Gems from the written evidence 2 – the not-so-talented Viscount Ridley

Viscount Ridley has a DPhil from Oxford University in zoology, experience of working on wildlife conservation projects in the UK, India and Pakistan, and a 33-year career as a journalist covering environmental and scientific debates. He is also a member of the science and technology select committee of the House of Lords. So, despite previous lapses (see here) one would hope that he would get his facts right when submitting evidence to parliament.

He continues to quote the unverifiable and, frankly, not easily believable, ‘survey’ of waders on a northern grouse moor (and surrounding land I believe, not just grouse moor, but…whatever!).

But one of his most astounding claims in his evidence is that…

Hen harriers are absent from Wales‘.

This will come as a great shock to Welsh ornithologists who have monitored the increasing numbers of Hen Harrier in the Principality for many years.

Let’s just look at the national surveys, shall we?

1998 National Survey – 28 pairs in Wales – (Status of the Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus in the UK and the Isle of Man in 1998Bird Study Vol. 48, Iss. 3, 2001)

2004 National Survey – 43 pairs in Wales – (Status of the Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus in the UK and Isle of Man in 2004, and a comparison with the 1988/89 and 1998 surveys. Bird Study Vol. 54, Iss. 2, 2007)

2010 National Survey – 57 pairs in Wales – (The status of the Hen Harrier, Circus cyaneus, in the UK and Isle of Man in 2010.Bird Study Vol. 60, Iss. 4, 2013)

So the not-so-talented Viscount Ridley is completely wrong isn’t he? Hen Harriers are not absent from Wales (and many of us have seen them there too!). In fact Hen Harriers colonised Wales in the 1950s so the not-so-talented Viscount Ridley is about 60 years out of date (which isn’t that bad for a supporter of driven grouse shooting).

Now is this just cheap point-scoring? Partly, yes, but not completely because the grouse shooters need there to be an absence of Hen Harriers from places like Wales (not that there is anywhere like the land of my mother) because their presence is a bit embarrassing for them. What the not-so-talented Viscount Ridley was claiming was that ‘Hen harriers are absent from Wales, the Lake District and Dartmoor because, like other ground-nesting birds, they cannot breed well in areas with high fox numbers (and low prey densities)‘.

Let’s just deal with the Lake District and Dartmoor first. The reason there are no Hen Harriers in the Lake District is that there isn’t that much heather because the Lake District is grazed to within an inch of its life and also because there aren’t many Hen Harriers anywhere in the north of England because they are shot past an inch of their lives! If there is enough suitable habitat for Hen Harriers in the Lake District they would undoubtedly find it and colonise it if enough of them were allowed to survive. And Dartmoor is difficult to colonise because it’s a long way away from any other nesting Hen Harriers in England and, again, there aren’t many of them to provide the recruits.

But Wales! Wales works very strongly against the not-so-talented Viscount Ridley’s explanation.  Wales doesn’t have anything like the density of gamekeepers that the north of England has, so instead of its fox population being really low it might well be pretty high.  Lots of foxes but not many gamekeepers. Hmmm! And…tarrah! Lots of Hen Harriers too. And increasing numbers of Hen Harriers to boot.

Wales is a good contrast to the English situation. There is habitat for about 330 Hen Harriers in England and this year there were three pairs (1% of suitable habitat is occupied) whereas Wales could have about 250 pairs of Hen Harrier and over the last three censuses the population more than doubled in the absence of widespread gamekeeping, and despite all those foxes has reached 23% of its potential.  I wonder what this year’s survey data will reveal – I have no idea – it will be interesting to see.

It’s hardly a secret that Hen Harriers nest in Wales and are increasing in numbers. The standard reference book, the breeding Atlas tells you so and the so does the also excellent, The Breeding Birds of North Wales.

Here’s a map from the Atlas which seems to have dots in Wales:

I expect Viscount Ridley will be writing to the Petitions Committee to correct his evidence on this matter (there are others)

 

 

I’m asking you to write to your MP this weekend and ask them to attend the Westminster Hall debate on 31 October and make the following points:

  • wildlife crime is rife in the uplands.  This has major conservation impacts on birds of prey (see my written evidence).  Illegal killing of birds of prey is not caused by a few bad apples but is endemic to the activity of driven grouse shooting.
  • intensive management of our hills for driven grouse shooting causes many other problems (increased flooding, increased water treatment costs, culls of Mountain Hares, damage to protected habitats, increased greenhouse gas emissions) which could be tackled by stronger regulation and government should consider that as a serious option for those issues
  • but the government is not seriously addressing wildlife crime. The grouse shooting industry has shown no willingness or ability to tackle this issue despite decades of saying that it will. The status quo is not an option. Banning driven grouse shooting is the most effective way to end wildlife crime against birds of prey in our uplands and anything else will be weak and ineffective.

