A short history of a lot of talking

It’s good to talk.   But talking can also be used as a refuge from taking action.

If there’s one thing that is likely to get me animatedly irritated (and friends have seen this happen a few times) is when somebody comes onto the scene of the grouse shooting/moorland/raptor persecution issue and says something along the lines of ‘Well, the important thing is that we all keep talking to each other‘ if they are from the shooting side of whatever divide might exist, or ‘Surely we can make progress with a bit of give and take‘ if they come from the conservation throng.  All the former category are still there saying the same thing that they have for more than two decades and all the latter category have faded into the background and left the talking role to the next well-meaning optimist who doesn’t understand how the real world works.

Here is a short history of talking between moorland owners and managers and the RSPB (and others were involved too) as best I know it.

The Langholm Study – it’s worth starting here and noting that when the late, and reasonably great, Dick Potts came to see me when I was Head of Conservation Science at the RSPB I agreed on behalf of the RSPB that we would be partners in the Langholm Study (Joint Raptor Study).  This was in the early 1990s (I’m not sure exactly when but the study started on the ground in 1992).

This was how I recalled it in Fighting for Birds:

I remember the Game Conservancy’s Dick Potts talking to me about whether the RSPB would join in and help to fund the study at Langholm in the Scottish Borders. Dick told me that the study he and others had in mind would involve ‘protecting’ the hen harriers on a Scottish estate and seeing what happened when harrier numbers increased – as presumably they would once fully protected. How many harriers would there be and what impact would they have on the shootable surplus of red grouse in the summer?

As I remember it, Dick and I thought that harrier numbers might increase to maybe half a dozen pairs on the Langholm Moor estate of the Duke of Buccleugh and that that might mean that the shootable surplus of red grouse might halve in numbers or thereabouts. What actually happened took just about everyone by surprise.

The results of Langholm (see here and Chapter 3, all of Chapter 3, in Inglorious) made it clearer, though it took a while for it to sink in, that there was no way that one could have intensive grouse shooting at  the scale it is at the moment without widespread, illegal and systematic wildlife crime, particularly the killing of Hen Harriers, eagles and Peregrines.  And the criminals weren’t interested in reforming.

For the few years after Langholm, 1996-1999 roughly, a lot of the focus was on diversionary feeding as conservationists bent over backwards to find a legal solution to the fact that predators eat Red Grouse without paying for the privilege. This failed as grouse moor managers were perfectly happy to bump off raptors in the expectation that no-one would catch them – this was before satellite tagging came on the scene.

At this time, senior RSPB figures, more senior than I was, spent lots of time visiting moorland estates and talking to their owners and managers about the way forward. The suggested way forward seemed to be that the RSPB should be good chaps (and chapesses) and turn a blind eye to wildlife crime because we were on the same side really. Quite what that side was, was never clear to us, and this period took up a lot of time but achieved nothing.

When I became RSPB Conservation Director in 1998 Hen Harriers and grouse shooting were way down my list of priorities; I had a big new job to learn, many facets of which were completely new to me and rather scary.  However, the discussions with the landed continued.  I remember two meetings held at The Lodge between very senior RSPB people and very senior representatives from the moorland owners which both ended in big rows – and it wasn’t me who was rowing, I can assure you. There didn’t seem to be a lot of common ground as the grouse shooters didn’t want to change and neither did we: they wanted scope to break the law and we told them that wasn’t on. If anything, talking was making things worse rather than better.

There were two other meetings at The Lodge which I described in Fighting for Birds. One, it must have been around 1999 or 2000 I think, was with a prominent shooting manager who is still a prominent shooting manager and this was how I described it:

I was once visited at The Lodge by a grouse moor manager who proceeded to tell me that he was a very rich and powerful person with very close links with the Conservative Party and that he would make sure that when the Conservatives got back into power, as they surely would, the RSPB would have no access to Ministers at all. This was a threat that took quite a while to be tested, as the Labour Party won the next two general elections.


The other was with a representative of grouse shooting:

A grouse moor manager came to The Lodge one sunny day and, as was my normal practice, I took him for a walk around the attractive grounds after lunch in the canteen. I used to do this with visitors partly so that they would see that this was quite a big operation with c. 500 staff working at the headquarters. I asked him to explain to me what he saw in grouse shooting and he started by saying that it was like anything in life, you have to pay through the nose for the real pleasures. He lost me there. The real pleasures in life – love, friendship, a sunrise and the beauty of nature for example, can’t be bought. We were starting from very different places.

