Wednesday, 2 November 2016

More evidence from Calderdale Raptor Study Group

Written evidence from Calderdale Raptor Study Group (GRO0267)

I am a former Police Officer and for me this year marks 50 years of enforcing the law. I served with West Yorkshire Police and was appointed a Divisional Wildlife Crime Officer [WCO] in 1992 and Force Wildlife Crime Officer in 1995. Investigating raptor persecution was always high on the agenda of WCOs throughout the country and in 1997 I introduced a national scheme to collect DNA samples from Peregrine Falcons, Goshawk and Merlin. At that time this was a major step forward in the investigation of crimes against birds of prey. Unfortunately since then the volume and frequency of raptor persecution has increased significantly and the number of species involved has risen to include Short-eared Owls, Red Kites and Hen Harriers. All of these species are associated with the uplands and land managed for driven grouse shooting.

Raptor persecution is a Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime priority, focusing in England and Wales upon Red Kites, Peregrine, Goshawk and the beleaguered Hen Harrier. In 2003 I was invited by Chief Constable Brunstrom, the ACPO lead on Wildlife Crime to formulate the Police response to Hen Harrier persecution. Research reveals that there is sufficient habitat in England for c300 pairs of Hen Harriers and yet there are only a handful breeding annually and very rarely on land used for driven grouse shooting. Natural England [now English Nature] had already identified persecution of Hen Harriers on grouse moors as the most significant threat to the species. In 2004 I launched ‘Operation Artemis’. The plan was both comprehensive and simple. It set out the issues, the legislation, land owner / professional responsibility, the Police response and the likely outcome of a prosecution case where an individual was convicted of persecuting Hen Harriers. In 37 years of Policing I had never known a Police lead project that was so transparent and honest when dealing with organisations and individuals who may be involved with or tainted by, a criminal activity.

Additionally Operation Artemis asked landowners to assist the Statutory Nature Conservation Organisations [SNCOs - NE, CCW and SNH] throughout the UK, to increase the Hen Harrier population by not undertaking any works, such as erecting fencing during the breeding season or heather burning in areas that had held breeding birds in the previous 5 years and to immediately inform the SNCOs if Hen Harriers were found on their property during the breeding season. Operation Artemis asked for compliance with current legislation, no more.

WCOs and rural Police Officers visited every identified estate with heather habitat, including RSPB, Forestry Commission, National Trust etc., and every land agent and gamekeeper employed by these estates, to deliver the project. I gave presentations to both the Moorland Association representative and the Board to the British Association for Shooting & Conservation seeking their support. These organisations and others that represent the shooting community continually promote the view that they abhor raptor persecution so it would be reasonable to assume that they would welcome and support this project. Not at all. Only the conservation and statutory organisations with heather moor holdings agreed to participate in the project. The private estates refused to take part on block and the shooting community launched their standard tactic – use the shooting media to attack the policy, attack the individuals connected to it, garner support from supportive MPs condemn the plan and lobby Parliament in an attempt to force the Police and Defra to abandon the scheme. A plethora of complaints were lodged with Chief Constable Brunstrom. A check of Hansard will give you an insight into the nonsense that ensued.

What Operation Artemis revealed was that feudalism was alive and well in the UK in the 21st Century. The rich and powerful would not be policed, legislation protecting our natural environment didn’t apply to them. They owned the land, ‘owned’ the people who lived on the land, owned the creatures that lived or crossed their land and nothing and nobody would change that. They have to condemn persecution of course, they can hardly condone it although at one meeting of the Environment Council Hen Harrier conflict resolution a leading member of the shooting lobby demanded that any resolution of the conflict must include lethal control on the basis that ‘if we can’t kill them legally we will continue to kill them illegally’. Hardly a compromise for Hen Harriers that were facing extinction as a breeding species in England at the time, due largely to persecution by individuals involved with the grouse shooting industry. The conflict resolution failed because of the intransigence by the industry and nothing has changed. The English Hen Harrier population remains in a perilous position with just three pairs breeding in 2016.

The shooting industry has softened its demand from ‘lethal control’ to an equally unacceptable brood management scheme. Under this scheme eggs or chicks would be removed from the grouse moors for later reintroduction. The industry claim that without such a scheme grouse numbers would be devastated and commercial shoots could go out of business. Really? How many grouse chicks can three broods of Hen Harriers eat? In fact research, by eminent ornithologists, shows that whilst they do occasionally take grouse chicks two pairs of Hen Harriers per 5000 acres would have no commercial impact and three pairs would have no significant impact. That being the case this demand is just another example of duplicity by the shooting industry when they suggest that a single pair of Hen Harriers is damage the commercial viability of the shoot. By not challenging this assertion successive Governments have been complicit in perpetuating this myth.

