The last couple of days have seen an upsurge in the war of words about our birds of prey and particularly Hen Harriers coming from all directions. Different organisations and individuals trying to put across their agenda. The sad fact is that whatever the rights and wrongs this year has been a bloody awful one for English Hen Harriers and a solution still looks some way off.
A few days ago the voice of the shooting man James Marchington posted a provocatively titled piece on his blog 'So Where's The Illegal Persecution of Harriers?' highlighting that there were no 'confirmed' incidents of illegal persecution in 2008. Of course as James and those who carry out the destruction and nest disturbance are all too well aware, finding and providing evidence for these cases is extremely difficult. To be fair to him once we had finished with the handbags in the comments he did state his position as follows:
Let me state my position clearly. I know that illegal killing of raptors does happen. Although I've never witnessed it with my own eyes, I accept that people connected with shooting are sometimes responsible. I have never seen reliable statistics on the true extent of the problem, and can only speculate on how widespread it is. I am 100% against any illegal killing of raptors. Any gamekeeper or shooter who illegally kills a raptor is not worthy of the name, and I despise him. If I personally came across a case of this happening, I would not hesitate to report it to the authorities, and I would urge any gamekeeper or shooter to do the same. It is not only despicable it drags the reputation of shooting through the dirt.
Which is commendable and the only point I would take issue with is his comment about having 'never seen reliable statistics' as I'm not quite sure how he would suggest going about establishing that, a phone survey of every gamekeeper? "Have you shot any raptors lately?" or "Have you laid out any poison baits that could have inadvertently been consumed by raptors?"
A day or so later James goes off on one at the Independent for poor journalism in their front page story on wildlife crime, complaining "Is there a huge increase in actual crime, or is this an increase in the reporting of something that was already happening?" Slightly missing the point that regardless of whether there is more or less wildlife crime or whether it is simply being better reported it is still there and happening too often.
A case in point yesterday as I read about another raptor incident this time with a female Red Kite in Yorkshire. the bird died from illegal poisoning but the post mortem revealed "that the female kite had survived shotgun pellet wounds but had died from Carburofan and rat poisoning." This was the fourth such incident in the Washburn Valley in the last nine years (that have been found & reported). Oh and just so JM doesn't think I am being selective the shotgun pellets could have come from a black gay urban solicitor who likes to shoot at weekends or a Polish plumber who has brought his illegal shotgun into the country to catch what he can just like he did when he was at home or even a white gamekeeper who gets a knowing glance from his employer every time the 'hooky beaks' are mentioned. It should however be pointed out that no conclusion should be drawn from the coincidence that the area supports some of the 'finest English grouse Moors.'
To rub salt the national media reporting on Wildlife Crime figures (the same ones JM was disenchanted with) name 'Northumbria' as the wildlife crime capital "with 525 reported cases between February and July this year. The county is also responsible for the highest number of wildlife shootings." Aside from 'Northumbria' not existing, presumably they have mashed Northumberland & Durham's figures together to come up with this, it doesn't exactly
make you proud to live here does it?
Then today after nearly redeeming himself James, who obviously had a bad weekend, goes off on one again about the RSPB's press release. As Hen Harrier is not globally threatened JM reaches the conclusion that it's simply a case of "not as many as they'd (the RSPB) like breeding in Britain." You can read his post here and his 'cherry picking' of quotes from the BTO to support his belief that it ain't the shooters to blame. You will notice that he significantly makes no mention of the BASC's Chief Executive's comments in the same press release that "It is imperative that we find a solution to the conflict between grouse shooting and birds of prey and those who manage grouse moors must continue to be vigilant against persecution of harriers."
So up here in 'Northumbria' what really is the situation. Historically Selby (1831) described Hen Harrier as breeding regularly on many of the Northumberland Moors. By 1912 George Bolam blamed it's virtual disappearance on 'the advent of the gamekeeper with his traps and guns.' Subsequently numbers recovered slightly when planting of the Border Forests created additional suitable habitat. Sadly since the Nineties illegal persecution has played a significant role in keeping numbers low, 1993 saw a female and three young killed, 1995 four pairs persecuted, the same in 1996, 1999 saw Starlings laced with poison used at one site and so on.
At the same time numbers elsewhere, Scotland for example, away from grouse moors have grown.
We are where we are through a combination of factors, historical illegal persecution from a wide variety of sources as well as pesticide use have contributed to the near eradication of Hen Harrier as a breeding bird in England.
The last major studies in both England & Scotland (Etheridge et al 1997 & Hudson 1992)drew the same conclusions finding " Of territorial female Hen Harriers present on moorland in England in spring, only 28% breed successfully on commercially managed grouse moor compared with 70% on moors with special protection schemes." and in Scotland "only 20% of females successful on managed grouse moor compared with 60% on other moorland."
The conclusion of the English study is remarkably similar to that from Scotland: illegal persecution limits natural distribution and densities of Hen Harriers in the UK, a finding which has been acknowledged by game interests (e.g. Potts 1997).
Is there a solution? As managed game moors have unnaturally high numbers of Red Grouse they represent a good food source for the Hen Harrier. They are managed for profit and the reduction in available 'game' that can occur from Hen Harrier numbers allowed to breed freely will significantly reduce the profit. So either we ban game shooting removing the desire to control the Hen Harrier or we make it more profitable via stewardship schemes to manage game moors to include the Hen Harrier. The removal of chicks for a possible lowland re-introduction scheme could only ever be a short term measure and supplementary feeding whilst it may work needs to be paid for. It comes back to how much we care and whether we are prepared to see our taxes used to make rich landowners richer in exchange for abiding by the laws of the land.