There were plenty of other, private and sincere meetings, in London, in Yorkshire, in Peterborough, all over the place, which came to very little, but not from want of trying.  This approach clearly wasn’t getting very far and after a period when the statutory nature conservation agencies tried to broker some legal deals, all parties agreed to go into a more formal form of arbitration procedure with experts.  We all agreed to meet in a process guided by the Environment Council and did so from 2006 until 2012 (which was after I had left the RSPB in early 2011).  This is what I wrote about it in Inglorious:

It’s good to talk, and for over six years a group of organisations (BASC, Countryside Alliance, Country Land and Business Association, GWCT, Moorland Association, National Gamekeepers’ Organisation, RSPB, Hawk and Owl Trust, Northern England raptor groups) sat around the table several times a year, under the auspices of the Environment Council, and tried to find a solution to the conflict between Hen Harriers and driven grouse shooting. I attended a good number of those meetings myself and used my best endeavours to find a way through the impasse. It always seemed that the grouse shooters simply wanted to be allowed to carry on with their crimes with our blessing rather than meeting us halfway. I’m sure it felt differently to them.

Just about all the organisations involved were paying for the conciliation and arbitration services of the Environment Council staff, so the whole business wasn’t without costs of time and money, but I felt that it was certainly worth the effort. And I realised that it would look bad if the RSPB pulled out, so even towards the end of my involvement, when I was losing hope of a breakthrough, I kept us in the process. And I made sure that I personally attended as many meetings as possible, to signal that RSPB commitment at a senior level. During this long process the players got to know each other better, swapped jokes, argued with passion but almost always with politeness and explored options such as quota schemes that would allow grouse moors to ‘cap’ the number of Hen Harriers on their land, diversionary feeding , translocation schemes, reintroductions to the English lowlands etc., etc.

I’ve often wondered what it would have taken to find a solution. And sometimes I have thought, since I believe that everyone would much rather have had a solution than not had a solution, that maybe there is no solution out there that will keep both ‘sides’ grumpy but neither side feeling as though they had completely won or lost.

I wouldn’t say that the process left me jaded, but it didn’t make me feel optimistic about the future. In the summer of 2012, about a year after I left the RSPB, the RSPB left this dialogue, having decided that it wasn’t getting anywhere – after seven years of talking, that seemed fair enough. And soon afterwards the Environment Council itself folded, and with it its website and the rather cryptic records of our off-the-record discussions.

Whenever anyone new comes onto the scene of the conflict between Hen Harriers and grouse shooting with high hopes of finding a solution to the problems of both sides by ‘getting people round the table’, I think back to many tables over many years. We tried, all of us – we really did.

It was in that period that I did stick my neck out quite a long way as described in Fighting for Birds:

It isn’t as though these matters haven’t been talked about many times in private and in public. It isn’t that there has been no attempt to find common ground – it’s just that no common ground has been found. Years ago I stuck my neck out in a private meeting and suggested to grouse moor managers that if hen harrier numbers in England reached 40 pairs then, although that was far below the 250–300 pairs that there ‘should’ be, the RSPB would ease off on the subject of hen harrier persecution. At the time I thought I was being quite brave, and quite possibly betraying the hen harrier, but despite immediate recognition that my offer was a step forward there has been no improvement in the status of the hen harrier in England – quite the opposite.

I also wrote a piece, published in the Shooting Times , which asked those good men in the grouse shooting community to stand up and work with nature conservationists against those, perhaps few, who break the law. Although that initiative was well-received at the time no progress was made then either.

And then the coalition and Conservative governments rode into town with another stakeholder dialogue. This lasted from 2012 to 2016 and was a complete failure in that it did not address, in any meaningful way, the core problem for the Hen Harrier, illegal persecution, and yet addressed the economic problem that Hen Harriers pose to grouse moor managers – that they eat Red Grouse. In a post on this blog I wrote this:

Whatever it was that Defra published yesterday, it was not an action plan to save Hen Harriers.  It was a hybrid between a Hen Harrier inaction plan and an action plan to postpone the demise of driven grouse shooting. In that regard it was generally a damp squib; a small victory for the grouse shooting industry and a small defeat for the RSPB and a rather larger defeat for the Hen Harrier.

There has been quite a lot of talking, and very little has come out of it. Maybe you think you could have done better, and maybe you could, but the time for talking must surely be over.  Talking to the grouse moor managers has been spectacularly unproductive.  The two sides do not have a lot in common, they do not have that many joint interests and there has been no progress.  Can you point to a single grouse moor manager who has supported the RSPB position and criticised his (or her) own peers? Has anyone broken ranks? No, instead they got together and funded YFTB to attack the RSPB!

