So, Hen Harrier Day is over. It was uplifting, and those of us who were there, dripping and paddling, felt a sense of cohesion and inspiration from being with a group of committed, like-minded people who have simply had enough of the illegal persecution of birds of prey. And it’s now so important that this momentum builds.
The fact that the likes of the Daily Telegraph is writing such tendentious, scurrilous, ill-informed pieces show that some people, somewhere, are running scared. Maybe in the future we will see Hen Harriers and other raptors living unmolested on our grouse moors. Let’s hope so, but it could be some time in coming. Nevertheless, I’m in it for the long haul.
In the meantime, with our attention focused on driven grouse moors, let’s not forget all the other areas of our uplands that are also harrier – and raptor – free. In fact many of them are pretty much bird free altogether. In April I spent a day in Snowdonia – one of our national park ‘jewels’. After 8 hours of walking my birdlist was……… five. Five species – in a national park for God’s sake. If it hadn’t been for half a dozen Herring Gulls scavenging sandwiches at the summit of Snowdon the total of individual birds seen wouldn’t have been much more than five. A few Ravens, a singing wren, two Meadow Pipits and a Pied Wagtail in the car park completed the list. After eight hours in a National Park in April. Wow.
Raptors? Don’t be silly, there wasn’t a single one. Why would there be raptors? There was absolutely nothing for them to eat. I say it again – in a national park in April.
George Monbiot’s term for these uplands is the most apt – they are ‘sheepwrecked’. (1) They are a barren, green, short-cropped desert, the result of subsidised overgrazing that we – you and I – pay for. It seems that, in 2010, the average Welsh sheep farm on the hills received £53 000 in subsidies. The average net income per farm was £33 000. Hang on, that’s a deficit of £20 000 per farm. That’s right, in creating a green desert each farm incurred a loss of £20 000. So, we pay £53 grand a year to each farm to encourage them to, in effect, remove wildlife and wildlife habitat from the hills. So no harriers there either, then. And this is considered normal in our national parks. Let’s just do that again. We – you and I – pay £53 000 per farm to create an upland desert.
And it’s not just in Wales that these green deserts proliferate. There are huge swathes of English and Scottish uplands, much of which is in national parks, where birdlists would stay well inside single figures. To quote Monbiot,
Sheep farming in this country is a slow-burning ecological disaster, which has done more damage to the living systems of this country than either climate change or industrial pollution.(2)
And it gets worse. Before 2004, subsidies were paid to farmers according to how many animals they had, but since then they have been paid in accordance with how much land is farmed. This has made it financially advantageous for hill farmers to remove any remaining scrub etc. on their land to increase their eligibility for subsidies and, in so doing, further reduce its wildlife potential. It’s clearly a nonsensical way to go about things.
One of the traps that we, as humans, often fall into is believing that things have always been as they are now. In the case of our uplands they haven’t always been as they are now. Grazing by sheep has created the current lifeless state of much of them. Hardly anything survives their relentless molars. But, when any change is mooted, the prophecies of doom come thick and fast, e.g. Will Cockbain, until 2012 the National Farmers’ Union spokesman on hill farming, ‘If the hills are not grazed, they will turn to scrub and trees, which may look scenic but will decrease biodiversity.’ (3) Good God! Less biodiversity? Could that be possible? Could we be heading for a birdlist of zero? You simply couldn’t make such nonsense up.
Sheep farming is a particularly unproductive and damaging use of our uplands and it’s about time that we, in Britain, had a look at the whole issue of our upland areas. Their current state is an economic and environmental disaster. And that’s not to even mention the rain that now streams straight off the scoured hills to create flooding misery downstream. Let’s think beyond the constraining prism of the present. We need to get past all this trotted-out nonsense about sheep farming being vital in maintaining the land as it always has been. It isn’t and it hasn’t. It used to be richer, more diverse and much more full of life. We need to develop a vision of what these areas could be. We need to discuss what we think the uplands are for and then find a way of changing them for the better, both for wildlife – harriers included – and, as a result, for us and our experiences of being in them.