It is perhaps part of human nature that we should always categorise things. For instance, there is a tendency to categorise wild animals and birds as either good or bad. An example may be the way in which we regard the birds we enjoy watching at our bird-tables, such as bluetits, great tits, goldfinches, chaffinches and the like, as birds to be held in good odour. On the other hand there is often a universal dislike expressed at the likes of magpies and crows, the latter particularly shunned perhaps because they are black and therefore bad!
That alone is enough to cast them in the villain’s role for many people for whom, as a throw-back to more superstitious times, black birds are inevitably seen as representative of evil and are all thus inevitably classed as bad! And yet curiously, for reasons I certainly cannot explain the blackest of them all, the male merle - he of the golden beak, does not fall into the ‘bad’ category. Perhaps he is forgiven for the fine, fluting music that he proffers, his voice sweet enough to persuade even the most anti-black bird person to give him the benefit of the doubt. Crows, whether they are carrion crows, ravens, jackdaws or rooks, all of them viewed as black, not to mention the dreaded hoodie, which is both grey and black, together with black and white magpies are all thus tarred with the same brush. Cormorants also which although perceived as black are, in reality, very dark but iridescent green, can readily be named amongst the most hated. Thus, when I saw a field extremely well covered with rooks and jackdaws the other day, I could not help but think, the farmer might not have enjoyed such a sight on his land and might instead, have reached for his gun.
Yet in truth those rooks and ‘daws would have been doing the said farmer a favour. Indeed, their presence and they were all very busy pecking away and feasting on a whole range of pests such as wireworms and leatherjackets, might have instead, been welcomed. These unseen, subterranean invertebrates do considerable damage to crops, so the presence of this mass of birds devouring them, black or not, was as much evidence of nature’s most efficient pest controllers at work, as of a bunch of alien black birds being pests themselves. However, I do acknowledge that crows and in particular hooded crows and in hill country, ravens, can go beyond the pail and commit some pretty dastardly deeds such as attacking the eyes and tongues of newly born lambs.
Nature works in, what may seem to many of us, to be mysterious ways. Indeed, the whole thread of existence represents a dependence culture in which each tier of the natural world relies upon other tiers, generally below their own station, in order to exist. Thus, eagles hunt and kill mountain hares. They do sometimes also take red grouse whereas kestrels hunt and kill small rodents and sparrowhawks exist upon smaller song-birds in order that they all may survive. Many of the song-birds we admire feed upon insects and so on. This is the food chain. To maintain life, other life must be sacrificed. As I’ve said many times before, nature is indeed, red in tooth and claw! Where this sequence sometimes appears to go wrong, is when the activity of birds or animals is deemed to interfere with either man’s livelihoods or indeed, his pleasures.
Hence, a new classification emerges whereby hen harriers for instance, are persecuted because they also like to feed on red grouse, amongst other things. In other words they are classed by some as bad, a bird against which war is waged! Indeed such has been the level of persecution that this is now the rarest raptor in the British landscape. The hen harrier’s problem, apart from its appetite for grouse, is that it is a ground-nesting bird and as such is consequently very vulnerable. Harriers seek out remote areas such as heather moorland on which to nest, which makes it easy for those who are familiar with these wild landscapes, to willingly wage war on them, to destroy their nests and young surreptitiously and out of sight. The recent discovery of traps set specifically to catch harriers at or near their nests, suggests an intensification of that war!
Of course technology, such as electronic tagging, makes the whereabouts of tagged birds more traceable. Therefore, in recent weeks we have read a succession of stories about raptors, among them harriers and eagles, being deliberately killed, allegedly as a means to certain grouse moors being assured of better bags. Conservationists have naturally been up in arms about such incidents and some now suggest that grouse moors should be licensed so that in the event of such incidents these licenses could be withdrawn.
The recent photographing of a golden eagle, apparently with a trap attached to its leg, emphasises a growing concern that there are those out there who are simply unwilling to tolerate the presence of raptors or indeed to abide by the law. The picture was taken close to a grouse moor! That picture, together with a glut of recent reports concerning the trapping of hen harriers and the unexplainable disappearance of radio tagged eagles, all located on grouse moors, suggests that there is a hard core of people intent on the destruction of these raptors. They are convicted of being ‘bad’ because they sometimes attack the all important grouse and must therefore be summarily despatched! The perpetrators of such acts seem intent on returning to the bad old days of the late nineteenth century when all raptors were regarded as legitimate targets for gun, trap or, on occasions, poisoned baits.
All such actions are, of course, strictly against the law of the land. Indeed, there are now wildlife protection police officers together with a veritable army of dedicated professional and amateur wildlife enthusiasts determined to put an end to this cruel behaviour. Despite the difficulties of remoteness, recent successes in protecting hen harriers and their progeny have been accomplished only with the dedication of folk who have committed weeks and even months of their lives to lonely vigils, protecting the likes of hen harrier nests from harm. More hen harrier youngsters have been reared this year than in previous years thanks to the dedication of these folk.
The polarisation of attitudes is becoming increasingly evident, albeit that in this day and age, those who wish to see these birds properly protected and the perpetrators of these crimes brought to justice, far outnumber the perpetrators themselves. The claim that grouse moors employ a lot of people where otherwise there are no jobs, ignores the fact that remuneration for beaters and the like is paltry. At the root of the problem is undoubtedly money, with estates competing for business, relying on the size of the grouse bags as a means of attracting their clientele. The bigger the bags, the more can be charged!
Ironically, the fastest growing sector in our vital tourism industry is wildlife tourism. If the grouse moors are as full of wildlife such as breeding curlew and the like, as is so often claimed, there is another profitable source of income potentially available albeit that it may not yet match up to the £75 per grouse which is apparently the going rate! Whether the much-publicised suggestion that grouse moors should be licensed would, by implication, stop the persecution of birds such as hen harriers and golden eagles, I am not sure. We are often told that these crimes are not committed by estate staff but so far, as they have not been attributed to anyone else, these alarming crimes remain an unsolved mystery. A real whodunit which needs solving! Maybe estates should instead be paid for the number of raptors they sustain.