There are just three active hen harrier nests left in England. PETER FROST is up in arms over the the shooting fraternity’s callous slaughter of wild birds in the name of so-called sport
Last week, as every year, August 12 — the far from glorious twelfth, marked the organised slaughter of thousands of specially bred grouse in the name of so-called sport.
The specially bred, docile and easy to shoot birds are driven across the sight lines of Bertie Woosteresque twerps with guns.
The day saw hundreds of these tweeded toffs, including plenty of Tory MPs and not a few government ministers, taking to the grouse moors of our countryside to blast as many small birds out of the sky as they possibly could.
The day will have cost each of them — or more likely their commercial or political sponsors — at least £2,000 per gun although most get the day’s shooting free, paid for as corporate hospitality and set against tax.
This year it happened on the watch of brand new Environment Minister Andrea Leadsom, who is a firm supporter of hunting and shooting.
The curiously named British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) was quick to welcome Leadsom’s appointment and to announce it is looking forward to working with her to represent the interests of shooting.
Leadsom confirmed her support for shooting during last year’s general election campaign. BASC chairman Peter Glenser stated: “BASC welcomes Andrea Leadsom to her new role and hopes to build on the excellent relationship we had with her predecessor Liz Truss.
“Prime Minister Theresa May has always been supportive of shooting sports and this is reflected in her appointment of Mrs Leadsom.”
The appointment of Leadsom continues the very close relationships between the ministers charged with protecting our countryside and the rich landowners who own and control the shoots.
Since the 2010 general election we have seen a procession of ministers at the Department of the Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) swing the balance in our countryside away from conservation and promoting biodiversity towards protecting so-called sporting interests.
Nowhere has this been more blatant than on the big shooting estates and grouse moors.
The illegal killing of protected birds of prey is a feature of most shooting estates — some that should know better. Take the famous case that occurred on the Queen’s estate at Sandringham when one evening shots from the Royal estate brought down two hen harriers being observed by bird watchers over the Dersingham Nature Reserve next door.
The reserve’s warden immediately raised the alarm and Norfolk police tried to investigate offences which carry a six-month jail sentence or a £5,000 fine.
The Crown Prosecution Service confirmed that Prince Harry (below), third in line to the throne, had been interviewed as an official suspect by police along with William van Cutsem, a family friend and David Clarke, a Sandringham gamekeeper. These three had been the only ones shooting in the vicinity at the time.
Despite intensive police inquiries, no charges could be brought because the bodies of the hen harriers had conveniently disappeared. The corpses of dead birds are often removed and hidden or buried in such cases.
A spokesman for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), which counts the Queen as its patron, said: “We’re under no doubt that a crime was committed. The fact that no bodies could be found is extremely disappointing. For nobody to be brought to book for the deaths of two hen harriers is also extremely disappointing. We’re concerned, but not surprised, that no evidence could be found.”
The RSPB — Europe’s biggest conservation charity — has now withdrawn from the Hen Harrier Action Plan organised by Leadsom’s department. The RSPB is demanding the proper licensing of the entire grouse shooting industry.
Illegal shooting and trapping of hen harriers has left just three active nests in England, driving this handsome bird towards extinction as an English breeding species. With proper care and protection England could be home to over 300 breeding pairs of hen harriers.
Poor grouse moor management poses other threats to our countryside including the illegal killing of other birds of prey, foxes and stoats, burning and drainage of wildlife-rich peatlands, and mass killing of mountain hares to reduce the suspected transmission of disease to grouse.
One person who has come to the defence of the hen harrier is Springwatch presenter Chris Packham (below). No wonder the Countryside Alliance, who speak for hunting and shooting interests, have launched a major campaign for the BBC to sack Packham for his outspoken opposition to wildlife slaughter in the name of so-called sport.
Crimes against birds of prey, including the hen harrier, are common and put many gamekeepers up in court, but few if any ever go to jail. Fines or suspended sentences act as little deterrent.
Their bosses, the shoot managers and landowners who condone this persecution of birds, are protected by law. That law needs to be changed to introduce vicarious liability — making landowners legally responsible for the actions of their gamekeepers — to improve protection.
More than 80 years ago the trespassers on Kinder Scout — itself a huge private grouse moor and shooting estate — won perhaps the most important battle for the fight for public access and public protection for our wonderful countryside.
We owe it to the memory of those trespassing heroes to continue the fight on the grouse moors, particularly after the slaughter of August 12.
Packham, Bill Oddie, Eduardo Goncalves, CEO of the League Against Cruel Sports, are going further than the RSPB. They and over 110,000 others have signed a petition to ban driven grouse shooting altogether — to end what Packham calls “canned shooting.”
You can sign the petition at, petition.parliament.uk/petitions/125003
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 19 August 2016.