When it comes to a particular bird of prey species, there is a constant struggle for its survival in the UK. So many articles, reports, papers, opinions and tweets that cover the subject of this bird. Who is it? That’s right, the hen harrier. When we think of the hen harrier, there are so many different aspects to consider and explore, and it is perhaps this that makes the protection of this bird one of our most high profile conservation issues. Most of us are aware of the history of the hen harrier in the UK, their historic persecution, their current low breeding densities and the level of persecution they still face today. However, despite the very clear importance of these issues, this article is not directed at these particular points (I might have mentioned those in other articles). No, this is more about some of the attitudes and ideas that surround this magnificent bird.
But surely, our attitudes are mostly good, are they not? They are utterly and entirely focused on the conservation and survival of this bird. In fact, there are those in our country that dedicate most of their time to the survival of this species, so how can there be a problem with attitude? Well, doing a little bit of digging, I have come across numerous statements by some (who shall not be named) that leave a little to be desired when it comes to a genuine interest in conserving this species. For example, one comment was in reply to another concerning the low breeding densities of hen harriers, with the individual in question simply responding by essentially saying, what is the big deal? They then stated: ‘There’s loads of them’. Loads. Of. Them. Is that my blood pressure rising? At this point, living in an area of upland Northumberland where there should be loads of them, I felt like running around the endless swathes of heather moorland, standing on the highest points and shouting ‘Where?!’ I know, my maturity knows no bounds. But taking a step back, I think it would be fair to assume that this statement was in fact referring to the global population of the hen harrier, rather than the population in the UK. In which case, yes, you could argue, there are ‘loads’ of them. Approximately 100,000-499,999, if you’re interested in the actual figure?
So, this statement has a point then. There are loads of them. There could be almost half a million! So, why worry? After all, extinction, whether it is local or global, can be and often has been, a natural occurrence. We know from the fossil record that in the last 4 billion years of our Earth’s history, there have been hundreds of natural extinctions and several mass extinctions, the dinosaurs being perhaps the most well known of these. So, why don’t we just let the hen harrier go? If we’re fighting a losing battle, why not cut our losses now and invest all that precious effort, time and money into something else, a battle that we have a better chance of winning? Well, for one, because that would be defeatist and if there is anything that those who love wildlife and care about conservation are not, it is defeatist. But there are of course more solid arguments. For one, this is a species that has undoubtedly (though some would deny that) declined as a direct result human activities and actions. To say there are plenty of hen harriers elsewhere, so we’re going to carry on doing what we’re doing and essentially wash our hands of the problem is, a little naive, because this is a species that is native to our lands and therefore has a place in our ecosystem and natural heritage. Imagine if we had the same attitude toward all of our species. Imagine if, unless they are endemic to our country, we had the attitude that we don’t need to protect that species, because there are plenty elsewhere. The state of our ecosystems and biodiversity would be abysmal! Or, on the other hand, what if every other country took the same stance on the hen harrier, for example? There’s loads of them! Well, very quickly, there would not be.
But maybe it was an off the hand comment, maybe the people who hold this view are merely standing up for their opinions and pointing out that this species is not about to be confined to the world’s history books if we in the UK don’t make changes. Maybe. But it highlights a fundamental problem with the attitudes of so many when it comes to conserving not only the hen harrier, but other species that are struggling to survive on our shores. How many times in history have people turned their backs on a problem, confining it to others and disaster has followed? I can think of a few. But it is not just this that needs to be addressed, it is the seeming inability of some groups and individuals to accept that the plight of the hen harrier is a serious problem that is actually happening now! How many times have I seen ‘evidence’ or a good old trusty (yet slightly questionable) map to display, what some would claim, shows the improvement in hen harrier numbers since the Second World War, or that their breeding ranges have actually increased? So there! (they seem to say). Well, denying the problem does nothing to alleviate the issue, nor does it serve any agenda that others may have.
As with many things, when it comes to the conservation of a struggling species, the first and most fundamental step is to at least admit that there is a problem. Denial only makes the problem and the attitudes of others, worse. Concerning the hen harrier, there may be ‘loads’ of them elsewhere, but does that give you the right to allow their extinction in our country? Does it give you the right to destroy the opportunity for people to observe this bird in the wild, in a country where it has a place in the ecosystem? No. It may only a small phrase: ‘There’s loads of them’, but the naivety, irresponsibility and narrow-mindedness that surrounds it is monumental.
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