Five years ago, in 2015, Rory Stewart gave a brilliant speech at the Countryside Forum, then known as the Standing Conference on Countryside Sports. At the time he was Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment and Rural Affairs in Defra. As the relevant Minister and the MP for Penrith and the Border, he was the ideal person to speak on the subject of Land Use in the Uplands.
His main theme was that there is a wide range of interests, each with different demands, many of which are incompatible on a small, heavily populated island with limited space. Whilst his remarks were largely aimed at the uplands, they applied to all land use across the country. Since then the arguments have become even more polarised, whipped up by social media and threats of Judicial Review.
As all parties have the same basic aim, vibrant habitats with a plethora of wildlife, it seems bizarre that there is so little consensus. Rory Stewart suggested that the only solution was to shut everyone into a room and not let them out until consensus had been reached, until the white smoke of the papal enclave! Of course, it would be necessary to leave all preconceptions at the door and to negotiate openly with no prior conditions. But therein lies the rub, some participants are not prepared to take that step and insist on their red lines.
At the time of the conference, sitting on Rory Stewart’s desk was the Hen Harrier Recovery Plan. This had been produced by a sub-group of the Upland Stakeholder Forum that included Natural England, the Moorland Association, the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation, the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, the National Park Authority and the RSPB. Once the report had been signed off, however, the RSPB refused to accept one of the recommendations. Brood management involves taking eggs from hen harrier nests, rearing the chicks in an aviary and releasing them back to the wild, either where they came from or in another area where the species is rare or absent.
It is a tried and tested conservation technique which has been used by the RSPB itself with other species but, for whatever reason, it refused to accept it for hen harriers. The organisation tried to prevent publication of the report but, a few months after the conference, Rory Stewart published it anyway. Now further interference in hen harrier conservation by the RSPB has been reported in the Times newspaper late last month.
Natural England has set up a reintroduction programme for the hen harrier on Salisbury Plain with the active support of Defra. The chicks were due to come from France and Spain but action by the RSPB’s partner organisations in those countries have prevented availability of chicks so the Natural England project has been stalled despite the expenditure of £300,000. It is clear from e-mails seen under a Freedom of Information order that the RSPB is behind this move and Martin Harper, Director of Conservation, is quoted as saying ‘it would be wrong for us to support the reintroduction scheme until the main reason for harrier declines – illegal killing – stops.’
It is scarcely credible that an organisation, the main purpose of which is to promote birds, should sabotage an attempt to increase the population of this raptor that is endangered in England, although more plentiful in Scotland. The illegal persecution of raptors is abhorrent and condemned by all, including the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation. It must be stamped out but cannot be a reason to prevent conservation measures. The RSPB’s action in this context is outrageous and totally unacceptable.
One of the most outspoken critics of wildlife conservation related to country sports is the campaign group Wild Justice, founded by Chris Packham, Mark Avery and Ruth Tingay. It was responsible for the debacle over General Licences last year and is now threatening Defra with further Judicial Review over its policy on the release of gamebirds. But now Chris Packham says he wants a truce!
This is less surprising when it becomes clear that the ceasefire is only on his terms. Even in the article in which he called for a truce, he writes ‘don’t underestimate outrage, it tears down statues and takes control without prisoners’. He has not dropped his pursuit of legal action and still calls for a ban on driven grouse shooting, on the use of snares, on the sale, possession and use of lead ammunition with immediate effect and on predation control in an area where such control is essential to biodiversity. That is not a call for a truce but for total surrender! It is assumed that his motive is to be able to claim that his offer of a truce was rebuffed by the shooting community.
Last week saw the Glorious Twelfth, the opening of the grouse shooting season. It has been a difficult year with doubt about whether shooting could start during the pandemic but many moors went ahead albeit without overseas participants and with strict social distancing. Reports have been mixed but better than the last two poor seasons when many moors had no shoots at all. Increased numbers of heather beetles has been a problem for some, especially in Yorkshire. No doubt there will be further reports in due course.
Of course, Rory Stewart is right. We must all shed our prejudices and work together for the benefit of the environment and our wildlife. Country sports are hugely beneficial in that respect, a fact that should be recognised by all true conservationists. Equally sports in general, and shooting in particular, must ensure that the highest standards are upheld and the wildlife benefits are clear for all to see.