Please write to your MP and ask them to pass on your letter to Defra ahead of the debate if they are unable to attend and make these points themselves. Tell your MP that you will also write to them after the debate and that this is an issue about which you feel very strongly.

 

 

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18 Comments

  1. Monika Schroder says:

    1 I'm very glad for Wales to be redeeming itself. Having been fond of the place for many years I was very disturbed by the Brexit vote map. Scotland on the other hand is gloating over its Brexit vote - but needs a serious wake-up call.

    2 What is Matt Ridley doing on an S@T committee of any kind?

    Likes(5)Dislikes(2)
  2. Alan says:

    It should also undermine the rest of his evidence, especially since most of it is not evidence but assertion. Though I don't suppose he cares, he is now a paid up member of the post-truth politics brigade. On which, Wikipedia offers: 'A defining trait of post-truth politics is that campaigners continue to repeat their talking points, even if these are found to be untrue by the media or independent experts.'

    Likes(12)Dislikes(0)
  3. Gerald says:

    I've always wondered what poor old ground nesting birds did before the creation of gamekeepers. How did they survive predation by those nasty foxes? The numbers of all these birds must have hugely increased thanks to the happy intervention of these "gamekeepers"!!

    Likes(15)Dislikes(0)
  4. Derik Palmer says:

    It must be remembered that Viscount Ridley is not only a journalist but a staunch Tory as well. For some, the past is an undiscovered country whilst for others its the future. For the good Viscount and his ilk, the only undiscovered country is the truth.

    Likes(14)Dislikes(0)
  5. Nimby says:

    Perhaps the poor chap is suffering the after effects of too many barbques and the toxic lead residue in the burgers has impacted on his Oxford street cred?

    If the submissions are of that standard then there will be a fair proportion rejected in terms of reliability issues?

    Likes(5)Dislikes(0)
  6. Jonathan Wallace says:

    Ridley also seems to want to have his cake and eat it as far as the global significance of grouse shooting is concerned. With respect to the Hen Harrier he is at pains to point out (para 16) that it is abundant throughout North America and Eurasia (but not in Wales :-)) and therefore not at risk of extinction. For the the Red Grouse, on the other hand, he suggests that in the absence of grouse shooting it would be virtually doomed to extinction, whilst disingenuously referring to the Willow Grouse (abundant throughout North America and Eurasia) as "its continental relative"(paras 8 & 9).

    Likes(7)Dislikes(0)
  7. Dave Dunford says:

    "Hen harriers are absent from Wales, the Lake District and Dartmoor because, like other ground-nesting birds, they cannot breed well in areas with high fox numbers (and low prey densities)."

    Isn't Dartmoor one of the possible destinations for birds from the proposed "brood management scheme"? So on the one hand the shooters claim that Dartmoor is unsuitable for Hen Harriers because it lacks the miraculous and beneficent management bestowed by grouse shooting, and on the other tell the RSPB that it should support the movement of Hen Harriers to this unsuitable habitat.

    Likes(17)Dislikes(0)
  8. Jack Snipe says:

    I could hardly believe the inaccuracies involved in the evidence given by Amanda Anderson and Liam Stokes at least week's session. How can we expect any judge or committee to come to a decision when the evidence from either side of the debate is so conflicting? I worry that the outcome will be undecided, based on one side's word against another, so due either to lies or sheer ignorance, driven grouse shooting will continue. Of all the issues which need to be resolved, the matter of fox predation is important because the grouse shooting set insist that harries fail when there are "too many foxes," the implication being that gamekeepers who control fox numbers are the harrier's friends! Any ornithologist or ordinary birdwatcher worth his salt knows that is absolute nonsense, but otherwise uninformed MPs have a tendency to fall for the puff that the gamekeepers know best, because they live and breathe the countryside, of course. This begs the question why do we not seem to have robust scientific evidence relating to the impact of fox predation? Or do we? In my own studies of Hen Harrier on a Scottish SPA, I have attempted to estimate the level of failure which might be expected when the fox population is left to settle at a natural level. It works out at approximately one third of harrier breeding attempts failing, with little evidence of any other predator having a significant effect. So without interference by man, two thirds of breeding attempts should be successful. This is clearly sufficient to sustain a healthy harrier population, even taking first year and winter mortality into account, so the effect of fox predation is almost certainly insignificant (apart from being natural). Unfortunately I am having difficulty completing my paper due to a handful of Raptor Study Group members' reluctance to permit their data to be used for any publication. This over-secrecy feels like anti-science, which is terribly disappointing.

