Last year a study by bird of prey experts reported that only 1% of the naturally occurring number of Hen Harriers are successfully breeding on the UK’s grouse moors, because a large majority are poisoned, shot or disturbed. The results, described as “deplorable” by one senior conservationist, were published by Scottish Natural Heritage. This year just ONE pair are breeding in England – the lowest number since recolonisation after the species was wiped out in the 19th Century…Desperately sad, but how many would there be if we weren’t intensively managing the land anyway? Jamie Newlin discusses the situation from a vegan viewpoint.
Just one pair of Hen Harriers nesting in England
Guest Blog, by vegan and activist Jamie Newlin
It might surprise American birders to know that the Eurasian subspecies of the Northern Harrier (the Hen Harrier of the UK), a species of hawk the range of which stretches around the northern hemisphere, is so rare as a nesting species in England. While it is not a common nester at the southern portions of its range in the USA, it is certainly a commonly seen bird, quartering fields, marshes and deserts with its typical V-shaped wobble all over North America. I would say it was in the top four common daytime raptors of my childhood, if you leave out the vultures. And even in my parched and suburban neighborhood now, one flew down our street a few months ago.
You’d think it would be equally common in England, given the amount of suitable habitat.
But in England the Hen harrier likes to nest in upland heathery habitat, which nowadays means mainly on grouse shooting estates. Today, there is only one pair of Hen Harriers nesting in England, as opposed to potentially hundreds of pairs, simply because shooting estates trap, poison and shoot them illegally. Thus the Hen Harriers seen in winter in England come mostly from the continent, and they’d better stick to the coasts if they know what’s good for them.
This shows a lot about the attitudes and the basic illegitimacy of the hunting establishment, but it doesn’t necessarily make the case for having hundreds of nesting Hen Harriers around England.
Because at least in this century, the English Hen Harrier appears to be dependent on management of landscape for grouse. Managing for grouse is only done because grouse are hunted. So the grouse moors, at least in the sense that is pleasing to grouse-managers, appear to be an artificial habitat in many places they occur, kept only by human effort for purposes of allowing the sporting set of humans to blast birds out of the sky for pleasure. England would revert to forest in a lot of areas, if given the chance.
Thus, in a pristine England (in the pre-human influence on the landscape sense of the word “pristine”), before the moors were kept in heather for the sake of grouse shooting, and before that, before the lands were kept open for and by livestock grazing, maybe Hen Harriers would have been of very localized occurrence, and possible rare too. But that’s OK. Hen Harriers appear, based on their nesting habits, to be (or to have been) primarily a steppe and open taiga species with a secondary yen for nesting on the drier perimeters of marshes in other areas, and a brief preference for conifer plantations nowadays. But in England the bird’s association with plantations is only for a few-year period when the trees are very young. Why should they be common in England, other than in an unnatural landscape of constant low-intensity abuse?
Even if the Grouse Business “reformed” enough to continue hunting while allowing harriers, other birds of prey and other predators to live on the hunting estates, we’d still have an artificial landscape. This might not be a bad thing in and of itself, but in this case it is one that is based on the abuse of fellow creatures. And this abuse in general, looking at livestock and the hunting industry together, has bad environmental effects, bad health effects on humans, and does
spectacular damage to our psychological well-being.
Which brings us to one of the less noble uses of the subject of biodiversity…biodiversity as a justification of human abuse of fellow creatures, biodiversity to justify a livestock-and-hunting managed-landscape.
Grouse moors are not justified to the public on the grounds that it’s fun to kill little birds and then have the chef do them up in savory custard.
Instead, grouse moors are PR’d to the effect that they provide habitat for whatever species are left that aren’t perceived as competition to hunters, which basically leaves a few shorebirds like Lapwings, Curlews, and Golden Plovers, depending on where you are. This is loudly trumpeted as a great credit to the hunting status quo. And the sorry thing is that most, no, all of the mainstream conservation NGOs buy into this and instead of stumping for a biodiversity conservation model seated in a landscape that is more natural, more compassionate and less a result of animal abuse, the NGOs tailor their definition of a “good” biodiversity collection to be that which can be found on a hunting estate or on a livestock enclosure, or on a sheep-mowed upland.
