Let’s be reasonable.

I don’t know how often readers of this blog go back a few days and read the comments that continue to accrue on earlier posts.  And I don’t know whether I would recommend it either – sometimes a late post is the best of the lot, but not always.

So, I have little idea how many of you are aware of an exchange of comments between myself and Philip Merricks on this blog concerning Simon Barnes’s imminent departure from The Times which has ranged from whether or not I am too adversarial to whether or not David Cameron is too adversarial, and from breeding wader numbers at Elmley to Hen Harriers in the hills.  Philip’s comments are well worth reading but I thought I would address one of them, the first, in a separate blog.

Philip thinks I am too adversarial and I should take a much more emollient position on the things that concern me (those aren’t his words exactly – but you can check them out yourself).

Philip prays in aid one of the undoubted heroes of nature conservation, Dr Norman Moore. Philip writes;

The situation is eerily similar to the wide gulf that existed in those disturbed times of the 1970s and early ‘80s when farmers and conservationists were at war with each other. And yet through thoughtful nurturing by some great men led by Dr Norman Moore, then chief Scientist of NCC (Natural England’s predecessor body) the two sides came together and out of that togetherness developed the concept of agri-environment management which has grown to be a unifying force between today’s farmers and conservationists. A development which is universally supported.


What a difference to Dr Norman Moore (former Chief Scientist at Nature Conservancy Council) who, in his book, ‘The Bird of Time – the Science and Politics of Nature Conservation’ wrote (p 104) “No group of people can do more for conservation than farmers, the people who manage most of the countryside. Conservationists and farmers have been kept apart when they should have been working together.” So perhaps you can see that I believe that the Norman Moore approach will deliver more for wildlife in the long term.’.

Well Philip – shall we see?

First, the very initiation of FWAG, about which I do know something, was partly caused by lots of people jumping up and down and saying that things had to be better than they were – and if only we could go back to those days now we would count ourselves lucky.  As always, it is dissatisfaction that brings about social change and at the time when change is proposed there are always voices saying ‘I’m sure we can sort this out with a friendly chat’.  It’s rarely true, because there is always a reason why the status quo is as it is, and always a group of people whom it suits very well to keep it like that. This was true when women’s suffrage was proposed, when the abolition of slavery was proposed and when workers’ rights were proposed.  Experience shows that the vested interests are pretty good at keeping things just as they always have been until people come together and agitate for change.

It’s always worth checking when people use the words ‘reasonable’ and  ‘balanced’ as terms of approbation, and  ‘divisive’, ‘adversarial’ and ‘unhelpful’ as criticisms whether they really mean ‘agree with me and keep quiet’.

Second, the suggestion that we should settle things with a good British compromise and a quiet chat is very attractive to all of us, including me. But it does take two to compromise and, as I have written here, grouse moor managers and the NFU (at least under its former leadership) have not been mindful to compromise at all. Eventually one has to realise that being reasonable is just wasting time and the alternative is not to be unreasonable but to go over the heads of grouse moor managers or the NFU straight to government to get what you want (and what they don’t want to give you). That involves campaigning for change and involves stirring things up.

Third, it’s worth pointing out that Norman Moore’s book was published in 1987 – more than a quarter of a century ago.  When Philip writes of the ‘long run’ he fails to acknowledge that we are now living in the ‘long run’.  Since 1987 farmland birds have continued to decline despite the inception, demise and partial resurrection of FWAG, despite an awful lot of talking and despite increasing knowledge of what needs to be done and how it can be done. When the Game Conservancy developed conservation headlands did the NFU adopt them with alacrity? No. When the RSPB developed skylark patches and persuaded Defra to fund them through agri-environment schemes did the NFU adopt them with grateful eagerness? No! When the NFU were allowed to adopt a voluntary approach to delivering a replacement for set-aside through the Campaign for the Farmed Environment did it succeed? No!!

There is a difference between farming and illegal killing of Hen Harriers (in fact, quite a few!). One difference, is that there are, quite clearly, and identifiably, many many wonderful farmers. You can visit their farms and see the good work they have done (like you have at Elmley, Philip!) and see the results on the ground. You can praise them as individuals (as I did in Fighting for Birds but Philip didn’t quote those passages) and the approaches they have adopted.

