Guest post: Gill Lewis | Natural England, wild Peregrines, and Falconry

Guest blog by award-winning children’s author, vet, wildlife enthusiast, and tree house dweller Gill Lewis.

Natural England, wild Peregrines, and Falconry

First outlined yesterday on Mark Avery’s blog, the decision by Natural England – the government body charged with helping to protect England’s nature and landscapes – to licence a falconer, Gary Wall, to remove peregrines from the wild, has exploded across social media. If this has taken Natural England by surprise (as they put it, “we understand that some people may have questions and concerns over the taking of birds from the wild“), it shouldn’t have. Peregrines are much-loved birds. A rebound in their numbers after suffering huge declines in the 1960s and 1970s has inspired conservationists and birders everywhere – and writers too. Their fortunes are still mixed though. While they are not the rarity they once were, peregrines are still widely persecuted on shooting estates and are more successful in urban areas than in rural ones. Interfering with peregrines ruffles feathers.

Now, while I agree that the taking of a small number of peregrines from the wild is unlikely to make a difference to their conservation status in the UK, Natural England’s own statement makes clear that this licence was issued primarily for falconry and aviculture, not conservation. Gary Wall, as a falconer, has tried to peddle this as conservation, going by his views and responses on Mark’s blog. That has muddied the waters. It’s not about conservation. Talk of taking these birds for the ‘British Peregrine Conservancy’ (which appears to be a non-existent organisation at the moment from what I can gather), smacks of greenwashing a field sport…and many of us will remember another non-existent group in Strathbraan being set up and licenced (by Scottish Natural Heritage) to kill Ravens on behalf of another field sport – grouse shooting.

Am I questioning the motives behind this application to remove Peregrines from the wild? Yes, because it seems to me that this debate is not about conserving peregrines (which should always be the priority). When even Natural England admits that it’s about falconry then the debate becomes about exploitation of the wild over valuing the wild itself.

During the discussion on Mark Avery’s website, Gary Wall stated that he wants the birds to establish a new “studbook” of British peregrines. He claims that wild stock is needed to increase vigour and prey drive. I haven’t met Gary Wall or talked with him, but I’m unimpressed by his arguments. Is he really passionate about raptor conservation? He may be, but I’m not feeling it. It feels to me instead that this is solely about breeding and improving bloodstock for the sport of falconry. Once again, like so many debates about our relationship with the wild, this is about people and what they want rather than what wildlife itself needs.

I believe that there is no justification at all to take wild animals from the wild for sport or entertainment, and that includes for falconry. To want to possess a wild animal and exploit that wild animal is very different from the love of seeing a wild animal free in its habitat. To attempt to use a justification of ‘cultural significance’ to take wild birds into captivity is hogwash. It’s an excuse from living people to justify their wants and desires using peer pressure from dead people. Let’s justify the conservation and protection of the wild above that. Future generations deserve that.

I also think there needs to be consideration of the ramifications of a government agency being allowed to cross a line into exploiting animals using the excuse of ‘culturally significant heritage’. Malta’s government used a similar ‘cultural’ justification for the spring hunting of migrant birds. Bullfighting has been excused as ‘tradition’ and part of Spanish culture. What will Natural England consider ‘culturally significant’ next? Will they perhaps use this allowance to give fox hunting ‘cultural significance’ so that it can continue to ignore the Hunting Act? Further justify the removal of legally-protected hen harrier chicks from the uplands for the ‘culturally significant’ sport of grouse shooting (albeit a recent one…but where do you draw a timeline on culture?)

I believe Natural England have crossed a line on exploitation of the wild and potentially opened the flood gates to other licence applications. If Natural England isn’t here to protect our wildlife and our wild heritage, then just what is it for?

The reason this debate has snowballed is because it’s about more than taking a small number of peregrines from the wild. It’s about exploitation. It’s about whether wild animals are less important than a sport or hobby. It’s about our relationship with the wild itself. Natural England – again – perhaps seems not to understand how much this matters to so many people. Perhaps, though, after reading the reactions online they’re beginning to.