Sunday book review – Beak, Tooth and Claw by Mary Colwell

I have found this book a difficult one to review because I like and admire the author but I dislike and don’t admire the book. What follows is a review of the book, not of the author.

It’s a book about predators in the UK – so raptors, Red Foxes, Badgers, seals get lots of words but the fact that almost everything is a predator of some other species hardly gets a mention and the biology of predator-prey relationships is barely touched on.

I found this a very irritating book because the author steps into areas of high controversy and doesn’t really seem to have understood them very well. And, therefore, although it’s all very entertaining the book doesn’t reach many conclusions about anything, and, in my view, it doesn’t do a good enough job in synthesising the information so that readers can make up their own minds. I don’t feel the author has interpreted the evidence well enough. And so I felt like throwing this book acrss the room several times as I was reading, and re-reading, it. My reaction may act as a recommendation for the book for some.

I could just leave it there and then move on, but I feel that I ought to back up my assessment with some examples. So let me take you through some examples and you can judge whether you think I am being fair.

Let’s go to the passages which deal with Hen Harriers and driven grouse shooting on pages 152-167 in the chapter ‘Buzzards and Hen Harriers’.

On page 152 as we get into this tricky subject there is a howler when we are told that 12 August marks the opening of the 6-month grouse shooting season – the season ends after just under 4 months. Not the most terrible mistake in the world but one which immediately makes one wonder how the book will deal with the less easily checked and more intellectually tricky subjects which are bound to follow.

On the next page we are told that grouse shooting is ‘thought’ to be worth nearly £100m to the economy according to the industry’s own figures. We are not told that that estimate has been roundly criticised by economists on a range of levels; the figures are supplied by those who have a vested interest in making that total look large, are unchecked and they include expenditure enabled by agricultural subsidies which ought to be removed from consideration. But more importantly, those figures are not estimates of ‘worth’, they are simply gross spend. If one were to estimate ‘worth’ then one would have to take into account the costs imposed on society by driven grouse shooting such as floods, higher water treatment costs and carbon emissions for example (see yesterday’s Guardian piece for example). Check out what a real economist says about grouse shooting – click here.

On page 154 there is a good, short, account of the findings of the Murgatroyd et al. study of Hen Harriers but the book does not put the roughly 550 UK pairs of Hen Harrier in any context such as that provided by this statutory sector report which lays out evidence and analysis for why we might expect around five times that number to exist in the absence of illegal persecution. And the same report also, famously, although it is slightly difficult to find in the long report (it’s on page 54), states that ‘However, in 2008, there were records of only 5 successful hen harrier nests across the UK extent of driven grouse moors, yet estimates based on habitat area indic[a]ted that there should have been almost 500 pairs‘.

On page 155 we are told that Hen Harriers ‘…breed very successfully on [grouse moors], but the same moors are also the site of their persecution. As ground-nesting birds hen harriers benefit from the same management as red grouse, namely intense control of predators such as foxes, stoats and crows and the patch-burning of of heather…’. This gives the impression that grouse moors are great places for Hen Harriers and is in rather stark contrast to the quote above about how few grouse moors have successful Hen Harriers nests. The studies of Etheridge et al. back in 1997 (The effects of illegal killing and destruction of nests by humans on the population dynamics of the Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus in Scotland. JApplEcol 34: 1081-1105) and the Natural England progress report on their Hen Harrier study (‘A future for Hen Harriers in England?‘ of 2008) both indicate that Hen Harriers have lower breeding success on grouse moors than non-grouse moors. This book gives a palpably inaccurate, indeed untrue, picture of the success of Hen Harriers on grouse moors – it’s as simple as that.

It’s also on page 155 that we are told that because Hen Harriers can be sociable nesters ‘Numbers can build up rapidly, and in just a few years a moor can find itself hosting a dozen or more hen harrier pairs‘. You’ll notice that the word ‘can’ is used twice in that sentence It gives the impression that this is a fairly common occurrence and yet the truth is that it hardly ever happens and has, as far as I can recall, only happened at Langholm. That’s one occasion, lasting just a few years, in the last 40 years or so.

On pages 156-7 there is a description of diversionary feeding, and how brilliantly it reduced the numbers of Red Grouse fed to Hen Harrier chicks. But this book says it wasn’t taken up because the cost of it would be ‘prohibitively expensive, time-consuming and impractical’ if Hen Harrier numbers rose too high. I don’t know where this came from but it isn’t born out by the actual figures – even DEFRA say that feeding a brood of Hen Harriers only costs £1150/yr. That’s a snip – even if you had half a dozen pairs on a moor, when you consider the income to be gained from paying customers at £2-3000/day/gun for a middling grouse moor. And in any case, moving from a business model dependent on criminality to one based on hard work must be worth something to the shooting community. In this book, the industry line simply seems to be accepted as true.

Actually there are two other reasons why diversionary feeding is not taken up by the criminal classes associated with grouse shooting. The first is, in my view, the lesser reason – that it isn’t proven to work. Although Hen Harriers stop bringing Red Grouse chicks to the nest when fed artificially there didn’t seem to be more Red Grouse available for shooting in August. This remains quite puzzling but would certainly be a reason for caution in relying on diversionary feeding. But it’s an approach that needs more testing rather than simply discarding on the say so of industry. And it is being deployed at some Hen Harrier nests so there are probably more data out there now. Most reasonable people, in a situation of conflict, would surely think it was worth a proper try! Even DEFRA says that it should be tried and Natural England issue a licence every year so that it can be tried. Those are views that were surely worth mentioning here? However, I suspect that the main reason that diversionary feeding is not taken up by the grouse shooting industry is that they have a less expensive, less time-consuming and entirely practical solution to hand and that is continuing criminality and taking care not to get caught.

Moving on to pages 158-9 we are told ‘…intensive management also benefits other species, apart from red grouse and hen harrier. Grouse moors provide food and habitat for golden eagle, peregrine, merlin, short-eared owl as well as lapwing, golden plover, curlew, meadow pipit and skylark. If heather moorland disappeared, these species may also decline‘. Well, we can’t argue that grouse moor management benefits Red Grouse to the extent that they live in artificially very high densities before being shot at, although those high densities must be part of the reason for the high incidence of disease in Red Grouse and the need to attempt to keep them going until they face the guns with the provision of medicated grit on the moors. But it certainly doesn’t benefit Hen Harriers overall. Nor does it benefit Golden Eagles (see here for the review of evidence) nor Peregrines (see here for a very good review of the evidence for northern England). Lapwings, Golden Plover and Curlew? Yes, up to a point and this is a fair point. But how this book can leap from purported benefits of intensive management for Red Grouse to the alternative of heather moorland disappearing is ludicrous. Talk about a straw man and a false dichotomy!

