Here’s another transcript from last week’s Sheffield conference on raptors. This time we feature the deeply personal yet unflinchingly resolute presentation given by Angela Smith MP (Labour, Penistone and Stocksbridge).
Angela is no stranger to the subject of illegal raptor killing on grouse moors. You may remember, way back in 2011, she tabled a Parliamentary question asking whether it was time for England to follow Scotland’s lead and introduce vicarious liability to deal with criminal gamekeepers. The response from Richard Benyon, the then DEFRA minister who also just happened to own a grouse moor, is now legendary (see here).
Here’s what Angela had to say in Sheffield (we’ve excluded some complimentary, but irrelevant here, introductory blurb):
Now I want to start with a comment about my own constituency. Although I’m a Sheffield/Barnsley MP I think that most people in the UK would think that makes me a very urban MP but I’m not. I represent the urban parts of Sheffield and also Barnsley, part of my constituency going right out in to the Peak District so it is actually very rural; 32% of the constituency is in the National Park.
And I’ve walked the hills in my area for many years, in fact going back well well before I became an MP and I love those moors with a passion. Langsett, Midhope and Broomhead, in fact I’ll be out on Langsett on Sunday morning, and it’s partly because I don’t come across, if you don’t mind me saying this, the lycra-clad brigade in large numbers, in that part of the peak. It’s truly a place where one can lose oneself and have a sense of being at one with nature.
But the simple and stark fact is that neither do I see hen harriers on those moors, or even peregrine falcons. I’ve seen just one peregrine falcon in fact in recent years and that was back in the summer of 2013, soaring over Broomhead Reservoir. In fact I think the only known site, I may be wrong on this, for peregrine falcons breeding near Sheffield is the city centre, and that, I think, is indicative of where we are. And it should concentrate our minds more than a little.
Grouse moors aplenty in my constituency, but no hen harriers. No stable populations of other birds of prey. That’s one of the reasons why I feel so passionately about this issue. Not only am I a member of the RSPB, and have been for a long time, but I also know there is something wrong with our moorland habitats. There is something essential missing; healthy populations of our wonderful raptors.
Now, I welcome this conference and hope that it can make a contribution to resolving the deeply embedded conflict that characterises the debate about how best to manage our moorlands. Because one thing I am certain of – for as long as this conflict remains unresolved, the number one loser is the hen harrier, which is in danger of disappearing altogether from our wonderful uplands if we do not sit up and get on with the job of sorting out this problem.
Over the next two days, you will hear a range of presentations from speakers with a wide range of perspectives and who represent different parts of the UK – Scotland, the Peak District and Bowland, for example. The discussions will be detailed and complex, and so they should be. This is not a black and white problem, easily resolved.
Let me just throw in a few, brief comments about what I see as the politics of this debate.
First of all, let’s remember politics is the art of the possible, someone should try telling that to my party, and it is always preferable to act on the basis of consensus and partnership. So, ideally, the best way forward, as far as our moorlands are concerned, would be to see all interested parties agreeing principles and working through differences to establish moorland management plans that balance sporting interests with the need to restore and maintain a healthy habitat, including of course stable and sustainable populations of raptors.
Such plans would vary, of course, because our uplands are themselves wonderfully diverse. The grouse moors in my constituency are part of our precious Peak District blanket bog and are badly degraded, in fact I think it’s amongst the most badly degraded in Europe. That does not mean other parts of our moorland landscape across the UK are the same. Each upland habitat needs its own plan, tailored to its own precious ecology.
But it has to be said that the chances of delivering success with this voluntary approach look increasingly remote. Despite the partnership work still ongoing in places like the Dark Peak, which I know you’re going to hear about later, the events of this summer suggest that relationships between the different parties involved are becoming even more difficult.
The withdrawal of the RSPB in particular from the Hen Harrier Action Plan is indicative and is a consequence of what the charity sees as a failure on the part of the landowners and the shooting interests to combat effectively the illegality that tarnishes the reputation of those who do want to enjoy their sport responsibly.
And for a politician this is very depressing news, for although there are legislative options available to us, the irony is that they become necessary or even more critically necessary at that point when conflict has deepened and become more firmly entrenched.
The first of these legislative options, banning driven grouse shooting, presents an apparently straight forward solution but runs the risk of alienating landowners, who in the final analysis maintain and manage our moorland areas and provide employment for many people living in rural areas. It may well also do little to prevent further persecution – there is no guarantee that making grouse shooting illegal will necessarily lead to a cessation of the illegal killing of birds of prey.
Licensing is the other option available. Now, I understand that for the grouse shooting community this is also an unpalatable option and in many ways I would join with those that say that a voluntary, partnership based approach is preferable.
But let me also say this – the licensing option has to remain on the table. If this conflict continues and if raptors continue to be persecuted, it will have to be considered. Politicians will not be able to stand aside and allow hen harriers, for instance, to disappear from our uplands altogether
Some of you may say, that’s an open invitation to charities like the RSPB in particular not to cooperate with a voluntary approach. But I say this in response. The challenge is clear now. For those who want a voluntary approach to work, and I still do, and I think most politicians would still prefer it, the precursor to progress is that the illegal killing has to stop. It just has to stop.
And, on that basis, all parties, including the RSPB, will have a duty to work together to find a way of delivering healthy, moorland habitats that can sustain the sport of shooting that so many people here today love so much.
So I, over the years, have followed this debate, it particularly impacts on my constituency, and I think we are rapidly getting to what, if you don’t mind me using a cliché, is the last chance saloon, and I think it’s critically important that we maintain every option and keep every option on the table. But as I said before, this killing has to stop.
Enjoy the conference; I can stay for only this morning, but I wish you every success in at least taking a few small steps in the right direction.
Ironically, just two days before she gave this presentation, a young peregrine was found critically injured next to a grouse moor in the Peak District National Park. It had been shot. It didn’t survive (see here).