I think your post is informed and interesting. It represents excellently the point of view of a serious conservationist who, perhaps, sees things in absolutist (or extremely specialist) terms and in a manner that ignores economic realities. Notwithstanding, you are pragmatic enough to seek accommodation with those whom you perceive to have interests which impact adversely on your own. I note, particularly, that you have correctly, in my view, concluded that the real debate is about the illegal killing of raptors and that most of the other attacks on grouse shooting are either spurious or trivial. I hope this will have "cleared the decks" and allow us to focus on the real debate, which, I believe, resonates well with those involving African wildlife.
I really want to be able to discuss ways in which the conservation interest can be squared with the shooting interest. I see the RSPB as an obstacle in this process, perhaps inevitably, as it is a single interest pressure group and, in consequence, is reluctant to be seen to "give way" because of fears over loss of membership income. I know you object to arguments deployed in the defence of shooting which involve mention of "animal rights" views of opponents in an attempt to discredit them. However, I'm surprised that you deny that it is often such views, rather than genuine conservation concerns, that attract some to become members of the RSPB and/or the RSPCA.
Anyway, your post got me thinking. Animals rights apply to individual animals. In a sense, conservation could be thought of as "species rights" (animals and plants) and, I suppose, like you, I am a species rightist. I remember, as a research student, being profoundly shocked by a colleague. We were discussing whales and whale conservation and he stated that, as neither he nor most other people would ever see a whale and because he was unaware that they provided significant benefits to mankind, it was of no consequence to him whether they were driven to extinction or not. It is, perhaps, worth wondering whether his views were more typical and representative of mankind than ours. Furthermore, I have to wonder whether he was correct in his lack of concern. As a biologist and believer in evolution, I accept survival of the fittest. Is it really so terrible, therefore, if humans drive many other species to extinction if it is not going to be to the material detriment of our own species? You and I may think it is, but may not this be purely for the selfish enjoyment we glean from wildlife watching (your case) or wildlife watching and shooting (my case)?
Having started philosophising, I began to wonder whether the sort of debate we're having here is anything other than trivial in conservation terms. Real conservation should, I suppose, be about sustaining planetary life support systems. Isn't species conservation akin to "fiddling while Rome burns"? I suspect that it will pale into insignificance when (or, more optimistically, if) our own species is threatened by inadequacy of ecosystem services (ugh, I hate that jargon!). Previously, on this website, I did, tongue in cheek, point out that our members should appreciate that their activities were anti-conservation because of the inordinate amounts of greenhouse gasses they were responsible for emitting in pursuit of their favourite animals or photographic opportunities. (One return trip to South Africa, for example, is responsible for emitting more CO2 than is typically used by a Brit for all other activities during a year.) But, I'm a hypocrite with possibly inadequate concern over future generations.
In many of the African wildlife-related debates we have here, emphasis is placed upon the importance of locals being able to see some benefit from wildlife conservation. We are not talking spiritual uplift here, but tangible material benefit. Wildlife tourism, in the absence of inputs from foreign NGOs and governments, will never be able to fund benefits of sufficient magnitude to achieve the conservation goals of many Safaritalk correspondents. Nor is it likely or reasonable to expect African states to do so, given their more pressing priorities. I'm not sure where this is getting me. However, I'm wondering whether there's any equivalence in the grouse moor story. Why should moor owners suffer because outsiders prevent them from conducting their affairs in an efficient manner without offering them any compensatory benefits? I know the answer, of course. Killing birds of prey is illegal. BUT, why is the killing of damaging pests illegal? This is determined by the relative strengths of lobby groups and their success in influencing law makers (and, I would suggest, is independent of moral or ethical judgement).
As a "species conservationist" myself, I would hate to see raptors driven to the brink of extinction. I would condone full legal protection for all seriously threatened species. However, I don't think any of the avian species mentioned by @inyathi are of conservation concern at the European level (or even the British). However, what about non-endangered protected species? I will start with an analogy. What is a weed? Is it a noxious plant that should be exterminated wherever encountered or merely an inoffensive, even desirable member of the plant kingdom that sometimes chooses to lay down its roots in an unsuitable location? Usually the latter (not sure about knotweed!) I would suggest that the hen harrier is a weed of the grouse moor. Its presence interferes with efficient yield potential of one's crop. Why, in moral or ethical terms, is a hen harrier different from a fox in this regard? In practical terms, of course, they are different - foxes kill harriers, but harriers don't kill foxes.
