Two years ago I spent much of that Christmas thinking through the implications of the E-petition I was shortly to register proposing the licencing of grouse moors and gamekeepers. A year or so later the petition had gained over 10,000 signatures and, due to having reached this threshold, received a Government response. In many ways the response was irrelevant as it sought to avoid the main issue relating to raptor persecution and, overall, could be judged to be pathetic. However, later events confirmed the response very much represented the Government's intended position and its arrogance at refusing to recognize more fairly the concerns of an appreciable body of electoral opinion.
But , since then , what has happened that might be deemed to represent progress? Two years on from that point above I've spent yet another Christmas pondering over the subject; what has improved and what tangible progress we might claim in the cause of reducing raptor persecution and an improvement to Hen Harrier breeding numbers? This first Blog is a bit of a "scene setter" with Part Two laying out what I feel is at the real heart of the problem.
A few months ago a further E-petition from past colleague Mark Avery called for a ban on driven grouse shooting altogether. Following much promotion the petition has gained already in excess of 20,000 signatures. Whilst it is unlikely to reach the necessary threshold of 100,000 signatures that would secure its consideration for debate in Parliament, due mainly to being "truncated" in March this year due to the then imminence of the General Election, it pays testament to a growing body of opinion that calls the activities of the grouse shooting industry into question. Within this time too the RSPB, publicly, has more robustly embraced the licencing proposal, has written to key stakeholders but no longer appears to be pursuing the issue with any real campaigning zeal. However, the Society has gained significant funding from Europe to pursue initiatives aimed at improving the breeding status of Hen Harriers and addressing the raptor persecution problem and certainly can't claim to be bereft of resources for this particular task
The admirable Hen Harrier Day initiative in August, first proposed by Alan Tilmouth, resulted in good attendances despite abysmal weather and generated some good publicity. Since then a further rally at Parliament previous to Christmas certainly resulted in the topic of raptor persecution being raised with a number of MP's. Sadly, the responses to various questions laid by an MP in Parliament make it abundantly clear that neither licencing nor the adoption of an offence of vicarious liability are within the Government's intentions, even for consideration. The question of banning driven grouse shooting wasn't even responded to so I think we can confidently presume it's not sitting central to the Government's radar at present!!
In the meantime the shooting lobby has retaliated with a variety of statements and web site entries, none of which has assisted the situation in my view. Such "tit for tat" exchanges are little more than an exercise in drawing teeth in my opinion. They achieve very little and divert effort from possibly more profitable attempts to resolve the difficulties. This is not an opinion I've necessarily held previously, but I now believe the whole scenario is at a crucial stage in its development. Certainly the "shooters versus conservation" divide is more clearly defined in some quarters than ever previously. In my view the RSPB, despite being accused of a variety of ill-conceived shortcomings, has treated such with disdain on most occasions and maintained its policy position , particularly when dealing with the Government's Hen Harrier Recovery Plan proposals.
Whilst much of the above suggests "business as usual ", although with an accompanying platform of regular publicity being achieved on the subject, one small but crucial "positive" has happened in Scotland recently. Here the offence of vicarious liability had already been accepted into law and December saw the first successful prosecution being obtained. Whilst some people bridled at the alleged inadequacy of the fine involved, a serious first step has been achieved and will serve as a reference point that cannot be ignored.
Between now and the General Election in May, 2015 nothing is likely to change in my view. Progress of a kind has been made in terms of gaining the support of some Parties to include draft policies in their Manifestos. As we all know there's a long way to go before this can be viewed as real progress. It serves to show what a long drawn out process these type of issues can be and how difficult it can be to effect change.
2014 saw a very small improvement in harrier breeding numbers in England and young being produced, some of which, despite being tagged, promptly disappeared. So, the problem has not gone away. Increasing numbers of people are calling for change and that is very much a positive. A reader might be led to conclude that much or all of the above is no more than platitudes arising from a basis of pessimism. They'd be so wrong! Having become involved in this very conflict in the 1970's I've seen the situation ebb and flow more than a few times. We hit the bottom level two or three years ago, but things are beginning to improve and the subject is out in the open more, albeit with both sides expressing passionately opposing views at times. Such is not a problem in my view, but we have to be prepared to look critically and very openly at the fundamental factors involved, not all of which have necessarily been aired to the proper extent in the past. At times it's as if shooting and conservation protagonists are permanently dancing around a Maypole, joshing each other as their respective circles pass. I'm sure I've been part of it at various intervals, but it's not the recipe for success. We can do better than that, and must, which is what I'll consider next time.