So the vote is lost and it’s business as usual in Malta. The majority in favour of spring hunting took 50.9% of the votes . So, starting today, birds on their way to breed in Europe will be slaughtered in their thousands by hunters wearing both camouflage and even broader smiles than usual. So, who’s to blame for this huge loss for conservation? Firstly the hunters – because without them this issue wouldn’t exist. However, the majority of these people may well have limited education and lead very little lives. Well, you’d have to really, to get such kicks from killing small birds. Of course, the need to kill things may also point to size deficiencies in things other than intellect, but we needn’t go into them here. So who else is in the firing line? Well, the poll was lost by a mere 2220 votes with 75% of the population voting. Blame also lies, for me, squarely in the laps of those other 25% who in many cases probably couldn’t be bothered to stand up for the lives of their fellow creatures. You can bet your life that everyone who wanted the killing to continue got themselves out there, so the vast majority of the remaining 25% would likely have voted for life rather than death. If only they could have been arsed. Third in my sights is the EU. How is it that Malta got to vote anyway? How is it that spring hunting is even an issue to be voted on? It’s against European law and is allowed nowhere else. Shouldn’t that be enough? What happened? Did Malta only agree to join the EU and receive large amounts of EU money if spring hunting was allowed to continue? Was it – ‘You allow us to carry on regardless if you want us to accept your cash’? Heads I win tails you lose. How did that happen? The EU has to deal with this issue once and for all rather than pussyfooting around hoping Malta would sort it out themselves. They couldn’t and so the EU, very happy to regulate so many other aspects of our lives, needs to step in. Why, you might say, should we do anything at all? Malta has decided for itself. It’s their decision. Well, I’ll tell you why. Number one – these aren’t Maltese birds. They belong – if belong is the right word – to all of us. Two – while I also dislike hunting during autumn migration it is far less damaging to bird populations than killing in spring. In autumn there are far more birds heading south than come north in spring, because there are all the year’s youngsters as well. Many of these will not be around next spring because of starvation, predation, accidents etc. over the winter period. That’s natural and is why birds usually raise several chicks each year. Spring hunting, however, takes out the survivors. These aren’t young birds that might have died naturally before returning north. These are the superbirds – those that have survived all the dangers that traveling thousands of miles and then surviving for months on another continent can bring. It really is the survival of the fittest and here they are, in prime condition and ready to breed. And then they make their last landing in Malta. Killing these birds is very damaging to the population as a whole. Three – the populations of the two permitted target species – Turtle Dove and Quail – are in freefall across Europe with Turtle Dove numbers down by 77% since 1980 . Doesn’t that count for anything? Four – allowing any spring hunting means all manner of protected birds are shot and, make no mistake, this is what happens. No doves in sight? Never mind, there’s an Osprey about to take its last breath. Or a Montagu’s Harrier perhaps. If spring hunting was banned there would be no excuse for shooting anything. There would be no gunfire. As such it would be so much easier to police. We know that hunters don’t stick to the law. There’s years of evidence to show that. So, where are we? It’s impossible to influence the hunters whose manhood demands that cruelty and death be inflicted on little birds. It’s also too late to influence Maltese citizens. So there are two things we can do. For the short-term, we can donate to and support organisations like CABS (Committee Against Bird Slaughter) and Birdlife Malta to help them police this season’s killing to at least keep it within the rules. For the longer term we must write, en masse, to our MEPs. They must exert pressure to bring Malta within EU law and they will only do it if enough of us tell them to. Here’s a letter that can be downloaded and modified, courtesy of Chris Packham who has done so much to raise awareness of this issue. The alternative is to just capitulate. To give up and let Europe’s avian treasures pay the ultimate price. And that’s not an option. We simply have to keep on to give our birds a better chance of making it home. Take a few minutes and do one or both. Don’t join the ranks of those who just couldn’t be arsed.
