RICHMOND MP Rishi Sunak has mounted a passionate defence of grouse shooting and its role in the rural economy.

The MP, whose North Yorkshire constituency includes a large proportion of the UK’s finest heather moorland, spoke out against a proposed ban of the sport.

The debate, in Westminster Hall, was triggered by an online petition organised by the League Against Cruel Sports and wildlife TV presenter Chris Packham. It attracted 123,077 signatures, making it eligible for an MPs' debate.

Campaigners argued that grouse shooting involved illegal killing of birds of prey, increased flood risk and led to the deaths of "large numbers" of other predators.

Mr Sunak said banning driven grouse shooting would harm the rural economy and devastate wildlife. The victims of a ban would be ordinary, working people in constituencies like Richmond.

He said: “The farmer’s wife, who goes beating at weekend so her family can save for a holiday. The young man, able to earn a living in the community he loves, thanks to his apprenticeship as a gamekeeper. The local publican, welcoming shooting parties with cold ale and hot pies.

He added: “Those who support a ban on grouse shooting should do so only if they are prepared to look these people in the eye and explain why their livelihoods are worth sacrificing.”

Mr Sunak said grouse shooting supported 2,500 jobs directly with £30m paid out in wages and there were further benefits to the tourism industry from the spectacular late summer flowering of the moorland heather.

Moorland management for grouse shooting was vital to conserving the Northern hills of Britain, he said.

“There is a tendency among some conservationists to act as if farmers and gamekeepers are somehow trespassing upon Britain’s landscape.

“Heather moorland is rarer than rainforest and 75 per cent of it is found in Britain. From Heathcliff to Holmes, it has become a proud part of our cultural heritage. And without the £1m of private income spent by moor owners every week on land management, that heritage would come to an end. Overgrazed by sheep, used to grow timber, or abandoned to the bracken, the moors as we know them would be lost.”

Mr Sunak told his fellow MPs that such a scenario would be disastrous for wildlife.

“Academic study after study shows that endangered wading birds like curlew and lapwing are much more likely to breed successfully on grouse moors managed by gamekeepers. And 80 per cent of rare merlin are found on grouse moors.”

He recognised the conservational conflicts that existed and said more could be done to boost further the population of hen harriers.

He commended efforts by gamekeepers to foster hen harrier numbers through participation of one million acres of grouse moor in a new Hen Harrier Brood Management Scheme.

The MP also spoke of the benefits of rotational burning used to regenerate moorland heather and provide a rich habitat for wildlife.

Finally, Mr Sunak said that Natural England could find “no evidence” that burning increased flood risk or contributed to net carbon emissions.

“Banning grouse shooting would undermine the balanced ecosystem of our countryside,” he said. “It would leave not only many families poorer, but our landscape and wildlife poorer too. A ban on grouse shooting would be a policy with no winners.”

Defra minister Therese Coffey summed up the debate by giving a categorical assurance that the Government would not consider a ban. However, it would take steps to tackle allegations of illegal persecution of birds of prey.