‘Given the population of hen harriers in Europe, it is wrong to talk of “extinction”‘ [in relation to the single hen harrier breeding attempt in England this year], claims Alasdair Mitchell in his latest article for Shooting Times. He goes on to say, “To talk in emotive terms about “a second extinction” is a tad over the top“.
I don’t think there’s anything emotive or over the top about stating that England’s HH breeding population is on the verge of extinction – it’s a biological fact! With only one known nesting attempt in 2012 (and rumours circulating that the attempt has failed), the species is most definitely on the brink of an extinction as an English breeding species. What else would you call it? Birds-now-wearing-invisible-cloaks?
The term ‘extinction’ is a valid, scientific term that can be used to describe the loss of a species (in this case a breeding species) at a local, regional, national or international level. In this case, the first three levels are applicable. Perhaps Mitchell objects to the word because he knows it is a word the general public can understand far more easily than other scientific terms such as ‘population decline’, which just infers a loss but doesn’t explain the extent of that loss. The public understands that ‘extinction’ means curtains, lights out, elimination, end of the line. This is probably of concern to the game-shooting industry as they realise there’ll be no place to hide once the public understands the full impact of all that illegal killing.
Mitchell points to the hen harrier’s international conservation status as a species of ‘least concern’ to support his view and says: “There are many thousands flying around Western Europe – including several hundred pairs breeding happily in Scotland“. What he (deliberately?) fails to mention is that Scotland’s breeding HH population fell by more than 22% between the 2004 and 2010 national surveys (633 pairs recorded in 2004; 489 pairs recorded in 2010) (see here). He also fails to comprehend the concept of biological diversity and it’s importance on various scales, including, again, local, regional, national and international scales. It’s illogical to ignore the loss of local, regional and national biodiversity just because the species’ international status is still ok. Yeah, let’s kill all our native wildlife – we don’t need it ‘cos it’s all doing fine in other parts of Europe.
Mitchell is a hill farmer in Northumberland. In addition to his weekly column for Shooting Times (under the heading ‘Sharpshooter’) he has also written for the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation as well as acting as their media advisor. In May 2012 (see here) Mitchell was appointed as the Northern Regional Director for BASC (British Association for Shooting and Conservation). That potted bio probably explains Mitchell’s failure to grasp the principles of biodiversity conservation, although to give him his due, he ends his article by saying:
“I am not pretending that illegal persecution has not had an impact, over the years, on the hen harrier population. It has – and that’s bad. We need to find ways of hosting more hen harriers but without destroying the commercial grouse shooting that actually pays for their moorland habitat“.
It’s certainly refreshing to hear someone from the shooting industry admit that persecution has affected HHs – it’s usually just outright denial, and it’s also encouraging to hear him calling for more hen harriers, although that now seems an unlikely prospect without formal government intervention. In the meantime, while we all argue about the semantics of extinction, the UK’s breeding hen harrier population continues to fade.
Mitchell’s full column can be read on the Shooting Times website (although it appears that this one hasn’t yet been posted).