With Hen Harrier Day events happening recently in Sheffield, and several more coming up this coming weekend, (August 11th and 12th, see the end of the article for more info) in a variety of locations around the UK, I decided to read a book that addressed the issues involved in the persecution of this iconic species for younger readers. I first encountered Gill Lewis early in 2018 on Twitter, when she supported Gavin Gamble’s petition to ban driven Grouse shooting. The petition was the most recent of four, all with the same objective. The first three were initiated by well-known, long-standing conservationist Dr. Mark Avery. Although it did not elicit the massive numbers of its predecessors, (Mark Avery’s last one in 2017 received over 127,000 signatures, resulting in a Parliamentary debate), it did very respectably, bringing in almost 50,000 signees.
Ms. Lewis is a multiple award-winning UK author who has written several books for children and young adults, many concerned with issues around conservation. The one I just read, ‘Sky Dancer’, (published in 2017), is the first I’ve read, but it will not be the last…
The story centers on the conflicts and challenges of a young boy and his family, set on a Grouse shooting estate in the moorlands of England. How he navigates some very difficult situations drew me in and kept me reading, more than I would have imagined for a book for younger readers. The title ‘Sky Dancer’ is a name given to the Hen Harrier, (Circus cyaneus), a highly endangered raptor in the UK, with population numbers each year in the single digits, rather than several hundred, which should be seen.
Hen Harriers are persecuted near driven Grouse shooting locations, as are many other wild creatures who prey upon the Red Grouse that are shot in the tens of thousands each year for this ‘sport’. The moniker ‘Sky Dancer’ stems from the extraordinarily acrobatic aerial gymnastics the Male Harriers perform during courtship. They soar to great heights, perform stunningly graceful maneuvers, then drop with lightening speed, again and again, to win the affection of their chosen mate. Here is a short clip:
Here is a short video with Gill discussing Hen Harriers with RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) Warden Steve Garnet:
‘Sky Dancer’s characters are very believable, and one can relate to what they experience. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is looking for a good read, especially young people, but not exclusively. A compelling story, with emotional resonance, it also brings to life a hugely divisive topic in the UK – driven Grouse shooting. The story does so in a way that is graceful and well-integrated to the lives of its characters. Highly recommended!
Gill was kind enough to agree to a short email interview, to answer a few questions about Sky Dancer. I thought this would be a good time to hear a little more about this particular book, how she came to this topic, and her views about driven Grouse shooting in advance of a range of events coming up in different locations in the UK on August 11th and 12th, called Hen Harrier Days. I will provide an information link at the end of the post. I also inquired about her upcoming novel, ‘Run Wild’, which will be published soon.
First of all… Thank you so much for taking time out of what I know is a busy schedule, between family life and your ongoing writing projects…
Q: Your novels often approach issues related to conservation. What led you to write a novel set around driven Grouse shooting in the UK?
Gill: First and foremost, it was about the Hen Harrier. This is a bird of prey that has been persecuted to near-extinction in England for the sole reason that it eats Red Grouse on moors managed for driven Grouse shooting. I had previously written a story about an osprey, a birds that has recovered in great numbers in the UK after centuries of persecution. So why, I wanted to know, was the Hen Harrier still a victim of relentless persecution? Why was its recovery still struck in the Victorian era? The answers lie in our peculiar British socio-political history, in tradition and mired in Victorian preservationist mindset.
I wanted to write a story that could begin to unpick some of these answers. The story had to centre on the Hen Harrier because it has become an iconic symbol of the controversy surrounding driven Grouse shooting. It is a bird that highlights the ongoing persecution of birds of prey and the intensive destructive land management of our uplands. I tried to research as thoroughly as possible, read literature from both sides of the debate, visited grouse moors, talked to conservationists and gamekeepers in the field. It became apparent that the issue is complex and very much underpinned by the human condition; of those who own land wanting to hold onto status, tradition and power, and of gamekeepers who work on driven grouse moors where their work is a source of identity and pride.
So to begin to write a story you have to find the person to narrate it. It would have been easy to have a polarized viewpoint, to vilify and pit one side against the other . But life is more complex and nuanced than that. So Joe walked in to tell the story, a gamekeeper’s son who is exposed to the prejudice from all sides of the argument.
‘Sky Dancer’ became his story.
Q: What are your main objections to DGS?
Gill: My main objections to driven Grouse shooting are two-fold:
- Illegal persecution of birds of prey. The stark fact at the centre of the controversy, and one that is recognised by those on both sides of the argument, is that unless Hen Harrier populations are controlled (currently the only method to control their numbers is illegal persecution), they rise in such numbers and take enough Grouse to make a driven Grouse moor economically unviable. Therefore it can be concluded that illegal persecution is at the heart of driven Grouse shooting. This is not to say that all grouse moors partake in illegal activity, but that all driven grouse moors benefit from those who do, and cannot run economically without it.
