Jeff Knott is RSPB's Head of Nature Policy. Here he shares his own personal perspective on the decision to walk away from Defra's Hen Harrier Action Plan.
It’s always disappointing when you invest a lot of your time and energy into something and it doesn’t work out as you’d hoped. Whether it’s work, sports or relationships; nothing stings quite as much as the disappointment of unfulfilled potential.
The Hen Harrier Action Plan, created under Defra’s Upland Stakeholder Forum has been like that for me and has had a bit of all three. The potential of a positive opportunity. The misplaced optimism of an England football campaign. And ultimately the disappointing realisation that it’s just not working out.
Four years. That is, to coin a technical phrase, a bloody long time! Four years ago we were gearing up for the London Olympics – seems an age ago doesn’t it?
But four years is also how long discussions went on to try and hammer out an agreement that all parties could agree on and that most importantly, would deliver the recovery of hen harriers. I was the RSPB representative in most of those meetings. While discussion was often difficult and debate was usually forthright, it did feel like there was potential. Getting everyone – conservationists, shooters, landowners, the Government - around a table to try to agree on how to save England’s hen harriers (and only that) was always going to be challenging, but it was a prize worth fighting for. And that’s what kept me going through years of meetings.
When the plan was published earlier this year, we welcomed it. Not because it was perfect – it wasn’t (but then I’d argue no compromise agreement ever is) – but because it represented the potential for progress. Unfortunately, that potential has proved to be as fleeting and as unfulfilled as that of Roy Hodgson’s men at Euro 2016.
I’m not going to repeat the evidence for the lack of progress. For that, give Martin Harper’s excellent blog from last Monday a read. It is clear that the opportunity the action plan presented has not been grasped. The events of this season have made it abundantly clear that the people I spent years sitting round tables with are unable to deliver the real changes we need to see on the ground. And when it’s clear a partnership can’t deliver what it needs to, then it’s time to separate.
And let’s be abundantly clear. The action plan has not failed to deliver because of the RSPB. It has failed to deliver because illegal killing has not ended and hen harriers remain in danger.
What’s my over-riding sentiment to this? Anger? Depression? Disappointment?
No – its determination.
Determination that this will be the last failed process. Determination that we will all, especially law-abiding shooting estates, grasp the real opportunity presented by licensing. Determination that we will continue to work with partners on the ground to protect the birds. Determination that we will save our hen harriers.
And licensing really does offer an opportunity. It’s not a blanket approach, but targeted specifically at driving up standards. Progressives in the shooting community should be looking to embrace licensing as a way to identify and marginalise illegality and bad practice. There are plenty out there calling for a total ban on driven grouse shooting. Over 64,000 have signed this petition. For me, taking licensing seriously provides the grouse shooting industry with an option to avoid the failure of the Hen Harrier Action Plan being seen as another milestone on the way to ever increasing calls for an outright ban on driven grouse shooting and the land use and practices that support it. It’s an opportunity they mustn't let slip by.
Have I wasted the last four years working on an action plan that has failed entirely? I don’t think so. Because much like failure in sports, in relationships, indeed in life, with hen harriers if we learn the lessons and move forward to achieve our goals in the future, ultimately it will all be worth it.
If you share my determination, please attend one of the upcoming Hen Harrier Day events on 6th/7th August and, if you live in Scotland, sign this petition supporting calls for licensing.
We’ll be blogging regularly in the run up to Hen Harrier Day 2016 and as a prelude here is an analysis by Stuart Housden, our Director of Scotland, reviewing the issues facing the uplands in Britain and the fate of its hen harrier population and the work we are doing to tackle them. We believe fundamentally that intensive driven grouse shooting needs to reform or sooner or later it will die. We want actively to pursue constructive options - but our support is conditional on progress. This will be a topic we will return to over the coming weeks.
We’ve never been afraid to tackle difficult issues, where powerful interests have much to lose, whether that’s those who profited from the world trade in birds’ plumage, or developers who pursue profitable developments at the expense of wildlife sites. The RSPB has been actively stating the conservation case, and winning the arguments throughout our long history.
Our passion for the cause that drives us – to see a world richer in nature – is at the heart of what we do. To this we add a calm evaluation of facts, data and information which we use to inform our policies. And, of course, our extensive network of nature reserves roots us in the practical issues of managing land and working in communities.
A long running and currently very topical issue concerns the management of land for grouse shooting, particularly the intensive land management that now supports driven grouse shooting. This happens on moorland and hills, places made special by the upland heaths and blanket bogs that are home to so much wildlife. The management aims to produce extensive areas of heather which is regularly burnt to provide young shoots favoured by red grouse and where gamekeepers undertake the control of generalist predators such as crows and red foxes.
Grouse moors are quite good for some important species (other than grouse) such as curlew and golden plover not least because of the legal reduction in numbers of generalist predators that would otherwise have an impact on ground-nesting wading birds as was found in this study carried out by GWCT. But, there is strong scientific evidence which links intensive grouse moor management with illegal practices that result in fewer hen harriers, peregrine falcons and other protected birds of prey that should be found on these open landscapes. Here’s our recent scientific review of the benefits & costs of grouse moors..