Which could be nice in a small way, compared to some of the worst excesses of current game and livestock management. But why has the defense of biodiversity been hijacked to mean artificial variety only of the kind preferred by whatever land uses and appetites now have political and financial dominance?
Would a reforested England be less valuable in terms of biodiversity than a better managed (hawk-friendly) grouse-shooting estate? Would forest birds be worse, in a land naturally prone to forest, than the artificial moorland now touted as vital to the biodiversity interests of the UK?
If Norway found a way to plant trees on tundra, in order to manage for bear hunting, would we applaud them for creating Redstart habitat, despite the loss of shorebird nesting habitat? By the logic of UK grouse biodiversity management, yes we would. So region-wide, the UK could then depend on Norwegian tundra converted to bear-forest for forest birds while Norway would depend on British forests converted to moorlands for Golden Plovers.
Such conversions, for example of original forest to moorland or grazing land in the UK, is justified by claiming that rare birds are nesting on it, or could nest on it, if the grouse moor owners would play nice. But another of the reasons that the birds are rare, or perhaps should be rare in England, is that they don’t belong here, naturally speaking. Why not conserve enough habitat in its original place, instead of using artificial biodiversity on artificial habitats to score brownie points for agricultural practices that are destructive anyway, no matter how much biodiversity is loaded onto them?
I suppose the first line of defense of this sort of bending over backwards deference to biodiversity defined by the animal abuse economy’s kind of landscape, is that it is practical to work with them, and to suck up to them, in the sense that “no one is willing to change”, and so “it’s what we’ve got to work with” and so “get real, why don’t you?”.
There are several problems with this real-politic approach, the first being that it really isn’t that practical, not in the longer run.
Animal abuse, and that includes animal agriculture and hunting, and eating animals, are self-expanding propositions. Eating animal products is addictive psychologically and appears to have physically addictive aspects as well. Addictions are by definition out of control, and thus tend to be self-expanding. Likewise, the abuse of fellow creatures is a kind of trespass against others, and trespasses when they are not repented and left alone, as in “go and sin no more”, tend to be repeated in order to make them “right”, and likewise to be recruited for, in order to make the perpetrators feel safe, and then such habits get institutionalized (made economically official) for the same sorts of reasons.
For these very basic reasons, “green” animal abuse, including such practices as “biodiversity oriented” and “hawk friendly” grouse moor management, along with their related management practices in wider animal agriculture, guarantee the expansion and intensification of such
And thus “green” animal agriculture, including “We like hawks!!!” animal agriculture, guarantees the intensification of all of the environmentally damaging results that these landscape uses entail, like climate change, desertification, soil erosion, GMO crops used for livestock feed in order to pretend to mitigate the climate change caused by livestock, water shortages, and in the case in point here, compromising on the definition of “good” biodiversity to the point where it is used to greenwash the practices that are by their nature out of control and self-expanding and thus bad for the environment.
It does no ecological good to try and greenwash addictions, or to try and greenwash trespasses which expand like addictions, because they expand. Justification of such activities on the grounds that they have been all greened up is part of the expansion process.
One might object that grouse shooting is not livestock raising, so where’s the climate change harm, for one thing, in grouse shooting? But who is going to be willing to shoot grouse yet not willing to condone and participate in animal agriculture? These practices, broadly speaking, come as a behavioral package. Besides, trespasses expand. Shoot grouse, eventually slaughter sheep and cows and pigs. Do it a little at first, do it a lot more later. Do it all green today, do it less green tomorrow.
Green animal agriculture, grouse shooting included, is not a way to make animal agriculture sustainable as is so often claimed, but rather a road right back to the problems it is touted as addressing. It’s like claiming to use a “sustainable” amount of cocaine. We’ll see about that in a year or two…
So, Hen Harriers of England, I object to your being shot, but in a sane UK, there might not be much habitat for you anyway.