Also on page 159 we are told that if current mismanagement for grouse shooting can’t continue then the most likely alternatives are Sitka plantations, windfarms and intensive sheep grazing – this is far from the case. Those things would happen in some places, and they would have a mix of impacts on species – some bad, but some quite possibly good. But they couldn’t happen everywhere because conservation designations and current landscape policies wouldn’t let them. Things might change but the prospect of heather disappearing and plantations and windfarms replacing it in our National Parks and designated landscapes is a great example of project fear. It just isn’t going to happen. Whereas, the rewilding option, which this book quickly skates over, really is a live option for nature conservation, landscape, carbon storage and many other reasons. It deserves to be given more space and more credence here.

Pages 160-64 provide a perfectly fair acount of brood meddling and what people think of it. They were still irritating pages, but that’s because the whole subject is irritating.

Page 164 also quotes the Natural England blog that stated in July 2020 that ‘over 20 successful [Hen Harrier] nests recorded in England so far this yearwhereas the truth was that 19 nests were successful which is a number under rather than over 20. It’s a small error, and I recognise that it’s a tricky world where the statutory conservation agency gets things, like the true numbers, wrong in its own blog and in its press releases but now the erroneous figures are embedded in this book too. How irritating.

Pages 165-66 irritatingly gives the impression that if only everyone would sit down and be sensible then a compromise would be found and ignores the fact that loads and loads of that went on years ago. It is because talking failed that some of us are determined to sweep driven grouse shooting away completely. This book, like most other books and articles and discussions, does not suggest what that new future might be if not banning driven grouse shooting, or licensing as a first step, and so it plays into the hands of the unsustainable status quo. In these pages there is little mention of the quite different approach to driven grouse shooting’s impacts on the environment including protected raptors, that is taken by the government in Scotland. This book has a very English focus.

But, this book hints at walked up shooting being the way forward. Many of the supporters of a ban of driven grouse shooting, would be happy with that. I would be happy with that. Indeed, that’s why every move I’ve made has targetted driven grouse shooting, not grouse shooting. But the book doesn’t come down very firmly for walked-up shooting – and if it did, then, of course, the quickest way to get there would be to ban driven grouse shooting.

On page 167 we return to the wider impacts of burning on the environment, although only some of them, where we can read ‘The burning of heather moorland, opponents say, produces bare ground which increases rainwater run off which affects towns and villages below the moors‘. It’s an interesting way of putting it. Because those effects include flooding people’s houses then yes those people have become opponents of driven grouse shooting – that’s hardly surprising is it? They weren’t born as opponents of this land use, they have come to loathe it because they’ve seen water pouring off burned hills and into their homes and businesses. And they haven’t invented those impacts they have been arrived at by science (see here and here for when that science was published back in 2014 but many papers and discussions have followed which have not dented its relevance or value). So it isn’t ‘opponents’ who came up with the idea of increased flood risk, increased greenhouse gas emissions and increased water treatment costs, it was a whole bunch of scientists who carried out large-scale and intensive studies – the EMBER study of Leeds University is the main such study but it is not the only one. And the Committee on Climate Change don’t get a mention here, either as opponents or supporters of driven grouse shooting, but they too want an end to burning on peatlands on driven grouse moors and other places. As I have written before, the future of driven grouse shooting and of the Hen Harrer may depend more on the growing realisation of what driven grouse shooting does to ecosystem services than to what they do to each other. And just a word on ‘opponents’ of driven grouse shooting – I’m one, but I haven’t always been one. I’ve got to that position over several decades. And that’s what I’ve seen in many others too. I’ve known very many people who have started as mildly pro grouse shooting and over time become distinctly anti. Interestingly, I can’t recall anyone who has moved strongly in the other direction, but I know many who haven’t moved at all.

Can you see why I was irritated? As someone who knows a bit about this subject I think this book is rather sloppy in its treatment of this subject. And note, that its sloppiness is always in the direction of favouring driven grouse shooting in the examples I’ve given: the economic value of grouse shooting (and not the counter examples), failing to mention the science that sets out the scale of the impact of illegal persecution, the repetition that intensive grouse moor management favours Hen Harriers (when the data have long shown it doesn’t overall), the parading of a long (and in this case wrong) list of species benefitting from grouse moor management (fair enough if you get the details right), the down-playing of diversionary feeding as a useful approach to resolving conflict, holding up the prospect of sheep, conifers and windfarms as the almost inevitable alternatives to grouse moor management, the longing for more talking as the right way to spend the future rather than acting now to solve the environmental harm, the playing down or ignoring of the wider ecological and societal disbenefits of the management necessary for driven grouse shooting. These are all arguments from the grouse shooters’ manual – there actually more or less is such a manual (see here) although that isn’t in the references in this chapter of this book. In fact, the section on Hen Harriers is rather short of references altogether.

This chapter of this book won’t change my mind on the subject of driven grouse shooting, not with its treatment of the evidence, but my irritation rises because it may start a few people off in the wrong place and we’ll just have to persuade them of the error of the arguments over time. And they’ll say that they read it in a book (so it must be true!).

But I was irritated throughout the book for similar and extra reasons. The chapter on Ravens and Crows is pretty irritating and has quite a lot of errors too. Of course I’ll spare you an analysis of other chunks of text but I did not find this book a useful analysis. There is not enough attention to the science and little synthesis. Each chapter is a bit like a radio slot – the issue is raised and a couple of people on either side of the argument are quoted but not necessarily in the way they would most want or in the way that is most helpful to the listener, in this case the reader, to get a clear view of the facts of the matter and come to a conclusion that is firmly based.

I wouldn’t put you off reading this book but I cannot recommend it much at all.

Beak, Tooth and Claw: living with predators in Britain by Mary Colwell is published by William Collins.


