Hen harriers are in the news again. This may or may not have something to do with the fact that the WANE (Wildlife And Natural Environment) Bill is currently going through the Scottish Parliament, and various groups have identified it as their best chance of attacking sporting estates in general, and shooting in particular.
They're jumping at the opportunity to have the law rewritten in their favour - perhaps winning the 'vicarious liability' that they claim would solve everything (it wouldn't, but that's another story)
The more strident anti shooting/pro raptor voices are growing shriller, and we are seeing the carefully managed 'release' of 'suppressed' information which, it's claimed, provides scientific proof, no less, of widespread 'persecution' by gamekeepers threatening the very existence of an iconic bird of prey.
'Silence over hen harrier carnage' shrieks the Raptor Persecution Scotland blog, for instance. They point to 'damning evidence' presented in the leaked Hen Harrier Conservation Framework [word doc] which they claim demonstrates 'the indisputable link between hen harrier persecution and heather moorland that’s managed for red grouse shooting'.
Actually, it isn't, and it doesn't. The report brings no new evidence to light. Much of it is a round-up of previously published work - and if you look back at that previously published work, it's clear that evidence is actually very thin on the ground.
What the report mostly does, is sucks a finger, sticks it in the air, and says: 'Hmm, I bet there should be 2500 pairs of harriers round here, and actually we can only see 749. I blame the bastard gamekeepers.' That's not science, no matter how you dress it up - and dress it up the authors have, in a report that runs to 69 pages which have cost the taxpayer... well, perhaps someone would like to tell me?
In fact, the more I look at the published reports, papers, reviews and what-have-you, it becomes clear that they tend to emanate from a small group of indivduals with a vested interest in talking up the problem, some of whom have seemingly made a career out of taking public money to write yet more reports regurgitating their own and their mates' work.
Be that as it may, it doesn't prove anything one way or the other. No doubt people make a living out of mangling science in areas like education, policing and fire safety; it doesn't mean a problem doesn't exist.
Unfortunately, it's impossible to have a calm, rational converation about harriers. I am fascinated by harriers. I love to see them on the Isle of Skye, where I've been walking up grouse since - well, since I could walk actually, although I wasn't allowed to carry a gun until I was 12. Plenty of things have decimated the grouse there over the years; harriers aren't one of them, though I'm sure they take the odd chick.
When I'm out with my gun and I spot a harrier, I stand and stare, open mouthed, in awe. The idea of harming it couldn't be further from my mind. Perhaps if I ran a commercial driven grouse shoot my feelings would be different.
So, are grouse shooting estates slaughtering harriers wholesale? No matter how loud the bird-botherers shout, fact is the evidence is flimsy to say the least. My gut feeling is that some (highly commercial) shoots believe they can't afford to tolerate harriers, and either encourage them to move on, or kill them. But I have no proof one way or the other - something that the anti-shooting lobby find hard to believe.
I had a long chat with the RSPB's Mark Avery at last year's CLA Game Fair. It soon became clear that he believed there was a conspiracy of silence over 'persecution'. I got the impression (no doubt he'll correct me if I'm wrong) that he imagined that I, as the editor of a shooting magazine, must know all about some organised campaign of persecution, but was simply refusing to admit it. I'm not at all sure I convinced him otherwise.
Well, I don't know. I don't know a lot of things. For instance, I don't know if keepers kill one, none, or a thousand harriers a year. I don't know whether habitat is a factor explaining the anomalies in harrier distribution on grouse moors vs moorland that isn't managed for grouse. To my simple mind, it seems obvious that heather burned in strips will provide cover for small prey species, which could make it harder for a harrier to make a living. But try asking that of the self-appointed 'experts' - you won't finish the sentence before they drown you out with shouts of 'persecution'.
If big grouse shoots are killing harriers, I want to know about it. And I want to see it stopped. Not because of some Marxist-inspired agenda to take over the countryside in the name of 'the people'. But because it's going to destroy the way of life that I know and love.
Perhaps my contacts and connections within the world of shooting will help me to find out what others have failed to discover. We shall see. I intend to go looking, and I'll report what I find - for good or bad.