There has been a lot of controversy around the Hawk and Owl Trust’s recent decision to support the disputed technique of brood management as a solution to solving the issues of Hen harriers on grouse moors. Whilst on a practical level I can see how this technique of moving harrier chicks to safe sites is an attractive option that satisfies both parties, there is a fundamental reason why it is wrong and should not be supported.
Allowing brood management to be used takes us down the route towards a world where we say it is ok for people and wildlife to not coexist. We’re lending our support to the view that there are large parts of our countryside where certain bird species cannot go. We are saying that Hen harriers can only be allowed on nature reserves, or that they can only remain on our grouse moors in numbers we, the high and mighty humans, deem acceptable. It is favouring humans, it is a deal founded on our terms and seems to ignore the rights of wildlife.
The conservation movement used to believe in this division between people and wildlife, and was sucked down this route when it began. In the early days it focused on protecting the last fragments of important habitat we had left. It was hoped that putting fences around land and managing it for wildlife would save our vanishing species. If we’re being honest, and true, it hasn’t really worked. Yes, some species have recovered and we have preserved quite a bit (which is to be celebrated), but we have also lost a huge amount and the majority of species continue to decline.
In recent years the conservation movement has widened its gaze beyond nature reserve boundaries, focusing on landscape scale conservation. As David Attenborough rightly said last year: “The whole countryside should be available for wildlife.”
Grouse moors have to make space for the wildlife that use them, particularly if that wildlife is as rare and threatened as the Hen harrier. There are many solutions to try before we even begin to contemplate the legitimacy of brood management. Diversionary feeding, habitat management and altering shooting techniques and methods should all be implemented first (you can read more about these in one of my previous articles). If they fail, then we can look at other solutions, but these solutions must rest on the principle that wildlife (and by that I mean the Hen harrier) is welcome on a grouse moor.
However, and this is a big however, things aren’t quite as simple as that. I’ve been giving this issue a lot of thought and I have subtly switched my focus on it. I don’t think the Hawk and Owl Trust deserve the anger they have had directed at them. They have made a mistake in supporting brood management so soon in the recovery plan process, but it is not inherently wrong or necessarily ideologically wrong (as I stated in my opening paragraph) to support brood management as a principle.
When you set aside your feelings of betrayal and sadness, suppressing your anger at the shooting estates that have so unjustly pushed Hen harriers to the brink of extinction in England (which I have done, and it was no easy task), you come to see that the policy, whilst not ideal, has some merit.
We all want everyone in society, including grouse estates, to protect wildlife for its own sake. However, as Tony Juniper rightly points out in the March edition of BBC Wildlife magazine, it is not working. It hurts me deeply to admit it, but we don’t live in an ideal world where people will protect our wildlife for its own sake. We have to come to a compromise, we have to put aside our pride and ideology, and do what is right for the Hen harrier.
As it currently stands, in 2013 no Hen harriers bred successfully in England, and last year we had four pairs. Brood management does allow for Hen harriers to exist on grouse moors, but there would be a limit imposed on their numbers. As their numbers are currently at rock bottom, the numbers allowed through brood management would constitute an increase in the population, which is what we want. It is a compromise, but one that moves in the right direction, towards a state where Hen harriers will be tolerated on the moors.
Put yourself in the position of a grouse moor owner (not easily done I know, but it is important so you can try to understand this wildlife conflict better). It has been demonstrated by several studies that Hen harriers can take significant numbers of grouse and do have an impact on the economic viability of shooting estates (though the severity of this can be debated, the basic premise remains true). Estate owners might wish to allow Hen harriers to nest and breed on their moors, however they fear to do so because they know that, without control, their populations will rise and could reach densities that impact on their livelihood. Now let me be clear, I am not excusing the illegal persecution of these birds, merely trying to understand why people kill them. I care deeply about this issue and I want to find a solution as much as anyone. It is only through understanding that we can reach a solution that suits everyone. If estate owners were able to humanely remove and relocate Hen harriers once were becoming a problem on their land, perhaps they would allow some to live alongside them, and even, dare I say it, let them take the odd grouse now and then. Of course this is all supposition, I am not a grouse moor owner and unfortunately I don’t know any (though I would welcome correspondence from any that might read this article!), but it is not unreasonable to see the logic in this thought process.
Perhaps brood management is the tool we need to bring the two sides together, and more importantly, bring Hen harriers and grouse closer together. I don’t think I am being overly naive in the paragraph above. I’m aware of the low opinion many conservationists have of the shooting industry (I often feel this way when I read the news of the next Hen harrier to be sickeningly killed), but I do believe that a large portion of estates behave by the law. I hope it is a minority of estates that use illegal persecution, and that with diplomacy and compromise, we can work with the reasonable estates to solve this problem.
Like the Hawk and Owl Trust, I am aware that what I am saying is unpopular. A recent poll conducted by the Rare Bird Alert website, found that 70% of the 759 people surveyed were against brood management. Please understand, I do not advocate the implementation of a brood management trial at this stage. As I stated above, we should be trialing all of the other techniques first, and if they work then there is no need for brood management. This would allow the ideal ideology to be pursued. However, if the two entrenched sides cannot agree on using these measures, what do we do? Do we continue as we are, fighting wildlife crime and failing to get Hen harriers back on our moors? Or, do we embrace brood management, uncomfortable though it may be, and see if it will encourage Hen harriers to be allowed back onto the moors?
There is a lot more I could write on this issue, but I’ll leave it there for now, you can always find more from the links below. Please think on this before jumping to a conclusion. I admit, I was guilty of stridently leaping to the defence of the Hen harrier and condemning brood management. I’m still undecided on it, but I feel more comfortable with it and believe that my more balanced stance is one which would be best for the future of Hen harriers. I’m tired of this war, I’m tired of conservation losing. Lets be proactive and start focusing on the solutions, and not the problems. Lets work together.