Stuart Spray examines comments by the new chairman of the Moorland Association and what they mean for birds such as hen harriers.
The Moorland Association (MA), the members of which own and manage 860,000 acres of heather moorland in England and Wales for grouse shooting, last week announced the appointment of its new chairman Mark Cuncliffe-Lister, Lord Masham.
In an interview with the Yorkshire Post and on the MA’s website, the new chairman praised gamekeepers as “modern moorland mangers” and described their involvement in the persecution of birds of prey as a “historical perception”.
His comments appear to have infuriated and confused members of the conservation community in equal measure and prompted a spokesperson for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), Tony Whitehead, to remind Cuncliffe-Lister of a series of wildlife crime incidents reported on the lords’s own grouse moor.
“We are not sure how far back Mr Cuncliffe-Lister’s historical frame extends, but we do know that in 2014 a gamekeeper from his Swinton Estate was convicted of using an illegal trap on two occasions”, Whitehead said. “We also know that prior to that, in 2012, a hen harrier from Bowland, tagged and named ‘Bowland Betty’ was found shot and dead on the Swinton Estate. Mr. Cuncliffe-Lister will also be aware of the loss, of another hen harrier, ‘River’, found shot on his land last April.
“But with all of that now distant history, we trust he will adopt the Moorland Association’s policy of ‘zero tolerance to wildlife crime’ in the face of the sudden rise in current reports of persecution of birds of prey. And will as we speak, be briefing his keepers accordingly.”
Of course, hen harriers can travel many miles in search of prey and there is no evidence to suggest that anyone from Swinton Estate was involved in the shooting of ‘River’ and ‘Bowland Betty’, but the incidents serve to highlight the ongoing nature of illegal persecution of birds of prey in the UK.
The Real Role of the Moorland Association
Cuncliffe-Lister’s comments become less surprising when the role of the MA is understood. It conducts no research of its own and is effectively a PR company promoting research and comments that support the views of its members.
Set up in 1986 to represent the interests of owners of grouse shoots, the MA became a Company Limited by Guarantee (CLG) in 2014 with its activities listed as environmental consulting on the Companies House website.
For the past six years, the organisation has been managed by ex-public relations consultant Amanda Anderson who is also registered as the company secretary. Although represented on several working groups and initiatives set up to combat the illegal killing of birds of prey on grouse moors, the MA does not acknowledge raptor or bird of prey persecution as an issue or list it as one of its work priorities anywhere on its website.
Hen harriers are protected birds of prey that nest on heather moorlands and feed predominantly on red grouse which brings them into conflict with managers of grouse shoots. A research paper published last year by the Government’s wildlife watchdog, Natural England, concluded that “hen harriers in Britain suffer elevated levels of mortality on grouse moors, which is most likely the result of illegal killing”. Data analysis revealed that 72% of the hen harriers that were satellite-tracked as part of the project were “confirmed or considered very likely to have been illegally killed” and were “10 times more likely to disappear over grouse moors”.
The RSPB’s principal conservation scientist and a co-author of the paper, Dr David Douglas, said: “The high rate of illegal persecution on grouse moors revealed by this study goes a long way to explaining why hen harriers are barely hanging on as a breeding bird in England.”
Cuncliffe-Lister Stands By Comments
Byline Times approached the MA offering Cuncliffe-Lister the opportunity to clarify his position on birds of prey persecution citing Natural England’s research as evidence that gamekeepers are still part of the problem.
In a statement, Cuncliffe-Lister accused the 10-year study published in 2019 of already being out of date. “The NE report you refer to used data up to 2017 – around the time the Defra Hen Harrier Action Plan was implemented,” he said. “Since then we have had an increase in numbers of hen harriers with several breeding over consecutive years on grouse moors, including my own.”
The vast majority of the Cunliff-Lister’s Swinton Estate sits within the Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). The Birds of Prey in Nidderdale AONB Evidence Report published in September 2019 by Landscapes for Life and Nidderdale AONB confirmed the area as a hotspot for birds of prey persecution reporting “no successful peregrine [falcon] nesting attempt on any of the traditional grouse moor sites since 1998” and “despite large areas of potentially suitable breeding habitat, there were no successful hen harrier breeding attempts in Nidderdale between 2005 and 2018”.
Although 2018 and 2019 were good years for hen harriers in England, with a total of 81 fledged chicks, Tony Juniper, chairman of Natural England, remains cautious. “While it is very welcome to see this improvement, we must remember that the hen harrier is still very far from where it should be as a breeding species in England, not least due to illegal persecution,” he said.
But Cuncliffe-Lister told Byline Times: “There is a historical perception of gamekeepers engaging in wildlife crime and what I mean by that is that in generations gone by there were practices that are not acceptable today. The culture in grouse moor management is now much different with gamekeepers generally seeing themselves now as modern moor managers whose work includes conservation and enhancing biodiversity. Of course, this may not mean the problem has been completely eradicated but it is evident that there is commitment to consign illegal persecution to history.”
Commenting on the rise in raptor persecution incidents currently being investigated by police on land managed for grouse shooting, Superintendent Nick Lyall, head of the Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group, said: “Over recent weeks, I have been sickened by the number of raptor persecution cases that have come to my attention as chair of the Raptor Persecution Delivery Group. I know that there are officers currently investigating a number of crimes against wild birds of prey which have occurred since lockdown began.”
Cuncliffe-Lister’s statement concluded: “We genuinely believe in collaboration as a way forward. Gamekeepers and moor owners are passionate about the work they do and maintaining the moorlands that we can all enjoy. They take great pride in what they do in delivering tangible environmental and biodiversity benefits and that is something we can surely all support.”