As you might expect, he sees the harrier/grouse conflict from the shooting landowners' perspective. But he also brings a scientist's objectivity to the problem, and he's not afraid to confront the issues. And, of course, he has a unique insight into the estate owners' position - after all, he has spent years advising them on how to manage their grouse moors to make them more productive, not just in terms of grouse bags, but in a wider sense too.
I've embedded below a recording of the phone interview, but here are the main points I took from our conversation:
- GWCT believes in managed wildlife solutions. In Britain, says Smith, we have fundamentally altered all our landscapes already. It's naive to suggest there's any alternative to management - whether it's corvids and songbirds, or harriers and grouse. We cannot step back and let nature look after itself.
- The Joint Raptor Study which ran at Langholm in the 90’s demonstrated what can go wrong; a balance needs to be struck.
- 'Management' doesn't mean killing harriers. There are more subtle ways of managing the harrier population. Smith has done work with Steve Redpath and others on 'non-lethal' methods. These include 'soft interventions' such as i) Diversionary feeding (but the effect is unproven, and it's impractical in many cases), and ii) Removing harrier chicks when they hatch, raising them in captivity, then releasing them where or when they no longer threaten the grouse. The latter would require a licence.
- It is perfectly possible to have a thriving grouse moor and a population of harriers - "That's an entirely sustainable position" says Smith.
- The big risk for grouse moors is when grouse numbers fall to low levels (which can happen due to disease etc) - that's when harriers (and other predators) can prevent numbers ever building up again. This is called the 'predator trap'.
- Grouse moor owners need to be offered a legal way out of the predator trap.
- RSPB and others have resisted going along with any suggestions of legalised harrier control/management because it looks like giving in to blackmail - along the lines of "Let us control harriers or we'll carry on doing it illegally."
As I've mentioned in private emails to one or two correspondents, I don't believe it's realistic to think that we will be granted licences to kill birds of prey - even though there's a good logical argument that, in certain circumstances, we should be (and yes, I'm aware that we can point to examples where even the RSPB has applied lethal control methods - although not, so far as I'm aware, against raptors which are widely regarded, somewhat illogically, as a special case).
Not only that, I think it harms shooting's position for us to campaign and lobby for a licensing system to kill birds of prey. If we could drop any ambitions for lethal control, I'm sure we'd have support from RSPB and others to develop effective methods of non-lethal control.
That last point was too much for one shooter, who told me in no uncertain terms: "Instead of censoring the shooting community and advocating appeasement why not support it against the conservation Taliban or are you actually one of them?"
As I'm learning, this debate has its fanatics on both sides! Anyhow, here's that interview with Adam Smith: