2021 began with more lockdowns, restrictions and cancelled plans. Winter had already gone on for what felt like an eternity. I knew I needed a project, for spring at least. The most obvious was nesting season because it naturally carries on and intertwines with my home and work life. This year though, I decided to go big or go home! I began writing sponsorship letters, researching equipment, watching wildlife cameramen and making a plan. I have now come to the realisation it was a rather optimistic plan given the weather!
My goal for 2021 was to document nesting season, capture the highs and lows of our seasonal visitors. Record them throughout their arrival, pairing, sitting, hatching and raising their young. I also wanted to focus on predation as I know how much of a serious subject this is after witnessing it so much last year.
Although the season is not yet over, I have certainly been learning a lot. To begin with, capturing predation on camera is VERY difficult. Tracking a bird of prey, gull or crow across its flight line, keeping up with it and being in the right place at the right time as it swoops down on some rather naïve chick is almost like finding a unicorn. I realised early on that my presence also affects whether predation happens as many birds who predate are not stupid, quite the opposite actually. This year it is particularly difficult to capture this footage as there seems to be less ground nesting birds, therefore less chicks and less predators.
My next plan was trail cams! These are currently set out on nests filming whatever happens. I am a rather impatient person at the best of times so waiting for these results is hard but very rewarding and interesting when they come. I have already learned so much about lapwings, their courtship and how much they can rely on one another when nesting (I was always told the female did all the work, not true). The cameras also show how vulnerable these birds are, often nested in an open area so no one can sneak up on them. My cameras have shown if something does find them and their nest, there really wouldn’t be much the parents could do. They will protect as much as they can but at the end of the day, a lot of predators are bigger and stronger.
Throughout this whole project I have spoken to photographers, conservationists, game keepers, wildlife managers, RSPB employees and many more who are passionate about the countryside and its residents. I was able to have very enjoyable conversations with all of them. They all understand the reality of nature and that these days, it needs management. What amazes me is some of the biased, unbalanced arguments and opinions from higher up the ladder. For me, I am in the middle, I grew up on a farm, I do not shoot, I am not wealthy and have worked since I was 14. Some of this work was on a grouse moor because I live in a very rural area. A grouse moor gave me my own money as a young teenager, beating was some of the best days in summer with your friends, not spent indoors on an Xbox or PlayStation but up on the hillside, sometimes in sideways rain, but the feeling at the end of the day when you were handed your £40-£50 felt like independence. I see the huge benefits the shooting industry brings to the countryside. I have walked with keepers counting the birds, seen their passion for how much wildlife is on their land. I have photographed burning and witnessed old, long, dead heather be removed for new growth. I have seen the devastation when a wildfire takes hold of unmanaged land. I have worked alongside many individuals who depend on the annual shooting seasons for their income and how they react when that income is threatened due to Covid or lack of birds. I have met many of my clients through the industry and I visit and work with wildlife trusts through my photography. I spend a lot of my time in a hide or out with my dog, always watching and witnessing wildlife. If you spend the time, it is not hard to see what is going on.
This project has made me look at both sides of the coin. One moor I visit recently had some Hen harriers take up residence. Even though this may be a nuisance for the keeper (as it is more work added to their already busy schedule) they did everything right, reporting it to Natural England to monitor. They explained to me how they have individuals who will not even acknowledge their existence because they are a keeper and they have been reported to the police, who were told the individual would more than likely tamper with the nest when in reality they have been tasked with looking after it. The fact that people can be so against one person because of their career amazes me and what is most crazy is both sides are interested in the well-being of the birds.
The most interesting comments I have heard recently have to be about the balance of conservation. I wonder why the Hen harrier gets 24/7 monitoring, why it has two cameras placed on the nest, why nests can be moved but for a cost of up to £50,000, why each chick will be satellite tagged, why this one bird of prey receives the red carpet while others like the red listed curlew (more threatened on a European scale), lapwing, ringed plover (the list goes on) takes beating after beating but is still not considered important enough. One answer I heard was ‘people want to see a Hen harrier’ – if this is the case then the conservation is not about balance but about people being more fascinated in one species than the other. It is ultimately not about conservation but public opinion. I am aware there are many projects to help the curlew, but they do not have the power or the tools that are extended to the Hen harrier protection. Why can keepers not get a gull licence to protect threatened waders but the keeper in question may now receive a gull licence to protect the Hen harriers? I am all for balance. We humans have upset the balance. So, for me personally, reading articles about how amazing it is that in Wales 600+ Red kites will visit one feeding station is just disgraceful. If something happened to the farmer who puts out food for those 600+ birds you then have 600+ very hungry birds. What do they eat? Where do they go? That is not balance.
For me, and many others, it is simple. We need balance. We need grouse moors to accommodate a certain number of raptors, we need to be able to control gull, corvid and bird of prey populations IF they threaten the balance of other species. We need the lead ban so that birds shot in the field have purpose and can be used in supermarkets. We need methods to protect ground nesting birds. What we really need is for organisations who claim they are all about conservation and saving species to work TOGETHER. To protect land, work with each other, use people that are on the ground day in day out. If they don’t work together they, that claim to be all about conservation, will be disgraced because they all bickered while the birds declined.
It amazes me how inaccurate and simply untrue some articles that are published by big conservation group members are and yet the masses do not know better and believe every word. I recently read a study about what raptors eat, how there is supposedly no diversity on a grouse moor, barely any other species for them to eat other than grouse. I invite anyone who thinks a grouse moor is baren or only full of grouse, to come with me, to sit in the morning light during nesting season and listen to the array of calls. To see my golden plover pair who have returned for the third year and use the same butt to keep watch, my owl who hunts low in the valley all year round, my black grouse and their hens who have moved onto this land in the last few years, my list goes on, from pipits to wheatears, curlews to oyster catchers, pheasants to grey partridge. The birds are still here, still present while we humans fight battle after battle with each other over the wrong arguments. If we do not come to some conclusion soon I fear many red listed species will disappear in my life time.
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