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British Ecological Society study shows RSPB as Primary Driver of Hen Harrier Conflict

The British Ecological Society has released an article titled ‘Hen harrier row could help in other conservation conflicts’ in which it identifies the RSPB as ‘representing 48% of all discourse of hen harrier conflict, outnumbering the other seven organisations in the top eight combined, and being six times greater than the second-most active association.’

For a charity, already under pressure from the Charity Commission to reform its approach to pollical campaigning, this a damming statistic.

Citing a People and Nature article – a BES research publication – featuring findings from a University of Exeter team analysing almost three decades of discourse surrounding the ongoing issue of hen harriers.

The BES frame the research and its findings as showing “how people have been debating hen harriers and might reach an agreement will help other conservation conflicts reach a resolution”. In reality, no agreement has been reached in the article.

Source: BES

For all its merits, the article begins with an over-simplification of the parties in the UK and elsewhere that care about how hen harrier management and protection should be overseen, suggesting that hen harriers preying on grouse has triggered “conflict between shooting organisations and birds-of-prey conservation groups”.

The discussion should include people from all walks of life who care about protecting British habitats, ecosystems and communities – rather than just those working in moorland management.

A key finding is, in the words of BES, that ‘The hen harrier conflict appears to have worsened and become more polarised’. Since 2014, tensions around the issue of hen harriers have risen, according to hard data.

The greatest degree of polarisation is described as coming “after the launch of a government-backed action plan”. In reality, the peak on the graph comes in 2018, two years after the 2016 action plan; according to their own graph, debates were at their least contentious in 2013 and began to become more spirited immediately after the “First Harrier Hen Day” in 2014, before the Action Plan had come to pass.

Hen Harrier Day conveniently observed on August 12, also known as the Glorious Twelfth, which readers will agree is a contentious choice of day designed to exacerbate the “them vs. us” divide that BES agrees has widened since 2014. Of course, BES’s research team would rather point to the Action plan so as not to upset activists who call themselves conservationists.

Per People and Nature’s data, in 2015, mentions of the term ‘problem’ rose sharply, as did ‘solution’. ‘Solution’ then decreased in 2016 after the Hen Harrier Plan.

The growing frequency of ‘problem’ beyond 2016 suggests that, for a good portion of people, the Hen Harrier Day and Action Plan had undermined any optimism of a common ground being established. It must be reiterated that these are findings of the BES’ own research department – how they have been interpreted is what makes the data favourable for the BES.

It should also be asked who is contributing to this conflict. Their own graphic showing the 10 most-active contributors to the debate serves to illustrate just how much of the contention has been generated by the RSPB.

The BES is quick to stress that “RSPB was followed by five professional organisations associated with countryside and game” – what anyone should draw from this statement of fact is unclear – and the researchers happen not to conclude that the RSPB is factually the greatest driver by far of disputes.

The RSPB was also one of the primary drivers behind establishing Hen Harrier Day. The data presented by BES and People and Nature truly demonstrates how far they have warped what was once a conversation into a polarised zone of hostility.

People and Nature expert Filippo Marino, a specialist at the Centre for Ecology and Conservation on Exeter University’s Penryn campus, notes that “the hen harrier debate has been dominated by a few high-profile people and organisations”.

While the BES was understandably reticent to publish data specifying who such high-profile people were, given how disproportionately the debate has been dominated by the RSPB, it stands to reason that their associates, such as Chris Packham and former RSPB director Mark Avery, would be among the prime suspects in aggravating the situation. BES condemns these tactics, and recognises that thus “has probably perpetuated the conflict, increased polarisation and hindered solutions”.

What, then, can be done to bring discussions around resolving the hen harrier issue to a calmer, more reasonable place where solutions might actually be agreed upon? People and Nature’s data has shown that “allowing new voices to speak might change the dynamics and help unlock this entrenched debate”.

The BES does well to acknowledge that various voices have been marginalised – among those they list are “individual academics and universities, game estates, and law enforcement groups”. Whether the senior management of the RSPB, and indeed its board of trustees, take any notice of that is another matter.


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