Friday, 30 January 2015

Everyone Needs A Harlequin In Their Life

This latest offering from the Sexton & Tilmouth stable sees two middle-aged birders make an epic journey across Scotland in search of a rare duck and lost youth. Capturing the zeitgeist of early 2015 their dialogue addresses many of the major issues of our time including where best to acquire Lasagne Pies in the oil capital of Britain, what to do in the event of an IS kidnap whilst birding and how best to age and sex Snow Buntings. This Oscar-nominated account culminates in a few dramatic minutes when the pair stumble (literally) across the mythical Harlequin in the warm afternoon sun and as time seems to stop finally find peace and make some sort of sense of the meaning of life.

The silence of the darkest hour is broken as a car slides into the car park and pulls up slowly aside the only other vehicle present. Two dark figures emerge, one from each car and begin to move objects from one vehicle to another. In a few seconds both drop sack-like into the black vehicle and it leaves, the car park once again still and silent under the neon Homebase sign....

The wind buffets the car as it motors through the imposing structure of the Forth Road bridge and on north to the badlands that lay beyond. Inside the two figures are deep in animated conversation that seems to swerve with the bends in the road, heading one way then back another, ebbing and flowing between shared laughter and angry conviction.

As our two central characters arrive at the 'old toilet block' they begin searching for a toilet only to find they no longer exist. In the background a Dipper sings and the sound of the rapids increases the urgency of the search. The two head off towards the urban jungle that lies upstream, hardened tower blocks gaze down at them unblinking and unmoved. An unshaven ginger-heeded local clutching a can of low quality lager lopes past eying the pair and their array of optical equipment warily.

After trudging through an eerily empty modern housing estate, the occasional window bedecked with the secret society sign of Stella Artois the pair found a break in the security fence that they were looking for and yomped the last few yards to the riverbank. Silently they stood as the young male that plunged through the racing water hauled himself out onto the far shore stretching and flaunting his sleek body at them in the full confidence of his youth before launching into the air and muscling upriver leaving our pair breathless and desiring more.

An hour later we find the duo searching through more Goldeneye than a Boxing Day afternoon on the BBC as a black minibus arrives on the scene and the black-clad occupants jump out, surround and begin interrogating our main characters. Inadvertently our pair had breezed in to a well planned operation called Operation Heatherslea also seeking the exhibitionist young male who had earlier held our pair in thrall.

Despite an extensive search the trail went as cold as a three day old Lasagne pie. As the sun began to drop and the day, like our unlikely heroes began to slowly fade, they summoned their remaining energy and made one last visit to where the boy had so audaciously revealed himself that morning. As they arrived a drake Goosander lounged lazily out beyond the rapids and there like a sleeping baby lay their quarry.

Spurred by their presence the boy slipped into the water, majestically riding the white water towards them as they stood breathless. The young male came close sensing there was no threat, mere metres from their touch he began to move, pushing himself across the copper dappled water again and again the water running down his muscular torso as he flung himself headlong into the torrent. In those few moments of golden light they saw themselves once again, young, free, beautiful (it's fictional license!) and the last 30 years slipped away downstream.

Renewed, rejuvenated the pair slipped away just as the foot soldiers of Operation Heatherslea surrounded the boy and he was lost to view behind a sea of green. Once again feeling good they stopped to help a sick local beggar in the car park and offered a few crumbs to help him make it through the hard winter still to come on the Deen.

An hour later inching through the grey city centre a flash of blue as bright as the tumbling water turned their heads and momentarily their eyes shone again only to realise this time the Adidas emblazoned tracksuit was not a reprise of their earlier quarry.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Hen Harriers - HOT issue.

Like many I am following the Hen Harrier debate closely. The latest intervention by The Hawk and Owl Trust has been an interesting development that appears to have broken the stalemate over brood management (or at least re-ignited the debate) and may well now see DEFRA's Hen Harrier recovery Plan implemented irrespective of RSPB and other conservation opposition to that part of the their proposals.

The two 'immoveable conditions' in the Hawk and Owl Trust's argument for becoming involved in a brood management scheme are as follows:

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.
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. (source)

Reading Phillip Merrick's (Chairman of HOT) comments about this it is apparent that he has the best of intentions and sees their involvement as a way to break the impasse in what he believes is a human/human conflict. Do the above conditions stand up to scrutiny though?

Does satellite tagging prevent persecution? There is no evidence to suggest that this is true or false. However if a 'bad' gamekeeper is set on removing a Hen Harrier and ensuring that no evidence is left behind who is better equipped to do so both in terms of time, equipment and experience? Guns, dogs trained to recover shot birds and hours in the field. Add in remote locations with few witnesses it is perhaps reasonable to assume that some would not be put off by a satellite tag from pulling the trigger if the shot presented itself?

I don't have any statistics on membership of the three organisations listed in point 2 but it left me wondering what might happen if illegal interference of persecution came from outside the membership. Would this result in the HOT staying involved? However the key point here in my view is the definition of persecution. My belief is that most people assume that this means killing or as stated 'interfering with a nest' but I was reminded of Amanda Anderson, Director of the Moorland Association's comments in Patrick Barkham's recent long article on Hen Harriers in The Guardian in which she said “A landowner is not going to encourage them to settle,” added Anderson. She suggested that hen harriers could be easily scared off. “They are very flighty birds.”

One of the Moorland Association's members Stephen Mawle had this to say  “It’s one thing to let the lion prowl around your stock pen, it’s another to open the gate and let him in. You’ve got a huge financial incentive for hen harriers not to nest on your land.”

It is clear that a large part of the problem in England and Wales is the lack of nesting attempts, few successes but a startling lack of any number of failures too. If interference by preventing Hen Harriers from settling, moving them on in any number of ways, is widespread then the actual killing of Hen Harriers may well be taking place on a more limited basis than was once the case. Why take the risk of killing a bird that you can simply disturb daily. Unless you happen to be in one of a few well-watched recent breeding sites in Spring the chances of such disturbance ever coming to light or even being recognised as deliberate rather than just 'going about the daily business' are probably extremely remote.

Will the Hawk and Owl Trust move open the door to a recovery in those areas where the harriers might be tolerated or will it prove to be the thin end of a wedge driven into bird of prey protection by grouse moor owners? Only time will tell but I hope that all the good achieved in Kent by Phillip Merricks isn't overshadowed with a toxic legacy on raptors.