Yesterday, I shared a perspective on bird crime from someone who shoots (Rob Yorke).  Today, I am delighted to welcome Charlie Moores, chair of BAWC (Birders Against Wildlife Crime) to offer his perspective on the Hen Harrier Action Plan.


Martin Harper's blog of 14th January was on the recently-published Hen Harrier Action Plan, a six point 'plan' that, according to Defra, aims "to help revive the hen harrier, one of England’s most iconic birds as part of "the government’s ongoing commitment to preserve and enhance our nation’s natural environment." The 'Plan', all twelve pages of it, is supposed to take the heat out of one of the most contentious issues in the worlds of wildlife management and of wildlife crime. Martin, who when it comes to most things seems to be a fair-minded man, asked for comment. I'm grateful for an opportunity to provide one.

Far from taking the heat out of the issue, it seems to me that the 'Plan' has fanned the flames. The details - at least what details there are - are here (here). In broad terms though some shooting groups are largely pleased with it, as it appears to offer a way to support the ever-expanding driven grouse industry that occupies much of the countryside that the Hen Harrier previously occupied while not demanding too much change from them, while some conservation groups are largely not in favour for much the same reasons.

Speaking on behalf of BAWC  - an independent, volunteer-led, campaign group set up in 2014 by a group of experienced birders and conservationists and whose remit is simply to help tackle wildlife crime - my comment is that we're thoroughly unimpressed by a 'Plan' that largely recounts what is already being done in terms of monitoring and nest protection, suggests a reintroduction in southern England without explaining in detail how IUCN guidelines on reintroductions will be met, and finally argues for trialling a brood management scheme which looks to be all about controlling numbers of a legally protected species for the benefit of a handful of shooting estates. Defra, incidentally, calls their brood management option "a relatively simple idea": it is anything but.

This is supposed to be a "Joint action plan to increase the English hen harrier population", but can there be population increases without firm plans to stamp down on the illegal persecution that led to calls for this Plan in the first place. Where is the promise of funding to bolster policing efforts? There are no hard numbers, the time-scales are woolly. There is nothing detailing new ideas, new legislation, new commitment.

Maybe this will come in time, but few of us will be holding our breaths in anticipation.

It is in fact difficult to see how a 'Plan' that allows for controlling and relocating populations of one of our most persecuted raptors before seriously tackling the causes of their persecution can be said to show a "commitment to preserve and enhance our nation’s natural environment" at all.

Martin is all too aware that some supporters and allies of the RSPB will feel this way too, but he is in an admittedly difficult position. There are sections of the media that will always have a Pavlovian attack-response to anything the RSPB does or says, but as a large, national charity the RSPB sits down with governments and landowners while balancing the wishes (and indeed sometimes the disinterest) of a million-plus members as it does so.

While I personally would have liked the RSPB to speak out against this 'non-Action Plan' I can more or less sympathise with the tensions they have to deal with out in the real world. On Hen Harriers the organisation has sailed an unswerving line, remaining avowedly neutral on shooting issues while repeating, at every opportunity, that illegal persecution must end and that harriers be allowed to occupy their natural place in the countryside. But they are not in a position where simply saying 'No' will achieve anything in the long-term. Besides, even with the resources they can call on, there are plenty of other issues they need to focus on as well: habitat loss, climate change, renewables, attacks on the Nature Directives.

Persecution matters, and while Hen Harriers will always find friends at The Lodge it's perhaps unrealistic to expect the RSPB to throw all their resources at a problem where, after so much fruitless debate, compromise must seem to be the only viable option.

And if the 'Action Plan' had be summed up in one word, 'compromise' would fit the bill.

Why is that? There will be sighs when shooting representatives read this, but it is because shooting has absolutely insisted on it being that way. It's the simple truth that most of us just want crimes against Hen Harriers to stop (the law to be upheld in other words), but shooting interests and landowners - who say they want the same same thing - have attached numerous conditions before that can happen. 

This is not the platform for a debate on the pros or cons of shooting per se, but whether we support or oppose shooting we should at the very least all be able to acknowledge that wildlife crimes against Hen Harriers takes place solely because they eat Red Grouse. That's hardly news. Neither is it breaking new ground to say that's the reason they are shot on sight in some areas and why they are disturbed when they attempt to nest.

Lobbyists for shooting groups say that conservationists don't recognise the work they do to promote wildlife and protect the countryside. Perhaps conservationists would be more inclined to do so if shooting spokespeople would just acknowledge the irrefutable fact that it is not conservationists or birders (or - as one well-known blogger once put it - nurses out on day-trips) who are persecuting Hen Harriers. I will never deny that over-enthusiastic birders/photographers do disturb protected wildlife: they do, and BAWC has said so on many occasions, but let's face it we are not the ones systematically exterminating protected birds.

Unfortunately for those lobbyists, whether most shooters are moderate and law-abiding or not has become moot. The fact is that the criminals persecuting this raptor are to be found amongst their numbers, and that should be their concern as much as it is BAWC's and like-minded groups.

The rhetoric around Hen Harriers, like the line above, is often inflammatory but that's hardly surprising. People like me who love birds hate seeing crimes committed against them. Conservationists are often described as being at 'war' with shooting interests, but speaking for BAWC that's simply not the case. We are at war with wildlife crime and the people who commit it. There's a difference. And that's why we're so disappointed with Defra's 'Plan'.

The 'Action Plan' should have acknowledged the very strong and justifiable emotions that wildlife crime causes, made clear that Defra's absolute priority was to tackle crimes against Hen Harriers, and spelt out in unequivocal terms that crime must stop before quotas, control, and brood management would even be referenced.  Defra should first and foremost be protecting Hen Harriers by ensuring the law is upheld. That would increase numbers, not fiddling around the edges and moving birds to areas where they think persecution might not take place (which is a huge assumption on their part).

It is so frustrating that measurable, observable actions to end crimes against Hen Harriers is not in place on England's grouse moors, and if law-abiding shooters are irritated that wildlife crime keeps being mentioned in the same breath as grouse shooting, they should force their leaders to put them in place. If they did so then the gaps that exist between the two 'sides' would start to close. 

At the moment though it appears to many that the 'Action Plan' is more about supporting an industry that - despite its denials - appears to have a Wenger-like knack of looking the other way when a foul is committed*.

Right now there seems little scope for lasting progress, and surely no-one but wildlife criminals can genuinely think that's a good idea. 

*A reference to the manager of Arsenal football club who refuses to criticise his players in public