English hen harriers flying around in invisible cloaks

‘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).

5 Responses to “English hen harriers flying around in invisible cloaks”

  1. 1 paul v irving
    June 12, 2012 at 9:45 pm

    In somw small way Mitchell is right in that the Scottish and English populations are connected but it is only in a small way. The truth is that England could and should support a breeding population of around 300 pairs with little or no damage to grouse stocks but that the greedy and fearful grouse estates have through entirely illegal means virtually eliminated what population we have.
    That Alistair is the point not the wider connections between harrier populations but that ENGLAND should as part of its natural wildlife biodiversaity support 300 +pairs of harriers but his has been prevented from happening by the widespread illegal killing of adults through out the year and nest destruction on grouse moors.
    The fact that it has been so effective lays for once and for all that such persecution is widespread and routine. That is really what your friends in the Moorland Association and their lackies in the NGO don’t want tagged on to a n extinction story. National and international scandal.

    Paul v Irving

  2. July 5, 2012 at 7:14 am

    It’s amazing how many people still blame gamekeepers.

    Persecution had an impact long ago but it is not a problem now. There has only been one case of harrier persecution in the past seven years and this was thrown out of the courts due to a lack of evidence. Blaming gamekeepers despite the lack of any factual, up to date evidence is transparent nonsense, and this is unacceptable.

    The RSPB has a reserve at Geltsdale. No hen harriers have nested there since 2006, and gamekeepers are definitely not responsible for that. The RSPB blamed natural causes. For the RSPB it is unthinkable that natural causes apply to shooting estates, not just RSPB reserves.

    An earlier study which blamed gamekeepers used data from before 2004, which is out of date, and was riddled with scientific errors which undermine its conclusions. The study was attacked by a wide range of organisations. Recent studies show that natural causes are much more likely.

    • 3 Marco McGinty
      July 11, 2012 at 12:18 pm

      Persecution is not a problem now? Do you actually live in this country? Hen Harriers just sem to disappear when on or over managed grouse moors and this just may be the reason why there are no breeding Hen Harriers in England. And all the other raptors that have been found trapped, poisoned or shot or their nests destroyed, all on or adjacent to managed grouse moors . There’s your evidence.

  3. 4 Amanda
    July 10, 2012 at 3:51 pm

    Dying of natural causes such as poison and gunshot wounds I presume.

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