Way back in mid September an article in The Guardian revealed that consideration was being given by Scottish Ministers to tighter controls over grouse moor owners under a new wildlife bill. Such would make the owners legally responsible for the actions of their gamekeepers, which clearly would have repercussions should persecution of birds of prey then be proved to have occurred. Furthermore, mention was also made of a proposal to actually licence the "operation" of grouse moors and to transfer the investigation of persecution incidents from the police to one of Scotland's animal welfare charities. Whether or not such innovative changes will occur is to be awaited.
Understandably many of the 255 Scottish Estates have themselves condemned the persecution of birds of prey and raised objections to controls being collectively applied. What is clear is that self-regulation is simply not working and the recalcitrant minority are continuing to "muddy the pool" to such an extent that 2009 was one of the worst years on record when it came to the number of incidents involving birds of prey and persecution. And let's not fool ourselves , such statistics undoubtedly represent the very tip of the iceberg !!
Following on from this debate has come a report on work commissioned by Scottish Natural Heritage on this self same subject. One of the report's main authors, Professor Steve Redpath, has stated that investigations between 2003-2007 of the 3696 square kilometres that comprise grouse moors across Britain should potentially hold 499 breeding pairs of Hen Harriers given the species favours the same upland heather moor habitat. The reality is that success resulting from breeding attempts on these estates is closer to 1%. Such is now the revealed truth that shatters, utterly, any consideration that self regulation can be a part of a future solution. The opportunity to proceed on trust has been, and is being, abused and must be abandoned completely. Thankfully there are some estates that abide by the requirements and resident birds of prey have been left alone. Their tolerance and acceptance of the legal situation is providing, quite literally, the lifeline to particular species. As ever the Game and Wildlife Trust has paraded its "PR mantra" around claiming licences should be issued to estates to limit the number of harriers present and thus bring about a more equitable spread of birds. At this point in time the emphasis needs to be directed at ensuring newly arrived birds on previously "unoccupied" estates are afforded protection!! Given the number of birds eliminated already, in sheer disregard of the law of the land, can anyone foresee a situation where such trust could be offered? The expression about burning boats springs to mind !!
Professor Des Thompson, another of the report's authors, has commented further that the evolving situation must be one where innovation is needed to address the needs of estates and the retention of our bird of prey populations alike. Whilst I agree entirely, the needs of such innovation demand, in some quarters, an immense change in a current culture embedded in prejudice as much as they do from any practical conditions which might be introduced. Peer pressure ( forgive the pun! ) has a part to play and the outward labelling of those who might continue to commit such crimes, and gain estate owners overall a bad name, has to be employed such that they are relegated to the position of being pariahs in their own community.
At some point in the near future Natural England will report on what has been a nine year long research project linked to harriers, their success ,distribution etc etc in England. Within the period the Government's organization has been resolute in its non participation in political debate, clearly awaiting the full body of evidence at its disposal. With the abysmal situation in England, as far as Hen Harriers' breeding success is concerned, one looks forward to their imminent revelations and presume there will be great accord with the report released above and with similar apportionment of responsibility. One hopes the conclusions will persuade the Government of the day to be as strong as their counterparts in Scotland and address the issue robustly!!