My passion for wildlife was stimulated in my teenage years, mainly thanks to my Mum (a biology teacher) who made me look at the world differently and being inspired by writers such as Paul Colinvaux. This early interest developed into biological research in my 20s, when I did practical conservation work in places such as the Comores and Mongolia.
Today, any free time I have I spend pottering around the flatlands of East Anglia or escaping to our hut on the Northumberland coast looking for wildlife and castles with my wife and children.
I studied Biological Sciences at Oxford and Conservation at UCL, and worked at Wildlife and Countryside Link before spending five years as Conservation Director at Plantlife.
I joined the RSPB as Head of Government Affairs in 2004, became Head of Sustainable Development in 2006, before becoming Conservation Director in 2011.
In November, I wrote that "many members of the shooting community want an end to illegal persecution and make a significant contribution to conservation". Following an exchange of comments, a challenge was issued to encourage someone from the shooting community to offer their perspective. I did receive one offer. Here Rob Yorke, who is a member of the RSPB, BTO, BASC, GWCT, is a birdwatcher and self-professed bird hunter for the pot, offers his thoughts on our recent Birdcrime report. He is also a rural surveyor and commentator at robyorke.co.uk and @blackgull
‘I would be interested to have some numbers on the 'many' shooters who want to stop wildlife crime. Perhaps you could get one of this throng to write a guest blog.
This was the challenge set to me via a comment under Martin Harper’s blog on 'Documenting crimes against wild birds' covering the recent ‘Birdcrime’ report. The report covers a range of subjects from killing protected birds, egg collecting and possession of wild birds (something renowned naturalists undertook in the past), to wildlife photographers that disturb Schedule One birds plus illegal poisoning and trading of wild birds.
Martin said in his blog that ‘it is clear that many members of the shooting community want an end to illegal persecution’ and as the report ‘headlined’ on this matter in respect of birds of prey, it is that subject on which I focus - set within a historical and contemporary context in an attempt to explain why these crimes continue and how we seek to end them.
‘A Naturalist Sketch Book’ by Archibald Thorburn referred, in 1919, ‘to a bird now very rare, which was once plentiful in the British Isles having acquired its name from the ravages it committed in the poultry-yard’.
Although that was almost 100 years ago, this provides us a key as to why some birds of prey are still persecuted today: it is not because gamekeepers are born ‘raptor haters’, but is all about a threat – perceived or real - to livelihoods impacted upon by wildlife.
The hen harrier has been persecuted from when it threatened hens in yards to red grouse on moors today. Buzzards for similar reasons and until 1961, the National Trust and others listed sparrowhawks as ‘vermin’ in game shooting leases. For after millennia as hunter-gathers, we are still hardwired to fear that which threatens our food production or livelihood.
This is where subjective views, some illogically prejudiced and perceived, diverge. While some birds of prey are of conservation concern, others are not. A matter explored by this opinion in British Birds with a telling comment under the piece indicating perhaps why many of the shooting community don’t engage on illegal persecution.
‘The debate always starts off with a description of what is being done by whom to what and why, and then degenerates rapidly into judgements about motivations and cultural values. Unless we can create a non-judgemental space, where those value judgements can be set to one side, then we will not be able to move on.’
So, rather than be judgemental of all those that shoot, and visa versa, let all conservationists (which includes the shooting community as well as birdwatchers) work towards removing the motivation to commit the crime rather seeking to ban the activity of shooting. An example of this is when the RSPB (a wildlife organisation concerned with conservation not animal welfare) did not block the introduction of Larsen Traps which replaced the indiscriminate use of poison to control crows – with a resultant resurgence of buzzards.
“We (RSPB) are neither anti nor pro shooting. We are neutral on the ethics of shooting”
There are some that intransigently refuse to work towards common ground believing that to do so is a sop to the shooting industry or the thin end of the wedge. However, anyone that goes to war over biodiversity conservation to defeat the ‘other side’ may placate public opinion, perhaps increase membership, but is unlikely to deliver public benefit from becoming bogged down by unwinnable trench warfare tactics.
From those conservationists that claim ownership of bird-crime, to those that believe they control how ‘red in tooth and claw’ countryside operates, war-like language does nothing to help conservation achieve its goals. In fact, it may drive some towards more vindictive behavioural responses. Woe betide we end up like Malta where anti-hunting and pro-hunting groups so antagonise each other that the latter kill protected birds just out of spite to the former.
There will always be elements of countryside management, whether in the name of conservation, human health and safety or livelihoods, that conflict with wildlife. Natural England still issue occasional licences, judged on their merits, to ‘remove’ protected birds from threatening business viability from bullfinches in commercial orchards to buzzards over free range chickens.
