Guest Post : Coronavirus – A Potential Cover for Wildlife Crime & Cruelty?

Blog post by Moorland Monitors, a grassroots community network working to protect persecuted wild species and wild spaces on driven grouse shooting estates. The Moorland Monitors document wildlife crime and cruelty, evidence environmental destruction and advocate for the uplands. The team logs locations of traps and snares, and their images of dead wild animals are helping the public understand just how widespread and relentless animal trapping is across huge areas of the uplands.
Photos used with permission and are c/o Moorland Monitors, independent monitors and Hunt Investigation Team.

 

Coronavirus: A Potential Cover for Wildlife Crime & Cruelty?

The coronavirus pandemic has brought huge and necessary changes to our way of life. Public health is at the forefront of all our minds – and rightly so. But there will be consequences of our lockdown for many other species. Wildlife crime thrives out of the public gaze and has the potential to wreak untold suffering whilst we are all confined to our homes. In particular, wildlife on grouse shooting estates will have chillingly little protection this springtime – and the lockdown falling during this season could have even more deadly consequences.

March to May are busy months for wildlife on the moors. This is a time when upland biodiversity can truly be celebrated: adders basking in the spring sunshine; birds of all kinds nesting and hatching; pregnant bellied mustelids scampering along dry stone walls; Emperor moths fluttering amongst the heather; early leverets emerging; curlew, lapwing and yes, Red Grouse calling. Our moorlands can support a fabulous array of wildlife.

However, gamekeepers are also busy at this time: preparing for the grouse shooting season, which runs from August to December. The abundant fertile wildlife presents a threat to grouse shooting stocks and must therefore be strictly controlled before it inhabits the moor. A natural balance of biodiversity would threaten profitable grouse shooting.

 

Gamekeepers have got away with eye-watering levels of persecution for decades, but recent years have seen a remarkable shift in public awareness and attitude.

News has spread of how and where raptors are poisoned and shot; how and where badgers, foxes and hares suffer terribly in snares; how and where deadly traps torture and kill indiscriminately. As public awareness and outrage have grown, gamekeepers have had a much harder time getting away with wildlife crime. Members of the public and organised monitors have been able to record, report and publicise malpractice – and in many cases massively reduce persecution.

Coronavirus may be about to change all that. With strict guidance (if not yet law) to “stay safe, stay home”, many people who would otherwise be out, about and able to spot wildlife crime are unable to do so. They are caught between the public health guidance to stay indoors and the sure knowledge that this will mean that wildlife crime and cruelty will go undetected. Snares and traps are still in place on our moors, and armed gamekeepers are still patrolling the hills, as the rest of the country goes into lockdown. We are stuck at home knowing that:

1) Raptors nesting around the moors are more vulnerable than ever. Gamekeepers know where the nests are, and fear raptors’ predation of grouse stocks. Illegal shooting, poisoning, nest destruction and disturbance are all very real prospects for our magnificent moorland hen harriers, goshawks, buzzards and owls this spring. Only time will tell how many survive the coronavirus public lockdown.

2) Snares are used intensively in the springtime, targeting fertile, pregnant and nursing mammals in order to prevent new generations inhabiting the moors. Snares are indiscriminate, catching badgers, foxes, mountain hares, lambs and even pets. They cause horrific injuries and suffering. Where a parent animal is snared, its young often die of starvation. Without any public presence, estate gamekeepers may increase snaring and will be able to illegally target badger setts. We cannot know if local badger populations will survive the next few months. We can be sure that many badgers, foxes and mountain hares will suffer appallingly, away from the public gaze.

3) Bird trapping is also prevalent in the springtime, to eliminate birds which may predate on grouse stocks. Bird traps are ostensibly set to catch corvids (crows, magpies, jays, rooks etc) but are often used illegally to catch raptors. Birds used and caught in traps will be left to the mercy of their killers. “Call birds” (live birds, used as bait to entice other birds) in Larsen and ladder traps often suffer terribly, both physically and mentally. Provision of their food, water and shelter will rely entirely on unregulated trap users who have little concern for animal welfare. Birds captured in Larsen and ladder traps will suffer brutal deaths, again with no accountability. Who will know if corvid trap users illegally kill raptors, like buzzards, which often enter these traps?

4) Stoats are due to gain legal protection from April 2020, but who will enforce this? New types of spring trap are being introduced in line with the new status of stoats – but who will know if they are used properly or at all? Unlawful spring traps are routinely found on shooting estates. Monitors and members of the public report offences, and also document non-target captures. Who will evidence the misuse of spring traps and represent those animals which suffer agonising deaths?

5) Stink pits may well appear on the moors again. Gamekeepers use stink pits to increase their snaring success. They pile up their victims (such as foxes, crows, jays and hares) so that the smell attracts more predators into snares. The public revulsion and publicity that comes with visitors finding these piles of rotting bodies in our national park have been sufficient to have stink pits largely removed on the Peak District moors. Their graphic depictions and pictures have not been good PR for the shooting lobby. However, with fewer people to document these scenes, the gamekeepers may feel emboldened to continue.

 

Whilst locals will continue to provide (much-appreciated) reports from their daily exercise on the hills, the scale of grouse moor slaughter this springtime may never be fully known – as chance encounters by members of the public will significantly decrease. Away from the public gaze, gamekeepers may believe they can act with impunity. No doubt they will continue to share photos of blossoming curlews and lapwings online, believing this attempted smokescreen will fool the public. It will not. The shooting lobby’s attempts to use ground-nesting birds to divert people’s gaze from rampant raptor persecution, rotting stink pits and needless snaring are failing. No longer are their conservation claims plausible, in the light of ever-increasing damage to other wildlife and habitat.

 

The way gamekeepers treat the moors during public lockdown may well illustrate this point. If the shooting industry uses this national crisis as an opportunity to strip our uplands of even more wildlife, they will simply underscore the cynical and selfish attitudes which characterise their industry. They will do themselves no favours.

Many of us may simply have to wait and see what state the moors are in by the end of the coronavirus outbreak. We may not be able to protect this season’s wildlife as we normally would. We may not be able to hold gamekeepers to public account. We may have to accept that in protecting the public health, we must leave wildlife to the fate of traps, snares, poison and guns.

This compromise is a tragic reflection of life in the UK’s national parks in the 21st century. Yet this reflection also inspires us to fight ever harder wherever and whenever we are able – and should galvanise all of us to do whatever we can for wildlife today.