63 Replies to “Sunday book review – Beak, Tooth and Claw by Mary Colwell”

  1. As one of those who was mildly pro grouse shooting but is now due to all the evidence and my own experiences very anti and believe it should be banned I find the review very useful. I’m not sure whether I will read the book or not, I might just to know the drivel the other side comes out with. I’ve always thought the author was on the other side much of the stuff she came up with on curlew tells you that and her close association with the MA in Curlew projects reinforces that view. It is one of the great problems we who wish to get rid of DGS have, in that the arguments of the pro side seem quite reasonable to both the wilfully blind, the ignorant or even the moderately informed but they are either a tissue of lies or built on a foundation of very free flowing sand. This book will be trumpeted around and oft quoted by the pro lobby hence I may read it (probably from the library) to see where one can correct the nonsense but that one has to is very disappointing. Perhaps I ought to write my own book!

    1. Yes Paul write your own book please!!! She did indeed lean a bit towards the other side even in Curlew Moon, if I recall correctly in that book there was a conference with all sides present about what to do about the curlew. It was all going swimmingly until apparently one of the real conservationists there rather tentatively mentioned that the impact from the release of vast numbers of pheasant might be worth looking at – at which point things got very frosty. None the less it sounds as if this book is a great disappointment at a time when we need much broader discussions about predation and conservation. I suspect there was little if any mention of how returning predators impact on others such as otters suppressing mink numbers, sea eagles potentially dispersing cormorants, lynx eating fox or for that matter returning pine marten helping red squirrels by eating grey ones. I think we’ll have to read this book simply so we can better retort the crap the other side will use that comes from it.

      1. I was told about bits of Curlew Moon and other stuff about her from people present at meetings. Probably very well meaning but clueless and so accepting of all the eyewool the dark side populate their entire arguments with. You’re not the only one telling me to write a book, still thinking about it.

    2. Ah the serial dislikers, haven’t grown the balls yet to comment here though have you! until you do your dislike ticks are just chaff in the wind.

      1. I would just ignore them Paul. Reacting just encourages them by suggesting they have got under your skin. Eleven people (so far) have ‘liked’ your first comment and most of these have not felt it necessary to explain why – which is perfectly reasonable. Of all the things done by the people you campaign against, ticking a dislike button is pretty insignificant, surely.

        1. Doesn’t get under my skin it quite often makes me laugh and makes my opinion of them even lower.

          1. In fact, it shows that you’ve got under their skin, Paul. No matter what how much they hate us, no matter how much they resent the truth, they’ll always be too chicken-shit to take us on here; cowards through and through.

    3. Interesting that you too think the author is on the other side, I gained that impression after listening to her at a conference some time back. As you say it’s books like this (based on review assessment) which do not have accurate facts and depth and dabble that will be used by those seeking to eradicate the wildlife they see as a problem spoiling their fun. Yes, they say everyone has a book in them, so ….

  2. Mark, that is why I had not put this book on my reading list. DGS and the whole industry around it is abhorrent to me. All who are concerned about raptor persecution know we need truth and accuracy, zero tolerance.

  3. If I were to read this book, I’m sure my impressions and reactions would be very similar to those Mark has outlined here. I have never met the author, but I’m very concerned that she appears to be taking a leading role in directing efforts to conserve Curlew and other species that make use of the uplands.
    I’m not sure she has the knowledge or the inclination to look beyond the superficially attractive arguments put out by the shooters and their allies.
    As Mark indicated, her approach seems to be that if we can only get people from all sides to sit around the same table, then the right solution will emerge. This approach has been tried repeatedly over many years in initiatives to tackle the ‘problem’ of predators, and has been a recipe for failure and delay in every case I can think of. I wish the future of our Curlew was in more capable hands.

    1. I really don’t mind if you don’t like the book – but please read it first and then comment. But what I won’t have is your insulting remark that Curlew could be in poor hands. Maybe other people could do a better job, and I would love to work with anyone who cares and acts, but I would wager I have done more to help this bird than you have ever done or will ever do.

      1. I’ve asked this question before, Mary. Maybe you could answer it…

        If Curlews ate Red Grouse, do you really think that the shooting “industry” would be queueing up to jump on your bandwagon?

        With all due respect,

        “Those who lie down with dogs”…

        1. What sort of a question is that? There are numerous predators on grouse moors that are thriving, so perhaps if curlew ate red grouse they would also be thriving, after all, due to the hard work of those who manage the grouse moors (and other land for shooting) the need is there to keep predator numbers under control.
          The simple facts are that all native species thrive where the land is managed for shooting, something that some other ‘conservation’ organisations really don’t like.
          As for the comment about those who lie with dogs, just because someone engages with both sides and makes up their own mind you don’t like them? How awful it is in this modern day to have the privilege of educating yourself, looking at facts and making up your own mind on this sort of issue, only to have internet judges decide your moral character.

          1. It’s amusing that the only way you can come up with an answer is by way of complete falsehood. And even more amusing to see you tie yourself up in knots with your desperate attempt to construct an argument…

            If we follow your dodgy logic to its conclusion, Curlews have actually declined as a direct result of land “management” which causes “numerous predators” to “thrive” at a level at which they have to be “controlled”; Curlews included, if they ate Red Grouse!

            As for me “not liking” Mary Colwell…I hold no personal opinion of her either way, but find it sad that she has obviously lost a degree of support as a direct result of the questionable company she chooses to keep.

            I suggest that you take the time out to conduct some research in the relevant issues before insulting the readers’ intelligence again.

          2. “The simple facts are that all native species thrive where the land is managed for shooting, something that some other ‘conservation’ organisations really don’t like.”

            All? That’s not true.

      2. My comment wasn’t directed towards this particular book. My opinions took shape before its publication. It is, of course, possible that reading the book would make me reverse my position, although Mark’s review (and he is, IMO, usually very fair in his book reviews) makes me think this unlikely.
        Only time will tell what effect you will have on the fortunes of the Curlew and all the other species involved.

      3. Sorry Mary ‘I have done more to help this bird than you have ever done or will ever do’ should really begin with ‘I have tried to help this bird….’. In the long run letting the other side use the curlew as a pawn to keep upland ranching for sickly grouse on the go likely won’t do the curlew much good either, the indications are from places like the Lammermuirs wader numbers decline too once a certain point of intensive ‘management’ is passed. Plus is trying to maintain curlew numbers in what would naturally be capercaillie habitat or juniper stands be the answer? What about helping the RSPB to get beaver back to the Insh Marshes so they can help their breeding waders without having to bring in scrub bashing contractors/volunteers?

