There is no way that I could say everything that I might want to say about hen harriers in a short blog. So this is a bit of a heads-up and we'll come back to the subject at a later date - probably around 12 August, the start of the grouse-shooting season! For the fate and future of this bird is intimately bound up with that peculiarly British upland pursuit of shooting red grouse.
I can remember the first hen harrier I ever saw - it was at Studland in Dorset one late December or early January day when out birdwatching with some school friends. A female bird - brown, with a prominent square white rump - quartering the saltmarsh looking for voles and small birds. Years later, in my gap year before university, I spent two months volunteering for the RSPB at Minsmere in the winter and one of the greatest thrills of that time was watching hen harriers - grey adult males and brown females and immatures - coming in to roost in the evening.
Those hen harriers which often winter on our coasts, return to the hills to try to nest. Heather moorland and the early stages of conifer plantations are the preferred nesting sites for hen harriers. They nest on the ground and search for voles, pipits and skylarks to feed their young. In fact it is the number of these small birds which determine the local densities of hen harriers - the more of their favoured prey the more harriers there should be. Now, if hen harriers restricted their attentions to pipits, larks and voles they would have an easier life, but like most raptors they will take a wide variety of prey and that includes some adult and many young red grouse. That's what gets them into trouble!
There's no getting away from the fact that hen harriers do eat grouse chicks. You can't blame them either - some parts of the uplands of Britain, particularly the north of England and eastern Scotland are managed so that their red grouse densities are way above natural levels so you can't fly very far as a harrier before getting the chance to have a go at a nice fluffy bite-sized grouse chick. In the past, but this is going back about 15 years, the RSPB would, wrongly, have said that we didn't think that hen harriers would make much difference to the number of red grouse that are available to be shot in the autumn but all that came to an end with the results of a study which we helped fund into red grouse and hen harriers that took place at Langholm Moor in southern Scotland. That study showed that if hen harriers are left unmolested on grouse moors then they can hoover up an awful lot of red grouse and make grouse-shooting completely unviable. The way I, slightly mischievously perhaps, like to describe it is that the hen harriers don't stick to the rules and rather unsportingly eat all the grouse that people want to pay to kill after 12 August.
So there is a lot more that can be said, but the nub of the matter is this. Is commercial grouse-shooting possible in the presence of hen harriers that are not persecuted? If the answer is 'yes' then potentially the conflict can be resolved. But if the answer is 'no' then it seems you have to choose between grouse shooting and hen harriers.
At the moment the hen harrier is losing badly - which pains me a lot. There should be well over 100 pairs of hen harrier living on the moors of northern England but actually there are around a dozen or so. We believe that the discrepancy is because hen harriers are systematically killed each year in large numbers by gamekeepers under the orders, or sometimes just the unspoken expectation, of owners. It's amazing how often people will talk about the 'harrier problem' when they mean that there are too many of them - they must be thinking of the bodies because there are hardly any flying around, eating grouse and looking magnificant in the north of England. This so-called pest is a rarity!
Should we walk away from this issue? Are we treating it as too important? Well, it seems to me that if the RSPB doesn't stand up for hen harriers (and all the other birds of prey that are shot, trapped and poisoned) then there are precious few others who will. I couldn't turn my back on the fact that a wonderful and protected bird is still being killed by people who see themselves as above the law.
Is there a simple solution where the impacts of hen harriers on grouse bags could be reduced? Well, artificial feeding of harriers might divert their attention from grouse but it seems like quite a lot of work - still, it must be worth the effort to try to find a solution.
We are always being told we must be more reasonable and that what is needed is a way that moorland managers can put a cap on harrier numbers - instead of killing lots of harriers moorland managers seem to want to be allowed to kill fewer but enough to keep grouse-shooting viable. What do you think of that idea?
If anyone out there has a clever solution then please do let me know.
If, like me, you are on the side of the hen harrier, and you think that any attempt to weaken its legal protection because its diet is inconvenient for some commercial interests is misguided then please do sign our bird of prey pledge - you'll be joining more than 110,000 others.
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