conversation, but facts are facts and evidence is evidence. It’s perfectly possible for someone to select the facts and evidence with which they agree the most but in all difficult areas of public policy there are always facts, and usually evidence, on both sides of any argument. The difficulty for any decison maker is making sense of the vast plethora of evidence thrown at you by vested interests and coming to an overall view. Coghill’s second chapter, ‘A burning issue’ is now pretty much a done deal. In Scotland the government is going to introduce licensing of burning, much of it carried out for grouse shooting, and in England DEFRA has already introduced a terribly weak Statutory Instrument to reduce such burning though it is far too weak probably because of the frantic lobbying of the people who will like this book the most. Only last month, the Climate Change Committee issued their report to parliament calling on government ‘to extend the ban on rotational burning of peat from certain protected upland bog sites to all peatland before the start of the burn season in 2021‘ (click here, page 62). Now, clearly that call came after this book was written but that same committee has been saying similar things for a long time and yet doesn’t seem to have been noticed by Mr Coghill who writes, as his opinion, though not backed up by evidence, that ‘the claims of climate effects…are exaggerated‘. Well, Coghill can take that up with the Climate Change Committee but I think that train has left the station since DEFRA said in announcing its rather feeble restrictions on burning this year that ‘There is a consensus that burning of vegetation on blanket bog is damaging to peatland formation and habitat condition. It makes it more difficult or impossible to restore these habitats to their natural state and to restore their hydrology.‘. Neither climate change experts nor governments have been persuaded by the opinions in Chapter 2 of this book and they are right to have taken a completely different view of the subject, on the evidence as a whole.

That same selectivity of both the facts and evidence is manifest in Chapter 11 on raptors. How does Coghill deal with the inconvenient fact that study after study has shown that raptor persecution on grouse moors is at a very high level and at a level high enough to explain the absence of such raptors from those areas to an amazingly striking, obvious and undeniable degree (here are links to some of those studies and discussion of them, just as a recap, Murgatroyd et al., Fielding et al,. 2011, Etheridge et al. 1997, Natural England 2009, NatureScot 2008, Amar et al. 2012, and there are plenty of others)? Well, for a start, he doesn’t put any of those studies in the reference section which instead, for this chapter, has some slightly odd references to my mind. Coghill gives the impression of meeting the issue of raptors head on when he starts the chapter with ‘There is NO doubt that raptors have been killed by gamekeepers and there is equally no doubt that some still do sometimes kill them. this is illegal and should not happen. But if it does it behoves everyone to find practical ways to make it stop‘ but we’re very soon heading into the issues of brood meddling and reintroducing Hen Harriers to Wiltshire rather than any admission of the scale of illegal persecution of Hen Harriers and a blind eye is turned to the persecution of Golden Eagles, Peregrines, Red Kites, Goshawks and other species. Raptor persecution is rife on grouse moors, and is illegal, but once that is accepted then consequences follow, and the grouse shooting community and the Westminster government have never properly admitted the scale of the problem that exists now, on their supporters’ land. The closest I recall the pro-grouse shooters have ever come was the famous slip by Amanda Anderson of the Moorland Association when she was quoted as saying If we let the hen harrier in, we will soon have nothing else. That is why we need this brood management plan‘. It’s not actually a contrite admission of sins, but it’s the most we have and it’s a shame that Ian Goghill did not take the opportunity in this book to do a bit of humble admission of sins – but he doesn’t. And so, to my mind, his opinions are rendered a bit moot by his lack of attention to the evidence. In fact, it is slightly worse than that in that towards the end of this chapter Coghill claims that all the conditions that I set out in an article in The Field in 2011, including a prominent admission of guilt and a wide roll out of diversionary feeding have been met and therefore we should move now to brood meddling. But they haven’t, so we shouldn’t. My position on brood meddling of Hen Harriers is still that it could be used as a reward for better behaviour (ie greatly reduced illegality) on grouse moors. It should be a reward for good behaviour after Hen Harrier numbers have risen considerably, not a reward for continuing bad behaviour as it is now under the Westminster government. I am still the utterly reasonable and pragmatic Mark Avery of 2011 that Coghill seems to approve of, it’s just that, though he claims differently, grouse shooting hasn’t even dipped its toes into the Rubicon, let alone crossed it. This chapter on raptors disappointed me for the opportunities missed to move things on and to make some proper admissions on behalf of others and because it does not look the evidence squarely in the eye. It may be that while writing this book, Ian Coghill did look the evidence in the eye, but if so, it seems he blinked and turned away.

