Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Harriers: the case for management

I've had a fascinating conversation with Dr Adam Smith, director of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust Scotland.

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."
I am slowly coming round to the view that this perceived "blackmail" is the single biggest stumbling block to cooperation and progress on this issue.

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:


Mike Price said...

Herein lies the crux of the matter, whilst there is the on going problems of repeated illegal killing of birds of prey there can never be a sensible discussion about legal control of birds of prey.

Looking at the peak nestwatch document again could you ever imagine people agreeing to what would be seen as relaxing the protection on the birds of prey?

The law as is stands cannot be policed effectively, adding legalised killing of birds of prey into the equation would in my opinion make it even harder to enforce.

The only way I can see raptor control working is if the task was performed in a none lethal way and not done by the estate or anyone with links to it and by that I mean completely free from any influence as I believe there are cases where DEFRA and RSPB have some financial links to some estates.

In the first instance a marked reduction in persecution would go a long way to helping resolve the issues, maybe even proactively working with the raptor groups to try to re-establish breeding populations of the missing birds of prey, there is plenty of evidence to show that birds keep returning to try to breed in these fantastic habitats, so I am sure it wouldn't take too long for them to become sustainable once again.

With all that said, I do feel that if there are then new instances of persecution linked to a shooting estate, the estates should expect to have it's shooting rights removed for a time and that new sentences should be looked into for continued abuse.

James Marchington said...

Mike, I can sympathise with your obvious frustration, but this isn't the way to move forward, in my view.

It's unhelpful if people are going to refuse to talk 'whilst there is the ongoing problem'.

That assumes that every shooting estate is guilty and part of some wide-reaching raptor-killing conspiracy, and they simply aren't.

Surely we'd talk to the AA about road safety without demanding an end to speeding first?

And I think it's too simplistic to think in terms of 'relaxing protection'. Killing birds of prey is illegal; I'm not suggesting making it less illegal, but let's look at ways to reduce the conflict between protection and commercial interests.

As for penalties, the problem is always going to be obtaining evidence that will stand up in court. Increasing existing penalties may have some small effect, but it won't solve the problem.

Mike Price said...

Trust is the first problem that needs to be overcome in my opinion and its the lack of trust in the shooting estates, a lack of trust that in many instances seems to be completely justified given the instances of gamekeepers being charged with related crimes in England and Scotland, added to that the weight of evidence of persecution that cannot be proven to be linked to an individual or organisation but seems to happen close to shooting interests (as with the Goshawks locally, clearly some serious questions need to be answered)

Is it really to much to ask that we see some positive action on the part of the shooting estates to try to see this trust rebuilt?

How can you build trust when these issues are on going? Without trust how can they work together?

Again you use a totally unrelated analogy to try to justify your arguement, unhelpful in my opinion.

Also wouldn't you say that its the wrong analogy anyway, infact it would be a closer analogy to state that instead of asking us all to agree to slow down and obey the speed limit, the tax payer funded massive campaigns and the introduction of speed cameras which are aimed at those breaking the law but cannot catch them everytime they do break the law, or a truck driver that has a tachograph that records his every journey, although I am sure some stayed completely within the law there was evidence to show that this needed to be tightly monitored

Estates that are acting legally would have nothing to fear other than having to trust that where they have a problem with raptors someone is going to take action that will ultimately resolve the problem, which is more than they have at the moment, if they are acting within the law they just have to tolerate the losses.

You see there is a lot of evidence showing that there are problems with persection in just about all the area's covered by North England Raptor Forum, I believe its more widespread than people believe or are willing to admit.

So with that in mind how are the estates that don't support these practises managing at the moment? Simply either they are losing large numbers of game birds to birds of prey or there are lower populations of the raptors (why would this be so?, we know the habitat is good and there is abundant food) if there is some secret that is making their shoot more successful with this issue than some of the other places then wouldn't this information be useful to everyone involved?

Another person you could look up for information would be Dr Arjun Amar (in the interest of a balanced discussion involving as many of the interested party's as possible) he gave a very interesting talk at last years NERF conference about the success of breeding peregrine falcons on or around shooting estates, I believe a fully peer reviewed paper is to be released later in the year but it might be worth asking if he would discuss some of the findings with you.


James Marchington said...


