Roger Ratcliffe stares
down the barrel of
a conservation problem

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One Saturday when I was a teenager I remember some friends and myself spreading out over a remote moor and advancing towards a barrage of shotgun fire. The guns had double barrels, and many of those with fingers on triggers had names to match. We were beating the thick heather with sticks and shouting “haaargh” to put up red grouse and drive them towards the line of toffs, who blasted the birds from the sky.

There is no shooting on that moor now. The heir to the estate is more conservation minded than his late father, and in contrast to many moorland owners he is unwilling to kill raptors like hen harriers, peregrines and buzzards that prey on grouse chicks.

Compared with other Saturday jobs a day’s grouse beating was well paid, but I still shudder at my innocence. I think of it every year when the heather turns purple in late July and we approach the so-called “glorious twelfth” of August, traditional start of the grouse shooting season.

This year there are two other date in many diaries. The first of August is Hen Harrier Day online, and on the seventh there’s another Hen Harrier Day of picnics and events. These days are not just well-aimed raspberries at the glorious twelfth but a serious reminder of the continuing persecution of raptors on grouse moors, and in particular the hounding to near extinction of the beautiful hen harrier as an English breeding bird.

A few months back I visited moors in the Forest of Bowland area of north Lancashire to learn about the problem from the RSPB, and had the chance to watch a stunning male hen harrier in flight. It seems that despite penalties for killing or injuring the birds ranging from imprisonment to hefty fines, landowners who engage in raptor persecution – some have hereditary titles – hire expensive lawyers to find legal loopholes whenever gamekeepers or other staff are charged, and prosecutions fail.

One reason is that grouse shooting is now a lucrative industry. Moorland owners know that the super-rich will pay up to £10,000 for a day’s shooting. But in return, these customers demand literally more bang for their bucks. They want to kill as many grouse as possible.

Mark Avery, former RSPB conservation director, renamed the start of grouse shooting the “inglorious twelfth” and set up the first national Hen Harrier Day in 2014. He tells me there should be at least 300 breeding pairs of the bird in England instead of the fraction of that number that currently exists.

What makes this scandal even more outrageous is that raptor persecution is happening with the tacit support of Defra, the government’s rural affairs department, and even its conservation agency Natural England. A few years back, under pressure Natural England came up with a so-called Hen Harrier Plan that feebly failed to address the illegal killing. This suggests to me that the Conservatives will always lean over backwards to protect landowners, even those who are breaking the law.

Satellite tagging has shown that most birds disappear on grouse moors. Indeed, a large area of North Yorkshire has become a sort of Bermuda Triangle in which tagged hen harriers vanish without trace. The only way to stop this barbarity is for the government to ban grouse shooting.

Roger Ratcliffe has worked as an investigative journalist with the Sunday Times Insight team and is the author of guidebooks to Leeds and Bradford. Follow him on Twitter @Ratcliffe

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