Friday, 6 June 2014

Farming and persecution - why is our countryside being held to ransom? Part One: Raptor Persecution

These have to be the two most contentious subjects when it comes to conservation and quite frankly I've had enough. I've never really been one to speak out, but I feel that I need to over this. Over the last couple of years I have read story after story concerning persecution of our protected species, listened to farmers bleating on about 'how they have it hard' and are the self-proclaimed 'custodians of the countryside' and seen the politicians of this country put nature seemingly in the same category as their expenses - just something to exploit for all it's worth. In the next couple of blog entries I am going to air my views on these topics.

It torments me to think that our beautiful countryside and the wildlife that depends on it has been continually and systematically destroyed until it is clinging on for mere existence.... and for what? Money... pure and simple. It is an utter disgrace.

The most obvious and heartless case of this 'money means more than nature' way of thinking can be seen at many shooting estates across the country, especially in the Scottish borders, where birds of prey are still heavily persecuted illegally to 'protect' shoot stock. Just how these arrogant gamekeepers think that they are in the right taking the law into their own hands is beyond me, they evidently have no idea of what happens in the natural world outside their pens and most couldn't care less anyway - they can't make money out of it.

What does it matter if a Sparrowhawk or a Buzzard takes one or two poults? Most shoots ideally try to shoot only 60% of their total release every year.... so surely it wouldn't matter if predators take a few out. These gamekeepers who are illegally 'controlling' these birds claim that they are losing money for EACH poult lost to a predator and birds of prey are the main cause behind loss of chicks because these raised birds rarely get any disease or die from any other natural causes. This, of course, is fallacy.... any gamekeeper worth his salt will attest to that. In actual fact, BASC (the British Association for Shooting and Conservation) published in their policy on raptors that the mean average across shoots was a loss of between 1-5% of the total release. More are killed by disease, due to unnaturally high population densities, and being hit by cars than the amount taken by birds of prey.

I'm not saying this happens in every single shoot, it doesn't.... there are many gamekeepers who are responsible, care for wildlife and vehemently condemn persecution - I know several both up here in Scotland and down in England, but it seems that they are vastly outnumbered. One of the main problems is the mentality of older gamekeepers and the passing down of uninformed and antiquated views on raptors to the next generations of keepers. There are courses that can be attended at colleges around the country in Gamekeeping, but most learn as apprentices thus keeping these terrible ideals alive.

Something that has always stood out to me is that they are looking to protect a species that isn't even native to our country. The only reason it was introduced was for food (what have the Romans ever done for us!) and even though food is now being mass produced and readily available, Pheasants are still being reared and released just for sport. Approximately 35 million are released every year.... even if 60% are shot each season, that still leaves 14 million extra Pheasants each year roaming free in the countryside. To put that into perspective, the UK's commonest wild bird is the Wren according to the RSPB, and their population is around 8.5 million pairs.... So what impact has the mass release of a non-native bird into our countryside actually done? That in itself is difficult to say but surely there must be some just because of the sheer scale of the release.

The UK's commonest bird, the Wren (Troglobytes troglobytes)

The last couple of years has seen a marked increase in persecution and it's a not-so-surprising co-incidence that there's a Conservative government in charge. In the RSPB report on illegal killing of birds of prey from 1989-2012 the figures speak for themselves. Bearing in mind that the report only covers Scotland, close to 1,000 raptors had been illegally killed in that period including 512 Buzzards, 91 Peregrine, 82 Red Kite, 56 Hen Harrier, 50 Golden Eagle and 7 White-tailed Eagle. These represent only the confirmed deaths and there is no doubt that this is just the very tip of a monsterous iceberg. Between 2003-2012 there were only 33 convictions from 450 confirmed persecutions.... that's a 7.3% conviction rate, and the vast majority were small fines of between £300-£1,500.

The story gets worse in 2013-2014.... not only was Irelands first White-tailed Eagle chick shot and killed, but East Scotlands first White-tailed Eagle chick was also shot and killed. What should have been heralded as a massive success and celebrated from the years of hard work the Sea Eagle projects had undertaken to finally have Eagles breeding successfully was destroyed in moments by mindless blood-thirsty gun-wielding cretins. This year has also seen the largest case of poisoning since records began in Inverness-shire, with 22 raptors having being found so far - 16 Red Kites and 6 Buzzards. This year has also seen an increase of applications to Natural England for licenses to cull Buzzards to protect pheasants after, (astonishingly), one was granted last year.

Poisoned Red Kite (Milvus milvus) - Image taken by Robert Straughan (RSPB)

The success (or lack of) of our breeding raptors highlights how bad persecution is getting in the UK, the main species to show this downward spiral is, of course, the Hen Harrier. In 2012 there was just 1 pair in England, but in 2013 there were NO breeding pairs. NONE. That is immensely depressing considering that the estimated potential population is around 300 pairs. In Scotland there were around 500 pairs, but again the estimated potential is much higher - near 1500-1750 pairs. These birds suffer because they are deemed to be a threat to grouse poults on the moors of shooting estates.... this view is held despite work undertaken to prove that the vast majority of the harriers diet during the breeding season consists chiefly of Meadow Pipits and small mammals.