Satellite tracking of Hen Harriers reveals that they continue to ‘disappear’ on grouse moors. Hen Harriers named by children from the local communities as ‘Highlander’, ‘Burt’, ‘Hope’ and ‘Sky’, all birds that I have ringed and monitored, have ‘disappeared’. Catastrophic tag failure, insist the industry. Not so say the manufacturers, only 6% of tags fitted to other species, fail. I spent hours searching for these birds with sophisticated ground tracking equipment, none were found. I have also searched for, and found, other birds when the satellite indicated that the birds may be dead. They were indeed dead and post mortems revealed that they had died of natural causes. The conundrum then is ‘why can we find birds that died but don’t find the others?’ It is my considered opinion that we don’t find them because they were killed and the tags were destroyed. Of course it is not just the missing satellite tagged birds that should give us cause for concern, we know what happened to them. We don’t know what happened to the other birds that I and other licenced raptor workers have ringed over the years that weren’t tagged. I am not a man for speculation but I think it likely that many, if not all, of them are also dead and a significant number of those were killed on the northern grouse moors or the associated in-bye land. This is a very depressing thought but the lack of expansion of the English population would tend to support this view.

It is not only Hen Harriers that we should consider when discussing the negative commercial impacts of commercial driven grouse. Other birds of prey are systematically killed in some areas. The National Wildlife Crime Unit identifies Peregrines, Red Kites and Goshawks as being threatened by persecution. I would also add Short-eared Owl and Raven to that list. Statistics gathered over decades by the RSPB show that the majority of this persecution is committed by individuals involved in the game shooting industry. Another example of elements within the industry refusing to comply with the law and of the fact that their representative bodies are merely lobbyists and despite their warm words, apologists for criminals. Government gives credibility to these bodies, treats them as equal partners in the effort to prevent raptor persecution. In reality they are not delivery organisations. I have participated in countless meetings with them in attendance on the Environment Council, Buzzard Stakeholder Group and the PAW Raptor Persecution Delivery Group. At best their tactic appears to stall discussions, wear down the conservation groups and drive expectations down to the lowest common denominator. The grouse shooting industry cannot be trusted to police itself.

As I have already stated I am a licenced Raptor Worker, chairman of my local Raptor Study Group [RSG] and a member of the Northern England Raptor Forum [NERF]. I have been monitoring birds of prey for decades. During that time the local Peregrine population has fallen from six pairs to one, Goshawks are observed on the eastern fringe of the grouse moors at the beginning of spring but they have never been recorded breeding. We have ample habitat for Red Kites but they are absent and we had only one pair of breeding Raven in 2016. Hen Harriers do occupy winter roosts regularly but they have never bred locally. Whilst the absence of these species may not be attributable to local persecution the area is self-evidently a ‘black hole’ as far as they are concerned. The reduction of any species by persecution obviously has a negative impact on both the numbers and expansion of those populations and every grouse moor, whether directly involved in persecution or not, indirectly benefits from the actions of others.

I included Raven in my list of birds that require protection on grouse moors for a number of reasons. Firstly the population in the northern uplands is very low. NERF, which represents RSGs from the South Peak along the Pennine Chain to the Scottish border, the Forest of Bowland, Greater Manchester and the North York Moors has been reporting Raven populations since 2009. In the seven years since that first report the mean average annual breeding population has remained at c45 pairs; the vast majority of which are located in the non-grouse moor areas of South Derbyshire and Northumberland. During that same period 858 chicks fledged in the area, yet the population remained static when I would have expected it to have both increased and expanded.

In the past year there has been a proliferation of gas gun usage on grouse moors. According to the Moorland Association these devises are being used to prevent Raven from predating wader chicks. When I asked for scientific evidence to support the use of gas guns I was told that the evidence was anecdotal. Having regard to the small Raven population in the northern uplands anecdotal evidence that they are problematic does not seem credible. The need for such methods is being driven by the shooting industry, not the RSPB, British Trust for Ornithology or the Wildlife and Wetland Trust. Much of the land in question is designated as Specially Protected Areas and / or Sites of Special Scientific Interest; designated as such for their bird assemblages, including specially protected species listed on Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. I fail to see how gas guns, which are designed as bird scarers [to be used to protect arable crops at the time of planting or harvest] will only deter Raven from predating wader chicks whilst having no impact upon breeding birds at the same time. In my opinion the claim is ridiculous. I don’t know of any conservationist who believes that gas guns are needed in the uplands, many of which are also National Parks. In my opinion these weapons are being used to persuade both Hen Harriers and Short-eared Owls not to breeding on grouse moors, which is their natural breeding habitat.

