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How humans come a poor second to birds

Magnus Linklater has a grouse about the RSPB

Seven years ago, the Duke of Buccleuch and his son the Earl of Dalkeith, who are among the largest landowners in Britain, agreed to a remarkable experiment in conservation on their finest grouse moor. They proposed to resolve the age-old argument about whether birds of prey and the grouse they hunted could survive together if there was no interference from human beings. For years the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) had accused the owners of sporting estates of killing rare birds of prey, scaring them off, or destroying their nests, in direct contravention of the law, in order to preserve the grouse that provided their sport - and sometimes their livelihood. If only nature were allowed to take her course, said the RSPB, a healthy balance could be maintained.

The landowners, in turn, said that would be disastrous. While one or two pairs of peregrine falcon or hen harriers were manageable, unimpeded breeding would simply lead to grouse being wiped out, the end of their sporting business, and the loss of all the local jobs that depended on it. The argument went back and forward, but it was a sterile one, because both sides had only prejudice to go on.

Then, in 1992, Lord Dalkeith proposed that the RSPB's theory should finally be put to the test. He would instruct the five gamekeepers on his 12 000-acre Langholm Moor estate in the Scottish Borders to protect the birds of prey, or raptors as they are known, from egg-collectors, or anybody seeking to control their numbers, for five years. The experiment would be monitored by the RSPB and by other conservation bodies, so that it was fairly conducted. At the end of the five-year period they would take stock, and see what had happened. All the parties involved agreed to accept the results.

By 1997 there was little doubt about the outcome. The number of hen harriers had increased from two to 14 breeding females, the peregrine from three to six pairs. The grouse had fared less well. They had been virtually wiped out. What had once been one of the most successful moors in Britain had ceased to be viable as a commercial proposition.

Given the terms of the experiment, the RSPB should, at this point, have accepted the conclusions and got together to find means of reducing the harrier numbers. Various approaches were suggested, such as scaring off the harriers at nesting time. The most realistic, from the Game Conservancy Board, was an extensive programme of relocation - moving the harrier and peregrine to areas where there were none at present, so that they could continue their breeding.

Instead of this, however, the RSPB simply moved the goalposts. The decline of grouse, they said, had nothing to do with the raptors. It was due to the poor state of the moor, the lack of heather cover, and the way the earl's sheep had grazed the hills over the years. If only sheep were removed, and heather allowed to grow, the grouse would find somewhere to hide.

Not surprisingly, Lord Dalkeith protested. None of this had been raised at the outset, and grouse had always flourished alongside the sheep in this supposedly poor habitat. Who was to pay for the moor now? With no grouse to shoot, and therefore no income, he would have to lay off his keepers. Surely the point of the experiment had been to find a solution, not to destroy the only local source of employment.

The conservationists then came up with their own solution. It had a sort of mad logic to it. If only the harriers - the real killers of the moor - could be persuaded to eat something else, perhaps they would give the grouse a chance. Thus it has transpired that every week a supply of dead rats (white ones are favoured) is put out on the moor to provide the harriers with a ready-made larder. The rats are shipped up from England, no expense spared. The harriers are delighted. Inside of having to cruise the hills in search of elusive grouse, they are given their feed, almost literally on a plate. Their numbers have stayed high. Alas, however, the grouse have not thrived. Their numbers remain so low that shooting has had to be suspended. The five keepers have been reduced to one - paid for by conservationists. Net result: raptors 20, grouse nil, keepers nil, Earl distraught.

Everybody knows it is lunatic, but the RSPB cannot publicly admit it. The society is, of course, a prisoner of its members who would never agree to interfere with these magnificent hunters of the skies. Nature must be allowed to take its course, goes the argument, even if that means sacrificing large numbers of rats (who nobody minds about) and the grouse, which come lower down the pecking order.

To suggest that nature's balance is being restored by feeding dead rats to wild hen harriers is not just dotty, it is offensive. The habitat is entirely unnatural in the first place, and has been for centuries. Man has cut down the trees, introduced sheep and cattle, allowed the heather to grow by burning it in rotation. The scenery so cherished by ramblers and tourists alike - rolling purple hills, rocks and golden bracken - is in fact preserved by gamekeepers and their landowner bosses, who know how to maintain the balance between raptors and game, and who earn enough from shooters to do so. Take away one element - the grouse - and all that is at risk.

Try arguing that with the RSPB however and they will talk about poor habitat and overgrazing. What you will not hear is anything about the human beings who have lost their jobs, the small birds and grouse that have gone, and the countryside that has been denuded - all in the name of conservation.

Magnus Linklater is a columnist for the Times

Reproduced from LM issue 119, April 1999

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