When we think of corruption it’s often in terms of somewhere abroad. Somewhere in Africa, maybe, or perhaps southern Europe. It’s not usually about something on our own doorstep, but, as George Monbiot writes, that’s because we’re not looking hard enough. ‘Would there still be a commercial banking sector in Britain if it weren’t for corruption? Think of the list of scandals: pension mis-selling, endowment mortgage fraud, the payment protection insurance scam, Libor rigging, insider trading and all the rest.’ (1) Corruption occurs everywhere.
And so it is with wildlife crime. We might think it’s ‘over there’ somewhere, and indeed it often is, with ivory poaching and rhino killing in Africa, industrial scale songbird slaughter all around the Med and commercial whaling in all but name from Japan, Iceland and Norway. And it’s not difficult to find lots of other instances around the world. But, just as with corruption, there’s plenty of wildlife crime on British soil. Take the Ministry of Defence’s bases on Cyprus for a start. Although the trapping of songbirds was made illegal 40 years ago, last year saw 900 000 birds trapped and killed there – on British soil. I’ll just say that again – just short of a million birds were trapped and killed on British soil in 2014 alone. And what’s more, the situation is getting worse, with 2014 being the worst year on record.
So, why is this happening? Graham Madge of the RSPB said, back in 2012, “This isn’t just a few guys trapping on a Sunday morning with a few nets, this is almost getting into the realms of organised crime. There are massive operations at some locations, to the point where shrubbery is planted across hillsides to attract the birds, irrigation systems are put in to water the bushes to make them attractive to insects and therefore to birds, sound systems are put in. They play the bird song at night as the birds are migrating over the island in an attempt to try and pull them in to trap them.” (2) And all this is just so the local dish of ‘ambelopoulia’ – grilled Blackcaps, Robins and warblers eaten whole – can be brazenly and illegally served in local restaurants. And the Ministry of Defence? Again, back in 2012, it said it took the matter ‘very seriously’. And yet the annual number of birds killed is estimated to have doubled in the two years since.
Although this area is British soil, and thus is our responsibility, it isn’t Britain as such. But wildlife crime is rife here too. We don’t have to go abroad to get a bellyful. We just have to go out into the countryside. Chasing terrified foxes and hares with dogs has hardly gone away despite legislation. Badgers are still ripped apart for fun with incidents on the increase partly, perhaps, as a result of a degree of legitimisation by the government through its non-evidence based scapegoating of the badger and cap-doffing to the National Farmers’ Union. In addition, all manner of animals and birds are exterminated across our uplands in the name of grouse moor ‘management’ on behalf of wealthy landowners. It’s against the law and it all deprives us of having more wildlife encounters, more biodiversity and a richer natural world.
As Monbiot concludes, for many countries the kind of corruption that exists involves paying bribes to officials. But what happens in Britain is much more sophisticated and is carried out by the rich and powerful. Corruption is dressed up as legitimate business.
In the same way that the elite influences what qualifies as being corrupt, and therefore excuses their own practices from inclusion for their own benefit, the same happens with wildlife crime. When it would benefit those with power to alter what is a crime against birds and animals they want to change things. Repealing hunting laws? Killing, sorry ‘culling’, protected badgers? Making it legal with special licenses to kill certain birds of prey? Coming up with a plan to legally remove Hen Harriers? The list goes on… and most of these are being discussed to benefit the elite and their activities. The bottom line? Anything rather than changing their own ways.
The question is how much do we – you and I – care? Unless people like us take that extra step then things will just go on, illegally, as before, benefiting the few at the expense of the many and perpetuating animal cruelty. And that would be criminal.
So, there are plenty of things we can do:
- Report any wildlife crime by ringing 101 or, if the crime is actually taking place, 999. To do so anonymously ring 0800 555111
- Join an organisation, such as the RSPB, League Against Cruel Sports or the Badger Trust
- Write to your MP about strengthening laws to protect our wildlife and to put an end to the disgrace in Cyprus
- Write to your Police and Crime Commissioner about what their force is doing about wildlife crime
- Support those trying to fight wildlife crime here and abroad, e.g. Fundrazr appeal
- Get your friends and family involved, e.g. raising awareness and family fundraising
- Follow and support like-minded individuals and groups on social media such as Birders Against Wildlife Crime, Wildlife Crime Aware and Mark Avery
It’s time to stop wishing and start doing.
