October 2014

This article first published in

  • BBC Wildlife Magazine
  • I’d best make my own feelings clear from the outset. I find the thought of conservationists sitting down and doing business with organisations who illegally kill hen harriers distasteful. I know this is juvenile and self-righteous and idealistic to an unworldly degree. Compromise is the way things get done. The police regularly do deals with criminals for society’s “greater good”. The Troubles in Ireland wouldn’t have been ended if the government hadn’t at last negotiated with the IRA. Realpolitik ain’t pretty or principled but it gets results. So I acknowledge that the Langholm experiment, of providing ‘diversionary feeding’ for harriers on the northern moors, has been partially successful in reducing the harrier’s predation of grouse chicks.

    But my bilious anger won’t go away. These solutions are a pragmatic step too far for my taste, devoid of moral dimension or sense of justice, and of any attempt to make reparation for the barbarity of the harrier vendetta. In his book The Sparrowhawk’s Lament [reviewed July 2014] the distinguished film-maker David Cobham tells of the female harrier he found with its legs cut off and crucified on a barn-door, still alive. This was Norfolk not Northumberland and David’s private version of this horrific story (he has been a close friend for forty years) is even more chilling.

    Nor does the Langholm protocol challenge the central assumption of this whole affair, that the harriers are the villains, and that the protection of the grouse-shooting industry is the overriding goal. For me the ‘diversionary feeders’ uncomfortably echo the divided state of Britain beyond the moors: give the ruffians a soup kitchen and they might not storm High Table. Who do these people think they are that they can commandeer vast tracts of our wild moorland and do pretty much what they like in them? I applaud Mark Avery’s and Chris Packham’s initiative on August 10th at Derwent Dam in Derbyshire, but I fear a group photo of 600 people, 3000 tweets and not a single column inch in the next day’s papers [Ben – as far as I have been able to ascertain] is not going to cause any sleepless nights amongst landowners. And with the classiest northern moors able to charge £40,000 per gun per day, there is not the remotest chance of government intervention. Grouse are “natural capital” in conservation Newspeak, close no doubt to being an element in the FOOTSIE Index.

    I think there are precedents for more robust and effective challenges, which would involve encouraging local authorities to press for ‘Open Country’ agreements over private moorland under the provision of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, 2000. In the south these are already guaranteeing public access over great tracts of country, an army of part-time wardens, and a curtailment of gamekeepers’ criminal excesses. And they have their roots, with a strange symmetry, just a couple miles west of Derwent Dam. In April 1932, the Derbyshire activist Benny Rothman organised the legendary Mass Trespass of the previously impregnable grouse moors of Kinder Scout. 800 people took part and there were scuffles with keepers. Rothman and four others went to jail, and the chain of effects the action started was slow but momentous. The Ramblers Society immediately began campaigning for access to open country, an aim picked up at the formation of the National Parks in 1947, and consolidated in the Act of 2000 (above). Kinder Scout is now an NNR and was purchased by the National Trust in 1982. No hen harrier will be killed there again. So, si monumentum requirat for this kind of action, circumspice.