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The appalling attacks at the Tedworth Hunt last month reminded the world that, despite the Hunting Act being law for 10 years, a few hunt saboteurs are still around. The violence meted out by them to hunt supporters, in particular the Joint Master Michael Lane who suffered concussion and teeth knocked out after being kicked in the head, was caught on camera and police are currently investigating the incident.

Masked hunt saboteurs attack member of the Tedworth Hunt

Masked hunt saboteurs attack members of the Tedworth Hunt

It raises questions in a wider context, the first being what is the motivation to become a hunt saboteur? I used to be one back in the 1970s when I opposed hunting and I’m still very clear as to what encouraged me at the time to take part in an activity that sought to prevent an animal from being hunted. I had recently joined the League Against Cruel Sports and it seemed like a natural step to join the ‘sabs’, given that the LACS wasn’t too active in those days and hunt sabotage appeared to be the best way to achieve some kind of success.

However, the aim then was to genuinely sabotage a hunt – that is to cover the trail of the hunted animal, put the hounds off its scent and hopefully not get caught doing it. Confrontations with the hunt would be kept to a minimum or simply not happen at all. That all changed in the 80s, with attitudes within the hunt saboteurs becoming more aligned to the punk era, which was emerging at the time. It brought with it the anarchist element that has stayed with many hunt saboteurs right up to the present day.

Just as some people join the political campaign against hunting for their own misguided party political reasons, others will be attracted to the more confrontational aspects of hunt sabotage. You can see the thinking; if these hunting people are all rich toffs – basically seen in the same category as despised bankers – and they’re killing animals for fun, they are the perfect target. There’s little difference between the ‘Stop the City’ and ‘Occupy’ campaigns and sabotaging a hunt, as those on the sharp end are all perceived to be the same people. The only difference is that on a hunt you can physically confront your enemy. The campaign against the badger cull has undoubtedly had a spin-off effect in reinvigorating hunt saboteurs, given that many of the ‘protesters’ were not protesting at all, but attempting to sabotage the process.

This isn’t to say that those involved don’t care about animals – some do, some don’t. Many people in the anti-hunt campaigns are concerned about how animals are treated, but fail to properly understand hunting, the consequences of a ban and the wider picture of wildlife management. They get drawn into campaigns that are portrayed in simple ‘black and white’ terms and tend to believe their own propaganda because that’s what they want to believe. But it also can’t be denied that others join for darker reasons.

The grave of Huntsman John Peel was desecrated, as was the grave of the 10th Duke of Beaufort

The grave of Huntsman John Peel was desecrated, as was the grave of the 10th Duke of Beaufort

There’s a point worth noting here, though one that does not necessarily apply to all animal rights supporters. It is the view held by some that they are absolutely right in their thinking and, as such, whatever they do or say is always justified. It means that abusive language, threats and intimidation are all par for the course, in particular via social media. Damage, theft and sometimes violence are all acceptable if done ‘in the name of the animals’. It means that even desecrating graves is legitimate if the deceased or their relatives have a link to what the activists see as animal abuse. Following the tragic death of hunt supporter Trevor Morse in 2009, when he was decapitated by an anti-hunt activist’s gyrocopter, a hunt saboteurs’ website carried this comment, “This man got all he deserved pity a few more were not killed.” A comment on a national newspaper’s website covering the story about Mike Lane’s attack could hardly be regarded one stemming from compassion -“Good job! I hope he dies.”

This is a form of fundamentalism that has a parallel with the acts of terrorism which have sadly become common on our TV screens and as such shares basic similarities. The covered faces, the anonymous social media comments and threats, on occasion even the black dress code. But more worryingly is the absolute blind faith in their ‘cause’ and any hint of questioning that belief is regarded as something akin to blasphemy.

Recently, the BBC Countryfile programme covered the 10th anniversary of the Hunting Act coming into force. While many anti-hunt groups and their supporting politicians like to pretend that this matter is over, the fact is the issue is as alive as it ever was and no doubt will continue to be so until a sensible resolution is reached. Yet the producers of this programme were condemned for even contemplating addressing such an item, let alone inviting the hunting world to take part. Such is the blinkered, bigoted view of the obsessive anti-hunt activist.

