There has been a great deal written about the plight of the hen harrier in recent years, including several articles from me (here, here and here) giving my input into the debate and lending my voice towards its support. One of the loudest and most prominent voices has been that of Mark Avery, who has campaigned tirelessly to raise awareness of the hen harrier’s demise and work to save it. Mark Avery is a really good writer (I enjoyed his previous book; A Message from Martha, reviewed here) and so when news emerged that his new book; Inglorious, was going to focus on the hen harrier, I, like many other people, was excited and looking forward to reading it.
Whilst the general standard of the book is good, which you would expect coming from Mark Avery, I could not help but feel a little disappointed after finishing it. Part of this was down to the brilliance of his previous book, which I feel Inglorious failed to match, but there were some other reasons too. I felt like the book spent too much time detailing the recent events surrounding the origins of Hen Harrier Day. I was hoping to learn more about the history of this conflict and its economic and cultural origins, and whilst these were covered in the first half of the book, I would have preferred to see them covered in greater detail. Whilst this may reflect personal preference, I also think it makes sense as I would have thought that the majority of people were relatively familiar with the well-publicised events of recent times. I also felt as though the book did not contribute enough new information or insight for my liking. Again, this does reflect my own personal circumstances, as I try to read as much as I can on the hen harrier, and therefore much of the information in the book was not new to me. However I feel like the book could have gone deeper and possibly tried harder to distinguish itself from all of the commentary that has preceded it.
I hope that this does not come across as too negative; that is not my intention at all. I wanted to get my critical comments out of the way first so I could spend the rest of this review explaining the vitally important points that this book makes. After reading this book I spent some time reflecting on all that it had said, as well as all of the other articles I have read over the past few years. I have to confess to being like Mark Avery at the start, a ‘wishy washy liberal’ that felt uncomfortable at the idea of banning grouse shooting outright. However, after reading this book it seems pretty difficult to see any other solution working, and the case for a complete ban seems too strong to resist. Many in the grouse shooting industry still attempt to deny that they are to blame for the scandalously low numbers of hen harrier found in England. This disgusting denial would be laughable if it were not linked to the extinction of one of our most beautiful bird species. The evidence has been there for all to see for decades, and Inglorious does a good job of pulling it all together into a cohesive narrative. Inglorious shows that despite decades of trying to solve the conflict, all efforts have failed and things are as bad as they have ever been for the hen harrier. I feel compelled to state now that I, reluctantly at first but willingly now, fully support the banning of driven grouse shooting.
The environmental, economic and societal costs of driven grouse shooting are too high to bear any longer. Grouse shooting has pushed the hen harrier towards extinction in England and suppresses the populations of a whole host of other species, including mountain hare. Moorland management practices such as burning pollute our skies, destroy precious peatland and pollute our rivers through increased soil erosion and runoff, which also contributes to increasing flood risk. With the constant talk of rewilding shaping the public narrative, it is also worth highlighting the fact that grouse moors hold back heather, gorse, scrub and forest regeneration, maintaining the hills in a relatively barren ecological state. This degradation of the moorland environment also produces economic externalities that cost us; paying to clean our water, paying to address the consequences of global warming and paying to protect our homes from flooding. The burden that all of this places on society is large and one which we cannot bear any longer.
I have been vocally critical of much of the media, particularly the environmental sector, for its lack of balance and journalistic diligence. With that in mind it would be hypocritical of me not to present the other side of this debate, which Inglorious also highlights. Mark Avery does not hide away or ignore the positive aspects of the grouse shooting industry, such as helping some species of ground-nesting bird and preserving important heather moorland habitat. A recent film produced by the Angus Glens Moorland Group demonstrates quite effectively the economic and community benefits that a grouse shooting estate can bring to these remote areas. Nobody is denying that these estates provide an important source of employment, which helps drive rural communities. Even though the financial figures in this report are questionable and disputed by conservationists, it is clear that grouse shooting does provide economic benefits to parts of the UK, and it would be wrong to dismiss these outright.
That is precisely what Mark Avery, myself and 23,625 other people are not doing, because we have all looked at the situation, at the pros and cons, and come to the obvious conclusion that the cons vastly outweigh the pros. For grouse shooting to continue it would need to drastically reform itself, driving to the heart of how it operates as an industry, changing the insidious, deep-seated hatred of predators and moving to a more environmentally embracing position. This won’t happen, the odd estate here and there might convert, but not enough to help birds like the hen harrier recover. Perhaps some estates might adopt diversionary feeding to help things, or brood management might help (something I contemplated in a previous article, which I have now changed my mind on; it won’t work), but it won’t be enough. It will only ever be piecemeal and that is not right. Inglorious also does an excellent job in showing that stronger law enforcement is not the answer either, citing many shocking cases where even catching perpetrators in the act can sometimes not be enough to secure a conviction. That is why a ban is the only way.
To compose these final paragraphs I have come to the only place I’ve seen a hen harrier. Sitting in the crumbling North Hide at Westhay Moor on the Somerset Levels (I had to break some health and safety rules to reach it but it’s worth it!) I sit and contemplate the fate of the hen harrier. The stillness helps my mind focus and the gentle rustle of the reeds provides a relaxing backing track. As a marsh harrier flies in, circling for a moment before dropping into the reedbed, I try to decipher the problems and consider the solutions. Reading Inglorious has made me realise that no matter how hard we all try, hen harriers and grouse shooting do not mix. It appears to be one of those all too familiar irreparable human-wildlife conflicts that are destined to rumble on and on, with wildlife always ending up on the losing side.
A shrill shriek wakes me from my thinking; the piercing call of a kingfisher. It hovers, like a hummingbird, before plummeting into the water to catch a fish. I feel joy, just as Michael McCarthy said I would in his book The Moth Snowstorm (which will be the subject of my next book review). Perhaps joy will save the hen harrier. If we could all put aside our differences; environmental, political and cultural, and focus on the unifying joy and pleasure that we all take from being outside and seeing wildlife, then surely we could find a solution to please us all. Stop the bickering, infighting, statistic trading and blaming, and start again. Reset and start from the position that we all love nature and want it to thrive.
Yet as I write this, and as another kingfisher streaks past, I can’t help but see that things don’t work like this, not in the real world. Mark Avery has clearly shown that despite years of effort, reconciliation has failed, and will continue to do so. I can’t help but feel that a ban is the only solution; it is the only way to save the hen harrier. To argue any other way seems to deny the events of the past. All I hope is that we can save the hen harrier, for it would be a tragedy for it to be lost.
This article was meant to end in the paragraph above, however something happened as I was putting the finishing touches to this which I think merits sharing with you. Just as I was writing the final sentences of this article something unexpected happened; I started to cry. At first I was too confused to acknowledge why I was crying, I felt surprised and a little embarrassed to be breaking down in such a way. Then it dawned on me, I was crying because I felt overwhelmed, powerless to do anything more than write to save the hen harrier. Mixed in with these feelings of despair were also the emotion of feeling weary and desperate, wishing for this conflict to end and for the hen harrier to be safe. I still don’t think I fully understand why the plight of the hen harrier moves me so much, but the fact that it does shows that hen harriers are worth fighting for.