Students of history will be familiar with "The Enlightenment", a period in the 18th Century when reason was advocated as the primary source for legitimacy and authority.
Being fogbound for the last three days has caused me to contemplate a few questions relating to our current core values in the UK with respect to its wildlife and whether we're making progress or even holding the line of good reason. Recent results from the RSPB outlining the number of raptor persecution incidents in 2009, coupled with reportage of increases in 2010, even at this stage of the year, can only generate pessimism. Raptor persecution is one of the most prominent "thorny problems" of the modern age. In tropical areas big cats, rampaging elephants in crops and other species have often been the focus of mans' retaliatory revenge where personal safety or economic security has been involved. Outside of this the gratuitous killing of wildlife for pleasure has been much reduced nowadays, but persecution based on prejudice, often in pursuance of self interest, still remains. Such is the case in the UK where certain avian raptors are seen to jeopardise the production of game birds, vast numbers of which are simply destined to provide pleasure for a minority of shooting enthusiasts.
Introduce into the equation the fact that vast tracts of countryside, aka shooting estates, are owned , or leased, by those wealthy enough to afford such investments to support their leisure activities. The development of these occurred , of course, in Victorian times when the "social" habit of shooting emerged. It is within these recent years that the systematic decimation of raptors has occurred as a consequence of such activities and been both widespread and commonplace and, in my view, a national disgrace. I do wonder whether the ownership of an estate, or its equivalent, generates a feeling of " doing as one pleases in one's own backyard", but that is no justification to ignore the law of the land. With the concomitant educational facilities enjoyed by the majority of such owners they, above many, should be acutely aware of the requirements of the law and the upholding of the "common good" as an element of their much avowed embracing of social responsibility.
Such estates are not as vast or contiguous as previously with the inexorable advance of urban and other developments. Some of the more prestigious , and rarer, birds of prey are closely associated with such areas with increasingly fewer alternative options. The burden of responsibility to maintain such populations, as representative of the UK's rich natural heritage, therefore begins to increase rather than diminish.
Now we begin to move towards the nub of the problem! What should be the position of the landowners with shooting interests who find themselves playing host, on their land, to raptors whose presence is claimed to run counter to their interests? A partial reliance on young game birds, supported artificially, whose destiny is to be the quarry for a minority exercising a vicarious pleasure, i.e. shooting them, lacks the integrity of two main tenets connected with "The Enlightenment", that of being associated with rationality and science. Commercial self interest and an abject rejection of the common interest appear to rise to the fore! Such overt pursuit of self interest, whilst cocking a snoot at the laws of the land, perhaps indicate a deeper and more worrying aspect of where they see themselves within our wider society.
That these individuals are prepared to continue to persecute birds of prey is self evident. This is the equivalent of the Church of England desecrating artifacts beloved and revered by the public or the National Gallery administrators deciding, unilaterally, to destroy part of our national artistic heritage!! Sadly the reactive efforts of RSPB and Natural England in attempting to confront such persecution will, collectively, achieve little other than scratch the surface. Their efforts are to be applauded but will not bring about the sea change desired.
We are, after all, talking of "the Establishment" and the alteration of attitudes residing in large houses behind high walls and rhododendron bushes!! Change must be through sustained pressure applied through the political process and an equally sustained revelation of detail in the media. We perhaps need to consider whether we are talking of an arrogant, self-focused minority who are prepared to flaunt the law, and implicate others such as their staff, or more general ingrained attitudes of superiority associated with privilege and status that are felt to justify self belief and the unmitigated pursuit of pleasure regardless of the common interests of the majority.
Sadly an examination of the quality "county and country" periodicals does little to generate any likelihood of change. The endless round of social gatherings reported on, including, of course, shooting weekends, grind on with annual regularity. Perhaps in the fullness of time, as with the good ladies of Didsbury who campaigned against the use of egret plumes in the millinery trade, and whose endeavours eventually brought into being the RSPB, an element of enlightenment might appear within the ranks of those involved. Doubtless I shall have to try and get this Blog onto the essential reading lists of the private girls' school circuit!!!
That change is required is obvious as the situation cannot be allowed to continue. Little confidence can be expected from a Tory Government whose members, at least in part, or their relatives, arise from the same culture. Approaches to Liberal Democrat members might, however, exploit an opportunity to at least get the subject aired within coalition discussions! In this arena the recent alliance and declarations from both the Scottish and Irish governments towards tackling poisoning incidents involving Golden Eagles is to be welcomed.( See reportage on the Raptor Politics website).
As has been said many times before this is not the time to abdicate responsibility to someone else. There is strength in personal action and a high numerical volume of expressed discontent and , with increasing regularity, this is what must happen. The subject must be elevated to one of nuisance value with the constituent authorities, such that action taken is less costly than dealing with the plethora of complaints and pleas for action from the electorate. A letter to individual MP's from each of the 25-30,000 attendees at the forthcoming BirdFair at Rutland Water would be a good start and, possibly, be a good initiative which could be overseen by the RSPB who could give guidance on content. Similarly an approach from that organization to its Patron, Her Majesty the Queen, might at least ensure the topic was raised in the cloistered social gatherings following the commencement of the grouse shooting season on the 12th August, 2010.
On many previous occasions Her Royal Majesty, Queen Elizabeth, has demonstrated her acute sensitivity to the mood of the general public and no harm could be done in raising the matter as a general issue of concern linked to the quite lawful activity of shooting which some members of the Royal family are known to support. After all the RSPB has a million members, a notable body of opinion if ever!!
And so to a new Enlightenment with, as previously in the 18th Century, a robust questioning of traditional institutions, customs and morals?