        And BTW in the past gamekeepers were found to be pretty poor in accurately noting the number of breeding waders for surveys surprise, surprise counting a lot more than were actually there. Pretty sure it was the BTO that noted that. By the sounds of it you haven’t given enough due to those who’ve spent a life time trying to protect raptors and the other wildlife on the moors against what happens when they’re run to shoot lots of grouse – will your commitment to the curlew last as long? I’m pretty sure you haven’t seen the abuse and trolling directed at wildlife campaigners by some of those very same butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths keepers complaining they’re the victim of misunderstanding and hate. I was looking forward to this book, and will still read it (loved Curlew Moon in spite of a few misgivings), but I think it may have been a lost opportunity.

        1. I’ve actually spent over 35 years ringing Curlew chicks in uplands along with Lapwings, Redshank, Golden Plover Oystercatcher and a few other waders and our RG has submitted many Nest record cards of curlew and the rest to BTO, all good base line data. There were more curlew on moors when they were less intensively managed. Wailing about the fate of upland waders from the Grouse cabal is just another way they are trying to preserve their unpleasant sport and management techniques. they in most cases don’t really care for them. Folk come late to the fray and then claim we should still be banging our heads on the unmoving wall of talking to the unmovable and totally uncompromising tweedies really should do their research.

        2. Hi Les,

          Over a few years I co-ordinated BTO wader projects working to establish wader monitoring projects with gamekeepers, farmers and estate workers in Yorkshire and the Cairngorms. I’m writing here because I think your comment is misrepresenting this work (I’m presuming it’s this work that you’re referring to).

          In one report (for work in Yorkshire) it was reported that at one site it appeared that survey instructions might have been misinterpreted. This was an exception (and was likely my mistake for not giving clear instructions). In general the gamekeepers and estate staff that engaged with these projects were knowledgeable about wader ecology, keen to carry out surveys, and the data generated of good quality.


          *I no longer work for BTO and I’m writing this in a personal capacity.

          1. David I’m not sure that it was your work I’m referring to. I know that the discrepancy was serious enough for it to be reported so I’ve raised the issue whenever I’ve felt it was relevant. If this is the work you were involved in and indeed an anomaly fair dos. I would point out though that in the context of the claims made by grouse moors as to their benefits for wildlife it fits – the keepers were WAY out as I recall. Many have been rather ‘optimistic’ (‘the six times the number of waders’ as Mark has noted) and downright disingenuous. The latter included a Scottish sporting estate that was going to conduct a survey to identify all the wildlife that inhabited their glorious grouse moor. I really wish I’d been able to place a bet on it, because when this was announced I stated on social media that they’d probably tick off ALL the birds they saw on the estate including from non grouse moor bits – wetlands, plantations, farmland etc. I would have won a fair bit, because that’s exactly what they did. Sadly not an indication of intelligence on my part, but really predictable, pathetic and desperate moving of goal posts on theirs.

            I once also watched a you tube video made by a former keeper in which he tried to sell how great grouse moors are for waders. He filmed himself on a grouse moor interviewing the resident keeper about its value for wildlife which for waders at least certainly seemed to be self evident because there were so many calling so loudly it was actually very hard to hear what the ex and current keeper were saying. It didn’t seem right and in discussion with a film student they told me the volume of the waders was higher than that of the two humans who were standing right next to the microphone! It looked, or sounded, like a blatant dubbing job. The video didn’t stay up long, not really surprising as this same ex keeper had also once filmed himself speaking directly to camera stating that ‘I don’t agree with how the RSPB manages their land, for instance look what they’re doing at Mar Lodge…’, Mar Lodge is of course owned by the National Trust for Scotland.

      4. I’ve just returned from an Orkney holiday. I saw no intensively managed moorland and the curlew numbers, along with hen harrier, were far higher than on the driven grouse moors of Aberdeenshire.

    2. Alan, Mary has done more than anybody to highlight the plight of the curlew. Only for her the last ditch conservation measures for curlew in the Republic of Ireland would have not started. Everybody in Ireland who cares about endangered farmland birds owes her a debt of gratitude, that includes myself.

      1. Hi Feargal, I see the 17 ‘dislikes’ of your comment & I wonder who they are?

        “Alan, Mary has done more than anybody to highlight the plight of the curlew.” – TRUE
        “Only for her the last ditch conservation measures for curlew in the Republic of Ireland would have not started. ” – TRUE
        “Everybody in Ireland who cares about endangered farmland birds owes her a debt of gratitude, that includes myself.” – TRUE

        Perhaps some of them would like to explain, here below, although I doubt they will.

        1. I didn’t put a dislike on Feargal’s comments, but I would say if they had grouse moors in southern Ireland, which I’m assuming is his home, then he might know why so many of us are frustrated. This book’s greatest beneficiary might be those who are ramping up and up the UK’s scope for ever greater numbers of red grouse, pheasant and red legged partridge getting blasted for fun, not its wildlife. Even angling is becoming more intensive with artificially stocked waters, at unnaturally high fish densities attracting predators who then get labelled as vermin by those who hook fish for fun. I can promise you no one here who has criticised the book on the basis of a well regarded reviewer’s opinion wanted to, there’s disappointment not malicious delight.

          I had been looking forward to this book for a while, had been hoping it would be taking forward the points Mark Hamblin and Peter Cairns made in ‘Tooth and Claw’, and I will still read it, but with seriously lowered expectations. I also have to say that although I understand Mary’s own disappointment to a less than glowing reception to her book, she hasn’t responded graciously at all to what’s been no more than honest criticism and expressions of concern. Labelling us (principally, but not just Mark) as spiteful and narrow minded was insulting, while not significantly answering the criticisms made which suggests to me they’re valid ones, she knows it and is trying to shoot the messenger(s). Whatever good she’s done in the past she seems intent on now undoing in a personal as well as professional sense. I’m struggling to maintain the high esteem I had for Mary which is now tottering not so much due to Mark’s review as her reaction to it.

          1. >>I didn’t put a dislike on Feargal’s comments”

            Well in that case my question doesn’t apply to you, does it Les? I specifically asked what the reasons for the dislikes to Feargal’s comment were.
            I got no replies, and thus I am none the wiser.