On the other hand, there are probably many ways to do a vegan-organic agricultural economy, and such a landscape might hold a place for Hen Harriers. For one example, grassy areas might be maintained as source of green manure, cropped by human gatherers instead of by livestock, and also be used by Hen Harriers and all sorts of other birds.
Odd, isn’t it, how all the conservation organizations making nice over wildlife “friendly” animal agricultural landscapes never spend any time, energy or money promoting the idea of veganic agricultural landscape biodiversity.
Given the Earth threatening downsides, the built in failure factors of addictive and self-expanding animal agriculture, such as climate change, desertification and yes biodiversity loss, you’d think that conservation NGOs would want to promote veganic agricultural biodiversity exclusively.
But they don’t. They never even mention it.
Perhaps the temporary delusion of success via partnerships with destructive industries is more appealing to conservation NGOs than the long climb to gaining acceptance for a veganic landscape?
As it stands now, we are fooling ourselves.
Just 1 pair of Hen harriers nesting in England
The future of England’s most threatened birds of prey hangs in the
May 2012. The future for England’s most threatened bird of prey – the
hen harrier – is looking perilous, as the species teeters on the brink
of extinction as a breeding bird.
No nests in Bowland
Early reports indicate that only one pair is showing signs of nesting in
England. If this situation continues it will be the worst year for hen
harriers since they recolonised England, following extinction in the
late Nineteenth Century. Worryingly, there are currently no birds
attempting to nest in the Bowland Fells, Lancashire – the bird’s only
stronghold in England in recent decades.
Martin Harper, the RSPB’s Conservation Director, said: “The hen harrier
is noted for its wonderful rollercoaster display flight, but this bird’s
population in England is also on an extreme rollercoaster ride itself.
After recolonising England, the bird is now perilously close to being
wiped out in England, again, as a result of decades of persecution.”
The RSPB’s Dr Andre Farrar monitored hen harriers in the 1980s.
Commenting on the situation today, he said: “When I started monitoring
hen harriers, I had no idea that 2012 would be so bleak for hen
harriers. When I started, the harriers were just establishing themselves
in England after Victorian intolerance and extermination. Bowland has
been their stronghold for decades – nesting attempts in other parts of
England are infrequent and inconsistent. There are just too few of them
in the English uplands.”
Andrew Gouldstone is a conservation manager with the RSPB in Lancashire.
Commenting on the hen harrier’s plight, he said: “The sight of hen
harriers is one of the joys of spending time in the hills of Bowland.
The RSPB has been working with its partners for over three decades to
safeguard hen harrier nests here. Bowland is still a safe place for hen
harriers but protecting the birds away from their breeding grounds is
very difficult and we may be about to lose them as a result.”
England could support 300 pairs
Government-commissioned, independent research has shown that the English
uplands could support more than 300 pairs of hen harriers. The authors
conclude that persecution associated with the practice of driven grouse
shooting, is to blame for the harrier’s plight.
The Government has, via the England Biodiversity Strategy, committed to
prevent human-induced extinctions of threatened species by 2020. The
extinction of the hen harriers as a breeding species, for a second time,
looks unavoidable unless an emergency recovery programme is put in place
and there is a rapid and sustained reduction in persecution of these
Martin Harper added: “Defra ministers have one chance to avoid breaking
a promise. We’re doing everything we can, but the Government, its
conservation and enforcement agencies need to step up to the challenge
of securing the future of hen harriers in England. The problem of
illegal killing is well understood – we now need Government to bring
solutions to the table.”
Hen harrier hotline
The situation for hen harrier has become so dire, that the RSPB has
relaunched its hen harrier hotline enabling the public to report any
sighting of these birds during the breeding season in England.
The Harrier Hotline number is 0845 4600121 (calls charged at local
rate). Reports can also be e-mailed to email@example.com. Reports
of sightings should include the date and location of sighting, with a
six-figure grid reference where possible.
