Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A lost opportunity for Hen Harrier conservation?

For foreign readers of these entries, the repeated references to the Forest of Bowland,Lancashire England, Hen Harriers, government institutions, conservation charities and the like must, at times, fill them with confusion. Repeated rhetoric and calls for action must, inevitably, generate questions as to what actually is going on in this location, all of which is understandable. Given I've more than a personal concern for the place, accompanied by a passion for Hen Harriers , such regular references are inevitable I'm afraid.

The start point is that this upland area holds the last remaining, regular breeding population of Hen Harriers in England, probably no more than 12 pairs in a good year. The area comprises upland private shooting estates and a large, upland water catchment area owned by United Utilities. Ever since organized shooting of Red Grouse began the Hen Harrier has been loathed by those involved, as it has expensive tastes. It predates Red Grouse chicks, the eventual quarry of its concerned managers! Oh yes, the young birds the harriers predate are destined to die at some point to provide entertainment for shooters!! In times past , previous to conservation laws arising, the widespread practice of killing raptors began, to rid the moors of their threatening presence, and such persecution has continued to this day despite, now, being utterly illegal. In England this remnant population is under threat from such activities, as much in winter after leaving the uplands, as on its breeding grounds. Therein lies the concern of conservationists and bird lovers , but the specie's predicament continues unabated year by year. The vast majority of birds are present on United Utilities' land, a large corporate organisation, which has designated part of its landholding to support wildlife conservation.

The dilemma the conservationists encounter is that they cannot easily identify sufficient evidence to prove persecution, although undoubtedly it continues. On such a large upland expanse the number of breeding birds should be higher and, indeed, has been higher in past years. The area is designated as a Special Protection Area, with all the accompanying regulations, need for compliance etc directed at those who manage the area. That the current level of "successful" harrier presence is in accord with the target figures within the SPA description undermines the potential contribution the area could offer to this species in my view. Higher aspirations for the area might engender a greater commitment to confront persecution, or disturbance, as opposed to an apparent acceptance of the current situation. So,the struggle continues with endless sound bites, petitions, press releases and so on.....but limited success for the resource all this is directed at!

With such a declared commitment to improve matters one would think those involved would have jumped at an opportunity I was informed about yesterday. The shooting tenancies of two areas owned by United Utilities have just been advertised and leases issued, or so I was reliably informed. Part of their upland "estate" is still let out for shooting . Such areas carry harriers and to lesser mortals , such as I, the opportunity for a major conservation organisation to take on the lease, manage the land and have an even greater "hands on" presence would have been sensible in order to have greater control over circumstances. Surely the annual costs involved couldn't exceed the current time commitment of involvement in all the arguments etc etc that pertain at present? On a day when Natural England has withdrawn from the proposed scheme to introduce White-tailed Eagles (or was that white elephants ? ) into East Anglia, leaving its partner, the RSPB, to soldier on alone, this alternative, doubtless, much cheaper proposal, would have been a much better "target" and be in accord with their declared intention to take action to improve the status of the Hen Harrier and inject some success into the current sorry state of affairs in Bowland. Maybe it wasn't offered to them, but somebody should have been sufficiently on the ball ( it is the season of the World Cup as well!!) to espy the opportunity and lobby vigorously for an involvement. Maybe they submitted a bid and failed! In which case a close look needs to be taken at the declared conservation policies of the corporate owner!! Many years ago the RSPB did actually bid, unsuccessfully, for a similar tenancy, so the precedent has been set in terms of its Council's approval to pursue such matters.

A lost opportunity or an oversight? At a time when so much is being said about the precarious state the Hen Harrier in England is actually in, any new approach is to be applauded and supported. Whilst there are many more breeding pairs in Scotland, not all sporting estates are sympathetic and, also, birds moving to England in winter may not be entertained with a generous eye either! Whilst it has all been said before, in this day and age intolerance, arrogance and the selfish pursuance of self interest are all at play in this scenario. Although shooting is not the exclusive preserve of the wealthy it once was, the partial inference of a minority ignoring the law, and the wishes of the majority, to indulge its own interests smacks of an attitude not very far away from exercising subjugation come what may! And who says we've moved on!

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