On Thursday 26 November 2020, the Scottish Government announced that it is moving towards licencing grouse moor management in the coming year. Whilst licensing was part of the long overdue Werritty Report the fact that the Government decided to ignore the recommendation for a five year moratorium to allow the grouse shooting industry to demonstrate that they are capable of bringing an end to extensive use of illegal activities, including raptor persecution, by self-regulation within the industry.
Unsurprisingly, the industry is now expressing outrage at this decision. However, in reality this change was brought about by the on-going raptor persecution and persistent statements of denial, despite the abundance of evidence, by the industry leaders. Grouse moor managers have had decades to demonstrate that they already do, or can, comply with current legislation and yet to date they have spectacularly failed to do so. Legislation was the inevitable outcome.
Any licensing system must address other moorland management techniques, not just the authority to shoot Red Grouse. The licence will need to cover:
upland flood alleviation schemes to prevent downstream misery frequently suffered by valley residents
the use of lead shot
the use of medicated grit
the illegal use of traps and snares
Addressing these issues is essential, but this is not an exclusive list.
When the licensing scheme is eventually introduced it will require robust policing and effective sanctions if it is to deliver the projected benefits to both wildlife and the wider environment.
The Scottish Government is to be congratulated on taking this affirmative action. Raptors and other wildlife have no concept of borders and this action should offer them additional protection as they move back and forth between England and Scotland. The environmental protection clauses built into a licensing scheme will have a positive impact on the climate change emergency and benefit the population across the UK.
To achieve enhanced benefits for the whole of Great Britain NERF calls on DEFRA to introduce an effective system of licensing for the grouse shooting industry in England. The challenges faced by raptors on much of the land managed for driven grouse shooting in the North of England remains a clear and present danger. The threat from climate change currently faced by the planet is not going away and every beneficial action that will help to alleviate the damage needs to be taken now. Licensing grouse moor management may not be the answer to climate change, however it is part of the solution and should be introduced without further delay.
This picture shows Ada having been satellite tagged as part of the RSPB Hen Harrier Life Project. It was taken just prior to her being returned to her nest. She was on the point of fledging, on the point of leading a long and productive life, adding generations of Hen Harriers wild and flying free in the North of England, or anywhere else she chose. That was her promise to her species; a promise that she would never live long enough to fulfill.
Whilst Ada’s nest was in southern Scotland, just over the Northumberland / Scottish Border, she was monitored and satellite tagged by NERF members working in partnership with the RSPB Life Project staff. We were heavily invested in Ada’s well-being and future potential. Her ‘disappearance’ without trace after a short life of 130 days, 2,790 days less than her expected lifespan, is not just an unfortunate tragic statistic to be accepted by the people involved. NERF takes the loss of Ada, and all of the other ‘disappeared’ Hen Harriers, tagged or not, personally and we are sick of it! Society is sick of it! Be under no illusion, the killing of Hen Harriers is not a random isolated act of brutality; it is a function of organised crime pervading grouse moors across our uplands, often sustaining their profitability. Anyone with a modicum of humanity cannot avoid being emotionally affected by the never-ending pointless slaughter. It is not just an insult to Hen Harriers, or the people that commit their lives to protecting them, it is an insult to the very fabric of civilization.
The sudden and inexplicable catastrophic failure, or ‘stopped no malfunction’ of Ada’s tag followed an all too predictable pattern:
Ada was tagged on 28 June
the tags used by the RSPB are known to be 94% reliable
the tag provided excellent data for 105 days
prior to failure there was no indication that there were technical issues with the tag
the tag inexplicably ‘stopped no malfunction’ on 10 October
her last transmission placed her on a grouse moor, east of Allendale, Northumberland
a ground search conducted by very experienced RSPB staff using sophisticated tracking equipment failed to locate her
despite long periods of settled, sunny weather there has been no contact with Ada’s solar powered tag in the last 6 weeks
Police enquiries have proved unsuccessful
The pattern surrounding ‘disappeared’
Hen Harriers repeated itself, again, and Ada was the latest victim.