          2. You narrow minded selfish man. Look at the facts not your own delusional blinkered sheep like ideals.

        2. >>’I am none the wiser’. Oh I can believe that. You asked for an answer and you got one so my response was relevant, not my fault if you’ve taken the huff because you actually didn’t want any so you could keep sitting on your moral high horse……which is actually a donkey BTW.

  4. “…but the fact that almost everything is a predator of some other species hardly gets a mention”

    Including, of course, the pheasant. It is interesting that predators that occur naturally in this country must, according to some people, be culled more or less severely in order to ‘maintain the balance’ but these same people dismiss the predation by non-native pheasants on a variety of different species as irrelevant and of no concern.

    1. That’s because they are the very same folk who fill our countryside with this undesirable non-native and make thousands out of the morally bankrupt who pay to shoot these living targets and don’t care a stuff about the countryside or the people who live in it.

  5. Agreed Alan – “I’m not sure she has the knowledge or the inclination to look beyond the superficially attractive arguments put out by the shooters and their allies.”

    Mary’s recent tweet (20 April 21) sums it up: “Today I was told of a farmer in Cumbria who has curlews nesting on his fields, which he knows about, but he rolled the nests anyway. What is the solution? Without vilifying – what needs to happen to make it worth keeping eggs on the ground?”

    Mary doesn’t want to “vilify” a professional person with the knowledge and choice whether or not to roll a field of curlew nests (or even simply suggest they do the right thing). Yet she is happy to praise and celebrate the gamekeepers who ruthlessly strip the uplands of any wild species that threaten their shooting stock, then cynically “celebrate” any species that happen to benefit from their regime. She is happy to support the mass killing of wild species which rely on natural predation to survive rather than challenge farmers to simply uphold the law in nesting season. Her position is just so flimsy that it’s unsurprising this book doesn’t read well.

    After so many years of publicity on the dire state of habitat for waders and their declining populations, it’s a travesty that those with the platform to do so are not taking hard action on the real root causes of this mess. “Emergency” predator control to save a declining population isn’t very convincing after so many years.

    I haven’t read the book (possibly yet) but the majority of comments appear to return to people repeating their tired old predator control justifications. Continuing these spurious arguments about animals which happen to eat eggs as part of their diet will just prolong the distraction and leaves the state of our shared environment just as precarious as it was before.

  6. It is very interesting. I attended a talk by Mary a couple of years ago, as a prelude to the setting up a new lowland Curlew project in north Wiltshire. On the whole her presentation was very good, until she got onto the question of predation.

    Her slide showed all of the usual species that are accused of keeping their numbers down (except humans, of course): but Corvids, BoPs etc and mammalian predators, so I asked her what the major predator was: >95% is by foxes. So she was happy to add to the vilification of a wide range of predators, when the one that really is a problem is the fox, which could be managed by the judicious use of electric fencing around known nest sites.

    Anyway, if you look on the responses to her tweet “Oh dear Mark!”, she has got herself an awful lot of fans amongst the usual shooters, criminals and their apologists and probably got a new audience for her book sales.

  7. Shame on you. Shame on all of you. Shame on you for a series of viscous personal attacks on an honest and decent woman who has done a great deal for conservation, just because you don’t feel she has backed your ‘side’strongly enough. Shame on you for speculating wrongly about the content of a book you haven’t even read. Shame on you for not having the moral courage to call out the bullies on your midst. Some of you really need to have a long hard think about yourselves.

    1. Matt – I’m not sure whether you are including me in that too but it would be good to restrict comments to the book which will probably end this thread because not many people have read it. I have, it was on that basis that I wrote this review, of the book.

      1. Mark, you have trashed my whole book on one part of one chapter. It is a spiteful, narrow-minded review and championed by spiteful narrow-minded comments. I thought you were better than that and had a wider take, but you literally see the word grouse and can go no further. I said absolutely nothing different in this book than in Curlew Moon, but then you also gave that a poor review based on grouse. All I want is for wildlife to have a far, far better deal in this country. I deeply and passionately care about this planet and am doing my utmost to move things forward. I may not do it in the same way as you, but I am trying. I think dialogue and constantly increasing common ground is working. You don’t. That is fine, but why trash a whole book because you disagree? You have thousands of followers who hang off your every word. No wonder, just no wonder we are in the god awful mess.

        1. Mary – thanks! I’ll come back to this but it might take a few days as I’m busy right now (I’m writing a book – maybe the publisher will send it to you to review?). But I notice that you don’t say I got anything wrong. And my issues with this book are not restricted to the passages on grouse, they go to the approach overall (as the review says). I’m sure you want your books to be taken seriously – I take them seriously. I will come back to this another day.

          1. I don’t want you to come back to it Mark for my sake , I’ll close this down now and won’t look at this blog again. I had every chapter checked and re-checked for factual errors, if some slipped through I apologise and will correct them and am grateful for corrections. But you say nothing about the sections on badgers, crows, seals, wildcats, wolves, buzzards, white tailed eagles, red kites etc. It is so easy to dismiss someone. So, so easy. You have done a fine job.

        2. Mary how do you expect that wildlife will get a better deal in this country while a very large proportion of the land that has the best potential for being used for conservation is instead rotationally burnt and covered with snares, traps and medicated grit so that a very few people can use grouse as glorified clay pigeons? Approx 40% of the Cairngorm National Park, the largest in the UK and one of the biggest in western Europe is covered in soul destroying grouse moor. You’ve got involved in this via the curlew and I’m afraid it’s you that has a blinkered, narrow perspective which some people will want, not us I can assure you. Imagine if your book had taken a critical view of grouse moors, what treatment would you have got from your ‘not friends now’ to the cringeworthy howler that the grouse shooting season lasts for six months rather than four? You’d really know what unpleasantness is I can assure you.

          I have a shock for you – prepare yourself – sometimes these calls for discussion and working together are actually a planned stalling tactic, and a way of curbing criticism in the public sphere while groups are involved in talks. I’ve been caught up in them too. There have indeed been some genuine efforts, the tweed brigade have usually walked out of them when it was obvious even tiny changes were expected of the way grouse moors are run e.g not slaughtering birds of prey. Also look into ‘You Forgot the Birds’ and why do bodies with legitimate points have to pay for PR agencies that specialise in throwing mud at their client’s opponents?