Advice or a threat?   A response to the  Countryfile programme on hunting on a BBC website

Advice or a threat?  A response posted on a BBC  website regarding the Countryfile episode on hunting

See the comparison here with other groups that feels they have the exclusive right to say what can and can’t be published? While obviously not creating the same degree of mayhem, pain and destruction, the intolerance of these obsessive antis is really no different to that of the fanatical terrorist.

One gratifying point is this; a few weeks ago I had the privilege of being invited to give a presentation on wildlife management and hunting on behalf of the Countryside Alliance at the Royal Veterinary College, where my fellow speaker was Chris House, Chairman of the Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management. A few days later, I gave a similar talk at a college specialising in animal care. If any aspect of the pro-hunting case being made was incorrect or flawed, these would have been the very first people to highlight it, yet not one person did. The response at both events was very positive.

So, are we to believe the angry ranting of individuals who claim to care for animals and who try to shut down any genuine debate, while some in their ranks resort to insults, abuse or even physically attacks on those who hold different views? Or should we take a lead from people who have dedicated their lives to animals and their welfare and are prepared to listen to the argument?

 

 

The 18th February 2015 marked the 10th anniversary of the Hunting Act coming into force.

It was also the day that Shadow Environment Secretary, Maria Eagle, chose to launch the Labour Party’s general election pledges on animal welfare. The document, entitled Protecting Animals, claims, “No other major political party has such a proven track record of decisive action for animals at home, on farms and in the wild.” (see http://www.labour.org.uk/blog/entry/six-things-you-need-to-know-about-labours-plans-to-protect-animals )

There are certainly some good things here, such as addressing the problems with puppy farming, an issue the Countryside Alliance has been actively involved with in Wales. Removing wild animals from circuses would be a good step too, as forcing the larger wild animals to perform unnatural tricks in unnatural circumstances, while denying their natural behaviour cannot be right. However, the current government has stated that it supports legislation to end the practice, though that promise has not yet been fulfilled.

Labour's Protecting Animals pledges, but mainly those attracting votes

Labour’s general election pledges for animals, but mainly those issues that they think will attract votes

But then we come to hunting and the badger cull. As expected, the document pledges Labour’s support for the Hunting Act, making the bold claim that, “The hunting ban is a testament to the progress made since the days of bear baiting and other such barbaric bloodsports.”  Of course it is ridiculous to compare hunting to the baiting of any animal and what is conveniently forgotten is the fact that the baiting ‘sports’ were banned as a direct result of the work of Richard Martin MP, one of the founders of the RSPCA and a foxhunter.

There is an obvious concern amongst anti hunting groups and their political supporters that the Hunting Act may be repealed, hence the pledge to defend it. Groups that support a ban have based their opposition on the assumption that hunting with dogs must automatically be cruel and Protecting Animals follows that line without question. There has been no assessment of the Hunting Act’s effect on wildlife after 10 years by any anti hunting organisation and, at the very least, it would have been good to see a more responsible move like this included.

The impression is that the Hunting Act is a good piece of wildlife legislation because of the number of successful convictions, conveniently forgetting that the vast majority are for poaching offences. Claims that science backs a hunting ban are nothing short of lies and when anti hunt groups are asked to produce validated research, the silence is deafening. Labour’s position appears to ignore what is now happening to foxes, deer and hares and relies on poorly worded public opinion polls – indicating this policy is more about vote grabbing than genuinely improving animal welfare. If it were the latter, the excellent proposal put forward by Lord Donoughue for a wild mammals welfare law would be included in this document. The real irony here is that this comes from a Labour Peer – the party has the perfect solution, suggested and supported from within its own ranks, but Maria Eagle is too blinkered to see it.

Labour also states that the badger culls to curb bovine TB would be stopped if they win the forthcoming general election. Yet again, this document seems to be re-writing history when it says that previous culls played no meaningful part in curbing the disease. That is simply not true – every trial going back decades resulted in incidents of bovine TB being reduced to one degree or another. The party states it will work with scientists to produce a workable strategy, including vaccination, to address the disease. Yet that is what is happening now, but to imagine that diseased badgers should just be left to suffer and die without some form of culling is certainly not good for the health of the countryside or good for animal welfare. Labour’s pledge received an immediate response from NFU President, Meurig Raymond, “Labour claims no other political party has such a proven track record of decisive action for animals on farm.  If this is a pledge to protect animals, as Labour says, it must protect all animals, including the tens of thousands of cattle that are compulsorily slaughtered every year in England because of bTB.” He went on to say, “We do not consider it good animal welfare to allow a disease that is devastating farming family businesses, and for which there is no cure, to be left to spread unchecked in wildlife and create more misery.”

