Missing Hen Harriers: time for zero tolerance

The campaign to ban driven grouse shooting began because the pastime is incompatible with the salvation of hen harriers in particular and the protection of raptors in general. Driven grouse shooting requires intensive land use to maximise the grouse available for shooting. The grouse are ‘driven’ at the guns – beaters flush them toward the shooters, a form of ‘canned hunting’. Despite legal protection, these birds of prey keep disappearing from our skies and often turn up poisoned or shot. There is sufficient suitable habitat for over 300 pairs of hen harriers in England and Wales; the actual number of nesting attempts is in single figures – “a tiny handful“; the number of successful breeding attempts is usually zero.

hen harrier

Hen harrier, via Scottish Natural Heritage media library – copyright-free images of English hen harriers are as rare as…the birds themselves

The justification for seeking this ban has widened to include grouse shooting’s other serious negative consequences.
– Environmental: burning and draining moorland to produce optimum heather for the grouse damages its carbon- and water-retaining ability, thereby contributing to climate change and increasing flood risk downstream, i.e. where more people are. Yet we pay these estates to ‘manage’ the land this way through our taxes which subsidise them.
– Animal cruelty: particularly for those unfortunate wild mammals and birds caught in snares or pole traps and left to suffer a slow, painful death.
– Food safety: the lead shot disperses throughout the grouse meat so its consumption is well above recommended levels.

Why the absolutism? Surely conservationists and animal rights activists should be having dialogue with the proponents of grouse shooting?
They have been, for decades – “decade after decade, initiative after initiative has stumbled and fallen.” Land owners and managers have had opportunity after opportunity to change their ways through negotiation. They seem to be unmotivated while they have their cake and shoot it. Meanwhile raptors continue to be poisoned, shot, or just disappear in the vicinity of grouse moors.

For example, consider the position of the Hawk & Owl Trust, which exists to conserve birds of prey in the wild.

“If anything this conflict has become more intense in recent years. Harriers pose a threat to grouse stocks and for this reason they are illegally killed, leading to their near disappearance as a breeding bird from England. This naturally angers conservationists, some of whom are now calling for driven grouse shooting to be licensed or banned. …
The [Hawk & Owl] Trust has watched with dismay as an increasingly adversarial and acrimonious argument has raged for almost twenty years between environmental campaigners and grouse moor interests.”

And yet this dismay has fostered a rather tolerant approach.

“The Hawk and Owl Trust Board of Trustees thought long and hard about how real and realistic pressure could be put on grouse moor managers and their gamekeepers to immediately stop persecuting Hen Harriers. The Trustees came up with two immoveable conditions that would need to be agreed to before the Trust would talk to Defra:

“1) All Hen Harriers fledged within a brood management scheme trial would be satellite tagged so that their movements could be tracked. And the knowledge that they were tagged (and the fear that other HHs might be) would prevent any gamekeepers from shooting them in the sky.”

Unfortunately not. Satellite-tagging hen harriers only confirms that they ‘drop off the radar‘ in the vicinity of grouse moors.

“2) Should any Moorland Association, Game & Wildlife Trust, or National Gamekeepers Organisation member be proved to have illegally interfered with a Hen Harrier nest or to have persecuted a Hen Harrier on their grouse moors, the Hawk & Owl Trust would pull out its expertise from the brood management scheme trial.”

Ah, proof: therein lies the problem; the protection of this species has been a legal imperative since 1954. Since then the number of hen harriers has decreased and the ratio of convictions to persecution incidents is miniscule.

And on the rare occasion when a conviction is achieved?

“The criminal gamekeeper who was recently filmed setting illegal pole traps on a grouse moor, in the vicinity of a female hen harrier, is employed by a member of the Moorland Association (see here), can we now expect a statement from the Hawk & Owl Trust saying they’ve pulled out of supporting the brood meddling scheme because one of their ‘immoveable provisos’ has been broken?”

No, sadly not. The Hawk & Owl Trust are sticking to their er…principles.

“It would be rank stupidity, if not political suicide, for any moorland manager to continue to persecute problem birds when a way out is being provided.”

No, it wouldn’t be, because they are already seemingly impervious to the law. The risk from continuing the status quo is very small. I appreciate the forgiving, pluralist attitude – “behavioural change is seldom achieved by outright adversarial opposition” – but there is currently no incentive for moorland managers to change their behaviour; neither carrot nor stick. There is nothing more that they want. There is no real threat of their lifestyle being at all curtailed. We need to raise the stakes.

grouse moor, empty sky

Empty sky above grouse moor, via Wikipedia

Why bother signing a petition?
The petition already has over 55,000 signatures; 100,000 should trigger a debate in parliament. Perhaps such a debate would focus the lead-dimmed minds of the grouse shooting community. Or perhaps, when it’s the only alternative to an outright ban, the softer option offered by conservation groups will get some traction.

This is not about all shooting, it’s not even about all grouse shooting; this is about a specific activity undertaken by a minority who make no attempt to even explain their actions. Our ethical sense has evolved into the 21st century and we recognise animal cruelty, environmental damage and food safety as issues.

Why are we paying via our taxes to subsidise this activity? Why are we paying again to our water companies for the additional treatment required by water running off those moors? Why are we paying again for increased insurance premiums due to increased flooding risk? Why are we paying again for police investigations of wildlife crimes which are very difficult to resolve? Why are we paying again for government supported study after research study after collaboration after working group after action plan which do nothing to change any of the stakeholders’ perspectives and leave the problem entirely unaffected?

Grouse shooting contributes to the economy? How much? And how much would be contributed by a more sympathetic activity, such as rewilding or ecotourism? Or just by the absence of all the aforementioned costly impacts? Beside the financial cost, what about the moral cost? Why do we allow this minority to indulge militaristic superiority fantasies through inflicting tremendous cruelty on other creatures? What about nature’s intrinsic value? Driven grouse shooting is not sport and it’s not acceptable.

Please consider signing and sharing the petition to ban driven grouse shooting. Thank you.
If that’s not attractive enough a prospect, it’s an anagram of ‘overburdening hooting ass’.

Plenty more detail from Mark Avery.
Plenty of facts and figures from Raptor Persecution UK.
Chris Packham with more ammunition.

This article is also published at Lifelogy.

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Writer, researcher and biophile in Kinross-shire, Scotland, reconnecting with nature through studying and practising ecopsychology – lifelogy.wordpress.com

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1 Response

  1. 11th July 2016

    […] This article is also published at Wildlife Articles. […]

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