Unless the body of Ada is recovered we will never know what actually happened to her. However, our previous experience gives a very credible working hypothesis. The bodies of Hen Harriers that die naturally are invariably recovered and post-mortem examinations pronounce the cause of death as natural, even though some were revealed to have been previously shot although the injuries had not been fatal. The opposite is also true. Birds with satellite tags that ‘stop no malfunction’ when the last transmission was from a grouse moor are invariably not recovered. Why is that? This scenario was eloquently described in a recent paper, ‘Patterns of satellite tagged hen harrier disappearances suggest widespread illegal killing on British grouse moors‘ Murgatroyd et al, March 2019, using Natural England’s data. The data revealed that 72% of the satellite tagged Hen Harriers in their study were killed, or very likely to have been killed, on British grouse moors.
In short – the combination of live Hen Harrier plus grouse
moor equals killed Hen Harrier, 72 times out of 100.
Ada was a Scottish Hen Harrier. She joined the ‘disappeared’ on an English grouse moor.
What will SNH have to say about that? What will the Scottish Government have to
say about that? Will there be harsh, angry communications between Scotland and
England or will it all be swept under the heather?
Where does Ada’s ‘disappearance’
leave the Defra / Natural England failed Hen Harrier Recovery Plan now? Will it
be business as usual, throwing huge amounts of tax-payers money, our money, at
the ill-conceived Brood Management Plan and the ludicrous Southern
Re-introduction Scheme? Or will the senior managers in Defra and Natural
England take a spoonful of humility, a dose of reality and make a public
announcement that these schemes are not fit for purpose until persecution ends
and the northern Hen Harrier breeding population reaches the minimum number set
out in Natural England’s SPA designations?
A change of policy by the senior managers at either Defra or
Natural England is highly unlikely, so it remains business as usual and Hen
Harriers will continue to ‘disappear’,
presumed killed, on grouse moors across the northern uplands. It is widely
accepted that past performance predicts future behaviour. Facing that
inevitability, under the current circumstances we must continue to collectively
apply pressure to the decision makers to do the right thing. The ‘right thing’ in this case would include
introducing a system of licensing driven grouse moors, introducing vicarious
liability for owners and managers of grouse moors, take a harder line by withholding
financial support under the farm payment scheme where appropriate and
suspending the use of General Licences.
In the meantime we await the next inevitable, depressing, press
release from the RSPB Hen Harrier Life Project that another bird has ‘disappeared presumed dead’.
From the very beginnings of driven grouse shooting individuals within the industry have been wreaking havoc in the northern uplands. Birds of Prey have been systematically killed in significant numbers with the single aim of increasing the stock of Red Grouse for commercial reasons, including elevating the land value of the estates. Red Kites, Goshawks, Peregrine Falcons, Raven and Short-eared Owls remain absent or substantially under-represented in vast swathes of eminently suitable habitat across the Pennine chain, the Forest of Bowland and the North York Moors. Hen Harriers in particular have been pushed to the brink of extinction as a breeding species throughout the region. All of the available evidence indicates that persecution on some grouse moors is the main driver limiting both regional and national populations of these species.
It is not only birds of prey that suffer from illegality or inappropriate upland management. To achieve high densities of Red Grouse the industry annually burns vast tracts of heather moor resulting in the death of countless numbers of reptiles, amphibians, early ground nesting birds , their invertebrate prey and reducing botanic diversity in the process. Heather burning regimes are now widely acknowledged to reduce the carbon storage capacity within the peat and that the process adds to the risks associated with global warming. It also adversely affects water quality and increases flood risk for downstream communities.
Traditionally the “very British” way of dealing with such issues has been through self-regulation. Representatives of the shooting industry have for many, many years attempted to reassure the public that self-regulation works and that they are best positioned to secure the future of our uplands, their overall biodiversity and the birds of prey that should thrive there. Evidence proves that this is far from the true. Self-regulation by this industry does not work, has never worked and despite reassurances to the contrary will never work in the future.
It is NERF’s opinion that the time for ineffective self-regulation is over. It is time for the Government to acknowledge that many of those controlling the Red Grouse shooting industry cannot be trusted to self-regulate and cannot be trusted to protect our birds of prey. The only way to deal with the environmental and conservation problems emanating from driven Red Grouse shooting is to introduce a robust system of licensing applicable to the landowners, estate managers and their staff. This is surely a reasonable and sensible approach and as with every other licensing system those not involved in criminality will have nothing to fear from a robust licensing system.