The Labour Party says more should be done to curb the killing of raptors on shooting estates, but when a sensible proposal is put forward, such as the Hen Harrier Joint Recovery Plan, it seems to listen more to the people who would prefer conflict, rather than working with land owners, shoot owners and gamekeepers who have to be involved if workable solutions are to be found.

Reading this document you might think that everything is fine in the farming world, yet there is no mention of the worst forms of factory farming or religious slaughter without pre-stunning. Obviously these issues are far too hot to handle, despite the fact that this aspect of the debate on animals and their welfare covers the lives of billions of animals. They have simply been ignored by the Labour Party in this document.

Rather than putting forward a sensible range of genuine welfare proposals that could improve the lives of so many animals, this document concentrates more on attacking activities Labour thinks are unpopular with the public. It’s clearly more about attracting votes than improving animal welfare. Rather than engaging with the organisations representing farming, hunting and the people who will be directly affected by such policies, those organising this launch barred the NFU and Countryside Alliance from attending. Obviously, awkward questions weren’t part of the day’s schedule.

Protecting Animals represents the true meaning of the phrase ‘the curate’s egg’, which is not, as commonly believed, something that is just partly good and partly bad. The real meaning is something that has its good content destroyed by the bad.

 

Protectionism

The headline in the wildlife magazine read “Help save our badgers”. Not an uncommon statement and one that probably has many people giving a passive nod of support. Yet the more discerning reader might ask, “From what exactly?” Badger baiters? Landowners? Disease? Road accidents? Habitat loss? Government sanctioned shooters?

These are all different factors and it raises questions about what precisely ‘protectionist legislation’ is and what it seeks to achieve.

Badger protection laws have been strengthened from 1973 to 1992

Badger protection laws have strengthened significantly from 1973 to 1992

For example, the first badger protection law was passed in 1973 with the main aim of combatting badger baiting and any illegal killing. At the time, local badger populations were under threat from such actions, so it could be argued that this legislation was both a conservation and anti-cruelty measure. Over the years, the law has been tightened on a number of occasions to the point where the badger is now perhaps the most protected mammal in Europe.

The result is that numbers have risen significantly and in no way could badgers be described as an endangered species. Some would say that this is a successful outcome, but is it? A sizeable rise in any species is inevitably going to have an impact on some other species, whether it be plant or animal. At the political party conferences last year, an RSPCA official spoke of the charity’s concern over the decline in hedgehogs, apparently unaware of the link between the rise in the badger population and its predation on hedgehogs. The spread of bovine TB, too, cannot be excluded from this situation.

The 18 bat species in the UK have similar total protection and again there are unintended consequences in that, like the badger, places where they reside are also protected. Bats like to live in caves and in the absence of such dwellings see churches as a good alternative. The trouble is that many churches are old, contain ancient and valuable monuments and try to accommodate a variety of community groups, while of course being places of worship.

The damage bat droppings and urine cause can be extensive and the smell can make some churches ‘no go’ areas for people with respiratory conditions. Repairs and renovations now have to come second to preserving the bats and their roosts, while cleaning becomes a demoralising, almost daily, necessity. The costs for bat surveys and delays in building repairs often run into many thousands of pounds. Some 6500 churches are affected in this way and the same restrictions apply to other property owners, such as those who wish to renovate barns.

Cover-up and clean-up.  The only options for 6500 churches.

Cover-up and clean-up.
The only options open to 6500 churches.

A simple change to the law, as proposed by Christopher Chope MP with his Bat Habitats Regulation Bill, seeks to enhance natural bat habitats, while limiting the protection for bat habitats in places of worship where the presence of bats has a significant adverse impact upon the users of those buildings. It is a good, common sense move that doesn’t involve the death of any bats and indeed one that should not even be necessary had the original protectionist laws been properly thought through and been slightly more flexible.

The default position for certain groups, some of which blur the line between conservation and animal welfare to suit their own needs, is to always call for greater protection, yet often it doesn’t work. Take the case of the Irish hare. Though numbers fluctuate, there has been a decline over recent years and scientists studying hares argued that it was important for those with an interest in this species and its habitat, including hunters and coursers, to be involved. The government minister at the time decided to ignore that advice and listen instead to the animal rightists. A Special Protection Order was granted in 2004 giving the animal total protection, yet numbers of Irish hares continued to decline. Typically, the calls for greater protection kept coming and could very well be answered by asking how? The Irish hare was now fully protected!