At the moment those who care about the countryside risk being separated from achieving our shared goals. No one in their right mind condones a crime but, with such a long history of mistrust and cultural divide in how we deal with real or perceived threats, we must learn to work together.
Let us create those non-judgemental spaces so we can initiate peace talks to build trust enabling the shooting conservation community to work closer with non-shooting conservationists. One such way has brilliantly just appeared in the form of the Hen Harrier Action Plan and, once harriers do start to breed on grouse moors, we can all reconcile differences and push on for the benefit of both livelihoods and wild birds.
And very well said Ian Whittaker.
I too have read both articles. In the first place, there is a desperate need to create the non-judgemental space. We must stop the nonsense about rich toffs or rurally illiterate townies, left and right political agendas and the assumptions that one side knows better than the other whether that is based on years of tradition and practice or hard-nosed science. I must say, that the RSPB and Martin in particular, already works very hard in that space, if only evidenced by the fact that they draw criticism from both sides of the debate.
But conflict resolution requires some agreed principles. Whether it is Northern Ireland or Hen Harriers, one of those principles is to adhere to the law and for those with influence to do everything in their power to make sure the law is obeyed. And in the case of the Hen Harrier action plan, that should mean the spirit, as well as the letter of the law. Rob clearly infers that with the action plan in place, this is doable as his perfectly reasonable view of illegal persecution is that it comes about because of the "perceived or real" threat to livelihoods. Presumably, with the plan now in place, there is a brilliant opportunity for a very simple instruction to go out from every grouse moor owner to their employees that no action must take place that jeopardises the breeding of hen harriers (and other protected birds of prey as well?). That's assuming they don't already do that of course as part of the shooting conservation community. And that message is reinforced by the wider shooting community's network organisations & lobby groups.
As Rob says, with an expected increase in hen harrier breeding this year because the plan is now in place, we have a "persecution-free" breathing space in which to work out how to reconcile conservation objectives with grouse moor management in the long term. That in itself will require compromise on both sides. Let's see.
Thanks Mike for your comment. No offence taken at all!
Agree that we need to change the language - too easy to be caught up by emotive yet ultimately destructive terminology.
"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'."
Let's reframe it. We are all conservationists, with or without guns, all against wildlife crime. We all can, with the will to want to, work together.
I am sorry that I seemed to upset you with my football comment on the BAWC response to your blog - it wasn't my intention - just trying to inject a bit of humour.
I think that encouraging a debate on this important issue via the RSPB website is a good one and should be encouraged.
I read both articles with interest - it just happens that I side with Charlie Brooks’ view "People like me who love birds hate seeing crimes committed against them" I have been lucky enough to see hen harriers in the Yorkshire Dales and more recently in North Norfolk and all I want is for more people to experience this simple pleasure.
I am not against shooting or hunting per se and an industry based on the release of reared pheasant or partridge seems little different to chicken rearing in my view, as long as the birds are safe to eat afterwards.
What surprises me in your article and note to me however is your regular reference to war, peace, battlegrounds and trench warfare. I just want the police to stop people with guns breaking the law – simple!
A pity Martin that so few can be bothered/have no time to comment. The silent majority I hope concur with the final line of my guest blog. Thanks anyway. Onwards!
I still find great difficulty in accepting any of the "shooters"arguments. Grouse shooting on moorland is first and foremost a so called sport ( although I would call it more like carnage). The contribution grouse make to people's general food supply is negligible taken overall. Industry has to work within environmental regulations which are designed so that it has minimal impact on our air, our water and our wildlife and if they do have a serious breach of the regulations they can be closed down. So why oh why should the shooting industry not be made to abide by similar regulations? It is a sad comment on this country that a number of our finest bird species should be driven close to extinction purely to satisfy some ( not all) rich people's entertainment.. Good luck to the RSPB and all who are working towards proper and meaningful controls of the shooting industry.
Well said Rob Yorke.
And worth noting that the Scottish Government and Scottish Natural Heritage are also active in Conflict Resolution, see here - snh.presscentre.com/.../The-Understanding-Predation-project-identifies-pathways-to-address-conflict-229.aspx
The linked project has brought together a wide range of interested and concerned parties - ably facilitated by Prof Steve Redpath of the University of Aberdeen and a multi-disciplinary team of experts - in an attempt to find common ground, build better understanding of contested issues and thereby foster consensus for future management options.
These 2 initiatives offer inclusive ways out of the current counter-productive and damaging impasse. More power to their elbows.....