This illegal persecution of wildlife, when added to the intensification of the management of moorland (more burning, track construction, damage to peat areas, catching up and medication of grouse, killing mountain hares) is causing a number of serious questions to be posed to the grouse moor managing community.
Female hen harrier - photo credit Andy Hay RSPB Images
The RSPB’s Council has carefully considered the science and evaluated the impact that illegal persecution of protected species is having, alongside the damage to eco-systems, weighed against the benefits for some bird species. We have also looked at other models of management and regulation in other countries, to see what we can learn. It is apparent that the management of large sporting estates across the UK enjoys ‘light touch’ regulation compared with many other land use sectors (at home), and sports shooting in other countries.
It is also apparent that the illegal killing of birds like hen harriers, red kites, golden eagles and peregrines on some upland areas is having a population and range-level impact. This was earlier revealed in the influential Hen Harrier and Golden Eagle Framework documents.
In response, many have joined calls to ban driven grouse shooting, whilst those in the grouse moor community continue to challenge the evidence and wish to work in a voluntary capacity to improve practice.
What is the RSPB doing to address this critical issue and where does it stand ?
2. We believe the regulation of grouse shooting should be subject to a far more rigorous process, that ensures estates and their staff manage land in the public interest and within the law. Self-regulation has clearly failed. A licensing system, with serious sanctions for breaches, including a sanction prohibiting sport shooting for periods, should now be pursued. We'll be returning to this issue over the coming weeks. While we believe a licensed based approach has utility across the UK, we are currently focussing on the opportunity to develop its implementation in Scotland, where significant improvements in regulation are already helping to hold perpetrators of environmental crimes to account
3. We continue to offer help to those managers who adopt progressive management, and will work constructively with them to find solutions to problems. For example, the diversionary feeding of hen harriers, trialled at Langholm, and which has proved to be successful in reducing grouse losses to predation.
4. We do not support a ban on driven grouse shooting because we see this as unlikely to achieve the desired objectives as in our assessment it will not get political support without first showing that other approaches do not work. We also believe it focuses on the wrong area through highlighting the style of shooting (‘driven’ vs ‘walked up’), rather than the real problem – the desire to produce (and shoot) ever more grouse which is associated with increasingly intensive and sometime illegal management practices. Experience tells us it will also be extremely difficult to bring about a ban without first exhausting all regulatory approaches. In short, if people break the law and kill protected wildlife (and this happens in many areas beyond driven grouse moors), such activity will not stop if driven grouse shooting is prohibited across the board.
5. We have supported the Upland Stakeholder Forum’s joint action plan to increase the English hen harrier population (the Hen Harrier Action Plan) as the best current option for delivering progress in England. However, we believe so-called ‘brood management’ option still has significant questions to answer before any trial of the technique can be considered acceptable. We made this clear as long ago as 2009.
6. So what might the future hold for the uplands? It is increasingly evident that our uplands and the people and wildlife they support face an increasingly uncertain future. The combination of a changing climate, unprofitable industries (e.g. farming and forestry) and heightened awareness of the importance of the uplands as a carbon store and source of drinking water all serve to remind that the way we use and manage the uplands is of vital importance. And the connection between the uplands and communities downstream is also increasingly evident with major flood incidents increasingly the norm. We urgently need to find new ways of restoring degraded habitats, restoring bog and heath, establishing new areas of woodland, restoring floodplains and finding ways to sustain High Nature Value farming systems, vital to the maintenance of meadows and pastures and a suite of priority species. We know that many landowners who shoot, share our passion for the uplands and the wildlife they support. And yet we are also aware that some continue to flout the law with no apparent understanding of the consequences of their actions either on the environment or indeed on their own community. It is surely time for a change. A change that embraces wider societal needs and puts grouse shooting on a more environmentally sustainable footing. In the absence of a demonstrable change in behaviour, better regulation is now required to achieve change.
We must also think about how to deliver the desired management of such large areas of the uplands. How will the habitat of curlews, snipe, golden plover and other species for which these areas are very important be managed in the future (especially as populations of some of these key species have virtually gone from the lowlands).What role have the shooting community to play. Will more intensive sheep grazing see the loss of heather ground, or will commercial forestry become the preferred land use? Something will fill the vacuum. We must ensure any new management properly addresses issues such as flooding caused by runoff from the hills, or damage to peatlands from drains or burning are addressed, rather than risk replacing one environmentally damaging form of management with another.
Our Chairman of Council, Professor Steve Ormerod recently set out the RSPB’s position in a guest blog on Mark Avery’s website.
I hope you find this summary and the links to our ongoing work helpful in understanding the RSPB’s position on this issue. In essence, our approach is no different to that employed in dealing with any other land use – we want to promote good practice and eradicate bad, both through effective regulation and direct support for those who wish to work positively. We want to give hope to moor managers, by supporting them as they introduce best practise. But we will not flinch from exposing the illegal killing of protected hen harriers and other birds of prey, and will continue to do all in our power to combat wildlife crime.