Hen Harrier poisoned by pheasant shoot

Oh, the irony. In the week ‘shooting’ launched its new green vision to persuade us all that it cares desperately about wildlife by declaring – nearly seventy years after laws came into force protecting them – a ‘zero tolerance’ to the illegal killing of birds of prey, look what turns up next to a pheasant shoot: yet another dead Hen Harrier (the most persecuted bird of prey in Britain).

This one, a female called Mary who had hatched in the summer of 2019 from a nest on the Isle of Man, was found dead in a field in Drumconrath, Co. Meath. She had been fitted with a satellite-tag as part of the EU Hen Harrier LIFE project (listen to our interview with the project’s Dr Cathleen Thomas), which the RSPB and BirdLife partners had been using to monitor her movements. On November 2nd last year data from her tracking device revealed that she had died suddenly. RSPB Investigations and Ireland’s National Parks and Wildlife Service found her body on land managed for pheasant shooting. Investigations revealed that she had been illegally poisoned: a dead pigeon, which had been laced with the banned toxin Carbofuran (an incredibly potent pesticide and the gamekeeper’s favourite poison), was found at the scene along with poisoned chunks of meat. Pieces of poisoned meat were also found in Mary’s body, proving that she had eaten some of the bait. Carbofuran is so toxic (a few grains can kill an adult human) that it has been banned since 2001: its use and the use of poisoned meat baits, are serious criminal offences.


Illegal persecution

No-one (pheasant shoot managers included) should even have Carbofuran in their possession: possessing it has been illegal since 2006. There is no excuse whatsoever. And there is no excuse for killing Hen Harriers (or any other bird of prey). Hen Harriers are fully protected in Ireland (just as they are in the UK) but despite this, they and other protected birds of prey continue to be killed, or (to use the official coded language) “disappear in suspicious circumstances“, which translates as ‘We know you did it, we just can’t prove it yet’. ‘

‘Suspicious circumstances’ or not, Hen Harriers are ten times more likely to die over grouse moors than any other habitat, but as this case proves pheasant shoots are killing them too (and, given how few Hen Harriers are satellite tagged and how recently tagging started, they’ve probably been doing it for decades as well). IIlegal persecution is demonstrably suppressing the population. As Martin Harper, Global Conservation Director at RSPB, commenting on Mary’s death puts it, “Here is another Hen Harrier which has failed to make it through its first year, thanks to the spectre of illegal persecution. Time and time again, satellite-tagging is pinpointing illegal persecution and critically proving that young Hen Harriers are being killed before they have the chance to breed and bolster the fragile British population. Raptor persecution in connection with land managed for shooting is the number one threat to the Hen Harrier in Britain.”

Let’s just repeat that, because it’s damning: “… land managed for shooting is the number one threat to the Hen Harrier in Britain“. That’s a strong statement, and to be applauded. The RSPB has to work with many agencies, in effect it has to keep many balls in the air at the same time, and for Martin Harper to be so unequivocal demonstrates the immense frustration that senior conservationists are feeling about shooting’s failure to stop (not just ‘condemn’) the illegal killings.


Pick a week, any week

Bad timing happens in life, but the problem for shooting is that it could have picked almost any week to launch its new policy only to have yet another dead raptor fall to earth alongside it with a karmic thud.

The always superb Raptor Persecution UK monitors illegally killed birds of prey, and barely a week goes by without their writing about poisoned harriers or shot buzzards, or eagles caught in traps, Short-eared Owls killed and buried in heather (photo copyright RSPB Scotland), or gamekeepers breaking the law (and despite what shooting persists in claiming, RPUK is not actually looking for a ban on shooting: they just want the law adhered to and upheld).

It’s not only conservationists like Martin Harper and RPUK’s Ruth Tingay that are frustrated (and blazing angry) of course. So are increasing numbers of the public. And this is why shooting is playing at getting tough with its own members. Because, as so many of us have been saying for many years, it’s not the pro-wildlife activists that will shut down shooting – it’s shooting itself. We might be the ones highlighting persecution issues, and pointing out just how long shooting has had to clean up its bloody act, but we’re not the ones causing shooting its current problems – that is down to the barrels and barrels of ‘bad apples’ out there on shooting estates breaking the law day in and day out.

As yet another Hen Harrier dies for having the temerity to try to feed itself, calls for proper legislation, proper enforcement, and even a ban on ‘gamebird’ shooting, grow louder. How will shooting react to its self-propelled existential threat? History suggests absolutely nothing will change. What passes for rational voices amongst those whose hobby is blowing wildlife to bits want shooting to at least present a front that an increasingly sceptical and unsympathetic public might find tolerable enough to let them just get on with it, but as report after report demonstrates they’re not being listened to.

Personally speaking, I wouldn’t shed a tear for shooting’s demise. But the ever-mounting pile of dead wildlife it accounts for, yes, I’ll shed a tear for that…