The enormity of human impact on the planet is perhaps best summed up by the story of the passenger pigeon. It’s a well-known story, but it bears repeating. Once these creatures were probably the most populous bird on the entire planet, with flocks of them blotting out the sun for hours on end in parts of North America. If one could still see passenger pigeons in such numbers today they would surely be an American icon, even a tourist attraction. Instead, they act as a symbol of man’s callous disregard for other species. America developed a seemingly insatiable hunger for these birds. So much so that in 1914 the last passenger pigeon – a female named Martha – died in Cincinnati Zoo. That was it. Gone. Extinct.
Of course, this isn’t the first time human impact has caused a perfectly avoidable extinction. Over the years we’ve sent numerous species to their final demise: the quagga, the great auk and the Tasmanian tiger to name but a few. And yet the remaining symbol of rapacious human impact on wildlife is actually one of the oldest: the dodo. Unlike the previously mentioned species we have no photographs of the dodo. The last known sighting was in 1662, long before the invention of photography. The images we have of dodos are drawings fashioned from the study of their skeletons and contemporary descriptions. To 21st century humans they might as well be mythical creatures.
The dodo was pushed to extinction largely by human interference on the island of Mauritius. Having evolved on an island where they had no natural predators they were unafraid of humans. Taking advantage of this folly we proceeded to eat them, destroy their habitat and introduce animals that competed for their resources. Ultimately, this caused their extinction. Nowadays, despite the considerable lack of knowledge we have about their biology and behavior, we remember them. They symbolize the dangers of exploiting a species without any conservational framework. Their extinction warns us that should we interfere too hastily in the natural world the diversity of the planet will suffer. The image of the dodo acts as a morality tale, helping us avoid any more unnecessary extinction.
Or does it?
Although the image of the dodo is almost universally recognized we seem to pay no heed to the story it tells. There are currently 17 different species listed by the WWF as critically endangered – which means that, if something doesn’t change soon, they will all ‘go the way of the dodo’. The list includes the Sumatran rhino, the Sumatran tiger and the Sumatran elephant: all species that we are, from childhood, taught to adore. The extinction of any species is pretty much globally deplored. Regardless of whether you’re a Texan Republican or a Green party member from Devon, the idea of an animal being forcibly removed from this earth because of human impact is fairly abhorrent. Even climate skeptic Tony Abbott would lament the loss of the koala.
Still, when it happens in our own country – albeit on a smaller scale – we hardly bat an eyelid. Take, for instance, the story of the hen harrier.
By the beginning of the 20th century hen harriers were virtually extinct in the UK, surviving only in the Outer Hebrides and on Orkney. After World War II they began to slowly colonise their old haunts on the mainland again, benefitting from new laws protecting the rights of wildlife. Yet today, after decades of committed conservation work by organisations like the RSPB, their numbers flounder. On their website the RSPB boasts that there is enough suitable habitat for three hundred breeding pairs of hen harriers in England alone. In 2014 there were only four successful pairs. Once again nature is losing. And once again it is down to the actions of our own species.
A few days before the ‘Glorious 12th’ of August this year the RSPB confirmed that a hen harrier – named ‘Annie’ by conservationists – had been illegally shot. She was found in April on a remote moor in South Lanarkshire. This was by no means an isolated incident. Over the years dozens of hen harriers have either been found shot or simply gone missing (five male hen harriers have gone missing this year alone). And when it comes to finding a culprit the evidence is greatly stacked against gamekeepers.
To illustrate this point I’d like to share the story of another raptor: the osprey. Much like the hen harrier it was once dangerously close to extinction in Britain, but through the efforts of the RSPB and many other conservation societies its story is one of success. This summer I saw a breeding pair on Loch of the Lowes, where chicks have fledged successfully for decades. So, what’s the difference? Why does one species prosper and the other decline? The answer can be summed up with a single word: diet.
Ospreys eat fish. They swoop down and with unimaginable skill and precision pull weighty trout from our lochs. Hen harriers do not eat fish. In fact, they have something in common with many of the people who pay to shoot game birds: their favourite food is grouse. Nobody seems to mind ospreys predating on the fish in our lochs. The economic loss of fish is severely outweighed by the tourists the birds attract. Yet the same cannot be said for the hen harrier. It’s diet conflicts with our own interests and therefore it is fatally punished for it. Gamekeepers shoot or poison them in order to protect their stock of grouse. Not all gamekeepers, but many.