- Destructive intensive land management. The rotational burning of the moor creates strips of different age heather for the purpose of creating a habitat to artificially raise the population of Red Grouse. Burning lowers the water table, has a negative impact on carbon capture of the delicate blanket bog, reduces water quality and biodiversity, and effects water hydrology which can in turn increase flooding risk downstream. The vast acreages of tinder dry heather provides a high wildfire risk landscape.
The eminent ecologist, Frank Fraser Darling said of the Scottish Highlands: The bald unpalatable fact is emphasized that the Highlands are largely devastated terrain, and that any policy which ignores this fact cannot hope to achieve rehabilitation.’ The devastation he was referring to is bad land use; the stripping of natural tree cover, the burning and overgrazing that has been happening across the uplands of the UK for centuries.’
Q: People involved in this activity justify it by calling themselves true ‘guardians of the countryside’. They claim that without the economic activity provided by their sport, these areas would be full of unemployment and that the environment and wildlife would suffer. What do you say to that?
Gill: On unemployment and economy: People fear change. Understandably, there is a fear of losing a way of life, a career, a home and ultimately identity. Therefore any change must attempt to benefit and include those who have most to lose. To change the uplands from the fare fire-scorched hillsides into rewilded landscapes requires bravery and insight. But there would be increased benefits to the local through ecotourism. Grouse shooting is an activity for the few and the money it brings in benefits a narrower share of the local economy than money generated by ecotourism. A survey last year showed that grouse moors brought in 23 million GBP. Bird for bird, and acre for acre, this is very small compared to the 5 million GBP plus that just a few pairs of sea eagles generate on Mull. Imagine the economic benefits of rewilding large areas of our uplands!
On environment and wildlife: Managed driven grouse moor is a highly impoverished landscape. Some ground-nesting waders do fare better on grouse moor than they would on overgrazed land. Indeed, the grouse shooting industry marches with the banner of beleaguered waders as their raison-d’etre. However, land that has been rewilded provides habitats with a wealth of biodiversity for a multitude of species of both flora and fauna. You can still have the waders and the birds of prey in a rich and varied landscape.
Q: Have you noticed any changes regarding the public perception of this activity in the past few years?
Gill: Yes, most definitely. The campaigns led by Mark Avery and Chris Packham have been supported by many. Dr. Ruth Tingay continues to highlight the high levels of persecution and is a contributor to the excellent Raptor Persecution blog on the website, http://raptorpersecutionscotland.wordpress.com/ The RSPB Sky Dancer Life project works hard to engage the public about the threat facing Hen Harriers and LUSH is a big supporter of the campaign.
Q: In doing your research were there any things that you came upon that were surprising or unexpected?
1) The astonishing realisation that very few people are brought to justice for illegal persecution of raptors even when there is hard evidence. One case is the alleged shooting of a Hen Harrier in Carbrach, Morayshire, where a individual is clearly seen to shoot a Hen Harrier. It begs the question, why are people getting away with it?
2) The levels of depravation and cruelty some individuals will go to, to rid the moors of anything that preys on Red Grouse.
Q: There have been a few petitions calling for an outright ban on driven Grouse shooting, also a recent on calling for it to be licensed. What is your preference?
Gill: I signed both petitions.
My preference is for a ban.
However, a licensing system will reveal what we already know; that unless Hen Harriers are prevented from breeding on the moors they will take enough grouse to make that grouse moor economically unviable. Hence driven Grouse shooting will be forced to cease.
Currently the only method to reduce the majority of Hen Harriers on grouse moors is illegal persecution. The Grouse shooting industry would like to implement brood management, which would be a legal method to remove the majority of Hen Harriers from the grouse moors. This is a farcical option that only plays into the hands of those committing crime. It is not just Hen Harriers that are persecuted but Eagles, Peregrines, Goshawks, Red Kites, etc. Fortunately, Dr. Mark Avery and the RSPB have both applied for a judicial review challenging the government’s poor and ill-informed decision about brood management.
Q: Damage to the uplands because of DGS extends far beyond persecution of Hen Harriers, with regular burning of moors (to create new growth for Red Grouse to eat) having been proven to increase CO2 emissions, possibly increase flood risk in communities below, and pollute water and air in the area. Eating the grouse meat may also result in ingestion of lead particles, a well-known neurotoxin, from the ammunition. Lead ammunition also poisons many thousands of other wildlife each year. There are alternative views of how areas currently used for DGS might be managed. You mention in the book the idea of rewilding. Can you tell a little about this?