    Likes(12)Dislikes(1)
    • pete says:

      How have you calculated natural fox levels? Surely due to the lack of large predators (wolves etc.) to compete with and lots of unnatural food sources (bins, pheasents,roadkill) fox numbers in this country are much higher than their natural carrying capacity and you therefore lose the cyclical ups and downs of predator prey relations?

      Likes(0)Dislikes(1)
      • Tony says:

        Well said Pete. There are no "natural " levels of foxes or any other mesopredator in this country due to the lack of apex predators. But of course the shooting set have no comprehension of a trophic cascade. If you had a grouse moor why wouldn't you want a nice pack of wolves to scare the foxes and a lovely pair of goshawks or eagle owls to see off the other pesky raptors? Cheap as chips imo. And legal too.

        Likes(1)Dislikes(1)
      • Jack Snipe says:

        In a sense I have not calculated natural fox levels, because as you rightly point out the balance of nature is altered by man's activities, not just in relation to persecution and radical alterations of ecosystems, but also by the historical removal of higher predators. However I suggest you're being a tad pedantic, or even too academic, because it's fairly obvious that it is near on impossible to come up with an accurate estimate of what the truly "natural" population would equate to if man's multivariate activities were not included in the equation. However within my study area of over 9,000 hectares, you're wrong to presume that fox numbers do not undergo "natural" cycles of predator prey relations. The key species which drives these cycles is the field vole (Microtus agrestis), which as well as fluctuating in short 3-4 year cycles, also has a longer term cycle overlain. This affects most other animal macrospecies in the habitat, from predators to other prey species like Red Grouse and even Meadow Pipit populations. Particularly during the longer term deeper parts of vole cycles, fox numbers can drop accordingly and quite markedly. Of course this effect is negligible in built-up areas like towns and cities.

        My estimates of the level of fox predation upon harrier nests was based upon the relative number of known (or highly suspected) failures due to fox attack. Trends were assessed by monitoring activity at a number of known dens. The estimate quoted above took into account changes over a 20-year period as three shooting estates gradually abandoned grouse shooting and laid off their keepers. Due to the rarity of the harriers it was only possible to obtain a relatively small sample of individual nests, totalling just over 100, however it is believed that very few nests were missed. So effectively I was not measuring the fox population, but measuring its impact on the harriers' brood production. It proved difficult to measure the extent of fox persecution within my study area, mainly because I believed that the reports of numbers killed by gamekeepers were deliberately exaggerated to help justify their employment. I was usually quoted exactly 100 or 200 foxes killed per gamekeeper per year! This year one fox specialist claimed to have shot 90 in one night!

        Likes(2)Dislikes(0)
  9. Paul Bray says:

    Dartmoor - scarce records of hen harrier, a few records in early 19th century.

    Likes(1)Dislikes(0)
  10. Circus maxima says:

    Ridley..... is notorious for his typo's.... he meant Whales!

    Likes(5)Dislikes(0)
  11. Phil Espin says:

    Frankly after he ran Northern Rock PLC into the ground I am surprised that anyone believes a word this man says.

    Likes(9)Dislikes(0)
  12. Chris Batchelor says:

    We shouldn't be surprised that Ridley's grasp on science is so tenuous, given his history as a climate change sceptic. His only virtue is his consistency!

    Likes(2)Dislikes(0)
  13. I live in what has for long been known as the industrial south of Wales but I only have to travel a few miles from my home to the Coast at amongst other places the Newport Wetlands reserve ( well managed by Natural Resources Wales, Newport City Council and the RSPB) at this time of year to see regular wintering Hen Harriers. Maybe it's a mirage or wishful thinking on my part, or maybe, just maybe, Viscount Ridley is lying to protect his cronies and the Illegal killing of protected wildlife for their barbarous antiquated practices.

