By Mark Thomas, Head of Investigations UK

On 3 September Natural England (NE) and Defra announced ‘A record-breaking year for hen harrier breeding’ stating that 60 chicks had fledged from 19 nests across Northumberland, Yorkshire Dales, Cumbria and Lancashire during 2020. Whilst the increased number of fledged young is encouraging, as is often the case with hen harriers, what is not mentioned is often of more interest.

Monitored by the RSPB: one of the 19 successful nests of 2020.

Interestingly, the Defra release included the following lines*: Although persecution is thought to be the main factor limiting hen harrier numbers in England’. The use of the word ‘thought’ is perplexing when the analysis of their own satellite tag data published last year was unequivocal on this: ‘The study showed the likelihood of hen harriers dying, or disappearing, was ten times higher within areas predominantly covered by grouse moor, compared to areas with no grouse moor. The study also revealed that 72% of tagged harriers were either confirmed or considered very likely to have been illegally killed’. We should reasonably expect NE to stand by their own science in their public statements.

To provide some more balance on the ongoing impacts of illegal killing of hen harriers in England, the RSPB responded on social media:

‘The news that 60 hen harrier chicks have fledged in England this year is encouraging, and testament to the crucial monitoring from raptor workers. While 24 nests monitored is an improvement on the 7 nests in 2017, there is enough habitat and prey to support more than 12 times this year’s total. The science is clear that illegal persecution remains the most serious threat to this species - since 2018, 43 hen harriers are known to have been killed or “gone missing”, after fledging. The sad reality for those who passionately protect these birds is that some of this years’ fledglings risk being killed. If this painfully slow recovery is to gather pace, and these beautiful and enigmatic birds are to become as common across our landscapes as they should be, the illegal persecution must stop’.

Persecution still a problem

The key issue for hen harriers remains survival after they have left the nest and disperse. So, how many of this year’s 60 offspring are likely to survive to next breeding season? We want and hope all to survive and will be doing everything we can to make that happen. But we are also realistic about the challenges facing this most persecuted of species.

The satellite tag paper published last year was, by coincidence, based on information from a similar number (58) of young hen harriers to those fledged this year. That paper found that only 17% of young harriers would make it to one year of age because of the high percentage that were either confirmed or considered very likely to have been illegally killed. This suggests that only 10 of this year’s offspring are likely to survive to the next breeding season and to at least have a chance to contribute to the future of the population. We already know that some of this year’s birds are missing and based on previous experience are most likely to be dead.

The complete picture for 2020 is that 24 hen harrier nests were found and monitored in England with 19 of these successfully fledging a total of 60 young. Two thirds of the nests were on land where there were varying intensities of management for game bird shooting and we believe that six or seven of these on private grouse moors.

The five nests that failed also bear more scrutiny. On our Geltsdale Reserve in Cumbria, which lies next door to a driven grouse moor, two nests were being provisioned by a single male. However, as has been recorded on many previous occasions at monitored nests, the male suspiciously ‘disappeared’ and the two nests then failed through lack of provisioning. The RSPB also monitors hen harrier nests on United Utilities land in Bowland, Lancashire. We have no control of management or access at Bowland, which is managed for water and game interests. Here, three nests failed, two nests with eggs and one with chicks. With reduced monitoring due to COVID-19, we can’t be certain what happened to the nests that failed with eggs, but evidence close to the third nest points to the chicks being predated, despite private predator control in the area.

Natural England’s Brood Management trial remains controversial and is the subject of ongoing legal proceedings by the RSPB and Mark Avery. The success or otherwise of any trial depends on the desired outcome and the information gathered to assess whether the trial has successfully altered the outcomes it was designed to change. Transparency of information and outcomes is critically important when something is controversial because there will be increased scrutiny from the outside world. The brood management project plan states it will “evaluate the projects contribution in delivering more hen harriers in the northern uplands”. The only way to deliver more hen harriers is to ensure that enough chicks fledge and survive to contribute to the future population and to achieve that, we know there needs to be a significant reduction in persecution.

Incident at brood management site

In 2019, there were suspicious failures of two hen harrier nesting attempts close to the North Yorkshire brood management site. More detail can be found in our blog published in June this year. We can now reveal that during 2020, a confirmed persecution incident took place on the actual moor from which we believe brood management took place, in Cumbria.

We understand that a Natural England fieldworker was monitoring a hen harrier nest on moorland near Whernside, Cumbria, when he saw a man wearing camouflage carrying a firearm and a live bird of prey, believed to be an eagle owl about 300m from the hen harrier nesting area. He tethered the bird and sat a short distance away with his gun. In the circumstances there seems little doubt the intention was to draw in raptors, presumably the hen harriers, to shoot them. The use of a tethered live bird as a decoy to kill or take a wild bird is in itself illegal, but a method that seems to be increasingly used for targeting raptors. This was no doubt a highly stressful situation, we understand the fieldworker took some video footage and made himself visible. This eventually had the desired effect, and the suspect, realising he was under observation, left. It was reported to the police but due to evidential issues around establishing the identity of the suspect, it was not possible to take the matter forward to court. The RSPB would like to place on record our thanks to Cumbria Constabulary and the CPS for their determined efforts to progress this investigation. We firmly consider that this incident and the video should now be put in the public domain.

Considering the lack of transparency around incidents at brood management sites, the RSPB has this last week spent a considerable period of time encouraging Natural England to go public, which they have declined to do. As the police investigation was closed over a month ago, we are surprised that this information about a serious raptor persecution incident, which is clearly of significant public interest given its location and wider context, has not been openly reported.

Once again, this incident shows how vulnerable hen harriers and other raptors remain in the quiet parts of our uplands even in the presence of an intervention designed to change attitudes to birds of prey and to reduce persecution. We need Natural England to give more voice to bird of prey persecution in England and the government to bring meaningful accountability for those who manage the land where these crimes continue to take place, otherwise the blight of human killing will continue unabated and remain THE most significant threat to the hen harrier population regardless of fledging success.

* CORRECTION 14/09/2020: This line previously stated that the phrase was part of the quote by Tony Juniper, Chair of Natural England, when in fact it was not part of his quote but was in the press release.