This was the RSPB’s approach to farming for the whole time I was Conservation Director (and before, and after).  That’s why the RSPB invented the Volunteer Farmer Alliance project and spent millions of pounds on working with farmers over the years.  I’m rather pleased about that.  How does one adopt the same approach with upland grouse moors when there are practically no breeding Hen Harriers in England and no group of upland managers who can be identified as the ‘good guys’?

Farming is a legal activity, on the whole practised according to the law, with good guys and bad guys. And the good guys don’t say many good words about the NFU but they are too nervous to criticise the powerful NFU hierarchy in public.  With farming, nature conservationists can work with individual good guys even when the elected representatives of farming are (or at least have been), in my opinion, an anti-environmental bunch.

Killing Hen Harriers is not legal and it hasn’t been legal for 60 years. There are now fewer Hen Harriers breeding in England than when they were protected by the Churchill government back then.  The good guys in grouse shooting are invisible – they are silent, they are passive and they have been incapable of influencing the bad guys.  And the bad guys are criminals.  They aren’t pursuing their business interests legally but unsympathetically, as regards the environment and wildlife, they are killing protected species, destroying protected habitats and doing more of both now than they were in the past. These are the circumstances when an adversarial approach is perfectly reasonable.

And for an example of somewhat pointless talking see the exchange of letters between the RSPB and the Moorland Association.  Those same letters could have been written a decade ago.  Talking to the intransigent does nothing to change the world – you should try it but not persist once it is shown to be futile.

Please sign this e-petition to ban driven grouse shooting which recently passed 6000 signatures, and has just entered  only its 6th week.




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17 Replies to “Let’s be reasonable.”

  1. Big difference between declining farmland bird numbers and almost extinction of Hen Harriers in England is that the Hen Harrier decline is purposefully done and also illegal whereas the farmland bird decline is due to several factors and doubt any of those factors are illegal or purposefully done.In general I think most farmers have no hatred of any birds.Obviously if a flock of birds are ruining a crop or gathering in barns after the cattle food then individual farmers are likely to take some form of action.Usually these would not be birds in decline.
    Can never understand why public see almost all farmers as shooters,it never seems like that in my experience as they are too busy to do it even if they are that way inclined.

  2. This makes me want to sign..........................


    I have always thought the passive/ permissive approach to conservation has been doomed to slow failure. Conservation by compulsion may not be popular but when this approach was applied to the air and water environment we ended up with air that you could breath and salmon swimming up the Thames....

  3. So Do I Dennis. I think it the crucial difference that one is certainly, deliberate and illegal the other not.
    I also note Mark that Philip failed to answer my question, indeed all of those who have espoused the argument that it is just a few, when challenged have failed to answer that particular question. Strange that.

    1. Paul - yes, it is strange.

      Philip also failed to answer whether he thought that David Cameron was too adversarial.

      Generally speaking, people like other people who stand up for the same things that they think, but not those who stand up for things they don't agree with. Personally, I have some admiration for anyone who stands up for anything - the world seems to be sitting on its backside most of the time. Those who stand up deserve to be noticed.

      1. Agree very much on that Mark. Unfortunately because of the way people are they can lose touch with what they are really against which is generally something and turn on the person/people they are arguing against.

        I find this a lot - as you know I've tried to make waves wrt aspects of the Hunting Act that I don't like so time and time again I am called 'cruel' an 'animal abuser' &c &c. I don't even hunt (nor grouse shoot nor kill hen harriers btw) and I'm arguing for activities that don't kill animals however many people don't like separating out people debating and standing up for certain things with what they are actually meant to be against.

        One of the big problems IMO with an 'adversarial' approach is that you almost always get two camps and you have to be in either one or the other. The truth is that neither side may have the best approach and other options tend to get drowned out in the din and fury of battle.

  4. The demise of the hen harrier is not an unintended consequence of driven grouse shooting. Most keepers and estates are happy with the absence of harriers on grouse moors. The more politically astute recognise the advantages of a pair or two (as long as they are not on my moor), but do not wish to see any genuine recovery.

    The motivation for the killing to stop rests in the love of their 'sport' and the damage to its reputation that publicity surrounding persecution brings. There is no shared love for the birds - I know of one member of a conservation charity being overheard describing hen harriers as 'grey filth'.