In the last few years we have increasingly come to realise just how much the migrant birds of the Eastern Mediterranean are under intense pressure. Every year, hundreds of millions of birds make the twice yearly trip between Europe and Africa. Unlike birds that stick to one area for the whole of their lives, the vast movements of migrants mean they encounter many more dangers as they go about their usual year. Not only do most of these migrants have to to cross the Sahara and the Mediterranean Sea each spring and autumn and deal with all kinds of weather conditions, humans also are responsible for incredible hazards they must overcome. A staggering number of birds do not make it.
Huge numbers are being slaughtered as they make their journeys. Millions are shot each year en route by people who consider killing a sport. Vast numbers of birds are caught in nets in northern Africa, the Middle East and Southern Europe – it is estimated that the length of the nets laid out each spring and autumn to catch desperately tired migrants totals over 700 km in Egypt alone!!!  Then there are overhead power cables that birds fly into, together with an increasing number of wind farms that large birds are not evolutionarily adapted to avoiding.
It’s a wonder any birds make it! Sadly fewer and fewer do.
For those birds that do manage to successfully cross into Europe, even when they arrive at their breeding grounds the dangers are still there. Take Lazarus, an Egyptian Vulture nursed back to health from poisoning and fitted with a satellite transmitter. He left Greece in 2012, spent the winter in Africa and headed home in 2013. His journey took him over Egypt, Israel, war-torn Syria and Turkey, but two days after crossing the Greek border, only 200km from home, he swallowed poisoned bait and died.
Now all this makes me angry. Really bloody angry.
But what can we do? Well, if it makes you angry perhaps you would consider this. A fundraising appeal has been made by Birdwing (a conservation organisation set up by my wife and me several years ago – see birdwing.eu) to raise money to help prevent the extinction of Egyptian Vultures from Greece.
As part of an ongoing project anti-poison sniffer dogs are working in the breeding territories. They sniff out poison baits before they can do their killing.
Here’s the link.
It is vital work and every small donation can have a massive impact on the future of this species in Greece. It’s a chance to make a difference. Will you help?
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.
Is the clock ticking for grouse shooting? Or at least for ‘driven grouse shooting’, the more intensive form where the need for large numbers of grouse to be available for shooting creates ‘Dalek-like gamekeepers’ with a one-word vocabulary, ‘Exterminate! Exterminate!’ And that’s exactly what happens. Anything that might remotely eat a grouse chick is ruthlessly destroyed, particularly birds of prey. And, what’s more, just to be on the safe side, even creatures that don’t eat grouse – hares for instance – are often also exterminated. Why? Because they just might spread ticks to grouse and attract predators that could then help themselves to a grouse dinner. Hares, for God’s sake!
Hundreds of fully protected birds of prey – majestic eagles, harriers, hawks and falcons – shot, poisoned, and trapped. Eggs removed. Nestfuls of helpless chicks stamped on. The complete removal of a whole suite of creatures from our uplands to allow a few days of killing by the rich and privileged. It’s beyond belief that this is going on in Britain. It’s all very well for us to be outraged by what’s going on in the likes of Malta – and quite right that we are – but this is happening here. And what’s more it’s getting worse. A six year study of Hen Harriers in England – Natural England’s Hen Harrier Recovery Project – found that there were fewer Hen Harriers on England’s uplands when this important initiative ended than when it began!
So this is where we are.
Will these practices continue unchecked for the benefit of the ‘wealthy few’ in our society?
Is there any light at the end of this sad, depressing tunnel?
Well, perhaps the intransigence of the whole grouse-shooting fraternity towards changing anything at all might ultimately come to bite them on the backside. There is a precedent here. Remember the ‘right to roam’ issue some years ago? Officially called the 2000 Countryside and Rights of Way Act (CROW), it allows the public access to those areas of mountain, moor and heath from which they were previously excluded.
