I have been involved with monitoring and protecting raptors, in particular the Peregrine beginning 1967, when the North West Raptor Group was established, then only 7 active territories remained in the North West England. In the 1980s I located the first ground nesting pair of Peregrines close to the A6 on Shap. Field work began in 1974 in the Forest of Bowland when in April of that year Paul Stott, a founder member of the NWRG, discovered the first Peregrine nest in Bowland containing a single abandoned egg. In 1947 this same territory was known to be the only occupied Peregrine site existing in this moorland region following the end of the Second World War. The 1947 nest containing four eggs was found by 16 years old trainee gamekeeper Joe Pye. Before Joe passed away he told me personally, that after reporting his discovery to the estate he was instructed to accompany the head gamekeeper back to the nest the following day where he witnessed both adult Peregrines being shot and their clutch of eggs destroyed.
In June 1991 the same Peregrine territory found by Joe Pye in 1947 was discovered reoccupied 44 years later by Paul Stott and Carl Smith containing two fully feathered chicks on the verge of fledging. I am unaware of any person alive or dead who had observed in their lifetime a successful nest at this same remote nesting site in any year prior to the 1991 discovery. This territory has now joined the 18+ Peregrine sites which are currently abandoned across the Forest of Bowland, a sad testament to the illegal killing of grouse-predating raptors within this upland region of West Lancashire where driven grouse shooting remains a prominent activity.
A ground nesting pair of Goshawks were discovered in Bowland in April 1994 after their original nest in nearby woodland had been destroyed. The pair relocated onto moorland above the forest where they established a makeshift nest on the ground in heather in which they laid a clutch of four eggs. When the nest was revisited six days later the eggs were found smashed and both adult hawks were never seen again.
The disappearance of both Sky and Hope in 2014 and the five missing male Hen Harriers lost in 2015 highlight a clear and unequivocal message from the game shooting industry, these birds are not welcome on grouse moors. This position is underpinned by what Derek Ratcliffe wrote within his now world famous book The Peregrine Falcon, that Hen Harriers are ruthlessly destroyed on many grouse moors. When Dr Ratcliffe took part in the BBC documentary The Silence of the Hills, he was asked why so many Hen Harriers had disappeared from the Forest of Bowland in the mid 1980s and again between 1992 and 1993. His reply was ‘For a Hen Harrier population to collapse in that sort of way is quite unprecedented, it must point to somebody actively persecuting these birds and destroying them. Who else could be destroying them but the people responsible for managing those moors? What else could explain that collapse, I can’t think of anything?‘.
It is becoming clearer as each season comes and goes, progress to end the illegal killing of Hen Harriers and Peregrines on grouse moors is as far from a resolution as it has ever been. This position has been demonstrated this season by the total disappearance of any breeding Hen Harrier and Peregrine Falcon from Lancashire’s Forest of Bowland.
The game shooting industry in England remains very much the feudal master and manager on moorlands where Red Grouse are shot. Many gamekeepers continue to act with impunity following in the footsteps of their Victorian predecessors when it comes to their illegal management of a variety of game-predating birds of prey. Gone today are the gibbets where gamekeepers not too many years ago proudly displayed a selection of poisoned, trapped or shot animal trophies, where in my youth I had witnessed at first hand a variety of raptors species hung out to rot.
The only difference today is that strategies being used to kill, disturb and destroy raptors together with many nesting sites on grouse moors are not as obvious or transparent as they once were. In the past I had encountered numerous instances on grouse moors in the Forest of Bowland where mutilated Hen Harrier chicks had been left in nests with their heads cut off and their bodies trampled under foot. I recall one particular day where I discovering two destroyed nests on separate estates containing the corpses of seven mutilated chicks between them. Numerous abandoned Peregrine nests containing dead chicks or smashed and abandoned eggs were found on the ground left for anyone to find; in many of these cases the adult Peregrines and Hen Harriers from these sites had disappeared presumed shot. At one Bowland Peregrine nest the clutch of four eggs were removed and replaced by bantam eggs. The use of plastic Eagle Owls and Peregrine decoys by gamekeepers is nothing new to the Forest of Bowland. I discovered a decoy Peregrine half covered in hessian hidden in the rear of a gamekeeper’s parked vehicle on a Bowland grouse moor three years ago.
The killing of raptors on grouse moors in the 21st Century, their displacement as they begin to settle down to breed, is now undertaken with more care, thought and subtlety designed to mask the crimes being committed. As witnessed in 2014 and again in 2015 on three English grouse moors, breeding Hen Harriers were taken out (destroyed) many miles from nests resulting in these offences being more difficult to detect. To my knowledge 2016 is the only occasion in which the Hen Harrier and Peregrine have not bred within the Bowland fells in the same year. Because of the remote regions where many of these wildlife crimes continue to be committed, police involvement on the ground is almost non existent, and bringing perpetrators to justice not surprisingly remains difficult if not an impossibility.
Natural England’s Hen Harrier Recovery Project was one important initiative which most people had hoped would result in a lasting solution to the persecution of Hen Harriers. From the beginning however the project lacked commitment or any tangible support from the game shooting industry and therefore was doomed to failure. Throughout the duration of this project Hen Harriers continued to disappear from grouse moors along with at least 30 or so missing satellite tags which had been attached to many of these birds. The current Defra ‘Non Action Plan’ seems to me to be a total waste of time, money and effort. There is only one reason why Defra would propose that Hen Harriers should be released into southern England, their presence would not be welcomed on grouse moors and ultimately any Harriers that did return north would quickly disappear. It will be crucial to address the root cause of Hen Harrier disappearances, ie their persecution on grouse moors, before thinking of reintroducing manipulated broods anywhere in England. To do otherwise would be condemning more Hen Harriers to a certain death and ultimately their extinction.
