Digital Ischemia

26/12/2019

Missing Hen Harriers: time for zero tolerance

This updates my post on grouse shooting from July 2016 on my Lifelogy blog, particularly in the light of the publication of the Grouse Moor Management Group (Werritty) report for the Scottish government. Also, as climate change receives welcome focus, we should not overlook the extinction crisis. Climatic upheaval is not to blame for the biodiversity crisis, but ‘the enemies of old’ – agriculture and killing.

Today those of us within ear-‘shot’ of a game estate will be subjected to the usual ‘cracking’ soundtrack…

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. Golden Eagles, whilst recovering well at the national scale, are under-represented in those parts of their range containing grouse moors. 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 – the collateral damage:

– Environmental damage: 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. When used correctly, the medication flubendazole is effective in reducing endemic strongyle worm levels in grouse guts with residues in food for human consumption presenting a very low risk. Hiwever, there is some evidence that prescription levels are too high, that gritting holidays are not always observed, and that grit may not always be withdrawn from grouse at least 28 days before Red Grouse enter the food chain.

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 can have their cake and shoot it. What is considered as environmentally sustainable can depend on the values attached to ‘nature’ and biological science. But it’s deeper than that: they dispute scientific premises and conclusions at the most fundamental level. They maintain a tension between the ‘expert’ knowledge of scientists reported in peer-reviewed sources and ‘local’ knowledge held by practitioners based in the field. Meanwhile raptors continue to be poisoned, shot, or just disappear in the vicinity of grouse moors.

“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 knowledge that [hen harriers] 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.

“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. Obtaining the necessary evidence to support a prosecution is very difficult.

“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 practically 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 at all; neither carrot nor stick. There is nothing more that they want. There is no real threat of their lifestyle being at all curtailed. They simply don’t acknowledge that their actions are in any way related to the problem. They wring their hands about the loss of these lives and continue business as usual. They produce superficial marketing exercises that seem to presume an inalienable right to continue their activities. We need to raise the stakes.

grouse moor empty sky

Empty sky above grouse moor, via Wikipedia

In sufficient numbers, hen harriers can reduce the densities of grouse to such low levels that driven grouse shooting is impracticable. There are clearly two ways to view this statement: a viable business ‘producing’ grouse must eradicate hen harriers; or driven grouse shooting demands ecocide.

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 are entrenched in their worldview. 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? How quickly trade-offs between economics and criminality arise: “the task of balancing the issue of tackling wildlife crime with the contribution that grouse moor management makes to the rural economy has proved very difficult.” Why do we allow this minority to indulge mercenary 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.

Ban driven grouse shooting. 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.
More ammunition from Chris Packham.

The original version of this article is also published at Wildlife Articles.

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