Raptors are also all fully protected, yet the outcome is not always what most would desire. Without acceptance of a sensible balance between shooting interests and the conservation of these birds, the protectionist groups will always face resistance and conflict…and often stalemate. Some might even say that such conflict is a useful form of fund-raising, preferable to seeking compromise which might achieve a higher success rate for the animals concerned.

Perhaps in recognising the flaw in calling for simplistic measures, a recent campaign to give the brown hare a close season for breeding takes a slightly different route. What is not said too loudly is that hares can breed in most months of the year, so a close season could be quite lengthy. Given that there is an uneven distribution of brown hares across England leading to the animal sometimes being shot as a pest in some areas, this simplistic measure could cause ‘pre-emptive’ shooting just before a close season begins. Such a move might very well upset the slow increase in numbers we currently see, a situation that is in stark contrast to some countries that do have close seasons and yet continue to see numbers decline.

The Hunting Act, while not granting the hunted species full protection as in the legislation mention above, nevertheless claims to ‘protect’ the fox, deer and hare (the mink doesn’t get much of a mention) and yet anyone who has the slightest knowledge of hunting and the other management methods knows it does nothing of the sort. This is why not a penny has been spent by any of the anti-hunting groups on assessing the effects the Hunting Act has had on the quarry species. One might have thought that if this legislation is as good as it’s claimed, a little bit of research would be very useful to counter the arguments of those calling for repeal and secure this law for the future.

What is needed is a proper explanation and understanding of wildlife management in all its forms and a willingness at government level to sometimes avoid the fashionable option. Protectionism sounds good, and indeed in some cases it is, but if the laws become too rigid, too illogical, too intrusive or simply not needed in a different era, they become counter-productive.

Boxing Day 2014

The Boxing Day meets this year, being the 10th anniversary of the hunting ban, showed that those who disagree with the Hunting Act have not gone away and, if anything, are stronger than ever.

National and local newspapers ran numerous stories of town squares and high streets up and down the country packed with people coming out to support their local hunt. All this despite that show of bravado by the League Against Cruel Sports years ago when they claimed that everyone would wonder what all the fuss was about just a couple of months after a hunting ban.

Thousands of supporters attended the Beaufort Hunt meet this year

Thousands of supporters attended the Beaufort Hunt meet this year

It poses a dilemma for anti-hunting groups who, on one hand, like to claim this is a dying sport, but then faced with the images of hundreds of thousands of hunt supporters quickly change their tune to say this is because hunting has now been made ‘cruelty-free’ by the Hunting Act. However, that creates another problem, which is the apparent contradictory claim made throughout the year that many hunts have been breaking the law, hence the recent calls for the Hunting Act to be strengthened.

But hold on a minute…this new demand runs counter to what was said many times before by the LACS and others that the Hunting Act is a highly successful and workable piece of legislation which, if true, begs the question, “Why are you calling for it to be amended?”

Perhaps part of the answer lies in this example, given that if you don’t understand a complex activity, you won’t be able to draft legislation robust enough to ban it. I took part in a number of radio interviews over the Christmas period and in one, while debating with a senior LACS spokesman, it transpired that he had never even seen a hunt, arguing that an act does not have to be witnessed to outlaw it. The argument goes something like this: you don’t have to see a murder or a sexual assault to know it’s wrong and therefore you don’t have to see hunting to know this is wrong too. No one could really dispute the first point, but the second?

The Hunting Act 2004 - a law that eve the antis finally accept is flawed.

The Hunting Act 2004 – a law that even the antis have now finally accepted is flawed.

Can this view apply to all issues, especially activities that have significant support from a sizeable number of respectable, law-abiding individuals? If we take that LACS’ proposition to its logical conclusion it will inevitably result in decisions being made and laws being passed on little more than snapshot opinions. Anyone with a degree of first-hand experience and detailed knowledge of a subject would simply be swept aside by the far greater number of individuals who can now be asked loaded questions in opinion polls or via social media, shown edited films and told that hunting has no purpose other than ‘killing for fun’. This is the modus operandi of the anti-hunting groups and, with a general election looming next year, politicians will undoubtedly be targeted relentlessly with these messages.

