Part of our democratic tradition is the right to protest and the freedom of expression. Charities have a rich and long history of influencing change in policy, law, attitudes and behaviour - the RSPB's own campaigning roots date back to our origins in 1889 and the ultimately successful campaign against the use of feathers in the hat trade while we also fought a decade long battle to ban the use of DDTs - a class of pesticides that was harmful to birds of prey.
I have been involved in a number of campaigns which resulted in changes in the law: to improve the management of our finest wildlife sites (Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000), protect the marine environment (Marine and Coastal Access Act, 2008) and set legally binding targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (Climate Change Act 2008). Each of these landmark achievements were hard fought and were the culmination of many years of campaigning and each required manifesto commitments before legislative reform was secured.
Since 2011, there has been a formal way of securing parliamentary profile with the Number 10 petition system established to enable parliamentary debate for petitions attracting more than 100,000 signatures. 39 petitions have secured such a debate and the latest took place today as a result of Mark Avery's campaign to ban driven grouse shooting. As most readers of this blog will know, the RSPB believes that a licensing system for driven grouse shooting should be introduced as an effective way of improving our uplands. In the run up to the debate, we shared our knowledge of the environmental consequences of driven grouse shooting.
My colleague, Jeff Knott, witnessed the debate and sent me this rapid assessment...
"There was lots of interest and a ticketing system had to be introduced because so many people came to listen: about 50 individuals which was approximately twice the capacity of the room. Equally, there was lots of interest from MPs with about 50 MPs attending at least part, with a majority speaking.
Overall, it was an interesting debate with a variety of contributions from MPs, varied in subject, opinion and quality. There was lots of agreement that biodiversity conservation is a major imperative. That is clearly good news! Yet, there were also various references to hen harriers doing better on driven grouse moors than off them. This simply isn't true. Several MPs said hen harriers are increasing. While they have increased from a historical low 100 years ago, the UK population declined between the last two national surveys. And clearly, it will be interesting to see what this year's survey says.
It was questioned why there are no hen harriers on RSPB reserves. There are! In 2015, RSPB nature reserves across the UK provided a home to over 60 pairs of hen harriers in 2015, about 10% of the UK population. And this year, one of the three pairs that successfully nested in England was on our Geltsdale reserve.
There was lots of support for greater enforcement of laws to prevent illegal killing of birds of prey, but this was short on detail. It was striking that the only real argument against licensing was that it would be bureaucratic. Indeed several MPs stated it was an option. This is easily solvable and we'd be very happy to work with parliamentarians to develop a streamlined system.
Clearly, there is huge interest in this subject, both from the public and from MPs, so it is vital that the Government sets out how it will enable further debate leading to action and real change."
While there will be some that will be downhearted that the parliamentary debate did not lead to an immediate commitment for legislative reform, I think that it would be a mistake to ignore the voices of more than 100,000 people wanting reform. The public anger about ongoing persecution of birds of prey and the state of our uplands will only grow unless action is taken. And, the RSPB will continue to make the case for reform both in England and in Scotland, where licensing will be considered through a similar petitioning process.
Change may take time, but it will come.
All great stuff - but it doesn't get away from the simple fact that Hen harriers are teetering on the brink of becoming England's next once widespread bird to become extinct. And for the second time, and for exactly the same reason - ruthless persecution by grouse shooting interests. The last was Red Backed Shrike, probably hastened on its way by egg collectors. Re-run the current debate substituting 'egg collector' for 'grouse shooting' and it looks pretty absurd, doesn't it ? Other than the reality that if grouse shooting continues on its present path it is well on the way to enjoying the same sort of public support egg collecting currently has. The initiative to take action continues to lie solely with grouse shooting and whatever the current position, current trends in public opinion point to its extinction - the only question is when.
My comment was not about the lawfulness of gas guns - I do not condone any form of poor legal or illegal practice - but was about pushing grouse moor managers to 'let' harriers settle next spring so increasing the chances of more breeding pairs.
The reason why harriers are currently kept away from grouse moors was written up and agreed by all parties in the 1997 Joint Raptor Study (JRS) - harriers eat grouse. Langholm Demo Moor Project came out of the JRS as a way to try and find a way to have both a commercially run driven grouse moor and breeding harriers. Yes, it proved that some of the tools could work to a certain cost point - diversionary feeding for a few nests depending on the manpower, funding etc, but unfortunately it did not provide a sustainable model for other grouse moor managers to follow www.langholmproject.com/.../7yr%20review.pdf.
Nothing has moved on. Mainly due to rock bottom trust between human antagonists - grouse moors that might host more than a few pairs of breeding harriers are concerned that without the safety net of relocating additional birds, their moor could become commercially unviable; while raptor groups do not trust grouse moors to look after nesting harriers without their input.
As I've written in The Field - "Unbiased leadership is required to listen to, but ultimately bypass, those who believe that intransigence is the watchword to save hen harriers or driven grouse-shooting" www.thefield.co.uk/.../conservation-conflict-ending-conflict-32001.
The ability for harriers to live alongside driven grouse shoots is achievable – trust can be rebuilt - it’s just easier without partisan posturing based on judgemental preconceptions.
Well said Martin on gas guns, telling it like it is.
The crux of the issue is that ‘preventing’ hen harriers from breeding on grouse moors has been linked to wildlife crime. Rob, your suggestion that the use of gas guns to prevent hen harriers settling is lawful is far from accurate and can be a criminal offence in many circumstances.
Whilst the offence of intentional or reckless disturbance of breeding birds starts from the moment of actual nest building, in Scotland it is also an offence to intentionally or recklessly harass hen harriers at any time. Furthermore, many potential nesting sites are within Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and some are also Special Protection Areas designated for breeding hen harriers, and specific consent would be required from the relevant statutory nature conservation agency before gas guns or other scaring devices could be used. We are aware that at least one grouse moor has been challenged regarding the un-consented use of gas guns. We also believe that in the uplands, there are questionable claims why gas guns are being used in the first place, which may well be a convenient cover and part of overall efforts to prevent hen harriers breeding. If you are aware of locations where gas guns are being used to deter breeding hen harriers we would be grateful for any details.
No hen harriers bred on grouse moors in England this year, and the stark reality is that wildlife crime targeting birds of prey is an ongoing problem and there has been no indication of change. This cannot continue and we are advocating changes to the law and well supported enforcement, which would provide an effective deterrent to the wildlife crime which is preventing recovery for hen harriers and affects many other protected bird of prey populations.
I think it was fairly obvious that those with invested interests would attempt to drive a wedge between the RSPB and supporters of the petition. To be fair to Martin Harper and Mark Avery they did their best to mitigate against this at the initial hearing. The subsequent "debate" was farcical of course. Hopefully those who share the same conservation objectives will continue to work alongside each other, even if they can't agree on the best way to achieve them. The good cop/bad cop partnership can be very effective!
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