          Re Mark, we are not simpletons following a guru, we are people genuinely interested in conservation grateful for a wonderful platform provided by a genuine conservationist. Upon it he’s incredibly generous in allowing people to express opinions diametrically opposed to his or indeed most of ours. He’s had guest blogs written by people from the other side. Is that someone with a blinkered perspective, or someone with a very deep, wide and confident one? If your love of the curlew has meant you’ve lost perspective on everything else, then perhaps you’re indeed more at home with the monomaniacs that think raptors being killed and homes being flooded is inconsequential against having lots and lots of grouse to shoot.

        3. The problem is that decades of discussion have done nothing but make the criminals more careful about their methods and their loose lips.
          There has been a slight decrease in persecution but I am afraid this is largely due to people being caught and the bad press it causes the shooting industry, not the dialogue that has taken place.
          I’ve sat in a number of these talking shops over recent years and they really are just a distraction. The shooting interests aren’t interested in solving the issues of raptor persecution, they just don’t want the bad press and try to use these partnerships to reduce the amount of pressure they are finding themselves under, a sad truth.
          That is not to say that all of the gamekeepers or shooters I have met are this way but it is how the organisations operate. Some forward thinking individuals on the ground are making real progress, however they are few and far between.
          I feel that the end game for all this is well underway, every persecuted bird that is found is another nail in grouse shootings coffin, every demand for legalised persecution adds fuel to the fire, because you can’t deny raptor persecution and still say you need to control raptors to have a viable shoo, this is the reason that the shooters are so fond of red listed waders, however despite illegal persecution and all the legal control efforts the numbers still continue to decline in some areas to the point where you can’t say that predator control is of any benefit to any species other than red grouse.

        4. Mary I am sorry you feel the way you do about both what has been said about the book and implied about you. I don’t think any of us are doubting or indeed criticising your passion. Many of us have been involved in wildlife and conservation in one way or another our whole lives, attended those discussions with the grouse lobby for years and in the end walked away totally disillusioned after what appeared to be banging our heads on an immovable wall for years and years. What the grouse lobby say about predators and predation particularly Hen Harriers is at best a half truth and at worst a pack of unsubstantiated lies, better if you had got your checker to look at ALL evidence. For many of us this is a very emotive subject, which you now know, I have loved Harriers since I saw my first at 16 over 50 years ago and yet they are still being killed illegally and routinely on grouse moors, how do you think that makes me feel? Discussing or writing about predators and predation is a minefield and there will be no pleasing all of us even had you included that which we believe is missing and it would be a better book. I wish you every success with Curlew, as I said in an earlier comment I have ringed young of all upland waders for 35 years. It is not in many ways that grouse moors are good for them just better than agricultural land, better still would be more natural wet upland bogs without a huge surfeit of grouse or pheasants attracting high densities of foxes and crows.

    2. ‘Vicious personal attacks’ – by that you’ve shown that it’s you that’s trying to besmirch others whose opinion you don’t agree with, or at least which is an awkward one for your position. Where exactly have there been personal attacks? There have been suggestions Mary has been naive, that’s not the same as claiming someone’s a bad person, no one has said that and I certainly don’t feel that. If you want to see real vicious personal attacks then look at what prominent anti DGS campaigners have to put up with, I think Mary needs to do this too. Matt you’re the one that should feel shame for a public display of phony righteous indignation that’s at the same very low level as your standard of ‘journalism’. That’s not a vicious personal attack it’s the truth.

    3. Hi Matt, some of the comments do indeed seem gratuitously rude and unhelpfully tribal. I was dismayed to read them. But they don’t seem to warrant the term “vicious” in the way that many attacks on the directors of Wild Justice are vicious. This is not to condone them, but just to reflect on the context in which they are made.

      1. Maybe “viscous” was in fact what was intended and the change to “vicious” in subsequent comments is in error

    4. Moral courage? You block anyone who asks you any pertinent questions on social media, so stop having delusions of grandeur. You’re a nobody, Matt. A useful idiot to the shooting industry and nothing more.

  8. I don’t intend to read this book, not because a pretty poor self-admitting naturalist condemns it, no, it’s because out of anybody on this blog I understand the full extent of natural predation on species, because unlike most of you it’s a subject that occupies a large extent of my time. I accept that my favourites get eaten, but it’s part of a natural process I’ve been committed to for the past 7 years. In a post I got censored for I explained predation, banning me because I dare, heaven forbid hold criticism for the RSPB and the other charities was an act of immature naivety. We should hold these organizations to task; all at the moment are very content to tread water. That’s the problem not only with this blog but also others as well including the opposition; they all operate under their own jaundice viewpoint.
    I viewed Mary’s curlew Zoom talk for Hampshire Ornithological Society (HOS), I thought it was good, check it out. I am not going to criticize someone who is trying to make a difference, if more of you got off your arses and away from your computer screens and actually tried conservation, you’ll soon find out just how hard it is.

  9. Well.

    I read this review with growing disbelief, ditto the fairly aggressive comments at the end (all, or almost all, from men, I note in passing). I should say I know both Mark and Mary quite well, both socially and professionally, so to see a review like this is quite upsetting.

    I’m actually still reading Mary’s book – and enjoying it. It covers areas that have long been side-swerved by most nature writing (or writing about nature, call it what you will). I can’t claim Mark’s expertise so many of the errors he claims to have noticed, I think, if I’m being honest, might pass me by. That’s not really my problem though.

    When reviewing – I do it myself for several magazines – I think there’s an art in expressing quite strong feelings without crossing over into what you could call belittling or take downs. To give a specific example here, the word “irritating” or its variants appear numerous times, certainly more than is necessary for the purposes of an honest review. Perhaps it is just repetition for comedic effect. But I am left with the feeling that the forcefulness of the views in this review illustrate a certain obsession with a cause. Obsession can be a powerful force for good – Mark remains one of my conservation heroes, and is one of the people working hardest to end driven grouse shooting – but I don’t think it is always a useful attribute in a reviewer.

    1. I’d agree with you Ben but for the fact that this book deals with issues pivotal to an important, long running campaign. A campaign I certainly support and want to see succeed. If successful it will bring huge benefits both for wildlife and for people. So if issues relating to that campaign are misrepresented in a book that will be widely read, it is only reasonable to point that out. A fair way to do that would be to quote the relevant sections of text and explain where the flaws lie. The only other options would be to ignore the mistakes, or point them out but, nevertheless, praise the book. Neither seem realistic.

