Writing to save our environment
12th Oct 17

Writing to save our environment

Author Gill Lewis, a trained vet, often writes about activities that affect our environment and in Sky Dancer, she explores why the hen harrier is England's most endangered bird of prey.

Gill's stories often reflect the impact people and their activities have on local environments and communities.

In Sky Dancer, she explores how hen harriers are harmed by driven grouse shooting. Her novel follows a family that is torn between the rights of hen harriers, and the very thing that harms them, grouse shooting.

We asked GILL LEWIS to tell us more about Sky Dancer, which is published by Oxford University Press.

Q: In Sky Dancer, you look into driven grouse shooting and how it is endangering the hen harrier. Can you explain what is driven grouse shooting?

A: I didn't know much about this but there is a groundswell of awareness about driven grouse shooting and how birds of prey are persecuted on account of it.

Driven grouse shooting is where flocks of grouse are 'driven' out for the guns, as against a walked grouse shoot, where the hunter shoots a single grouse.

Driven grouse shooting started about 150 years ago when the Victorians could begin to leave London by train for hunting weekends. It was a time when they were going out all over the world and and killing things in the natural environment. Killing wildlife no longer continues as it did but in this country, we still kill wildlife on our own lands and there's no excuse for that.

Q: Sky Dancer focuses on a family of hen harriers on a moor managed by a wealthy family for driven grouse shooting. How are hen harriers affected by this?

A: What is happening on grouse moors is the illegal killing of wildlife. Only three hen harriers nested successfully in England this year; there should have been more than 300 nests but they are so persecuted because of grouse shooting.

There are other factors, too, that make grouse shooting bad for the environment. The burning of the moor to control infection affects the water quality in the area as well as biodiversity and recent reports suggest that other birds like Merlins and Curlews are in decline because of the intense management of the moors. How the land is managed also affects how water runs off the moors and causes flooding.

Q: What research did you do to explore the other side of the argument, that driven grouse shooting is a tradition that supports local communities and which needs to be maintained?

A: Although I am in favour of environmental protection, I did want to show that there is a counter argument and I wanted to find out as much as I could about the subject. So I spoke to game keepers and people who are engaged with it. I wanted to research and present both sides of the argument and then decide which side I was on.

Q: Why did you make your key protagonist a game keeper's son?

In the story, I wanted to get as close to the action as I could and the closest I could get to it would be the shooting of a hen harrier.

Because I wanted to see the argument from the other side, my lead character, Joe, is a game keeper's son so he is affected by family loyalty and traditions in supporting their work, but he also comes to see the possibility of a different future for the moors.

Also I didn't want to demonise the game keeper so we see him through his son, Joe's, eyes.

Q: Can you tell us more about the family dynamics in the story, and especially the relatonship Joe had with his father?

A: In a story there need to be conflicts; that's how you find out who your characters are. Joe's father has died and Joe realises that he never lived up to his father's expectations. I think that is a huge thing for children and it can be very stressful if they feel they don't live up to parents' expectations in exams, for example. Joe also wants to be close to his big brother who is pulling himself away from everybody.

When you write a story, what you need to ask is what is the emotional arc of the characters, how do they change? Joe has to make peace with his father and to find his own strength - to make up his own mind about things.

Q: What are the roles of the other two children in the debate?

A: Minty, the daughter of the land owner, is there to make changes. What frustrates me when you hear the debate around grouse shooting is the arrogance of the land owners, that they think they can do what they want with the land and that they don't have to worry about other people or the impact their activities have on the environment.

I wanted to look at that so I needed to have an established family in the story but, when you meet young people who are passionate about wildlife and conservation, that gives me hope for the future. Minty can see the hypocrisy of her mother running a 'Save the Elephant' campaign while they are persecuting wildlife on their own land.

Ella, the third child, is a bit geeky but she is the one who is always asking questions and who learns why they need to fight for the natural environment.

So the three children are the instrument of change for the future; otherwise there is no hope.

Q: Who are the real life young campaigners who inspire you for the future?

A: I really felt when I was doing the research for this book that there are teenagers out there who are making a difference and, like Ella, are constantly asking questions.

A couple of good examples are 13-year old Dara McAnulty, a writer who is passionate about birding and wildlife; and Mya-Rose Craig, a 15-year-old birder and naturalist.

A: Where can your readers go to find out about driven grouse shooting and any associated campaigns?

Q: The RSPB is running a 'Become a Hen Harrier Hero' campaign which gives children activities they can do to support the birds - but, as an organisation, the RSPB isn't campaigning to ban driven grouse shooting because the subject is so controversial.

There is also a 'Hen Harrier Day' campaign where people demonstrate locally against grouse shooting and lots of families get involved in these days.

Q: What would you like readers to take away from Sky Dancer?

A: Ultimately I would love people to be more connected with our wild spaces and the wild world. We are becoming more urbanised and our wild spaces are becoming something 'other'. If we can reignite a passion in people for wanting to go out into wild spaces and to fight for it, that would be wonderful.

I am fascinated by the natural world. Biodiversity is the most important problem of our time and yet successive governments put it so far down the agenda. Without the natural world, we wouldn't be here, but it can so easily be lost if we turn our backs and don't fight for it.

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