@inyathi, you have tended to focus on hen harriers insofar as grouse moors are concerned. However, the Langholm study indicated that peregrines, by causing quite heavy winter mortality of adults, could impact badly on grouse population dynamics. It is my understanding that peregrines are increasing in the UK, though not necessarily in the environs of grouse moors. It appears that buzzards are also having this effect, now that there has been a big increase in their population density. Having talked to someone with more knowledge than I on the subject of golden eagles (not difficult to find!), I learned that I was not wrong to suggest that a pair could kill a sufficient value of grouse to equal that of keeper's annual wage, but that presupposed that said pair ate nothing but grouse. My informant assured me that this wouldn't happen as it would be energetically inefficient for eagles to target grouse unless there was little choice. Hares, lambs, gralloch would all be preferred. He went on to say that, in his view, it was likely that Scottish west coast eagles were flying to central areas to feed and returning west to roost, given the inadequate prey on the west itself.
There are several potential models for conservation.
1) "Sharing": All species in same pot (habitat). Minimum human intervention. Let nature get on with it. Seen in large reserves in Africa. Seems to be what RSPB wants for UK moorlands.
2) "Sparing": Designation of limited areas excluded from requirement to be "shared" with all species. Exclusion of some species for the benefit of others. Requires human intervention. Used, for example, to protect hirola in northern Kenya. Typical of smaller, private South African reserves and, to an extent, to bigger ones (Tswalu, where lion excluded from one part). If necessary, the exclusions may have to be paid for (biodiversity offsetting) so that management can afford to make more effort in the unexcluded areas for the species excluded. However, if the excluded areas provide extra yields from declining species which are greater than would be achievable by a sharing model of conservation, rewards should be considered.
3) "Zonal": Similar to "sparing". Different zones managed for different conservation objectives.
How does this relate to grouse moors? First, I think it should be appreciated that heather moorland is an anthropogenic (man made) habitat which can only be maintained by constant management. This, of course, will allow purists to suggest that it shouldn't exist and should revert, for example, to Caledonian Forest. @inyathi, in fact, would like to prevent urban flooding by afforesting a large area that is now heather moorland. However, flooding normally occurs when the soil is saturated and, whether trees are present or not in such circumstances, makes no difference to rate of run off. Not only is heather moorland anthropogenic, it is also deemed to offer very high landscape value and supports a suite of ground nesting birds of which the most iconic and economically valuable is the endemic red grouse. Of course, it also supports low intensity sheep farming. I think that 95% of heather moorland worldwide is in the UK and it represents around only 4% of UK landmass. I think there is, therefore, a strong case to exclude grouse moors from blanket compliance with the normal protections afforded to raptors.
I suggest that no legislation would necessarily be required because, I believe, it is already possible for English Nature to issue permits to kill nuisance birds, even if they are otherwise protected. If any compromise is to be achieved, it seems to me that English Nature (or its Scottish equivalent) must be prepared to make use of its permitting powers and not be bullied by the RSPB and other pressure groups into never doing so. Next, one would need to discuss killing versus translocation. Would permitting happen whenever a particular raptor was present, only when threshold densities reached or only when prey pushed below recovery level in a predator trap? Would permits have to be paid for (biodiversity offsetting)? Would compensation be paid for extra curlew, lapwing, merlin etc production?
My own view is that all moors are slightly different and moor owners all differ slightly in their opinions. If options existed in respect of permitting, then I think this would be desirable. For example, on relatively small, but highly productive English moors, one option might be a general licence to kill raptors (as currently for magpies) matched with offsets. Typically, however, I envision that permits might only be offered as or when predator density was high or prey density low.
I see grouse moor management as, arguably, our best example of wildlife conservation in the UK and one that is minimally reliant on public funding. I have to admit to being perplexed as to why so many others see it in an opposite light. I have no vested interest to represent and I speak for no organisation. I do not have to be politically correct and am not trying to pretend that keepers and landowners don't kill raptors. I can see no scientific or technical reasons why both sides can't resolve their dispute without compromising their prime objectives.