Many wealthy landowners were confident that it would never become law because they were the rich and powerful. They had the political clout to stop it. But they didn’t. With Labour taking power in 1997 the political pendulum swung left and the weight of public opinion made it happen. Had something been done earlier to appease public concern, to show some understanding of the issue, then who knows what the outcome might have been. But no, those concerned stuck their heads in the sand with two fingers pointing skywards and lo and behold there was suddenly a right to roam.
There comes a “tipping point” on every issue; a time when it’s possible to still have some influence over what happens, and then a time when it’s too late. Was the ‘ignore it and it will all go away’ attitude over the CROW Act a classic example of doing too little too late?
And could the grouse-shooting industry be heading that way? Could history repeat itself? Can the industry afford to ignore the growing swell of public opinion? There is already a significant momentum for change gathering pace – and we have an election around the corner. The signs are there to be seen:
- In 2012 an epetition raised over 10 000 signatures in favour of vicarious liability for raptor persecution in England. Those who persecute birds of prey frequently do so at the direction of their employers or others with vested interests, and this offence of vicarious liability would bring those parties to justice. So the moor owners, rather than just their gamekeepers, would be liable. This recently became law in Scotland. The government in England, is currently ‘monitoring’ the Scottish situation.
- Earlier this year another epetition advocating the licensing of grouse moors passed the 10 000 threshold.
- In the light of the ‘head in the sand’ attitude of the grouse shooting industry a third epetition is gathering momentum – please sign it if you haven’t already – concerning the banning of driven grouse shoots – the most harmful to other wildlife.
- After a fair bit of fence-sitting the RSPB has come out in favour of a licensing scheme for grouse moors. If there’s no evidence of criminal wrongdoing on your moor then you keep your license. Found guilty of illegal raptor killing? Then you lose it for a period until you put your house in order. What could be wrong with that?
- Increasing exposure of the issue in the media is visible including a recent piece on the BBC’s Countryfile, in the BBC Wildlife magazine and in the current issue of Birdwatch, not to mention newspaper reports, blogs and other social media. Numbers of tweets about this are increasing week-by-week.
- Hen Harrier Day. On August 10th there will be a series of peaceful protests to raise awareness amongst the public about the plight of this raptor and the criminal activity pushing it to the verge of extinction as a breeding bird in England.
As the pressure continues to build remember that you can be part of this change. “It is the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing because you can only do little. Do what you can.” Sydney Smith
Here are a few things to do – and don’t forget – we – you and I – are the momentum for change:
- attend a Hen Harrier Day event – click on the banner below for more details
- Make your voice heard on social media!
- donate to the RSPB’s Hen Harrier appeal – go to the RSPB site here
- sign the epetition on driven grouse shooting – sign here
- Write to your MP or to opposition parties to let them know your strength of feeling – see my post Your right to write for details of how to do this easily
“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” Barack Obama
More than 10,000 people supported a recent petition regarding the licensing of grouse moors in the UK (1). This petition asked that those moors on which there was proven evidence of criminal activity against wildlife – often involving birds of prey – would lose their licence for a period of time. Thus the owner would be deprived of income as a result of their involvement in criminal activity and would have every incentive to get their house in order. Surely this would be a sound piece of legislation. What is there to object to? It makes perfect sense. After all, if there is no criminal activity there’s no problem.
Unfortunately DEFRA (the UK government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) didn’t see it that way. Passing the 10,000 signature threshold, the petition triggered a required response. This duly came and not only failed to support the idea but virtually ignored the whole issue of grouse shooting, instead offering platitudes and waffling on about the economic benefits of shooting in general (2). However, despite the government’s unwillingness to engage with the issue, one would have thought that they would at least have been aware of a strength of feeling about this matter and perhaps trodden a little more carefully as a result.