But again, what does it really matter if the harriers take a few grouse poults? They've got more right to be there than the people who 'own' land just because they've paid out for it.... Ownership is a man-made invention, nature doesn't adhere to it - it just belongs. Until gamekeepers and estate owners understand that and stop pillaging the countryside for their own pockets it seems that conservationists are fighting a losing battle. How can you combat their immense greed by asking them to care about something they can't make money on and feel is actually costing them profit? After all, if they are left unchecked, how will they be able to afford their brand new Range Rover Vogue?

It is their passion that needs to be targeted if there is any hope of providing a future for Hen Harriers and other raptors in the UK. Forget prison sentences and pitiful fines... they can afford it and don't care about a little slap on the wrist.... Ban them. If they are found to have ANY links to persecution then they should have their gun licenses revoked and banned from obtaining one FOR LIFE. If they own an estate then they should be banned from obtaining licenses for holding shoots FOR LIFE. Or, even better, the rights to their land should be seized and given to conservation charities to manage instead. If they can't adhere to the laws that govern what they can and can't do on their estates, then they shouldn't be allowed to be involved at all within that sector.

The gross ineptitude of the shooting sector to drive out this aberrant behavior has gone on long enough and things need to change. BASC and RSPB have been at loggerheads for years over this issue and there is quite a fragile relationship between the two with members on both sides of the fence hurling abuse at each other, and while I see this I can't help but lose respect for both. It's getting to a stage where it's just like watching prime ministers question time with name-calling and each side defending themselves with no real action or results coming from it.

There is a petition that is being run by Dr Mark Avery here aiming to lobby the government to ban grouse shooting for good, whether this is a good idea or not is difficult to say.... yes, it may show the level of animosity towards the mindless slaughter of raptors and the disgust of the failure to stop it from happening, but there is a possibility that it may completely burn bridges in the already brittle relationship between the shooting and conservation sectors for good. This can't be helpful in safeguarding the long-term future of our raptors (and indeed our other wildlife) when they desperately need to be working together to make a difference. Ultimately though, the killing of raptors is wrong, illegal and misguided and this might be the only way to make a real statement and make the government take notice.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

More pictures to catch up!

Fea's Petrel sketch done for submission to BBRC

Incredible Aurora over Thurso

Self-found Yellow-browed Warbler on patch

White-billed Diver in Caithness

White-billed Diver in Caithness

Waxwing in the same garden as a Hoopoe on the same day!

Hoopoe in Caithness
Sardinian Warbler at Mire Loch

Ringing a Sanderling

Self-found RB Fly on Shetland Oct 2013

Lesser Whitethroat ssp. halimodendri at Noss Head Oct 2013

Little Gull at Castletown, Caithness

Kumlein's Gull at Scrabster, Caithness

Hermit Thrush at Porthgwarra, Cornwall (Photo by John Swann)

Glossy Ibis at Wick, Caithness

Blackcap at Noss Head, Caithness

American Coot near Inverness

Time to get back on the blog!

It's been a long time since I've posted up here on the blog.... a lot has happened.... way too much to fit in to one post (or even several!) so I'll just have to give you the skinny..... I'm still working as a Field Ecologist for AECOM, but I've moved away from Caithness and I can now be found roaming around the mountains of Argyll. The new sites are great, (they actually have some birds which makes a nice change), and this month is the big one.... breeding raptors! Alas, I can't go into much detail as the work that I'm undertaking (location etc) has all got to be kept confidential, but there are some goodies and hopefully later on in the year I'll be able to put up an update as to how the breeding season went!

As for other bits and pieces, well, where to start?! I finally saw my Holy Grail bird on Orkney - a white-phase Gyr Falcon, then a year later was fortunate enough to find my own on my site in Caithness..... found a Fea's Petrel off Duncansby Head, saw Orcas, as well as Sperm and Humpback Whales, incredible northern lights, several excellent twitches (and some not so great!!), a couple of trips to Azerbaijan for work, a holiday in Romania, 2 consecutive October holidays in Shetland - the second proving the most fruitful with a stonking mega - Thick-billed Warbler..... continued training for my ringing C-permit, found quite a few decent birds on my local patch and did Tough Mudder for charity!! Rather than fill this entry with endless paragraphs, I'll just stick up photos instead... they'll probably tell a better story anyway!
Red-footed Falcon near Aberfeldy

Roller in East Yorks
Ptarmigan on Ben Kilbreck, Sutherland

Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll in Shetland Oct 2012

Waxwings in my garden in Thurso

Me with a Waxwing after putting some bling on its leg
Amazing Aurora borealis over Thurso - Nov 2013
The Holy Grail
Snow Bunting on site in Sutherland - March 2013
Sperm Whale in Oban
Cracking Woodchat Shrike at Chew Valley Lake, Somerset
Large Blue at Collard Hill, Somerset

Ringing a Black Guillemot in Caithness

Kittewake taking a breather on my leg for 10 minutes after being fleyged and ringed

Storm Petrel relaxing after getting a new ring

Collared Flycatcher in Northumberland

Tawny Owl in Lairg

Purple Emperor in East Sussex

Pechora Pipit on Shetland Oct 2013

Ringing a female Tawny Owl in Argyll
More pictures to follow!!!