I don’t think that the Moorland Association, BASC, GWCT or Countryside Alliance have any influence over those of their supporters who kill birds of prey. They are a busted flush. They don’t have any right to be in the room where people seek solutions to wildlife crime because they can’t deliver a single thing on the ground. At best they are used by the criminal elements to keep everything in the long grass and at worst they are complicit with this.

So, the RSPB needs a new strategy and there is a very faint sign of it in Martin Harper’s recent blog which says ‘…this approach only works if members of the shooting community are prepared to accept there are problems that need to be addressed. All too often when issues are raised with intensive driven grouse management, the reaction tends to be to pull up the drawbridge and deny there are any problems, rather than accepting the challenge to make things better. For as long as this denial persists, collaboration will always be challenging.’.

The drawbridge analogy is an amusingly accurate one.  The picture is one of the moorland owners inside their castle and the RSPB stuck outside pleading to be let in for a friendly chat – and there has been a 25 year wait.  The RSPB should take the hint – stop waiting for the invitation to sit at the grouse moor owners’ feet and start undermining their castle’s foundations.

More on this later today.


26 Replies to “A short history of a lot of talking”

  1. I tend to believe that getting together and talking is generally the best way to resolve a problem but it does require all sides to participate in good faith. It is clear that in the case of the hen-harrier persecution problem the representatives of grouse shooting have either been talking in bad faith or that they do not really represent the people who are killing hen harriers – possibly a mixture of the two. The persecution continues as mercilessly as ever but is downplayed (“look how few prosecutions there are!”) whilst the routine “condemnations” of raptor persecution are shown to be hollow by the closing of ranks whenever a crime is actually detected.

  2. Amazing. All that at not one word called ‘Geltsdale’! Lets start at Geltsdale not Langholm. In 1975 the RSPB was given access to a Red Grouse moor due to owners finding a Badger in a snare and being horrified! The RSPB had summer wardens until 1981 when I came along as the first full time warden.

    Of course Red Grouse shooting was taking place with a syndicate made up of fairly local folk and a single game keeper. The big feature was that the both the RSPB and the syndicate were paying a peppercorn rent for being there. This meant the syndicate did not have to shoot a lot of Red Grouse to pay for the keeper’s wages, beaters etc. This money was made by having ‘let’ days.

    The only time there was no shooting was due to ‘disease’ not the number of Birds of Prey which were increasing due to a full time warden. Not only were the Birds of Prey increasing on Geltsdale but on the 2 neighbouring shooting estates due to the warden covering these areas and talking with all the keepers involved.

    In 1988 the first pair of Hen Harriers raised 4 young with out the knowledge of any keepers in the area and in 1989 2 pairs were attacked by individuals killing one brood of 6 + the female and a brood of 5 leaving 1 chick and a female alive. Terriers were put into the nests to make it look like the work of a fox but no mark was left by the Fox indicating it was his/her kill and no one elses!

    Following a failed court case where I was stopped from entering the court and giving evidence no one was prosecuted I was moved from the job in 1990 ‘For the benefit of the reserve’ I was told.

    But the major factor was that shooting carried on along side the breeding of most Birds of Prey. The shooting did not stop like at Langholm until the RSPB actually bought the shooting and stopped it for some reason. So the real feature was that shooting could continue along side Birds of Prey without the killing we see today on most Red Grouse moors.

    In 2017 the Red Grouse stock are in numbers which are spilling over into neighbouring shoots. It looks like 2017 like 2016 will have record bags on neighbouring shoots but sadly Geltsdale has limited numbers of Birds of Prey except Short eared Owls which are at record levels due to the number of voles not Red Grouse chicks making a mockery of some of the work/papers done on the present Langholm study!

  3. When I worked in the petroleum industry and helped tenants of garages to do the maths to run their business we built into the maths a value for evaporation of the petrol, meaning there would always be some small loss; bit like a bad debt reserve in some businesses; so why the heck do these grouse moor owners not understand the basics of business and accept that they will loose a few grouse to HH’s; tell me which moorland owner does not have a big net worth to cope with this loss.

    1. M Collard – well, the losses can be very large – that’s what Langholm showed. So we have to choose: legal grosue moors with raptors and many fewer grouse shot (my preference) and continued illegality and big bags.

      1. Mark – you seem to have absolute faith in the findings of the Langholm study on this point. I’m sure you are aware of the rumours (some stemming from people involved with the study) that grouse nests were deliberately destroyed to inflate the losses attributed to HH.
        Similarly, it is rumoured that at the end of the study HH were wiped out in order to make the claim that they could not breed without ‘help’ from grouse shooting.
        Are you totally confident that these rumours are without foundation?