Are you sure you really want to find a way forward here, or do you simply believe that shooters are inherently evil and should be done away with?

We could bang on about people involved with raptors disturbing nests, stealing eggs, etc - all of which has happened in the past - but it wouldn't move the debate forward.

You are focusing on the issue of denial, and yet I'm finding that people involved with shooting accept that it happens and would like to stop it - like me, they realise that it's immensely damaging to shooting and the sooner it can be stopped the better.

We could argue all day about the number of crimes that might or might not be happening (and there is precious little real evidence to prove it one way or the other) but we'd be no nearer to a solution.

Isn't it better to talk?

Mike Price said...

I was thinking exactly the same thing when I read your first reply, it's all one sided. (no we can't/won't stop killing raptors, the law won't protect them either as you can't prove it, therefor you have to do it our way or not at all).

The problem is that even the people who are quite balanced (at least I like to think I am and I am making an assumption based on your previous writings that you are) on the issue are still miles apart in their views.

You can dimiss me as an anti if you wish but I can assure you I am not infact being from farming stock, guns are something I have always been around and have enjoyed, as are moorlands.

My issue is that when looking for common ground, as Dr Smith states the issue is that for all intents and purposes "let us control birds of prey legally so we don't have to do it illegally" is the stance that appears to be being made and due to the mounting evidence its impossible to trust that this will be anything short of slaughter on an even bigger scale than is taking place at the moment.

And that is I am afraid how I and I suspect others see it at present, the question I want to ask is how do you change that without first working together to build trust and how can that trust be built if there is evidence of continued wrong doing when we are supposed to be working on a solution together.

One other thing I would state is that by throwing everything up in someones face you could easily sway their opinion in a way that is counter productive, it would be very easy to read your comments negatively and for me to dismiss you as another person who is trying to put a positive spin on things because they feel that their sport/business is under threat due to the growing public disconnent around more than one issue related to how you ensure the maximum number of birds to shoot each season and that otherwise you would not be interested in this issue (I sincerely hope that is not the case) just because we don't agree does not make me the enemy

James Marchington said...

Absolutely right Mike, sorry if I have appeared confrontational.

This question of trust is a tricky one, though. You are clearly not minded to give anyone the benefit of the doubt, so how will they earn your trust?

PS That was exactly Adam Smith's point - it's perceived as blackmail, but look closer and it's not what shooters are saying.

Mike Price said...

You have to earn trust, there is no other way and the way things lie currenty I feel the onus is on gamekeepers/land owners to do more to achieve this.

The benefit of the doubt is not something that is at issue here, there is no doubt.

To quote Steve Redpath "there is pretty compelling evidence from a variety of sources that illegal killing is going on and limiting harrier numbers on managed grouse moors".

And you can be assured there is plenty of cases that prove its not limited to just the Hen harrier.

There is nothing to stop an estate that acts within the law from building bridges with members of local raptors groups, I have heard of estates working with raptor workers in some areas and have spoken to raptor workers who feel that not enough effort is made to make more of these relationships, maybe not everyone within whichever raptor group's involved are suited to working like this but I am sure there are some workers in each group with whom it would be possible to work (I am also sure that there are some estates and some raptor workers where this approach will never work due to the keeper/landowner/Raptor workers person beliefs but they would have to be dealt with seperately and again that opens up a whole raft of new issues many of which could derail any process that was making process).

James Marchington said...

An afterthought: the Code of Good Shooting Practice is endorsed by all the major shooting organisations, and I suspect is written into many shooting leases - it specifies, among other things, that the shoot must comply with all relevant law on predator control etc.

James Marchington said...

Agreed Mike, and it’s encouraging that some estates and raptor workers are building bridges. I don’t think there is any quick fix to be found - this will take hard work, optimism and commitment from all sides, but the goal is worth it.

vicky said...

I think the arguament for a legal way to control raptors (egg pricking would be my method of choice where relocation was not an option as it seems the most humane and least emotive)is that IF landowners knew they would be able to apply to control raptors IF their numbers rose to a point where they made farming/shooting/other wildlife management non-viable they would be more likely to tolerate the birds on their land in the first place. Landowners are trusted to control foxes without wiping them ut so hy can't they be trusted with badgers and birds of prey?