Where are all the birds of prey that you'd expect to see on Britain's heather moors? Conspicuous only by their absence. Raptor persecution is the dark secret of our uplands, says environmental campaigner Dr Mark Avery, and the grouse shooting industry is to blame. But don't just get mad – get active.
When you stand on top of a hill or crag to admire the scenery, it's a life-enriching experience. Many of Britain's greatest views are in our upland National Parks, places like the Peak District, the Yorkshire Dales or the Cairngorms. These were set up to protect the beauty of their landscapes and the natural beauty of their wildlife. But here's the rub - our national parks are not wildlife hotspots but wildlife crime hotspots, and that's because they are dominated by a land use, intensive grouse shooting, that does not tolerate wildlife such as Golden Eagles, Peregrine Falcons or Hen Harriers.
"It's difficult to find a place beautiful if you know it hides an ugly secret: shooting lots of grouse for fun is underpinned by wildlife crime by gamekeepers and other shooting interests."
You don't have to take my word for it. In recent weeks several National Parks and AONBs have voiced their concern and outrage over the scale of illegal killing of birds of prey in their areas. Here are just a couple of examples:
'Being able to watch birds of prey in the Peak District National Park should be part of everyone's experience. We have been working with landowners, gamekeepers and partners since 2011 to remedy the situation locally but it is clear from the results that much more needs to be done. This year peregrines have failed to breed in the Dark Peak for the first time since they recolonised in 1984 and persecution of these incredible birds has been a factor in this. This has to change'.
'The continuing persecution of birds of prey in the [Nidderdale] AONB is outrageous. It is a stain on our reputation as a nationally-protected landscape in which wildlife – including birds of prey like buzzards, red kites, hen harriers and peregrine falcons – is part and parcel of what makes Nidderdale such an amazing place to be. We unreservedly condemn illegal persecution of birds of prey. It is starting to have a damaging effect on tourism businesses.'
Those are examples of a whole range of hard-hitting statements that show that the people who live in protected landscapes are fed up with wildlife crime which diminishes their areas, and diminishes the likelihood that walkers, or birdwatchers such as myself, will visit those places. It's difficult to find a place beautiful if you know it hides an ugly secret.
The root of the persecution of birds of prey is the conflict between grouse shooting and raptors. A single day's grouse shooting on a top moor will set you back many thousands of pounds, and otherwise rather economically worthless moors will change hands for millions of pounds because of their grouse shooting income. There's a lot of money at stake.
But birds of prey don't pay for the privilege of eating grouse, and they don't wait until the start of the grouse shooting season on the so-called Glorious 12th of August to take their share. Birds of prey can greatly reduce grouse bags and so they are shot, poisoned and trapped by grouse shooting interests. I'm not suggesting that all grouse moors kill birds of prey, but the scale of killing is immense. There should be over 300 pairs of Hen Harriers, a gorgeous bird after which the Harrier jump-jet was named, nesting in England each year but in 2017 there were just 7 pairs. That illustrates the scale of the killing – all of which is illegal, and has been since the Protection of Birds Act of 1954 (over 60 years ago).
"It's unlikely that grouse shooting will be banned any day soon, but the call for a ban will eventually force governments north and south of the border to act more quickly on this subject"
Shooting lots of grouse for fun is underpinned by wildlife crime by gamekeepers and other shooting interests. Between 1990 and 2015 176 people were convicted of raptor persecution offences in the UK and more than two thirds of these were gamekeepers. Even the British Association for Shooting and Conservation recently said that there are 'criminals among us' who risked 'wrecking shooting for the majority' and 'All of us need to realise that the killing of raptors is doing us no favours. It risks terminal damage to the sport we love'.
The RSPB's take on the subject is this:
"In the UK we have a major issue with birds of prey being deliberately and illegally killed, despite full legal protection. This type of crime has serious consequences for the conservation status of species such as the hen harrier and golden eagle … Of particular concern are raptors targeted in the uplands, especially on land managed for driven grouse shooting."
Under such a wide consensus that wildlife crime is rife and its source is grouse shooting we might expect government to act. In Scotland the SNP government has frequently condemned the scale of wildlife crime and has commissioned studies to investigate the matter, to look at the economic and environmental problems of grouse moor management (which go way beyond killing of raptors and include increased flood risk and water pollution because of heather burning, damage to blanket bogs, new tracks and fences marring the landscape and peat degradation and carbon loss) and they are considering taking legislative action. But in England, the Conservative government remains unmoved. It's almost as though they are mates with the rich and titled who own and manage many of our grouse moors – what a thought!
So, the next time you stand on a peak and look at the view, if it contains a patchwork of burned heather look hard for birds of prey because you probably won't see them. You've been robbed of the sight of a majestic eagle or a Peregrine Falcon, the world's fastest bird, stooping on its prey. And you should feel angry – it certainly makes me angry.
But don't just get mad, get active. Here are some things to do which will channel your anger into helping to solve the problem:
Dr Mark Avery is a scientist by training who is now a blogger (see here), author and environmental campaigner. He worked for the RSPB for 25 years and was their Conservation Director for 13 years.
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