The facts of the mystery are really very simple to understand, the bulk of Red Grouse moor estate owners and their gamekeepers will never change their opinion of the Hen Harrier, or welcome their presence onto the moorlands they manage. I accept there are a small minority of enlightened thinking gamekeepers who are willing to accept one pair of Hen Harriers on the moorland they maintain. But these same individuals have voiced their concern and skepticism that if they accommodate one pair, the next year it could be two pairs and so on until the position would result in unacceptable damage to game stocks. Then there was another understandable consideration I was told about, any Hen Harrier nests found are likely to be protected initially, ultimately resulting in uninvited bird watchers coming onto the moorlands to admire and watch these birds; a situation which was considered undesirable. What happens then, would these same gamekeepers take the law into their own hands and begin to reduce numbers illegally once again?
I recently read a comment claiming the RSPB did not care about Hen Harriers, this is nonsense and appears to have been written in a moment of frustration at the ongoing disappearance of these birds from grouse moors. The RSPB are in an unusual position because of the way they interpret the objectives of their Royal Charter, which previous comments posted on this blog and others have referred to. The Society claim they are neutral having no view one way or the other on the ethics of shooting. I find this position curious and difficult to understand as perhaps do many of the 45,000+ people who have signed the petition to ban driven grouse shooting. The Society appear to be interpreting part of clause (3) within the objectives of their Royal Charter, taking no account of wide-scale killing of raptors on grouse moors in Britain. Under the Objectives of the Society, the clause states, The Society shall take no part in the question of the killing of game birds and legitimate sport of that character except when such practices have an impact on the Objects. The sport of driven grouse shooting is dependent upon widespread criminal practices; the killing of protected birds of prey not only on grouse moors, therefore clearly impacts negatively on the integrity of the Society’s objectives, their ability to protect birds of prey.
The current position is not helped by a reply provided by Natural England to questions asked in 2007 as to whether or not the (CROW) Act enables people to enter access land without the owner’s permission in order to carry out licensed bird monitoring which involves disturbing scheduled species at their nests. Natural England’s explanation says, As regards the issue of entry on to land in the first place, we believe that, as long as the person doing the monitoring is doing so on a voluntary basis (i.e. they are not doing so for payment), they can reasonably be regarded as taking part in open-air recreation: accordingly, the CROW act access rights applies and the permission of the landowner is not required. If, however, the monitoring is being being undertaken for payment, we believe that it falls within the scope of the general restrictions set out in Section 2 of the CROW Act: in this case, the CROW Act access rights does not apply and, in the absence of any other statutory or contractual access right, the landowner’s permission is required.
Fundamental changes to England’s wildlife legislation are justified but must include improved enforcement. Following Scotland’s lead by introducing Vicarious Liability (making the landowner responsible for the criminal actions of his or her employees) may help the situation south of the border, but not surprisingly was rejected by the Westminster Government, not too difficult to understand why. Likewise the introduction of a Licensing Scheme in England, as proposed by the RSPB for all grouse moors owners is an interesting proposal, but would be difficult if not impossible to police. I also doubt that a Tory administration would sanction or even consider such a scheme in the first place.
Banning driven grouse shooting in England is in my opinion the best platform from which to engage with the wider public, who so far know very little or nothing about the Hen Harrier or their continued persecution on grouse moors by gamekeepers. This position must change soon if we are to win this war, because unless you haven’t noticed we are losing the battle. The Hen Harrier and Peregrine are two raptors which are conspicuous on grouse moors in northern England by their almost total absence from these managed areas, a situation I regard as an unacceptable outrage and embarrassment to our country.
It is disappointing the RSPB have so far, without prejudice, not enlightened their million members asking if they would consider providing support to Mark Avery’s e-petition and its conservation objectives. The current situation has some similarities to the Roman emperor Nero who fiddled while Rome burned. Raptors are a finite wildlife resource and important part of moorland ecosystems, once they have disappeared from the uplands of England, it will be almost impossible to bring them back.
Mark Avery’s e-petition calling for a ban driven grouse shooting will result in the 100,000 signatures needed to trigger a debate in Parliament eventually. This does not mean the current Westminster government would allow such a debate in the House of Commons to take place because to do so would raise the profile of the Hen Harrier’s persecution beyond acceptable limits in the public eye. The government have already reduced the qualifying period for government e-petitions by 50%, down from 12 to 6 months, are they concerned, yes I think they are. We must not forget a number of grouse moors are owned by extremely wealthy and influential people. These include MPs like Richard Benyon the former Minister for the Environment Fisheries and Food and the Duke of Westminster. At a meeting of Natural England’s Hen Harrier Recovery Project in October 2007 at Abbeystead His Grace told the United Utilities estate manager he did not want Hen Harriers from the United Utilities estate coming onto his estate killing his grouse. An unknown number of Conservative MPs and their party supporters take an active part in driven grouse shooting. These people would not wish to see any debate in Parliament or encounter a single Hen Harrier on any grouse moor where they shoot spoiling their sport.
Because of politics, as long as England has a Conservative administration I see no prospect of proactive changes being introduced to help the plight of ‘protected’ raptors like Hen Harrier or Peregrine on moorland where Red Grouse are shot.