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:
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:
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.