Another outrage in the Monadhliaths
“They are ice-white in the morning sun; under the snow, even now, the budding heather is weaving for them a purple summer livery. But their name means ‘grey mountains’ in Gaelic, and behind their staunch ramparts lie murky lands, where adventuring eagles meet their doom.” The Long Spring p. 161
It was a clash of images – the brilliant blue and white of the Monadhliath mountains seen on that April morning, and the knowledge of the ugly secrets hidden within their granite bastions. During The Long Spring journeys I travelled alongside them, and wrote of their beauty and of their shameful history of raptor persecution. Three weeks – and 26 pages – later, I was in Sweden, but found myself once more writing about Scotland: another young golden eagle, a female tagged with a satellite transmitter, had disappeared in mysterious circumstances in the Mondhliaths, Inverness-shire. “Since 2011,” I wrote, “six tagged golden eagles have disappeared suddenly in the Monadhliaths, one of the most intensively-managed game shooting areas in Scotland. How many untagged raptors die there is known only by their slayers.”
After I had finished the journeys, but before I’d even completed the manuscript, I was already writing an endnote: “Within two months, another two golden eagles were added to this grim toll…” it said, also adding a hen harrier to the 2016 list of victims. The book finished, I sent it off, while the slaughter continued. I was able to make a last-minute addition to the endnote with the news that a buzzard had been illegally trapped in the Monadhliaths in June 2017.
On Thursday RSPB Scotland announced that another satellite-tagged golden eagle has disappeared in the northern Monadhliaths. This was apparently the twelfth in seven years, suggesting the appalling toll I have been reporting is an under-statement. Data from the two-year old male’s transmitter showed that he had been living north of Tomatin since early last year. He stayed almost exclusively in this area until mid December, when his tag, which had been functioning normally, inexplicably stopped transmitting. The area is mainly managed for driven grouse shooting,
"On Thursday night, The Shooting Times broke ranks with these criminals"
During The Long Spring, I became increasingly uneasy about the fragile coexistence between conservation and hunting, especially in three of the six countries I passed through. In France, I found that specially protected wildlife areas are managed by hunters for hunters and offer little or no added value to the species they are protected for, and in many cases are clearly detrimental. Sweden’s brown bears, one of the most endangered European mammals, are killed on spurious grounds of livestock protection, in order to assuage a minority field sports lobby over a majority of objectors. The patent cruelty of intensive pheasant rearing and the embedded criminality that afflicts so much grouse shooting shames the UK. On Thursday night, the Shooting Times broke ranks with these criminals, telling 26,000 followers in an unprecedented and unequivocal tweet: “If you kill raptors and you buy Shooting Times, please desist from doing both. You are ruining our sport and we don’t want your custom.”
In The Long Spring’s reflective final chapter, I revisit the question of hunting. Traditionally, calls for greater control of hunting take one of two forms – oppose it outright on moral and/or cruelty grounds, or take a morally neutral stance and manage it to minimise its impact on species and habitats. It occurred to me as I was writing my book that neither considers the cultural implications in this 21st century of giving individuals proprietorial rights over our impoverished common heritage. All the traditions and practices of hunting in Europe date from a time of abundance. I concluded that a case for reevaluating hunting can be made on conservation grounds, not just moral grounds.
"The case for a third way"
During the several months’ gestation between finished manuscript and publication last week, I have reflected further, feeling the need for a deeper analysis of my own feelings and views. In the first of a series of essays that pick up on themes from The Long Spring, I make the case for a third way: a fundamental cultural shift, that doesn’t have to mean dogmatic opposition to hunting and calling for the complete elimination of field sports. We need, though, to reverse a basic presumption about the place of hunting in 21st century Britain. This presumption, hitherto, is that we all have an absolute right to hunt, you, me, everyone, regardless of our impact on wider public interests. Click on the button below for the first of the Long Spring Essays, where I expand further on this theme.
Spring hots up in the last half of April, and www.thelongspring.com has been on the road during this vital time, covering four countries (three of them in the UK!) between 20 April and 1 May. This series of journeys has taken me from 52° 18’N (Wicken Fen) to 58° 18’N (Hornborgasjön, Sweden). I return to Sweden, then Finland and Norway on the final journey later this month.
At Wicken Fen, I had the privilege of meeting Ralph Sargeant, a life-long fenman who spent thirty-five years working at this beautiful National Trust reserve, and who continued to help out there long after retirement in 2007. As I come from a long line of fen folk, including from Wicken, it was great to hear Ralph’s tales of life and work there in the middle decades of last century.
Sadly, Ralph died last week, a few days after our conversation. Although I hadn’t met him before then, I could tell straight away he was an old-time enthusiast for nature, and totally committed to the wildlife of the Fen.
I spent the next day with a former RSPB colleague Siôn Dafis in the hills above his home on the edge of Snowdonia. Siôn is an all-round naturalist, who combines the disciplines of the scientist with the enthusiasm of the amateur (in the literal sense of the word). He is also passionate about the poets and writers who have been inspired by those same hills, from Kate Roberts to R. Williams Parry. Our walk took in the peculiar rocks of Barclodiad y Cawr, examined by Darwin as evidence for the glacial origins of such formations (and against the diluvianist explanation for hilltop marine fossils). We explored the slate quarries that are today the home of choughs and wheatears. Conversation ranged even more widely, and included our shared passion for the language(s) of nature. Siôn translated the various place-names as we explored the landscape: barclodiad y cawr is a giant’s smockful – for the rocks seemingly dumped at random where Darwin was to find them. His studies of the Celtic names given to birds in different parts of Britain and Ireland, along with the Norse and Norman versions, give striking insights into patterns of settlement in these islands.
My one day at home in Yorkshire was mainly spent searching for more than the one singing willow warbler that had arrived thus far: were they late, or would it be a bad year? Then north to Scotland where at the RSPB seabird reserve at Fowlsheugh there seemed to be plenty of birds on the sea, but few if any birds claiming their nest-sites. Local reports had suggested breeding had got off to a faltering start this year, after a good breeding season at Fowlsheugh in 2015. Given the catastrophic decline in seabird breeding success in Scotland over the last few years, it is a nervy time. I’ll update this blog as the seabird season progresses. These bird cliffs, fowls heugh in Gaelic, have been so-called since at least the 18th century, and remain one of the densest seabird gatherings in the UK, for now at least.
Cranes in Sweden
In Sweden, I was reunited with cranes, which appear to have become the totem species for The Long Spring. In Spain, at the end of March, I witnessed what were probably the last of the wintering birds settling for their final night in that country. In Fenland last week, I heard one calling at nightfall, just as I settled into my sleeping bag to listen to the all-night chorus of birds at the Ouse Washes. And then at Getterön on Sweden’s west coast, I watched as a flock of 150 arrived, many of them unable to resist beginning their spring courtship dance.
Laurence Rose is a conservationist, writer and composer. He has worked for the RSPB since 1983.