Gill: Imagine a bare hillside with patches of burned heather. You may hear the guttural call of a Red Grouse, and, if you are lucky, the bubbling sound of the Curlew. A Sky Lark may lift up to its dizzying heights in front of you. Bu that was pretty much it, on my last walk across a grouse moor. This barren landscape goes on for miles and miles. It is essentially an unbroken and unnatural monoculture. There will be areas of bog damaged by rotational burning. There will be waders that benefit from predator control. But this is an impoverished land, degraded by intensive land management for Red Grouse.
Now imagine a landscape softened by native deciduous woodland, and of healthy blanket bog where cotton grass catches the sunlight, and of fringe heather heath where the curlew will call. Woodlands are far richer in biodiversity than moorland. Walk beneath the dappled shade watching Treecreepers spiral up tree trunks, the blur of a Sparrowhawk in flight. Walk out onto the heath where there will not only be Red Grouse, but the Black Grouse too, which prefer woodland edge.
Just imagine the biodiversity of invertebrates alone in this landscape of varied habitats. There is so much to gain from rewilding. Wildlife benefits and people do too. Rewilding is about restoring natural process and healthy functioning ecosystems to our landscapes. This is already becoming a reality in some areas of the UK with great success and exciting results. Rewilding is the vital change that needs to happen. It is the future. We can’t afford it not to be.
Q: Do you have an age range you write for primarily?
Sky Dancer and my other novels are aimed at children aged 8-12. However, I don’t really like to categorize reading age. Younger children read my books, as do adults. My stories are told from the viewpoint of characters that are about 10-12 years old with their perception of the world around them. But that is to patronize the intelligence, experiences and opinions of youth.
Q: What is your favorite part of the process of coming out with a new book?
Gill: I love the research and having time to really explore all aspects of an issue and challenge and hone my own views about a subject. But the most exciting part of writing is finding the narrator and seeing the world through their eyes.
Q: Do you enjoy meeting your readers?
Gill: I love meeting readers and hearing their views at both schools and festivals and sharing their enthusiasm about all things wild. It’s one of the best perks of the job! Skype visits are great to connect with readers around the world.
Q: David Suzuki, long-standing Canadian conservationist broadcaster and writer, has also written books about the environment for children. A few years ago, he revealed that his approach to some very serious problems relating to the natural world was going to alter slightly, to avoid overwhelming young viewers/readers with so much negative material that they might feel the situation is hopeless. He therefore emphasized doable, positive actions they can undertake, as individuals and in groups. Many have noted that young people are the greatest source of hope for environmental and wildlife stewardship, as, if they care, they will act to protect these precious creatures and their habitats. Do you worry about portraying some of these difficult issues in your work?
Gill: I agree with his sentiments. I think it’s really important to not patronize and protect readers from reality. There’s no benefit to putting a sticking plaster on a haemorrhaging artery. But neither do you want to overwhelm readers. I believe in hopefully endings, not necessarily happy and resolved ones. The most challenging book for subject matter that I have written has been ‘Gorilla Dawn’, a story set in the DEmocratic Republic of Congo about the mining of minerals needed in the production of mobile phones and the impact it has upon the environment and people. It’s important to give readers the facts, but also show that there is a resolution to the problem, and that they can be a part of it with actions that they can take as individuals and a group. Young people do care greatly about the environment and their future. We are fortunate in the UK to have many young people taking action and also using social media to highlight awareness of issues.
Q: Your new book, ‘Run Wild’ has just come out, your first for Barrington Stoke, in conjunction with Rewilding Britain. Although just released in July, it’s already receiving rave reviews… I’m looking forward to reading it soon. Can you tell us a little about how this one came about?
Gill: ‘Run Wild’ was inspired by my own childhood. I grew up on the edge of a city, but the place I loved to visit most was a patch of overgrown council land where I roamed feral with my friends. We watched birds and tried to spy on urban foxes that dug their earths beneath the tangled thickets. It gave me my love of wildlife and wild space. It has since be covered by the encroaching march of concrete. I wondered, where do the children who lived there play now? Children have less time and significantly less space to roam wild. They are losing a connection with nature. It is becoming something to experience on a screen or during a tick-box trip to a nature reserve. The ever-building pressures from society for children to perform and achieve has a damaging impact on their mental and physical health. We are neglecting the care of the natural world and in doing so, damaging our children.
I was delighted to write for Barrington Stoke, a publisher that specializes in accessible great stories for readers with dyslexia.
Thank you, Gill, for sharing your views… One can hope that as the public learns more about the plight of Hen Harriers, and the environmental and economic costs of DGS, that we will see an end to it before too long.
Find details and locations of upcoming Hen Harrier Days around the UK, (an annual event that grows every year):
Hope to see you there!