    The useless killing of Grouse and other birds is abhorrent, even though these cowards only want to shoot farmed birds (I often wonder what would happen if the birds could shoot back). Banning Driven Grouse shooting is something that has to be done and done now

    Likes(0)Dislikes(0)
  14. […] Ridley and Peter Kendall.  So Peter and the not-so-talented Viscount Ridley (who has previous, see here, here) were wrong – really very wrong. One might say almost completely wrong.  But they were […]

    Likes(0)Dislikes(0)

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  1. Monika Schroder says:

    1 I'm very glad for Wales to be redeeming itself. Having been fond of the place for many years I was very disturbed by the Brexit vote map. Scotland on the other hand is gloating over its Brexit vote - but needs a serious wake-up call.

    2 What is Matt Ridley doing on an S@T committee of any kind?

    Likes(5)Dislikes(2)
  2. Alan says:

    It should also undermine the rest of his evidence, especially since most of it is not evidence but assertion. Though I don't suppose he cares, he is now a paid up member of the post-truth politics brigade. On which, Wikipedia offers: 'A defining trait of post-truth politics is that campaigners continue to repeat their talking points, even if these are found to be untrue by the media or independent experts.'

    Likes(12)Dislikes(0)
  3. Gerald says:

    I've always wondered what poor old ground nesting birds did before the creation of gamekeepers. How did they survive predation by those nasty foxes? The numbers of all these birds must have hugely increased thanks to the happy intervention of these "gamekeepers"!!

    Likes(15)Dislikes(0)
  4. Derik Palmer says:

    It must be remembered that Viscount Ridley is not only a journalist but a staunch Tory as well. For some, the past is an undiscovered country whilst for others its the future. For the good Viscount and his ilk, the only undiscovered country is the truth.

    Likes(14)Dislikes(0)
  5. Nimby says:

    Perhaps the poor chap is suffering the after effects of too many barbques and the toxic lead residue in the burgers has impacted on his Oxford street cred?

    If the submissions are of that standard then there will be a fair proportion rejected in terms of reliability issues?

    Likes(5)Dislikes(0)
  6. Jonathan Wallace says:

    Ridley also seems to want to have his cake and eat it as far as the global significance of grouse shooting is concerned. With respect to the Hen Harrier he is at pains to point out (para 16) that it is abundant throughout North America and Eurasia (but not in Wales :-)) and therefore not at risk of extinction. For the the Red Grouse, on the other hand, he suggests that in the absence of grouse shooting it would be virtually doomed to extinction, whilst disingenuously referring to the Willow Grouse (abundant throughout North America and Eurasia) as "its continental relative"(paras 8 & 9).

    Likes(7)Dislikes(0)
  7. Dave Dunford says:

    "Hen harriers are absent from Wales, the Lake District and Dartmoor because, like other ground-nesting birds, they cannot breed well in areas with high fox numbers (and low prey densities)."

    Isn't Dartmoor one of the possible destinations for birds from the proposed "brood management scheme"? So on the one hand the shooters claim that Dartmoor is unsuitable for Hen Harriers because it lacks the miraculous and beneficent management bestowed by grouse shooting, and on the other tell the RSPB that it should support the movement of Hen Harriers to this unsuitable habitat.

    Likes(17)Dislikes(0)
  8. Jack Snipe says:

    I could hardly believe the inaccuracies involved in the evidence given by Amanda Anderson and Liam Stokes at least week's session. How can we expect any judge or committee to come to a decision when the evidence from either side of the debate is so conflicting? I worry that the outcome will be undecided, based on one side's word against another, so due either to lies or sheer ignorance, driven grouse shooting will continue. Of all the issues which need to be resolved, the matter of fox predation is important because the grouse shooting set insist that harries fail when there are "too many foxes," the implication being that gamekeepers who control fox numbers are the harrier's friends! Any ornithologist or ordinary birdwatcher worth his salt knows that is absolute nonsense, but otherwise uninformed MPs have a tendency to fall for the puff that the gamekeepers know best, because they live and breathe the countryside, of course. This begs the question why do we not seem to have robust scientific evidence relating to the impact of fox predation? Or do we? In my own studies of Hen Harrier on a Scottish SPA, I have attempted to estimate the level of failure which might be expected when the fox population is left to settle at a natural level. It works out at approximately one third of harrier breeding attempts failing, with little evidence of any other predator having a significant effect. So without interference by man, two thirds of breeding attempts should be successful. This is clearly sufficient to sustain a healthy harrier population, even taking first year and winter mortality into account, so the effect of fox predation is almost certainly insignificant (apart from being natural). Unfortunately I am having difficulty completing my paper due to a handful of Raptor Study Group members' reluctance to permit their data to be used for any publication. This over-secrecy feels like anti-science, which is terribly disappointing.