I do not make this claim lightly. The evidence is available for anyone willing to look at a few websites (Mark Avery’s blog, Raptor Persecution Scotland, the RSPB). Conservationists valiantly protect these birds with two hen harrier nests in England under 24hr surveillance. Though there is only so much they can do. Without media attention the plight of the hen harrier will continue much along the same lines. The fact that two nests need to be under constant surveillance bear witness to the un-sustainability of the present situation.
There’s a reason why only certain environmental stories get told in the media. Some stories, like the tragic tale of Cecil the Lion, are brutal – if geographically distant – tales that unite people against a common enemy (if not always in the right ways). They make news organisations look like the good guys, without any foreseeable large issues arising from the one story. Other stories – like that of ‘Annie’ the hen harrier – conflict with interests. If the story of the hen harrier was reported then organisations like the Countryside Alliance would claim that the BBC is being politically bias (much like they did to Chris Packham, claiming that he ‘abused his position’ when he wrote that conservation societies ‘can’t risk upsetting their old friends’ when it comes to grouse shooting and the plight of the hen harrier). Cecil’s story cannot instigate change close to home; Annie’s can, therefore it doesn’t get told.
That’s not to say progress isn’t being made. Mark Avery’s recent publication ‘Inglorious’ has managed to convince nearly 20,000 people to sign a petition calling for driven grouse shooting to be banned. Not to mention the 77,000 people who signed a petition calling for Chris Packham to retain his job at the BBC after the claims made by the Countryside Alliance. However, even these two figures combined are still not enough to reach the 100,000 signatures required for the subject to be debated in Parliament. More needs to be done. More people need to know about the hen harrier. Otherwise, what can we really expect to change in a country where the Defra response to Mark Avery’s petition was full of figures supplied by the shooting industry? (The response claims that shooting brings in over 2 billion to the UK economy every year, a figure that matches that of 2014 The Value of Shooting report – commissioned by, amongst others, the Countryside Alliance – which was found by economic experts at Sheffield Hallam University to be ‘containing much information that is not testable, robust data, but opinion submitted by a sample with a stake in the outcome’. The real figure is probably considerably less than 1 billion, particularly if government subsidies are subtracted).
A few months ago I visited the island of Hoy, one of the Orkney Islands. My visit had somehow coincided with the announcement that for the first time in a hundred years White-Tailed Sea Eagles were attempting to nest on Orkney. From a miniscule lay-by on a silent country road I stared through the scope belonging to a RSPB warden and saw the enormous yellow beak of a sea eagle, scouting the cliff-face from the comfort of her nest. After gawking at her for a while my fellow tourist suggested we get a move on if we were going to make it to the Old Man. It was an unusually sunny day and as we rounded the corner I closed my eyes behind my sunglasses and lay back in the seat thoroughly content.
‘Ross, what kind of bird is that?’ said my friend, pointing to open space beside the passenger window.
I opened my eyes. There, flying low above the moor and parallel to the car, was a male hen harrier. He was unmistakeable. The cool, pastel grey of his plumage and the delicate flight were exciting enough for me to demand the car be stopped. We parked. He ascended. And there, standing by the side of an empty road in the sunshine, I saw three hen harriers – two females and a male – perform ludicrous aeronautical feats in the air above me.
Everyone should, if they desire, be able to have an experience similar to mine. Hen harriers are truly magical birds and to deny people the chance of seeing them in the interest of personal economic gain is, in my opinion, the height of self-interest.
To liken the killing of hen harriers to the act of poaching elephants may seem like an exaggerated comparison. But what’s the difference? Regardless of where, or how severely, these animals decline we’re still denying people the chance to witness something remarkable. Nature is still being imposed upon, and we – despite what some avid shooters may tell you – are missing out. The opinions of the few result in the depriving of the many. We are, apparently, a nation of animal lovers. If this claim can be considered true then we need to start shouting our allegiances not just to the pets in our homes, but also to the wild animals in our hedgerows, forests and skies. If we don’t, then the dodo is a thoroughly useless symbol.
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