The likelihood of repeal of the flawed Hunting Act being included in at least one political party manifesto has made some people a bit jumpy, even to the point where the antis have to get their tame journalists to create scare headlines, as the Daily Express did with Top Tories warned that attempting to repeal the hunting ban could be toxic”, though it doesn’t say who in the Conservative Party is making the call. (If it is the so-called Blue Foxes group of anti-hunting Tories, it might be a sobering fact to note that they couldn’t find even one Conservative MP speaker at their fringe meeting this year who was solidly behind the Hunting Act).

The twists and turns of the antis’ arguments, often put by people who, by their own admission, haven’t even seen the activity they so vehemently condemn or indeed those things that may replace it, should make any serious politician or commentator think carefully about who and what they believe. Unless, of course, the aim is to simply score political points in the same cynical way in which the anti-hunting groups do business.

Lord Donoughue's Wild Mammals Welfare Bill is principled, workable and fair.

Lord Donoughue’s Wild Mammals Welfare Bill is principled, workable and could resolve the hunting debate.

The media and, more importantly, politicians should remember these facts when being bombarded with e-mails, postcards and phone calls in this pre-election period. They should also be made aware of the way in which the hunting debate can be properly settled in a manner that addresses genuine cruelty to wild animals, while accepting the need for wildlife management. Labour Peer Lord Donoughue has proposed a principled, fair and workable law, which would prohibit all deliberate unnecessary suffering to any wild mammal. Any conviction under such legislation would be based on sound evidence and not opinion or prejudice, as in the Hunting Act. (see Wild mammal welfare and the Donoughue principle ) 

In its coverage on the Boxing Day hunts, the Independent said hunting was a “tradition that refuses to die” and nor will it until a sensible conclusion is reached. So while the media and political debate revolves around repeal of the Hunting Act, the way in which it will finally be brought to an end is by following the Donoughue principle and putting something far better in its place.

If the groundwork is laid for this to happen in 2015 it will indeed be a very good New Year.

 

 

 

 

Recently I was asked by a college to take part in a debate on foxhunting.

The students had arranged the event themselves and invited representatives from the League Against Cruel Sports and Countryside Alliance to put their respective arguments. Despite giving the LACS enough notice, the anti-hunting group chose not to accept the invitation to speak and instead simply sent a small package of literature. This was a little odd given the statement in a League press release earlier in the year which said, “We believe those who want to use animals for cruel sports should be prepared to debate why in public.”

The students had produced an excellent visual presentation for the day giving both sides of the argument, though clearly they would have preferred a speaker from each side be present for a ‘question and answer’ session. But it was not to be, leaving me to give a short talk.

A vote was taken at the end and the result proved to be uncomfortable for the LACS – or it would have been had someone from that organisation bothered to turn up. Not one student voted for the Hunting Act, while virtually the whole class voted for repeal with only a few abstentions.

It’s easy to gloat about this outcome, but there are some important points to be made here.

I’ve long held the view that talking to people about issues surrounding hunting and wildlife management is vital. While some might argue that public opinion can never be changed, I see a very different reaction when a logical case is put – and hunting does indeed have a very logical case. This is why I spend time talking to schools, colleges and a variety of riding and young farmers clubs.

So I find it odd that organisations such as the LACS are reluctant to counter a view that is diametrically opposed to theirs. Don’t they say the anti-hunting argument is so over-whelming that only a tiny minority oppose it? Don’t they have paid staff to put their case? As a charity, don’t they seek funding on that basis? And, as a charity, isn’t their position on hunting supposed to be formed on a sound evidential basis, as required by the Charity Commission?

If all this is true, why avoid appearing in an open debate to prove me wrong?

It might just be that, for all the talk about the vast majority of the public being opposed to hunting, the reality is the support for the antis’ position is a good bit flakier than they would have us believe. The need to include dog fighting and badger baiting in public opinion polls, as if somehow these obscenities could also be legalised with repeal of the Hunting Act, is a stark indication of how results can be manipulated to achieve the desired figures. Furthermore, ask the public – without prompting – what issues concern them when it comes to voting at a general election and hunting hardly registers at all.

It might also be the case that the LACS has no one on its staff with any real experience of hunting at all, nor the alternative methods that inevitably fill the vacuum where hunting is prevented. In fact it wouldn’t surprise me if some of them came straight out of an urban anti-hunting politician’s office.