        1. AlanTwo – I’ve certainly heard the second rumour from a very reliable source, which is why I rarely comment on the period after the study. The subsequent loss of Hen Harriers was very dramatic and looked very odd to many of us. But that doesn’t affect the findings in the report of the Joint Raptor Study.

          The former doesn’t sound very likely to me – and I’ve not heard it before. The impacts of HH and Peregrine on grouse bags were partly calculated by data from nest watches and finds of carcasses as I recall. Although, thinking about it as I write this reply…hmmm. That would be a very shocking thing to have happened considering the work was done by GWCT and ITE scientists.

          1. Thanks, Mark. I think the first rumour, at least in part, grew out of bar-room bragging on the part of local estate workers. It’s easy to slip into conspiracy theory territory, but I wouldn’t put much past them.
            I also must confess that I have not properly worked out the relative roles of grouse nest density and HH nest observations in the final conclusions. It may be that grouse nest destruction would not have made much difference, even if the thought of outwitting the scientists gave the locals a good laugh at the time.

          2. Neither have I heard the first rumour, however having known a few contract fieldworkers involved, I have been made aware privately of other dubious interference with the data resulting from the Langholm study. I’ve kept quiet about these because basically I don’t have any proof, but I do consider what I’ve heard to be from reliable witnesses. Allegedly some (but presumably not all) field researchers were leaned on to “manipulate” the results heavily towards revealing harriers to be feeding largely on grouse, and many of the prey items being delivered to nests were recorded as grouse chicks when they were not. Of course all of this would be considered hearsay in court, but I was also informed that the results of diversionary feeding were carefully faked to make the practice seem to be feasible. Several fieldworkers resigned rather than continue to be compromised, but sadly none of those I have been in contact with felt it was worth jeopardizing their future career prospects by taking matters further. As they say, mud sticks. Other employees of the project were encouraged to deliver ‘fake news,’ such as exaggerating wildly the impact of Carrion Crows upon harrier nestlings (despite the lack of evidence of this in the study).

  4. It’s always good to talk if both sides are genuinely searching for a compromise – an agreed middle ground where, potentially, both parties could come away with a better outcome than the status quo. The problem in this case is that one party already has pretty much everything it wants and has no interest in significant change. The only real benefit of talks for the grouse moor lobby is that they are useful when challenged about reform – ‘don’t worry, its all ok, we are all sitting around the table busy resolving things; just bear with us for a few more years…..’ In that sense continuing to agree to talk after 15 years or more is doing no more than helping them to play the game.

    1. In some ways this inability to want to change is a good thing.
      Thank goodness they didn’t take Mark up on his offer of a 40 pair cap.
      That would have been, in my opinion, absolutely terrible.
      Maybe it is crazy to use other historic examples but as i see it their inflexibility will be their downfall and luckily they haven’t a clue it is happening (although surely some can see it and might be worried).

  5. How very pertinent.

    I’ve just been going through some correspondence from early 2000’s regarding harriers etc. There was stuff about EN’s Hen Harrier Recovery Project and a successful nest locally (Yorkshire Dales), with praise being heaped on the Moorland Association for their support of the Project. Sadly this all came to nothing.

    Also bits about Operation Artemis (a newspaper article from then makes very interesting reading.. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1479353/Rare-hen-harriers-under-threat-from-hostile-landowners.html). Sadly Operation Artemis (the Hen Harrier one and not the Operation Artemis that was a short-term European Union-led UN-authorised military mission to the Democratic Republic of the Congo during the Ituri conflict) didn’t help. I was in regular touch with our local Police Wildlife Officer a lot around that time and he too was amazed at hostility from landowners towards what was effectively just enforcement of established law.

    Just two examples from the past of ‘talk’ and some action, which have led to the current situation. 20 years of ‘talking’ just from those examples. It hasn’t worked and isn’t going to.

    And now we have the HH(non)AP. More talk. And the moor owners carry on regardless.

  6. Mark, just so you know the like and dislike buttons have been coming and going for me for a few weeks. More and more often going – now, it seems, gone.

  7. Ditto with the ‘dodgy’ like/dislike & additionally I see LikeBtn.com [?] and when the mouse hovers over it mentions “FREE tariff plan allows to show ….. ” so ???

