Liam Stokes: Animal rights stance backfires on Labour

TIME TO LISTEN: The current debate over grouse shooting on Ilkley Moor illustrates how far Labour have to go to build bridges with potential voters in rural communities. PIC: PA
TIME TO LISTEN: The current debate over grouse shooting on Ilkley Moor illustrates how far Labour have to go to build bridges with potential voters in rural communities. PIC: PA
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LABOUR’S ability to reach out to rural communities is about to be seriously tested, not in theoretical policy discussion but out in the real world.

I have often written that any journey to a future Labour majority has to pass through the country lanes of rural England and Wales. Too many of Labour’s target seats are designated to some degree as rural for there to be any alternative route. The cultural gulf that has opened up between our rural communities and the Labour Party simply must be bridged, and the only way to do that is with a serious policy offer.

Labour’s shadow Defra team were at pains to ensure the representatives of the rural community who turned up to their party conference that they were in “listening mode”, but unfortunately it isn’t as straightforward as simply pulling together a distinctive set of policies.

Labour rural policy has become increasingly synonymous with animal rights, a cul-de-sac from which the party will need to extricate itself if it is to be given a fair hearing by rural voters. Labour has actually developed some really fine proposals for the countryside in the past, but the animal rights lobby is so noisy that these policies get drowned out by fixations on the badger cull or propping up the Hunting Act. These are issues that influence the votes of a minute number of people, and mustn’t be allowed to be the extent of the party’s rural offer.

A great test of Labour’s ability to dig itself out of its direct association with the animal rights movement has emerged in West Yorkshire.

Ilkley Moor is the last remaining council-owned moor on which grouse shooting and all its associated management continues and, in early 2018 the City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council will be voting on whether to renew the shooting lease that has been held by the Bingley Moor Partnership since 2008. The council has a Labour administration, and the decision as to whether to renew will be taken by the 49 members of the council’s Labour group.

The fact at the heart of this debate is this: moorland only exists with management. Our beautiful, much-loved uplands are the result of centuries of human effort, working in concert with nature. Heather moorland cannot exist if left to its own devices, and we have both a national and international obligation to conserve it. So who should manage Ilkley Moor?

The Bingley Moor Partnership runs just eight shoot days on Ilkley Moor each year, and pays the council £12,000 each year to do so. They are offering to increase this to £16,000 if the lease is renewed. So £2,000 a shoot, into the public purse. The partnership pays for all the management of the moor throughout the year, provides all the machinery to do so, and pays and houses a full-time employee on site to look after it. I have met the chap they employ, a fine wildlife manager and conservationist who also deals with vandalism, wildfires, and anti-social behaviour and keeps the moor a beautiful spot for the public to visit.

The council is in no position to take any of this on. It has neither the money nor the infrastructure. Last time I was there I was with a group of ramblers from Bradford, and one of them commented that “the council doesn’t have the money to manage the moor, so why not let the shoot do it? The council also needs the money”. Thanks to a combination of legal predator control and habitat management, grouse moors are a haven for wading birds that are suffering calamitous decline elsewhere, leading another rambler to say that while she didn’t like shooting, as long as it paid for “all that conservation stuff” then that was fair enough.

Yet the decision to renew the shooting lease on Ilkley is not an easy one. The decision has become intensely politicised, as animal rights groups from across the country and even further afield have bombarded the council with increasingly intense calls to put an end to the shoot.

The animal rights groups attribute all manner of evils to the eight days of grouse shooting, or the associated management practices, and say it is inappropriate on public land. I happen think this is a tad disingenuous, because these groups actually want to ban it everywhere.

I also think the opponents of shooting on Ilkley Moor have yet to suggest how else the management of the site might be funded. But what if I’m wrong? What if I’m speaking rubbish, and the animal rights groups are right? If you were unsure, wouldn’t you want to visit the moor, meet the people involved, and make an informed decision?

That’s the opportunity that has been offered to every member of the Labour group on the City of Bradford Metropolitan Council, and so far not one of those councillors has taken up the offer. Not one.

This goes right to the heart of Labour’s problem with animal rights. A situation must not be allowed to arise in which the animal rights agenda is synonymous with Labour policy. If the issues are improperly understood, or don’t seem particularly important, it is easy to assume that taking the side of animal rights is the morally superior and electorally profitable thing to do. By such thinking, animal rights become a default setting for an increasingly urban party when dealing with a rural issue.

But behind what at first glance looks like rich men wanting to splat grouse is a complex ecosystem of relationships. The investment attracted by grouse shooting flows into rural businesses, communities and conservation. And there’s an electoral consideration: the people who work on shoot days, and the people whose jobs are supported by the investment the moor brings into the community, are natural Labour voters who won’t support the party if it is seen as a threat to their livelihoods.

These perspectives at least deserve consideration. I sincerely hope, for the sake of Labour’s rural future, that at least some Labour councillors take the time to visit Ilkley Moor, meet the people and learn about what they do. If emails from the small number of geographically disparate animal rights activists come to carry more weight than the needs of the rural community, then Labour will make no headway at all in the countryside.

Liam Stokes is head of shooting at the Countryside Alliance.