Enough breath and ink has been expended on the subject of hen harriers of late that I’d probably be better off keeping a low profile. Nothing I can say will add or subtract from the debate as it stands (and the issue is better summarised elsewhere). But there’s ridiculous argument that keeps cropping up, and I’m afraid I’ve been driven over the edge into typing up my own little rant. With footnotes! I do apologise, and can only promise that normal, mild-mannered nature writing service will be resumed soon.
Now, on the subject of game shooting, I have to say I barely comprehend the ‘sport’ as practiced in the UK. Why it is considered fun, or indeed ‘sporting’, to stand in a line, dressed in tweed, whilst people waving white flags scare dozens of semi-tame birds into the air above your head so that you can shoot them, is beyond me.
However, we live in a democratic, tolerant sort of country, and provided participants can 1) pursue their peculiar hobby* in a way that is no crueller to the animals concerned than any other sort of livestock rearing,** 2) have respect for the law of the land and 3) protect native wildlife, I’m content to let them get on with it.
Also, I don’t believe the game industry is as universally packed with villains as many birders seem to. There is a genuine and healthy respect for wildlife (foxes, corvids, weasels, stoats and probably badgers excepting) from parts of the shooting community, and I’m sure it is this that motivates (besides the obvious and understandable desire to seek advice on running a profitable shoot) many of their donations to the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust. The GWCT’s work on farmland biodiversity, often on species and habitats that have nothing directly to do with shooting, is of a very high quality, and I have personal reasons to respect and admire the work of the Trust too.***
So what’s the problem with grouse? Driven grouse shooting involves creating a kind of paradise for a wild, native bird, the red grouse, so that they can be shot in large numbers. The presence of hen harriers on a grouse moor can impact on the commercial viability of this kind of shooting, and that’s a scientifically documented fact. Unfortunately, it’s a fact that has led some shooting estates to take the law into their own hands, and the presence of harriers on grouse moors is rarely tolerated. So we have failures with regards to caveats 2) and 3) of my ‘live-and-let-shoot’ policy.
Still, I’m a nice guy, probably too nice, temperamentally inclined to seek a consensus-driven solution. Even if it means both sides making compromises; even, and I hesitate to say it, if it means accepting a ceiling on hen harrier numbers that is lower than what it ‘ought’ to be, on the grounds that some hen harriers is better than none. I would have advocated waiting for the results of yet more trials and tests, prior to the roll-out of an agreed hen harrier conservation plan that may or may not currently exist. I’m no longer so inclined to think that way. What’s pushed me over the edge?
Well, firstly, I’m tired of the over-rosy portrayal of grouse moors and grouse shooting given by those close to or in the industry. Yes, management for driven grouse shooting creates heaven-on-earth for several breeding wader species that are in trouble elsewhere in the country, but if that’s to the exclusion of all other biodiversity I’m not so sure it represents the perfect management strategy for uplands right across Britain. You rarely, if ever, hear from them about the drawbacks of intensive management for grouse, whether draining of blanket bog or burning of peatlands. And I’m sceptical of their claim that to retain any of the benefits, we have to accept the whole intensive grouse package. Doomsday scenarios of uplands full of crows and conifer plantations and not much else, or the total collapse of the rural economy, seem pretty implausible. It’s perfectly feasible to manage a moor for wildlife in the absence of shooting.
Even given all that, I might have stayed silent; after all, enough people are making noise about these issues without me adding my own only vaguely informed thoughts. What finally drives me to set fingers to keyboard is the ‘blame the RSPB’ argument. Because when you think about it, the idea that the absence of hen harriers from England is the fault of the policies and practice of an organisation – even if by no means a perfect one – that is actively working to protect them, and not of the gamekeepers holding the shotguns and bottles of Carbofuran, is a self-defeating standpoint so patently ridiculous it’s enough to drive even the most tolerant of people into the ban-shooting camp.
As a society, we’ve collectively decided that birds of prey are precious, and in light of past persecution they are afforded protection under the law. Lethal ‘control’ of raptors is illegal, so it seems to me that the first and easiest step towards hen harrier recovery – one that must be taken before any consensus and mutual respect can be built, or any joint plans actioned – is a simple one: the killing has to stop.
*Let’s be fair here: twitching, especially twitching of the hard-core, Lee Evans, 400-clubbing sort is a pretty bizarre hobby in its own right.
**On balance it’s probably much better to be even a captive-reared pheasant released for shooting than it is to be a factory-farmed chicken.
***I feel duty-bound to mention that the GWCT’s engagement with the wildlife MSc courses at Reading University, where I studied and now work, is greatly valued. Every year some of our MSc students do their projects with the GWCT – again, these very often have little to do with shooting – and they always do extremely well. Back in 2011 my own project was co-supervised by one of the GWCT’s conservation scientists, Andy Hoodless, a top chap who is just one of several perfectly ordinary (I mean that in a nice way!) scientists who work for them, scientists who look much like the ones you’ll find working at the RSPB or anywhere else. Hardly a stitch of tweed between them.