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.

31/08/2018

Mirabelle the Admirable Red Admiral

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , — Teepwriter @ 16:00

(disclaimer: may not be female, admirable or red)

August is for visitations. Nature creeps in at me. One of my veg box salad bags turned out to contain beetroot leaves plus a bonus gold lamé bodystocking or chrysalis.

red admiral butterfly pupa

Eye-catchingly glamorous – apparently a red admiral butterfly in embryo. Chores were immediately sidelined in favour of entomology windowsill. Nothing happened. Advised to keep the effort hydrated, I gave pupa and leaf a daily drip of water. I couldn’t resist a light examination. This produced obvious inner writhings so I desisted. With no idea of pupation timescale or its likelihood of survival after several days’ refrigeration, inevitably I missed the emergence.

red admiral butterfly empty chrysalis

After a tense search of surfaces, curtains, plant pot, I discovered a crumpled, desiccated butterfly perched on my baffy. Repatriated to the windowsill, I plied her with water and sugar-water in bottle caps, and more beetroot leaves for shelter. None were attractive. I pushed a cap of water near her and she stalked off in the other direction until she became entangled in spiderweb by the plant pot. Mostly she was inert for such long periods I kept thinking she was dead until she moved again.

red admiral butterfly standing on beetroot leaf

Why do I involve myself in these unnatural nature observations? After a couple of days’ impasse, in desperation I refreshed the water and plonked a kiwi fruit end nearby. I even poured some water into furrows of a fresh beetroot leaf incase the caps were too high-sided. Instead she nodded into a discoloured puddle beside her discarded chrysalis.

red admiral butterfly standing on beetroot leaf

This crumpled husk dragging about a small plot and refusing conventional nourishment seemed disturbingly familiar. Apparently prompted by my pointless foutering nearby, she pushed her front legs off the leaf across the varnished sill, sliding and retracting in a sorry dance. Concerned for her falling off, I pushed the kiwi chunk across as a barrier. She uncurled her tongue and probed encouragingly. I left her to it. She had a good sook then left her mark. I don’t know if this is a good rating or an emetic complaint.

kiwi fruit piece post-butterfly

With this happening late in the evening, my mind was already birling loosely on its spindle. Was this butterfly paralleling not just my feebleness but also my fussiness for drinking dechlorinated water in a plastic free vessel? For fruit sugar rather than refined? Exhausted by my ineptitude and daft notions, the following day she retreated to a dried leaf hanging behind the plant pot.

red admiral butterfly on dead leaf

The next morning she was definitely dead. I recognised the tell-tale sign of a detached head. Caring for your chrysalis score: zero. Whichever god has me on their observation windowsill, I’m ready for my head-lopping now.

red admiral butterfly dead

Perhaps the crumpled wings and the abdomen twisted like a modelling balloon were signs that she was doomed. Where were the myriad spiders that habitually prowl this habitat? Perhaps I should’ve put her outside for a bird. I’ve seen sparrows going at butterflies like snakes eating eggs, although a little more quickly. Where was the universal recycler? Playing god is a tricky business.

Compost in peace, Mirabelle.

24/09/2017

Night on the Tiles

I blundered into the dimly lit washroom, thoughtless in my sleepy haze. As I automatically reached over the sink for my toothbrush, a dark mass behind the tap startled me. I was used to spiders and other housemates—woodlice, vine weevils, mites, and other dots—scurrying across surfaces but more often living out of sight. I’d even been bitten by a spider. That surprised me, and left me with a tiny red V-shaped cut in my wrist as evidence. That spider had chosen my cardigan sleeve for refuge and reasonably considered my thrusting arm to be an attack. Apparently biting spiders are common in Britain; fortunately they’re harmless.

I knew August was the mating season for ‘house’ spiders, driving them to roam widely and overtly in search of partners, and hence being seen more often. This one surprised me not only by her location but her size: a good ten centimetres diameter. I dislike surprises, especially late at night, and the ensuing tension. I think it comes down to a fear of insects unintentionally jumping on to me and disappearing up a sleeve or into my ear or somewhere I can’t get them. And then what? I supposed they might bite or tickle or lay eggs or commit some other grievous offence. More irrational conditioning.

I went on with teeth-brushing, casting frequent glances to check she was still there. Perhaps the light had halted her exploration, even though it was dark orange – at least neither of us should suffer melatonin cycle disturbances. Do spiders have melatonin? Perhaps my noise or movement vibrations disturbed her. Still indulging this mental blether, I turned off the light and went to bed. The next morning she was gone.