- AND IN SCOTLAND:
HEN HARRIER (SCOTLAND)
semi-permanent information page as of 23 May, 2012
The Hen Harrier is a scarce breeding species in Scotland that has been
the subject of a considerable amount of interest over the past 15 years
over concerns about its status, conservation, impact on grouse-moors and
level of persecution. It is essentially an open country species, in the
breeding season showing a close affinity to heather moorland and young
forestry plantations with heather ground vegetation in upland areas. It
has a widespread but thin distribution, breeding throughout Scotland
wherever suitable habitat exists, with the exception of Shetland and
Lewis & Harris.
In former times it was a much more commoner bird of the moors, bogs and
mires but following the creation of sporting estates during the 19 th
century, especially those associated with grouse shooting, it was
quickly exterminated in mainland Scotland (Watson 1977). Only on islands
such as the Uists and Orkney where grouse-moors were not viable were
tiny populations maintained. Two World wars in the 20 th century, the
reduction in gamekeepers and the creation of vast forest plantations in
the uplands provided a comeback opportunity and the number of breeding
pairs has steadily increased, particularly since the 1950s. The largest
populations still occur in those regions where driven grouse shooting is
not a feasible proposition; particularly the Uists, Orkney, mainland of
Argyll and the west coast islands from Mull to Arran (Sim et al . in
press). Their scarcity on the grouse-moors of eastern Scotland and the
Borders indicate that illegal persecution in these areas is still a
major problem (Etheridge et al . 1997) and that gamekeeper’s attitude to
harriers and their contempt for the law that protects the birds has
changed little over the past 200 years.
There have been three national surveys of Hen Harriers in Scotland. The
first in 1988/89 estimated a breeding population of 408-594 pairs (Bibby
& Etheridge 1993). The second in 1998 located 436 pairs, 76% of UK
breeding population (Sim et al . 2001). The third in 2004 revealed an
increase to 633 pairs, 79% of the British population (Sim et al . in
prep.) and a 32% increase over the 1998 estimate. More surprisingly,
this increase was confined solely to the west and far north and that the
numbers of breeding pairs in the east and south where grouse-moors are
prevalent had all declined.
The Hen Harrier is a popular species amongst raptor enthusiasts and
currently Scottish Raptor Study Group members are locating and
monitoring around half of the current breeding population. In 2004, 67%
of nests located by members produced young with an average of 1.8 young
per occupied nesting site across all regions. Hen Harriers face threats
from many quarters: uncontrolled heather burning, overgrazing, the
maturation of nesting forests and the proliferation of wind-farms in the
uplands, all this in addition to the current high level of deliberate
killing of adults and the destruction of nests by gamekeepers. However,
SRSG members remain committed in monitoring the long-term effects of
these activities and land use changes on this iconic moorland species.
Bibby, C.J. & Etheridge, B. 1993. Status of the Hen Harrier Circus
cyaneus in Scotland in 1988-89. Bird Study 40: 1-11.
Etheridge, B., Summers, R.W. & Green, R.E. 1997. The effects of illegal
killing and destruction of nests by humans on the population dynamics of
the hen harrier Circus cyaneus in Scotland. Journal of Applied Ecology
Sim, I.M.W., Gibbons, D.W., Bainbridge, I.P. & Mattingley, W.A. 2001.
Status of Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus in the UK and the Isle of Man in
1998. Bird Study 48: 341-353.
Sim, I.M.W., Dillon, I.A., Eaton, M.A., Etheridge, B., Lindley, P.,
Riley, H., Saunders, R., Sharpe, C. & Tickner, M. Status of the Hen
Harrier Circus cyaneus in the UK and the Isle of Man in 2004, and a
comparison with the 1988/89 and 1998 surveys. Bird Study . In prep.
Watson, D. 1977. The Hen Harrier . T. & A.D. Poyser, Berkhamsted
Jamie Newlin is an American vegan and commentator with a unique perspective on many of today’s most important wildlife/animal welfare issues. He provides commentary to Talking Naturally on an unpaid and ad hoc basis.
Feature photograph copyright Stephen Murphy/PA