    Likes(12)Dislikes(1)
    • pete says:

      How have you calculated natural fox levels? Surely due to the lack of large predators (wolves etc.) to compete with and lots of unnatural food sources (bins, pheasents,roadkill) fox numbers in this country are much higher than their natural carrying capacity and you therefore lose the cyclical ups and downs of predator prey relations?

      Likes(0)Dislikes(1)
      • Tony says:

        Well said Pete. There are no "natural " levels of foxes or any other mesopredator in this country due to the lack of apex predators. But of course the shooting set have no comprehension of a trophic cascade. If you had a grouse moor why wouldn't you want a nice pack of wolves to scare the foxes and a lovely pair of goshawks or eagle owls to see off the other pesky raptors? Cheap as chips imo. And legal too.

        Likes(1)Dislikes(1)
      • Jack Snipe says:

        In a sense I have not calculated natural fox levels, because as you rightly point out the balance of nature is altered by man's activities, not just in relation to persecution and radical alterations of ecosystems, but also by the historical removal of higher predators. However I suggest you're being a tad pedantic, or even too academic, because it's fairly obvious that it is near on impossible to come up with an accurate estimate of what the truly "natural" population would equate to if man's multivariate activities were not included in the equation. However within my study area of over 9,000 hectares, you're wrong to presume that fox numbers do not undergo "natural" cycles of predator prey relations. The key species which drives these cycles is the field vole (Microtus agrestis), which as well as fluctuating in short 3-4 year cycles, also has a longer term cycle overlain. This affects most other animal macrospecies in the habitat, from predators to other prey species like Red Grouse and even Meadow Pipit populations. Particularly during the longer term deeper parts of vole cycles, fox numbers can drop accordingly and quite markedly. Of course this effect is negligible in built-up areas like towns and cities.

        My estimates of the level of fox predation upon harrier nests was based upon the relative number of known (or highly suspected) failures due to fox attack. Trends were assessed by monitoring activity at a number of known dens. The estimate quoted above took into account changes over a 20-year period as three shooting estates gradually abandoned grouse shooting and laid off their keepers. Due to the rarity of the harriers it was only possible to obtain a relatively small sample of individual nests, totalling just over 100, however it is believed that very few nests were missed. So effectively I was not measuring the fox population, but measuring its impact on the harriers' brood production. It proved difficult to measure the extent of fox persecution within my study area, mainly because I believed that the reports of numbers killed by gamekeepers were deliberately exaggerated to help justify their employment. I was usually quoted exactly 100 or 200 foxes killed per gamekeeper per year! This year one fox specialist claimed to have shot 90 in one night!

        Likes(2)Dislikes(0)
  9. Paul Bray says:

    Dartmoor - scarce records of hen harrier, a few records in early 19th century.

    Likes(1)Dislikes(0)
  10. Circus maxima says:

    Ridley..... is notorious for his typo's.... he meant Whales!

    Likes(5)Dislikes(0)
  11. Phil Espin says:

    Frankly after he ran Northern Rock PLC into the ground I am surprised that anyone believes a word this man says.

    Likes(9)Dislikes(0)
  12. Chris Batchelor says:

    We shouldn't be surprised that Ridley's grasp on science is so tenuous, given his history as a climate change sceptic. His only virtue is his consistency!

    Likes(2)Dislikes(0)
  13. I live in what has for long been known as the industrial south of Wales but I only have to travel a few miles from my home to the Coast at amongst other places the Newport Wetlands reserve ( well managed by Natural Resources Wales, Newport City Council and the RSPB) at this time of year to see regular wintering Hen Harriers. Maybe it's a mirage or wishful thinking on my part, or maybe, just maybe, Viscount Ridley is lying to protect his cronies and the Illegal killing of protected wildlife for their barbarous antiquated practices.

    The useless killing of Grouse and other birds is abhorrent, even though these cowards only want to shoot farmed birds (I often wonder what would happen if the birds could shoot back). Banning Driven Grouse shooting is something that has to be done and done now

    Likes(0)Dislikes(0)
  14. […] Ridley and Peter Kendall.  So Peter and the not-so-talented Viscount Ridley (who has previous, see here, here) were wrong – really very wrong. One might say almost completely wrong.  But they were […]

    Likes(0)Dislikes(0)

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