If I could choose a bird to represent the last three months, it would be the hen harrier – not because I delight in spraying the internet with rabid rhetoric, but because I have seen them every time I’ve been on the hill since the end of August. After a good summer’s breeding and consistently high vole numbers, harriers have become commonplace in the Galloway hills, and this familiarity has really piqued my interest. Where there have usually been two or three birds, I’m now getting used to seeing nine or ten in a week, and I’m even considering taking the financial plunge and spending sixty pounds on Donald Watson’s Poyser monograph which I have been stalking on eBay for over a year.
Despite their current abundance, RSPB figures lament that there have been no breeding harriers here for several years, but this gloomy fact poses an important question: –
Why aren’t harriers breeding in Galloway?
Anti-shooting campaigners would have us believe that harriers don’t breed in Galloway because they are so heavily persecuted by grouse keepers that they are on the verge of becoming extinct. They argue that harriers don’t breed here because the skies are empty, but my notes record sightings of harriers on the family farm during every month of the year – with a good deal of patience and note taking, I’ve identified at least eighteen individuals of both sexes and all ages using the Chayne since August.
While I certainly concede (with considerable embarrassment) that harriers are being killed in the vicinity of intensive grouse moors, nobody is killing them here. And when spring comes, they often start to look like they are going to breed. I’ve seen the whimsically-branded “skydancing” taking place in a number of locations across Galloway over the past six years, including on my own ground, but these tentative attempts to start mating never result in fledged offspring.
As I see it, their attempts are unsuccessful because a) habitat in Galloway is fragmented and often degraded by a toxic blend of overgrazing, agricultural drainage and commercial woodland and b) there are simply too many foxes and badgers going about at night time to allow a stinking nest to go unnoticed for weeks on end. Miles away from the nearest grouse keeper, breeding hen harriers are flatlining here, facing an issue that has nothing whatsoever to do with illegal persecution. So reducing a complex nationwide ecological crisis to a simple matter of “less grouse shooting = harrier problem fixed” is total bananas.
But in an entrenched world with a set menu of opinions, I find myself equally bemused by some arguments put forward by the shooting community. The more I have seen harriers in the wild, the more I am convinced that brood management schemes designed to relocate broods of harriers away from grouse moors cannot be the answer to eliminating conflict. These birds are not morose, double-chinned layabouts like buzzards, but represent the the avian equivalent of wildcats. They are slight, nervy and charged with an electric shred of almost manic energy that makes the very idea of putting them in an aviary seem criminally against the grain. Fundamentally, I am extremely uncomfortable with the idea that grouse shooting prides itself on producing a “truly wild” gamebird but refuses to allow harriers the same dignity.
I quite understand why the RSPB is reluctant to endorse this kind of meddling in an environment where harriers are being killed illegally, and I believe that some of the pro-shooting pundits have been deliberately disingenuous in pushing for this outcome, claiming that they have the harrier’s best interests at heart. Grouse shooting’s failure to produce any meaningful number of harriers is as much of a middle finger to progress as petitions to ban the sport outright. To be quite frank, there is a considerable number of people involved in grouse shooting who are not interested in the conservation of anything except grouse, and the quiet joy of the hunter-naturalist is increasingly smothered by clamorous short-termism, greed and an unsustainable preoccupation with shooting tens of thousands of grouse every year.
Langholm moor has shown how easy it is to produce hen harriers when you look after the ground and control the predators – at one point during this summer, there were seventy harriers on the moor. Unfortunately, Langholm’s failure to produce a shootable surplus of grouse means that it is of ever decreasing relevance to the shooting community, but it would be a scandal if we failed to recognise the link between proper management and thriving harrier numbers.
The entire “debate” on hen harriers is sour and rotten, farting out torrents of bile and misinformation as it lumbers between classism, arrogance and the lust for political celebrity. There is an enormous middle ground between the two sides through which progress might be made, but party lines and personal vendettas obscure all but the most obtuse and absurd comment. Grouse shooting has to tolerate harriers and conservationists have to concede that without sound management (which is often founded on grouse shooting), everybody loses.