When the news of the vote at the college appeared on social media, the reaction of the antis was interesting, albeit somewhat expected. The students “must have been given only one side of the argument”, it was a “posh school”, the students were “pro-hunting replicates”. All sorts of reasons why they voted the way they did, apart from the real one.

The fact is, most people are reasonable and when a sensible case for wildlife management is made, and how hunting with scenting hounds plays a crucial part in that process, they get it…and that’s what really touches a raw nerve with the anti –hunt groups.

 

Leave it to nature?

Any comment made via social media usually prompts further comments. A recent statement about the League Against Cruel Sports’ reluctance to debate hunting brought this response, “Nature does all that for us, if hunters/shooters would just leave her alone to get on with it”

The view that we should just leave everything alone may be a nice idea to many people, but is it viable?

Given free rein, nature would certainly blossom, but as there is hardly anywhere in the UK that could genuinely be described as wild, we would have to get used to a very different countryside. So I’m not convinced that leaving nature entirely to its own devices would be too pleasing, either in conservation or animal welfare terms.

An obvious starting point has to be what we have lost and in particular the large predators. When I worked for the LACS one argument promoted by the group was fairly simple; there are predatory animals and there are prey animals. That view is now outdated and replaced by the phenomenon of ‘trophic cascade,’ in which actions that affect a top (apex) predator then alter the actions of a middle (meso) predator and consequently the state of the prey animals and/or plant life.

Deer have lost their main predator – the wolf –  in this country and it is generally accepted by most organisations that control is necessary and that means shooting. It’s been argued that the fox is also a predator and therefore should not be hunted with hounds, but this is to misunderstand that foxes are meso predators and are indeed hunted in other countries by larger predators such as wolves and coyotes.

Having so drastically altered the countryside, not only by removing the large predators but by farming and forestry methods too, mankind has a duty to manage the environment. The only way in which we could realistically leave nature to “get on with it” is by removing man from the whole picture.

When that point is made, the argument more usually shifts to any method that avoids the death of animals. Yet in arguing for wildlife management we don’t always have to see this as another way of saying killing. A range of methods is available and these should remain open to those who manage the land. Some do not involve lethal outcomes, but it is also naïve to think that culling must be excluded. Difficulties arise when what appears to be neat and humane solutions are promoted by either the well-intentioned or the mischievous.

Darting deer on Exmoor

Darting deer on Exmoor

Some animal rightists have said that deer needn’t be hunted or shot and that numbers could be controlled by contraception – an idea that is clearly attractive to many people unfamiliar with the realities of wildlife management. Some years ago I witnessed the steps required to place a radio collar on a red deer hind for research purposes – a procedure not too dissimilar to placing a contraceptive implant into the animal. A tranquiliser dart was used with a transmitter attached, the reason being that the drug is highly dangerous to humans and had the dart missed or bounced out (as it did on the first shot) leaving it there for perhaps an unfortunate walker to tread on could not be risked. The whole process was lengthy and not without its hazards. And that was for just one deer.

The LACS sanctuaries (those that are left) attracted high numbers of red deer to the point where disease, either lungworm or TB, became serious problems. Once again, those who advocate leaving nature to itself don’t seem to have an answer to controlling disease in wildlife, unless it is the suggestion made at a recent debate in which it was said that as wild animals die horrible deaths, there was no need to do anything.

Giving the public a choice between vaccination or extermination, as the RSPCA did in a now banned advert on bovine TB and the badger cull, was always going to attract the people to the ‘humane’ option rather than the lethal one. No mention of the practicalities in trapping badgers which would have to be repeated or the fact that there is no vaccination available known to be 100% successful.

Fox with severe mange. Should they just be left?

Fox with severe mange. Should they just be left?

Quite why the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has been slow to agree the Hen Harrier Joint Recovery Plan to help resolve the conflict with grouse moor owners is unclear. Briefly, the ‘brood management’ scheme would allow hen harrier chicks to be moved to other areas when they have reached a certain level in order to avoid the birds predating on grouse. No killing would be involved and the plan would alleviate the problems in making shooting on grouse moors viable. However, if the suggestion of leaving nature to itself were to be followed, the natural predators of the hen harrier (foxes, badgers, corvids etc.) would be a serious threat to the birds, as could be seen when gamekeepers at Langholm Moor were laid off when hen harriers became too numerous and grouse shooting had to stop. That would happen again in the short term, but in the longer term, the moors themselves would disappear without management.