In Chapter 11 there is also much criticism, and many brickbats, thrown at the RSPB, but that is a feature of the book. It certainly makes it an entertaining read and I was keen to see what the next rant about one of the nation’s largest and most successful (in conservation terms) charities would be. There are just loads of them, mostly familiar and mostly to my mind both unfair and spectacularly misjudged. Coghill has a go at this conservation charity so much, so often, that anyone coming to this issue cold would begin to wonder what was really going on here – is the author obsessed with the RSPB? And why? It’s a handy collection of the opinions that are commonplace among a very small group of people and it’s a pity that there is no index otherwise we could all enjoy a few hours reading just those juicy passages for fun and amusement. I bet the RSPB has a team of people checking every chapter right now but they needn’t bother really.

The chapters each start with some anonymous quotes and I think I feature as ‘.. this enormous bloke‘ in one of them (page 65) but it is difficult to tell because so much of the rest of the account is wrong. The quote comes from ‘DT’ who might be the ultra-svelte BASC employee who was sitting near the front looking bothered through my talk but never did pluck up the courage to ask a question at the end. If he sends me his address I’ll put a pie in the post to him.

Here and there, Coghill did make me think. He dismisses the data on Mountain Hare numbers collected by the great upland ecologist, Adam Watson, over seven decades as ‘There exists a peer-reviewed paper claiming that the number of mountain hares has declined by 99% apparently as a result of mass shooting of by gamekeepers‘ without citing the reference so that you could read it yourself (help yourself here). Actually, that isn’t quite what the paper says – as you will see if you take the opportunity to read it which Coghill did not give you. But, Coghill does have a debating point when he says ‘A moment’s reflection might lead anyone to question how you can have mass shootings of something that apparently isn’t there‘. I smiled at that, and wondered where the truth lay, but I wouldn’t start by completely dismissing the Watson and Wilson paper.

I’ll give you just one more example of how Coghill selectively quotes the science. When he writes in Chapter 3 (Does grouse shooting cause floods?), ‘the study on which much of the ‘grouse moors cause floods’ sentiment appears to be based‘ says ‘…catchments where burning has taken place appear slightly more prone to higher flow peaks during heavy rain – however this is not a conclusive finding‘ that is correct. But what he surely knows is that the EMBER study (see here for a summary and here for links to the original report), a very fine detailed study, was not the last word on the subject and if you check the EMBER website, as Coghill surely has, then you’ll see this paper which (is a tough read – I know, I’ve read it several times – and) takes the science quite a bit further which is why the EMBER website says ‘This paper relates to Part 4 of the report. It provides more conclusive findings of soil and river hydrology, particularly during peak rainfall events, following further analyses of the data since 2014.’. Do you think that was written so that people like Coghill wouldn’t quote the original wisely cautious finding but might adopt the wisely cautious view that in big storms burned catchments shed water quicker than unburned ones? So, Coghill doesn’t tell you what the study from which he quotes is, and he also doesn’t tell you that the study’s website specifically updates the analysis on which he comments, and finds a result that contradicts what Coghill says about the science. It’s not a brilliant example of intellectual honesty in my opinion – at the very least Coghill has failed to help the reader to judge for themselves.

The very short Chapter 14, on ticks, was interesting and included the statement that large-scale culling of Mountain Hares and deer had not been as effective at reducing tick numbers as had been hoped.

I was completely unconvinced by the argument about authoritarian conservation – I think Coghill just doesn’t like many of the rules that society has decided and, more understandably, doesn’t like the way that statutory agencies implement government policy and the law of the land. We all feel like that sometimes. Of course, these arguments are framed in terms of the poor old gamekeepers who are down-trodden by everyone rather than it being powerful landowners who can’t stand having to stick to the rules.

Not much on lead ammunition here – that’s a shame.

The book has plaudits on its cover from Kate Hoey, Ian Botham and Matt Ridley and a Foreword from Owen Paterson – they all like the book. I don’t want to be too dismissive here but Owen Paterson telling the world that Ian Coghill’s ‘command of the science behind conservation is unparalleled‘ might literally be true but not necessarily in the way that Paterson meant.

The cover? Nothing special, 6/10, but the words inside the book are most entertaining.

I did enjoy reading this book because it is what it says on the tin, and it is very much what I expected from the author. It’s a useful collection of opinions, many of which are grounded in values that I don’t share and too few of which are grounded in evidence.

Moorland Matters: the battle for the uplands against authoritarian conservation by Ian Coghill is published by Quiller Publishing.

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