About 2 weeks after getting back from the Curlew Walk I was off again to the NW of Scotland to go on a trip to Priest Island, one of the Summer Isles, to help ring storm petrels. I did it last year for the first time and loved it, so as the offer was there again it is just too good to miss. I'm not a qualified ringer so I do the ferrying of the bags with birds in them from the mist nets to the processing tent where the birds are weighed, measured and have rings put on their legs. They are then released again unharmed and firmly recorded for the future. All good data to have to monitor the Priest Island population - and a great sailing expedition with good friends. A couple of things struck me from both the Curlew Walk and the ringing trip.
Firstly, both curlews and storm petrels are species that no one has a problem with. There are no reasons for anyone to shoot them, trap them or try to get rid of them in any way- they have no impact on our lives other than to enhance the world we live in. They don't eat our crops or fish stocks, they don't spread diseases or attack us - they are safe wildlife to be involved with. And so the conversations I had on Priest over the last couple of days were about birds and nature - general chat about the natural world with no stress or controversy. I couldn't help but think how different it would be if we had been ringing birds of prey, or I done a walk across the British Isles for badgers or hen harriers, because then the feel of the activities would have been very different. For many and varied reasons there are certain species that polarize opinion and then the temperature of the debate rises and the language becomes far more divisive.
If you are not aware of the hen harrier controversy, some grouse moors illegally kill birds of prey (and legally control other predators heavily too) to enhance grouse numbers so that a surplus can be shot for money. The illegal persecution of hen harriers in particular has been devastating and very few birds, if any, breed in England now. I am not going into the details of this, suffice to say that it is illegal in the UK to kill any birds of prey and those who do should be subject to the full force of the law. End of. However this illegal activity has muddied the waters for the grouse industry in general and there is now a faction of conservationists who want to get rid of grouse shooting completely, objecting to any of the other activities associates with it, such as heather burning and draining of the uplands. Again, this is not the place to go into the pros and cons, but the division that now exists between grouse moors and some conservationists is so vitriolic it can verge on threatening.
There is similar heightened tension between conservationists who want to protect badgers and farmers who want to control them to stop the spread of TB (and the jury is out on the efficacy of a cull). Badgers can also be a problem for ground nesting birds in some areas, but there is a feeling that any control is wrong for a faction of conservationists.
Just as I was leaving for Priest the Labour MP Jo Cox was brutally murdered. It was a shocking and vile attack by someone who seems to be deranged. I was away for a lot of the aftermath talk, but it seems that the tone of the in/out EU debate may have created an atmosphere within which those who are liable to flip can do so. I am NOT saying it was causal, what I am saying is that when divisions run so deep and discussions are so dogged by nastiness, then the atmosphere is one in which extreme views can find a purchase. I may be wrong, and I sincerely hope I am, but the tone of some of the controversies in conservation are unnessecarily nasty. Bully boy tactics on both sides increase feelings verging on hatred and I have been amazed at the mis-information that is out there, fueling the fires.
What I would like to see is calm, rational debate. We have to be measured and be able to see another's point of view, without vilifying. We don't all have to look alike, behave the same and create the world in our own image. There is room for difference and compromise. If the heat is not taken out then someone, somewhere may get hurt. And while people fight and blame, the only thing that loses out is the wildlife. it is time for a change of tone in politics and conservation.