The second night I had entirely forgotten her existence and so was startled again by her presence on the tiles beside the sink. I was more relaxed, though, and observant. After a couple of minutes she rotated to face the wall and compressed herself against the grout. This seemed like avoidance behaviour. I was sorry cause her discomfort. I have no illusions about this being ‘my’ space. The wilderness may have been long since concreted over, but nature is mobile and constantly recolonising.

The following morning she had stopped just over the edge of the tiled unit, where the panel descends to the floor. She remained immobile during my intermittent visits through the day. I wondered if her exploration had tired her, or she had bivouacked there to extend her range the coming night, or she was awaiting prey… or a mate.

The third night the tiles were unoccupied. No movement, no stasis, no presence. I was somewhat relieved, but also concerned by the not knowing – pure selfishness: once you know something is present, not seeing it becomes unsettling. As the toothpaste foam built up, I wondered about the content of her life of which I was mostly ignorant. I trundled back and forth, brushing, pondering.

Crunch. My right foot felt a momentary resistance. My head leaped to the fateful conclusion. I bent my knee and raised my foot behind me: even in the artificial twilight the sole showed a telltale wet patch. The floor covering was too dark to identify the victim.

Wrong time to choose to freeze on the floor! Wrong place! Why did she not sense my noise or vibrations or the light tonight? Why not flee? Evolutionarily unsound!

My defensive denials fizzled out. Was she starving? Not dehydrated in a washroom, surely. Was she fuddled by sleep disturbance? But I wasn’t there that often. Was she just trying to get from A to B, and like the poor hedgehog, when faced with large, looming movement, made a poor choice. Freezing in the path of a heavy creature means death.

Daylight confirmed my conclusion. She’s still there: a fading husk of legs, pressed on the floor. I’ve slid her aside so I don’t repeat the offence, but haven’t appeased my regret yet. I didn’t mean to, sure, but I can’t say I couldn’t have foreseen that risk. Apologies tumble out as pathetically inadequate recompense for not considering consequences. Why do my needs or arbitrary habits supersede my housemates’? What might I have learned from sharing time and space with her? What have I learned?

06/08/2017

My Neighbour’s Baby

The parents’ squabbling catches my attention. My quiet Sunday breakfast with a wildlife magazine shattered. Peer Gynt capers on in the Hall of the Mountain King. The squabblers slam from room to room, swatting and shrieking at each other. I lean to the window and pull back the gauze curtain, searching for explanation. One of their children sits on my front grass. Just sits, not playing, not eating, not moving, not seemingly hurt, but I don’t read children well. The parents barrel on. Another figure slinks by – another neighbour, inspecting the unattended child. My gut flips – some pre-verbal fear. In a reflex I knock the window. The neighbour starts and glances at me. I wave. Frustratingly her momentum carries her out of my sight. The parents separate, hurling only intermittent complaints. The child remains immobile.

I unlock the front door to look closer. Mostly I want to help, but I need more information: what happened? I seem to be too late. The neighbour is out of sight. The child sits on the grass, freckled and bewildered. I don’t want to approach in case this aggravates the situation. I don’t want to interfere. Or should I move her to a safer position? What would be safer? In my house is far too ambiguous. I have no relationship with this child. Her parents seem to be calming. I return indoors and glance out the window. The child still hasn’t moved. I can’t settle back to breakfast; I wander ineffectually about the front rooms, reviewing the incident, assessing my choices. I keep glancing out the window.

Suddenly the parents launch a fresh bout of shouting. I check the window: the child is gone – in a matter of seconds between my glances. I can’t see anybody, any movement. I open the front door and see the parents hopping and shrieking along the pavement. I can’t read their distress. Still no sign of the child. My eyes flit to another movement. Beneath the bordering hedge I see my neighbour’s legs saunter up the path and out of sight. The parents are hysterical. Why didn’t they do something for their child before? Why didn’t I? I peer again between the trunks of the hedge. I look very carefully to catch a glimpse as my neighbour’s path curves back into view. In a moment I see what I’m looking for: the shape of the child, carried away.

There was a moment when I could have acted. I chose not to. To let others’ choices play out. I may have delayed things by rapping the window, but that’s as likely to have increased the suffering as not. If I had the chance again, I’d lift that baby and bring it indoors. I’d suffer the guilt of upsetting the parents. My experiences lead me to believe that my neighbour simply wanted to play with the child. A distorted behaviour that has its roots in natural instinct but has become torture. I have some responsibility for that. I could do better.

If it had been my neighbour the sparrowhawk who found the young blackbird, I would be more comfortable with that. A reasonably quick death for food. A domestic cat I’m much less comfortable with. It doesn’t feel natural to me. Still, I have too little information. I had a moment and I only half-intervened. Bless her.

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