It’s a pity that some organisations see conflict with hunters and shooters as being preferable to working with them. No doubt that battling attitude, with an identifiable ‘enemy’, does no harm on the fund raising front, but what’s more important is for these groups to explain precisely what they find acceptable, rather than simply what they disagree with and, in doing so, avoid the comfortable but unrealistic position of saying we should just leave it to nature.

 

 

Saving the red

It probably doesn’t occur to many people who delight in seeing and feeding grey squirrels in gardens and parks that this species has caused the severe decline of our native red squirrel.

Brought to this country from North America in the 1800s and released by landowners who had imported them to add an exotic flavour to their country estates, the greys are now widespread across the UK. The result is that the reds have now been pushed to particular areas of the UK, mainly Scotland and the North of England, where they are the subject of an ongoing battle. Smaller pockets also exist in islands off the South of England and parts of Wales.

I had the opportunity to see red squirrels in the wild when I accompanied environmental journalist Charlie Pye-Smith to Penrith to meet Robert Benson, chairman of the Penrith and District Red Squirrel Group (PDRSG). Charlie is researching aspects of wildlife management for his forthcoming book The Facts of Rural Life.

Robert explained that the PDRSG operates as part of a network of groups spread across the UK, mainly in the North of England, with the common aim of campaigning and taking practical steps to ensure the survival of the red squirrel. Though it operates mainly on a voluntary basis, the PDRSG employs six rangers, who undertake the round-the clock vigilance required to protect the reds.

One of our native red squirrels given  a helping hand by the PDRSG

One of our native red squirrels given a helping hand by the PDRSG

As well as out-competing reds for food, habitat and being able to produce more young, greys carry a highly infectious disease, Squirrelpox virus, to which greys appear to be immune (apart from what could be described as cold-like symptoms), while the disease is fatal to their red cousins. Lesions and ulcers around the eyes, mouth and nose give the reds a condition similar to that of myxomatosis in rabbits, resulting in a painful death. The PDRSG requests the public to report sighting of sickly reds and the good news is that with treatment from vets working with the group some can make a full recovery. Much of the work of the group is keeping in contact with local landowners, informing them of the need to report sightings of grey squirrels.

Gaining the support of HRH the Prince of Wales was an important step in highlighting the plight of the red squirrel and the work of the group. The Prince, who has long campaigned for the revival of the native red squirrel, has been instrumental in setting up the Red Squirrel Survival Trust.

Charlie Pye-Smith and I then went out with Red Squirrel Ranger Jerry Moss to see his work at first hand. The only way the red squirrel will survive is by keeping certain areas of woodland ‘grey squirrel free’, so whenever they are spotted they are trapped or shot. Feeders had been put up for the reds in local woodland and on the day we were present red squirrels appeared within just a few minutes.

Jerry Moss, one of PDRSG's rangers

Jerry Moss, one of PDRSG’s rangers

Robert Benson accepts that the red squirrel is not going to be re-established across the whole of the UK and nor have they a realistic chance of returning to the level they reached in previous centuries, given the extent to which the grey has populated most of Britain. Consequently, there will be people who disapprove of culling grey squirrels in an attempt to bring the reds back to a reasonable level, referring to it, in the words of one animal group, as a kind of ‘ethnic cleansing’.

But some simple facts need to be acknowledged, the first being that, at the present time, there is no other way of ensuring the survival of the red squirrel. A vaccine for the red squirrel against the Squirrelpox virus has been suggested, but has yet to be produced, tested in the field and approved – a story that sounds worryingly familiar. The second is that to turn your back on the suffering of the reds infected with this virus can hardly be regarded as good animal welfare.

It all comes down to one of the aims of sensible wildlife management, which is in curbing certain species it is possible to save vulnerable species. How and where it is done is a matter of debate, but it is imperative to recognise that issues surrounding wild animals and their welfare require far more complex, and sometimes uncomfortable, solutions than the simplistic ‘kill or no kill’ policies so often advocated by certain animal rights groups.

The Penrith & District Red Squirrel Group can be contacted at:

The Estate Office, Lowther, Penrith, Cumbria. CA10 2HG

E-mail: info@penrithredsquirrels.org.uk

Photos: Charlie Pye-Smith

 

 

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