Tuesday 25 January 2011

Hen harriers - fear, loathing, and few facts

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.


vicky said...

More depressing news. I'm too depressed to even comment on it. But to cheer everyone up we were privelesged enough to see two Bitterns take off from a small bit of marsh while shooting on Saturday. Hopefully they'll be back and they'll breed. See RSPB- shooters LIKE birds!!!!!!!!!!

Mike Price said...

An interesting read not entirely polarised as some views are but unfortunately not completely unbiased.

Using Scotland as the benchmark for the number of breeding harriers instead of England was a smart move. I wonder why England has become almost devoid of hen harriers? Wales where persecution is far less has a heathly population.

There is enough evidence to show persecution of raptors around many og the UK's grouse moors is happening and is happening regularly, unfortunately the area's are remote and the number of raptor workers are small in comparison so we can safely assume that not all instances can be discovered.

Where I do take an issue with the article is the insistance that there is talking up of the problem, I believe and my recent experiences are showing me that (at least in this area) there is absolutely no acceptance of predators on the shooting moorland.

You have previously condemned certain parties in the game shooting industry because of an apparent connection to wildlife crime on and around their moors, unsurprisingly perhaps you can probably guess the connection with our moorlands.

The big question that needs to be answered now before it is too late is how do we move forwards, how do we work together to stop these crimes happening?

After so many years of unsucessfully trying to resolve these problems or see any considerable decrease in reported instances of persecution is it any wonder that some people are sensing a chance to push through increased legislation of these estates?

The current legislation isn't working, its close to impossible to police these estates, maybe a different approach would yield better results, I certainly don't see any reason why an employer shouldn't be held responsible for the actions of their employee but I also can't imagine that it will make much difference to those who are currently tarnishing the whole of the shooting community.

James Marchington said...

Hi Mike, good to see you on here.

It's important to make clear that not all shoots are the same, just as not all farms/farmers are the same.

If some intensive farms were harming the environment, we would not condemn farming wholesale and campaign for a ban on farming. We would look at where the problems lie, and seek to crack down on the problem individuals - one would expect support from the 'farming community' for this.

I think the same approach is the most constructive way forward over raptors.

The difference is that no farmer believes that conservationists want to wipe farming off the face of the earth - whereas shooters tend to believe that RSPB etc would like nothing more than to see shooting banned for good.

If we saw RSPB talking about shooting as if it was an integral part of countryside use, and here to stay, there'd be a lot more confidence to work with them.

Mike Price said...

Thanks for the welcome James, I do stop by quite often I just haven't read anything I particually felt the need to comment on.
I like to try to keep a balanced view on things and I also enjoy reading about what people get up to on the moors and in the countryside, particually the conservation issues, but also the events that you report on.

These arguments tend to throw up all types of comparisons and references to other industries and practices but I think these are usually unhelpful, along with the argument of just how much persecution is going on these thing usually end up being the entire discussion and generally don't help us to move fowards.

At some point I think its fair to say we all have to accept that there is a fairly widespread problem, and that in some area's there is substaintial evidence of a sustained and possibly organised campaign against birds of prey that has resulted in the localised removal some protected species.

A quick look at the prosecutions of gamekeepers for such crimes makes it very hard for me at least to deny that it does and is going on.

I must admit that my experience is limited and I am sure I influenced to some extent by my peers (although I not anti hunting/shooting as some people clearly are).

I wish I had the answer to the problem, but what it always comes back to is that at the moment no-one it appears can control the problem and that, that is acceptable only to the people who are insistant on continuing with their campaign.

James Marchington said...

Yes, Mike, I have a strong suspicion it goes on, but as you say it's rather unproductive to get bogged down in arguments about exactly how widespread the problem might be.

It would be a good start if it could be acknowledged that 'good' shoots are not colluding with 'bad' ones, and conspiring to cover up wrongdoing.

...and that they have no way of knowing what mischief others are getting up to, and have no more clue how to stop it, much as they might like to.

I know some will find it hard to believe, but there is already a strong anti-persecution culture in shooting. Anyone who is killing birds of prey will have to hide the fact from other shooters, because it isn't openly tolerated.

That, of course, makes the problem harder to tackle, but tackle it we must and shooters must be seen to be at the forefront of that process.

John Olley said...

James if would like to chat regarding the situation on the north pennines for hen harriers i would be happy to discuss.

James Marchington said...

Anne, sure, happy to hear what you have to say - you can contact me by email on james@marchington.com, or mobile 07836350652