Working with hen harriers definitely has many perks. You can spend much of your working day in a beautiful environment trying to save a stunning bird of prey, which even after so many years of observing still takes your breath away. But it does come with its problems.

Obviously a rare species you’re trying to save is likely to be struggling. That could be for a number of reasons – habitat loss, climate change could be affecting its range, but in the case of hen harriers, there is a more sinister reason. Year after year, hen harriers are going missing; birds which we’ve known since they’ve hatched; we’ve tagged to learn more about them; and we’ve watched take their first flight.

And it’s heartbreaking when you find out they’ve disappeared. It’s a problem that we face with hen harriers and doesn’t show signs of stopping unless action is taken. Hen harriers face the threat of wildlife crime, which has pushed this species to the brink in England and other parts of the UK.

Simply put, hen harriers and other large birds of prey which eat grouse are illegally killed and evidence links these crimes to grouse moors which are intensively managed to increase the number of grouse for shooting.

Guy Anderson - RSPB Principle Research Manager with recently tagged hen harrier (c) Mark Thomas (rspb-images.com)

This year four satellite tagged hen harriers have disappeared. Incidents recorded near hen harrier sightings have included use of illegal pole traps and an armed man filmed with a hen harrier decoy in the Peak District. Red kites, peregrine falcons and other protected birds of prey have been shot, poisoned, or trapped in numerous reported incidents which have been linked to grouse moors.  

There is enough space for over 300 breeding pairs of hen harriers in England, but in 2016, only three pairs bred successfully, none of them on grouse moors. Something has to change to make sure that the hen harrier doesn’t become extinct as a breeding species in England.

Not just the birds

The issues with increasingly intensive management for ‘driven’ grouse shooting go deeper than wildlife crime. Large areas of our uplands which are intensively managed for grouse shooting are also protected as Sites of Special Scientific Interest, Special Areas of Conservation, Special Protection Areas and National Parks. It is shocking that damaging management is taking place in these special areas which should deliver a wide range of benefits to wildlife and people.

The practice of burning to promote the heather growth that red grouse need is increasing, including across vast areas of deep peat, drying out peat-forming Sphagnum mosses and leaving degraded blanket bog. Burning also removes surface vegetation, increasing peak flows during the heaviest rainfall events which can factor in flood risk.

Carbon stored in the peat is also released, with impacts on water quality. Water treatment costs in peat catchments are passed on to consumers and cleaning water affected by peat can cost a six figure sum annually for a single drinking water catchment.

Voluntary approaches to encouraging change on these intensively managed moors have failed to deliver. New regulatory controls are needed, backed up by well supported enforcing authorities to secure the protection our wildlife and special places need. These must include a robust system of licensing to govern driven grouse shooting, backed up by effective sanctions, including the possibility of licence withdrawal and the introduction of vicarious liability. Vicarious liability has been introduced in Scotland and requires that land owners and managers take responsibility for the actions of their staff.

We think these changes are necessary to secure the future for the hen harrier and other protected birds of prey, together with the vital resources for wildlife and people that our uplands provide.

A licensing system isn’t about tarring everyone with the same brush, or blaming a whole community for the actions of the few.  Quite the opposite: it is effectively a targeted ban that will stamp out illegal activity and drive up the environmental standards of shooting.

Stunning male hen harrier perched on heather (c) Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

How you can help

Earlier this year a petition calling for a ban on grouse shooting by environmental campaigner Mark Avery received over 100,000 signatures triggering a debate in parliament. The debate will take place on the 31st October 2016 and it is important that MPs attend to discuss the future of grouse moors and the importance our iconic birds of prey including the hen harrier.

Please help by contacting your MP and asking them to attend the debate.

Key points you might like to raise:

  • Wildlife crime and habitat damage which have been linked to driven grouse shooting show that voluntary approaches have failed to deliver and existing regulatory measures are not working. Effective enforcement backed up by new statutory controls including a robust licensing system and vicarious liability are needed to secure upland protected areas and wildlife.
  • Ongoing intensive and damaging grouse moor management practices are failing to restore upland protected sites to “Favourable Condition”. Wildlife crime is preventing recovery for protected species like the hen harrier. Practices such as damaging burning on deep peat threaten the peatland ecosystems we all rely on, including effects on water quality and flood risk.
  • It is not just hen harrier persecution which has been linked to driven grouse moors; red kites, peregrine falcons, golden eagles, goshawk, and mountain hares are shot, poisoned, or simply disappear without a trace in these intensively managed areas.

You can find your MP and the various ways to contact them via the Write to Them website https://www.writetothem.com. Also, all MPs can be reached by writing to them at House of Commons, London SW1A 0AA.

Can you send us a quick email at campaigns@rspb.org.uk to let us know that you’ve written to your MP? We can then keep track of who’s been written to. Even better if you can send a copy of your letters or e-mail, and any replies, to me - Vanessa Amaral-Rogers, Campaigning Communications Officer, RSPB, The Lodge, Sandy, Bedfordshire SG19 2BR.

Hen harriers really need your help; and we can do it with the help of the UK government. Action is needed now if we want to start to stop these rare birds from becoming extinct in England.

Anonymous