      I’ll be reading the book and I know from her previous books that it will be well written and engaging. I’m looking forward to it.

    2. I think you’ve made the mistake many have made in seeing Mark’s reviewer as one for a magazine or newspaper. I would agree that if he had written (or submits) it for publication other than on his personal blog, the style isn’t appropriate. But it is not unusual for Mark’s reviews here (and that is partly why some of us read them or maybe just me, much as I like the more literary sort of review too and dislike contrarian reviewing, which this is not)

      That said, there is a particular sort of irritation when someone you like writes a book you want to like… but can’t, for reasons which can’t be got round, and especially when it is going to make your life more difficult (the seductions of the ‘middle’ way being what they are, whether they are really the middle or not, and Mary’s wider profile being what it is)

    3. “I read this review with growing disbelief, ditto the fairly aggressive comments at the end (all, or almost all, from men, I note in passing). I should say I know both Mark and Mary quite well, both socially and professionally, so to see a review like this is quite upsetting.”

      Stop invoking the most shallow of identity politics, Ben. It’s pathetic. Mark reviewed this book honestly, and it makes a change from the fawning, back slapping self congratulatory failure that constitutes the UK conservation sector.

      Mary is in a position of influence and consistently puts forward ignorant, outdated and often extremely reactionary views on predators, which is why she has such a following from shooters; their ignorance gets ‘validity’ from this.

  10. “Actually there are two other reasons why diversionary feeding is not taken up by the criminal classes associated with grouse shooting” that simple statement, and further statements within the replies to this review tells it as it is. None of you are bothered by the actual content of the book, it is a class war, you are labelling people as criminals that you don’t even know. You haven’t reviewed a book, you’ve marked it like a teacher finding fault with things to try to belittle the author and make it seem as though the contents aren’t worth reading they are so inaccurate. And even then gone on to state you might write your own book, with some support from those who probably hold the same views as yourself about managed grouse moors.
    So well done for not actually reviewing the book but still managing to use it as a tool for your sadly thought out campaign.
    PS what ‘charity’ will your Christmas cards be supporting this year, since you seem to like pointing out inaccuracies, perhaps you’ll refrain from describing WJ as a charitable organisation, a slightly more serious inaccuracy involving parting people with money to increase sales, after all, who doesn’t like to give to a ‘charity’ when buying things like Christmas cards?

    1. If you check the web-site of Wild Justice you will see that it does not describe itself as a charity and that it was deliberately set up not to be. This was a decision to allow it to undertake campaigning activities that would be excluded if it were a registered charity. I am not aware of anyone (apart from you) referring to WJ as a charity although it raises money purely for the purposes of campaigning for better protection of wildlife through legal action and not for the purposes of the enrichment of its directors or anyone else. In that sense its objects are ‘charitable’ (whether or not you happen to agree with them).

      Since you seem to be a stickler for calling things by their right name, I would suggest that your assertion that the campaign against driven grouse shooting is simply class war is well wide of the mark. Deer stalking and fly-fishing are both pursuits that tend to be enjoyed primarily by the well-heeled but this blog and the campaign against driven grouse shooting in general do not seek to have them banned. There is sometimes criticism of estates that do not manage deer numbers adequately and pressure for a switch to non lead ammunition but the campaign is not seeking to have them banned (Note: some but certainly not all campaigners against driven grouse shooting oppose all shooting on animal welfare grounds. Again this is evidently not class based as the same people are equally opposed to forms of shooting enjoyed by the less well-off as well as illegal activities such as hare coursing and badger baiting that are not associated with wealth or privilege).

      The difference with driven grouse shooting is that it certainly IS associated with criminal activity. There is a huge amount of evidence that hen harriers and other birds of prey are at high risk of being illegally killed when they are on grouse moors. This has been shown to be the case in peer reviewed research and is demonstrated by the almost complete absence of hen harriers from northern England when the habitat is available for a population of several hundreds. The shooting organisations have tacitly acknowledged this to be the case by their involvement in the hen harrier action plan.

      Contrary to what you say in your earlier comment, it is plainly not true that all native species thrive where land is managed for shooting. Birds of prey clearly do not. When they are killed – as we know they are – that is a criminal act and there is nothing wrong with labelling the people responsible as criminals. You might suggest that it is only ‘a few bad apples’ and seek to argue that the only criminals are these rogue gamekeepers and that it is therefore wrong to label the whole industry as criminal. In answer I would point out that these rogue gamekeepers are doing what they believe to be the bidding of their employers. Officially, all the owners of grouse estates and the organisations that represent them deplore the illegal persecution of birds of prey yet whenever an incident occurs they all somehow manage to be looking the other way and no-one can point to a culprit. When a gamekeeper is caught red-handed bludgeoning a goshawk, or whatever, somehow funds are found to hire top lawyers for their defence and when a gamekeeper who has been filmed in the act gets off on a point of law the shooting world and the shooting press are gleeful that the RSPB has been thwarted and not, as one might reasonably expect, angry that a criminal has got away with his crime. These facts suggest a complicity of the grouse shooting world generally in the continuing criminal persecution of hen harriers, golden eagles, peregrines, etc. No doubt there are some honest people within the community who genuinely deplore this but, if so, they have not done nearly enough to stand up to the criminals in their midst.

    2. There’s no ‘might write a book’ about it, Mark’s book ‘Inglorious’ has been around for some time.

  11. Honestly Mark. Fond of you and admire you (usually) as I do, this does the cause no bloody good at all. By all means offer corrections but you made yourself look like a thug in this treatment of a genuine ally.

    1. Not an ally if this book is more beneficial for those wanting to keep or increase the annual recreational slaughter of birds than it’s for wildlife, in spite of her intentions. Maybe it’s Mary’s reaction to his (and a lesser extent our) views that might make Mark seem harsh to some, but they need to actually examine what’s been said and the context. In that case it’s Mary that’s been genuinely insulting calling people narrow minded and spiteful because she doesn’t like their opinions. At the very beginning Mark made the point this wasn’t a personal attack on her, which it wasn’t, she hasn’t shown him the same regard. Maybe she’s spent too much time with Tweedy McTwoface to deal with honesty anymore. I suggest you look back over this blog, article and comments, and rethink your comment.