Not a chance. Instead the government has looked at the subsidy it pays to grouse moor owners (- you mean there’s a subsidy?) and decided that it’s not enough. So now it’s been increased from £30 per hectare to £56 (3). Whoa, hold on a minute. First of all it seems that the government, as part of subsidies given to upland ‘farmers’, pays wealthy owners of grouse moors regular money from us UK taxpayers and now – following public concern about abuses in grouse moor management, for heaven’s sake – is virtually doubling this subsidy. Why? Why do these owners receive any such subsidy in the first place? We know that grouse moors depend on criminal activity in the form of the illegal killing of all kinds of wildlife – from hares to foxes to Hen Harriers – anything that might reduce the number of grouse that can be blasted from the sky. It’s been well documented (4) (5). And now the government is sticking two fingers up at anyone who is concerned about how these vast tracts of our uplands are ‘managed’. Of course, for ‘managed’ read, in many cases, ‘illegally cleared of birds of prey’.
In not doing more than simply acknowledging this widely-supported petition the government is, in effect, saying that the leisure pursuits of a small, elite club are simply not to be interfered with. And, what’s more, they’re saying they’re going to pay them more of your money to help them enjoy themselves. So there. Stuff your petition and say goodbye to a bit more of your hard-earned cash.
In the meantime we are deprived of seeing Hen Harriers, Peregrines, Goshawks, Golden Eagles etc. soaring over the hills. And now – you just couldn’t make it up – we’re paying double for the privilege.
Enough is enough. It’s about time we stopped pussy-footing around this issue and stood up to be counted. If you’re interested in joining a peaceful protest about the illegal killing of our birds of prey, organised for August 10th at various venues, see http://birdersagainst.org/projects/hen-harrier-day
Now I’ve heard it all. The Moorland Association is putting itself forward as the champion of a bird of prey! This organisation is the representative body of grouse moor owners in England and Wales. It says, ‘Britain’s smallest birds of prey are flying in to nest on English grouse moors which have helped stave off their downfall.’ A new report, commissioned by the Association themselves, states that numbers of Merlin have increased on moorland that is being intensively ‘managed’ for grouse shooting (1). Many newspapers have picked this up and run the story, giving the Moorland Association a pat on the back in the process. The Merlin does indeed seem to be doing well on some grouse moors and seeing one of these beautiful little falcons on the moors enhances any upland walk. So that’s great.
But, wait a minute, isn’t there another question waiting to be asked here? What about all the other raptors on moorland in the north of England? Where are the Buzzards, the Peregrines, the Goshawks and the Hen Harriers? Also doing well? I’m afraid not. Pretty much absent, in fact, even though there’s plenty of available habitat. It’s been estimated there are sufficient territories for around 300 pairs of Hen Harriers to live in England’s uplands. How many successfully did so last year? None. Not a single chick was raised.
Now, why on earth could that be, given that the management of our moors is in such caring, raptor-loving hands? Relentless, illegal persecution year after year is cited in numerous scientific reports as a major reason for their absence. The same is happening in central and eastern Scotland where there are also eagles to be exterminated. The Golden Eagle, that Scottish icon, would be soaring over many more Scottish uplands if they were allowed to do so (2). So many of these incidents occur on or near managed grouse moors. (3) Coincidence? Hardly. Nothing stops those with a vested interest in ‘grouse production’. Not even the law. Poisoning, trapping, shooting – you name it – of anything that might possibly threaten a grouse chick. They must all be destroyed. It’s illegal killing that is cited again and again. It’s no coincidence that the Merlin happens to be our smallest raptor and not considered a threat by the moorland ‘managers’.
For the Moorland Association to be making capital out of – and seeking credit for – not killing Merlins is rich indeed. There’s no ‘protection’ of raptors on managed grouse moors. As far as birds of prey are concerned, the word doesn’t seem to exist in the moorland managers’ dictionary, which goes straight from ‘persecution’ to ‘public relations’. The bottom line, and there’s no getting away from it, is that grouse shooting depends on widespread criminality. And those responsible are simply stealing our nature. Over and over again.
If you’re interested in getting details about a peaceful protest against Hen Harrier persecution click here.