We, Raptor Workers and other bird conservation groups, press repeatedly and rightly that the Hen Harrier population should be allowed to reach the habitat carrying capacity. Yet we say nothing about the plight of Raven, northern breeding population 45 annually, and the Government is considering allowing the use of gas guns in protected areas against a species that is also perilously low locally. Gas guns should not be allowed and Government has the power to prevent their use in SPAs and on SSSIs and they should implement that power. What is certain is that the shooting industry cannot be trusted to police the use of gas guns.

We have known for years that lead is not good for the environment or human health and we have consistently banned its use. Every area except game shooting that is. The representative bodies for the shooting industry have continuously lobbied for the continued use of lead ammunition and Government has been complicit by allowing the use of lead in the face of overwhelming evidence that it should be banned. Once again the shooting industry cannot be trusted to override their own selfish desires and do the right thing for the greater environment.

The grouse shooting industry frequently tell us that it is an essential component of the rural economy. Extravagant claims are made about the value of that component both in terms of revenue and employment. I doubt such claims for a variety of reasons:
  • grouse numbers fluctuate naturally and commercial shooting follows the same pattern, incomes are not consistent
  • there are relatively few full time employees in the industry, beaters are simply paid day wages [I wonder how many declare that income to HMRC]. It is self-evident that when there is no grouse to shoot there is no requirement for beater; ergo no employment
  • many shoots are only small syndicates or restricted to friend and family only

These claims should also be set against:
  • the vast amount, many millions of pounds, of subsidy paid by Government to the grouse shooting estates
  • the cost of flood damage and flood alleviation caused by mismanagement of the uplands devoted to grouse shooting
  • the cost to the environment through global warming enhanced by heather burning
  • the loss of carbon sequestration in deep peat
  • the increased cost of flood insurance, if it is available at all, in areas at risk
  • the increase in water charges resulting from discolouration in the water catchment areas

In addition to my experience as a Wildlife Crime Officer, Operation Artemis Co-ordinator, Licenced Raptor Worker, including Hen Harriers, I live in Hebden Bridge. The village is nestled in the Upper Calder Valley in the Pennines. The valley is deep, steep sided and the bottom is very narrow. Hebden Bridge is at the heart of the South Pennines SPA. It is famous for being very beautiful. It is also famous for flooding. When the flood waters pours down Hebden Water there is only one place for that water to go; into people’s homes, the schools, the doctor’s surgery and commercial property; devastating lives and destroying hope. The village was destroyed in the Christmas floods of 2015, not for the first time, and it has still to fully recover. Scientific research paper after scientific paper lays the blame firmly at the door of local grouse shooting estates. Draining the moors, diverting streams, burning the moor, the construction of tracks and car parks on the Walshaw Moor Estate, at the head of Hebden Water, have apparently exacerbated the flood risk. These issues and the lack of supervision by Natural England are currently being examined by the European Courts of Justice.

What price must the residents of Hebden Bridge pay for the privilege of having grouse shooting on its doorstep? The answer lies with Parliament and MPs, particularly local MPs, must not shy away from their responsibility to protect the residents of the Calder Valley from flood risk, higher insurance costs and additional costs of accessing clean drinking water.

By nature and calling I am a left leaning, liberal centralist. I believe in less, rather than more, regulation. Ordinary decent people know what is right and what is wrong, they understand society, their place within it and the value of social cohesion. For the majority of people legislation is largely irrelevant because they, we, instinctively do the right thing for the benefit of our shared world.

Regrettably there are sections of society that do not believe in those shared values. I include a significant number of grouse moor owners and their employees in that group. My natural instincts, and first choice, would be that they should be left alone to police themselves and do the right thing. My experience however shows that they are untrustworthy and incapable of taking any such course of action.

My second choice would be for the driven grouse shooting to voluntarily convert to walk-up’ shooting. This less intensive form of grouse shooting would not be dependent on bird of prey persecution, or the total elimination of all predators, including using sheep to ‘hoover’ up ticks, for that matter, or the mismanagement of the uplands.

My third choice would be for a system of licensing to be introduced, which would not be a problem for law abiding estates, only criminals would be penalised. I don’t see as an issue; I have a licence to drive my car and a licence to ring birds of prey. I will not be committing an offence which will threaten either, consequently my licence to do both will never be under threat. I embrace the licensing system, which will only remove those individuals not fit to hold a licence. Unfortunately I don’t see any appetite for licensing from within the current Government. Additionally the huge reductions in the budgets of Defra, NE and the Police will inevitably mean that these departments will not have the resources available to enforce a licensing system.

My experience in law enforcement, raptor monitoring and interaction with the grouse shooting industry leads me to the unpalatable, but realistic decision that to remove all of the ills associated with driven grouse shooting, and for the benefit of our environment and the communities of both wildlife and people that enjoy our shared environment, the only solution is to ban the practice of driven grouse shooting.

Steve Downing
Chair Calderdale Raptor Study Group