    2. You didn’t engage with any of his points, only the way he presented them. This is a perfect example of how utterly rotten the UK conservation sector is, where middle class/upper class ecologists all pretend to be fake friends instead of actually stating where they stand. Mark is one of the very few who will do the latter and, no, she isn’t an ally if she’s pumping out information which could have come straight out of the shooting times.

  12. Writing a book is a brave act.

    It takes time, research, heart and soul.

    Many people say they have a book inside them, only to find it is actually trapped wind.

    I’ve wanted to read Mary’s book since I heard about it, because she’s a conservationist and writer I admire, and she has done much to raise the profile of the plight of the curlew.

    I have read and enjoyed Beak, Tooth and Claw – it’s an engaging read – thought-provoking – and has raised many questions in my own mind (the sign of a good book, I think). I read to learn and also to examine my own beliefs – in doing so hopefully challenge my own views which may either help to see another perspective or cement my own viewpoint further. I recommend the book, especially to those who criticise it without reading it. Mary is an empathetic researcher – trying to understand all viewpoints even if she doesn’t agree with them.

    However, when you write a book that has very emotive subjects, I think you have to be prepared for close scrutiny. You have to be able to defend why you give some people voice over others or where your data has been sought and how it has been interpreted.

    I personally think what Mark said about the chapter on Hen Harriers is very fair. However, because it is an emotive subject, his exasperation is apparent and I think how he said it is not very fair. And he dismissed the whole book – which again, I think unfair – I personally enjoyed the narratives and the interviews with people around Britain.

    But whilst I enjoyed much of the book, I didn’t agree with everything. And I think books should open debate between like-minded people and also people whose viewpoints are at odds with our own.

    The chapter on Hen Harriers tried to navigate the middle ground – a well worn path that has seen no change in raptor persecution.
    on p 165 “The key to BOP revival (and the HH in particular) is to repair the fractured relationships between conservationists and the shooting industry.”
    It suggests there is common ground to be found.
    Whereas the science and facts show DGS to be utterly underpinned by crime and environmental devastation on a vast scale.
    Where is the common ground on a burned landscape? Where is the common ground with an industry dependent on crime? As I write, another golden eagle has been poisoned. There are some ethical issues – whether environmental and/or human rights where it is clear cut.
    Sometimes change has to happen – it is the only way forward to navigate out of unsustainable status quo. Sometimes (as Mary quotes on p 10 from David MacDonald – when people have different views on the landscape, philosophically you have to the the right thing.)
    I’m not sure why Mary suggests the only alternatives to DG moor in this chapter might be sitka plantation or grazing and only offers rewilding as a vague unlikely option, when then the end chapter (on p 264) it is given as the perfectly viable and happening alternative – cutting free from the past and bringing nature back on a vast scale. The Hen Harrier chapter feels a muddled chapter, mired in the past, at odds with much in the book – trying to give concession to an industry for tradition’s sake – meting out the same old DGS industry arguments that have not stood up to scrutiny.
    I agree with Mary on p159 that “Only large scale re-designing and re-imagining of our our landscapes both lowland and upland will turn Britain into a country that provide both healthy food and abundant wildlife.” but in the very next sentence she says ‘Driven grouse moors could be more balanced if expectations of shooters for large grouse bags could be reduced” – preserving grouse moor is not re-imaging – it it preserving an unsustainable status quo.

    So I understand Mark’s and many people’s frustration here. Some people reading this chapter in this book may think there is a middle way regarding Hen Harriers, whereas I believe there is not. The Hen Harrier causes much emotion for many including myself because it is so pivotal and so symbolic to the change we desperately need to see – to reverse biodiversity loss and to mitigate the effects of climate change.
    The Hen Harrier and DGS cannot coexist.
    One has to go.
    Sometimes you have to nail your colours to a mast.

    But I certainly would not dismiss the whole book this chapter or parts of other chapters – there is much to be recommended. It is a book I want to re-read. And there are topics I want to explore further from reading this. And I would readily read both Mark and Mary’s books again.

    *on a personal note – on page 16 (“In the lighter world of children’s fiction..”) – I defend my own books here – I’ve written about DGS (two books), coltan mining, bear bile farming, urban rewilding, cooperate greed, raised the ethics of breeding brachycephalic dogs, the casual slaughter of foxhounds and dog fighting to name a few – children’s books they may be – but light, they are not 😉

  13. Not so much a class war as a war of privilege. Should people be treated differently because they are rich and well connected ? Rather a topical issue at the moment. Were Grouse Moor owners black south London gang members the police would probably have them for ‘joint enterprise’ – and it is worth remembering that the match between Hen Harriers and ‘bad apples’ is so neat that for a year just one (Forestry Commission) pair of Hen Harriers stood between extinction of the species as a breeding bird in England.

    And if you are worried about Mary’s account being used by the shooters simply ask what they have done to bring the opposing views together.

  14. I had told myself that I would not contribute further to this thread, and I won’t do so at length.
    If I had to capture in one sentence the core of my lack of confidence in Mary Colwell’s position on Curlew and on predators more widely, I would quote from her Guardian article of a few years ago. In it she talks about the differences between the pro- and anti-shooting camps (in my view a false dichotomy right from the start, but I’ll let that pass) she says, “A very good starting place is the recognition that we all want the same thing – a nature-rich country …”
    To those of us with long experience of dealing with (not all, but many) gamekeepers and landowners, this is simply not true. In my opinion anyone who believes it to be true is too naïve or too ill-informed to be regarded as a safe pair of hands in this complex and difficult area, whatever other good qualities they may have.

  15. Mark,
    As a supporter of the WJ principles I realize there are more informed people than me surrounding conservation issues, but I do think that most people understand what is deemed to be nasty.
    I felt Mark crossed a line with a well meaning author and owes an apology.
    Not everyone always gets things right; even Mark with his vowel typo in para3 i.e. “acrss”
    Some people may feel the need to substitute another vowel to this typo to reflect how they feel about this aggressive behaviour that doesn’t help the cause.

    1. I would suggest that it is a category error to compare a simple typo in a blog with matters of fact regarding hen harriers and grouse moors in a (presumably fact-checked) published book. The typo may cause a pedant some momentary irritation whereas the errors about hen harrier populations and grouse moors have the potential to affect the course of efforts to restore the fortunes of the hen harrier.

      One can debate whether or not Mark mentioned his irritation too often in the review but I would think that an apology would only be owed by him if his claims about the errors in the book were themselves shown to be erroneous. I don’t think you have done that.

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