    Without somebody shouting very long and very loud then there will be no desire for a comprimise to be reached - why comprimise if you have already won (no harriers left and nobody appears to care)?Somebody has to be adversarial for the good guys to stand a chance. If being nice and talking lots was the key to a species' recovery then the hen harrier would already be one of the commonest British birds.

  5. You're quite right Mark, the cynical and destructive will always use the pretence of compromise to delay having to change.

  6. I couldn't agree more with your approach nowadays, Mark. While I think the RSPB do a great many wonderful things, I am am always somewhat perturbed that they from time to time are less than fervent about the issues that matter; be they addressing the inherent conflicts of the game shooting industry, or the considerable deficiencies in the agricultural industry.

    They are, I guess, a political animal, and have to be consumate politicians, up to a point. Men for all seasons. You, on the other hand, are freed from those inhibiting shackles. It's so good to see well-reasoned and 'uncomfortable' sentiments expressed. Better yet, that they attract attention and debate. I'm delighted to see that your involvement is evolving from reasoned commentary to more pro-active campaigning (the very worthwhile hen harrier / driven grouse shooting petition).

    Too adversarial? No. Not at all. Just right, for now, and maybe some more as your position develops further. If people are complaining, you're probably touching some raw nerves and doing something right.

  7. Very insightful Mark. Now we need polititians to grow some backbones and support what you are arguing . .

  8. 45 plus Hen Harriers on 25,000 acres at Langholm seems to be an astounding success.

    Why is this example not being copied elsewhere?

  9. This game manager seems to favour dialogue but believes that a tipping point is coming:


    1. "There are those calling for licensing of gamekeepers and grouse moors, for vicarious liability in England and other extreme measures." Interesting use of the word "extreme" there ...

  10. In my opinion there is to much emphasis on the good and bad guys and not nearly enough on the good and bad things. If people aren't looking after the uplands properly and we think they should have to then it seems to me this is an argument for changing the regulations around what they can do and have to do to the land. If people are burning the moors too much then we should change - and enforce the laws surrounding moor burning. If farmers aren't introducing enough conservation headlands - make them. Let's have a mandatory one in every field - or every so many acres. If estates are killing hen harriers let's catch the people doing it and lets have bigger fines and custodial sentences for them. If an employee of an estate causes environmental damage or kills a rare species - make them liable on the polluter pays principle that applies to industry. This would involve a lower standard of proof. How much is a very rare bird of prey worth? A million, half a million? It could be those sort of figures. Estates and other organisations whose employees cause such damage could be bankrupted by the actions of their staff.

    I'm all for being adversarial that's the nature of the law but it should pick out all the evils that people do rather than be targeted at the people themselves.

    There are valid arguments against grouse shooting per se but generally they are welfare/moral ones and I'm not really sure how any of them could apply to driven but not walked up shooting.

    There are also clearly valid arguments against some of the things that grouse moor owners do to maximise their grouse shoots but also similar things that other people do.

    I'd like to see the law target what people do on the basis of the damage it is causing.

    It's easy to be adversarial against people but it's a different thing to be adversarial against their actions. The law should not be aimed at people but at what they do and in my view making one thing illegal because you think it will stop people doing the things you really want them to stop is bad policy.

    There is nothing intrinsic to driven grouse moor shooting that means they have to moor burn excessively or kill hen harriers any more than there is anything intrinsic to car driving that means people have to chuck rubbish on the verge. If grouse moor owners or indeed anyone else are doing these things then we need to find better ways to stop them.

    There is also I think a false characterisation of alternatives to banning the shooting that they somehow involve wishy washy concepts like 'consensus' and 'cooperation'. They might but they certainly needn't and they can be just as tough if not tougher and far more broad in their effect.

  11. Mark,

    It should be pointed out that the Chief Scientist was Derek Ratcliffe. Norman Moore was the Chief Advisory Officer. Both great men of a calibre sadly lacking nature conservation today.

  12. Derek Ratcliffe was no fan of extensive coniferisation. He pointed out that the preparatory ploughing of peaty land lowers the water table, dries out the soil and increases run off.

    He said that numbers of the following reduce drastically after planting: Golden Plover, Lapwing, Dunlin, Redshank, Ring Ouzel, Wheatear, Raven, Red Grouse, Curlew, Golden Eagle, Black Grouse, Merlin.

    In the light of this evidence why are the FC still calling for more softwood tree planting in Scotland?


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