  8. I would really recommend that you read Nick Duffell’s books “The Making of Them” and “Wounded Leaders” to get a sens of the opposition.You are not going to get co operation from people who survived boarding school (which many grouse moor owners did) and who aquired there such a sense of entitlement to cover their psychological pain. They will not be interested in “logic” or “science”. It really is no surprise that you can not reason with them. Only practical steps to disempower them and bypass them is going to work.

  9. On a similar line, to Marks possibly off the cuff suggestion concerning a “cap”.
    I have mentioned before , probably on this site, that in the late nineties I was talking about the recently published Langholm report, to the then head keeper of a local moor, that in the past had held the one day bag record .
    Concerning birdwatchers and their increasingly voiced concerns over moorland management, “Trapit” he said,”why do they all hate us so much?”.
    I told him that basically there was too much stuff being killed. If they would ease off, work it between various estates to get a spread of raptors over the uplands, the heat would come off a bit,at least locally.
    Obviously my suggestion was also ignored.
    I have some sympathy with keepers who may be willing to take their foot of the gas a little,but worry that if a pair of harriers are allowed to breed, they will be so closely watched as to make control of any further birds impossible.
    My own experience with Goshawk showed that providing an artificial situation ,in this case a well stocked Pheasant shoot in suitable woodland, combined with protection, could result in, as far as I was, and still am, aware, a unique situation.
    Langholm should be viewed as such.
    Moorland management has moved on since then. Some of the Grouse stocking densities now achievable (although there is, at present, no control over spring weather),make talk of the damage a couple of pairs of harriers could do on a well stocked moor redundant.
    The possible long term alternative for Grouse management is more to be feared ,and a growing number of participants, in my view are becoming aware of it.

  10. It seems clear to me that, short of banning the practice altogether, strengthening the law is the only way to deal with this issue.
    1) There must be a risk of custodial sentences for the guilty, especially for second offences;
    2) All those found guilty of offences should have their firearms licences revoked;
    3) Cautions for offences should not be an option; and
    4) Land owners must be made responsible for the behaviour of their employees (vicarious liability)
    The only way to get these changes is to vote for a government which will deliver, not just promise and sit on its hands, or even defend the behaviour of the driven grouse community.

  11. A way forward has been agreed by all parties (at the time) and it is a good one which will work, as it has for the golden eagle in Ireland,the white tailed eagle in Scotland and the red kite in England: brood management.

    Illegal killing of hen harriers plays a very minor (perpetrators deserve the full force of the law) part in the struggle to re-establish hen harriers in England, which everyone wants to see – hence the brood management scheme, which will be successful, because it takes account of the real major threats to hen harriers:

    Foxes, mustelidae, corvids, other birds of prey, particularly buzzards, shortage of prey species (hen harriers outcompeted by abundant meso predators) egg collectors and, last but very much not least, human disturbance.

    1. absolute utter tripe,harriers compete quite well with other meso predators try understanding niche theory to tell you why. The real problem for harriers is people not casual disturbance by birders as harriers are easily seen from a distance or away from breeding sites. As somebody who has wardened breeding harriers we rarely had a casual disturbance problem ( twice in 6 years involving multiple nests (circa 60) and neither pair deserted). Harriers loose some nests in Wales to predators as they probably do in the Western highlands and islands, that such things are a threat on grouse moors is laughable the real problem there, years ago when I was a warden and now is Gamekeepers. Also remember much of the killing now is at winter roosts, that is what satellite tag information tells us. Where is there brood management? birds taken for reintroduction schemes is not brood management, they are separate ideas and birds will in theory go back to where they came from not be moved elsewhere. Brood management is to keep breeding density low not to boost population , which it cannot do in the face of persecution continuing. PERSECUTION IS THE PROBLEM, HARRIERS COPE WITH NATURAL DISASTER AS ALL WILD LIFE DOES, THEY DO NOT NEED MANAGING!!!!!!

  12. As a firearms license holder, I have always been led to believe (by the BASC legal department via their publications amongst others) that should I ever get into any bother, I should NEVER accept a police caution as it would almost certainly lead to my certificate being revoked or not renewed. Better to go through the hassle of court if yr not guilty than to take the easy route etc etc.

    If that is correct then the recent balls-up with the Mossdale Estate (https://raptorpersecutionscotland.wordpress.com/2016/06/01/attempted-hen-harrier-persecution-on-grouse-moor-in-yorkshire-dales-national-park/) should have led to the revocation of the underkeepers license and therefore an end to his ‘game keeping’ career.

    A keeper who hides poisons outside is deemed suitable to continue to hold a firearms certificate. I could go on.

    As Mark says better (or indeed some) enforcement of existing laws would be a start.

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