The news of three hen harriers vanishing in as many weeks has rightly received a lot of media interest and concern (for example see here and here). History* tells us that the most likely reason is illegal persecution but, unfortunately, not everyone seems as intent on helping us and the police find out what happened.

Hay fever, summer colds, England’s search for an opening batsman to partner Alastair Cook. Some things just will not go away. It appears we can add the steady stream of Ian Botham fronted “You Forgot the Birds” press releases to that list.

When a press release (now covered in the Daily Telegraph, see here) landed on my desk yesterday announcing that England's second-highest Test wicket-taker had decided to wade into hen harrier conservation, I honestly thought it was a joke. My suspicions were raised still further when I read the release and discovered Mr Botham was offering £10,000 to anyone who could take the eggs from one of the failed Bowland hen harrier nests into an aviary, raise the chicks and release them back into the wild. These would be the eggs which had been abandoned and were no longer viable. The RSPB is committed to bringing the hen harrier back from the brink of extinction, but we’ve not yet worked out how to bring them back to life. I can only assume Mr Botham is getting a little too excited about the new Jurassic Park film and is confusing fact and fiction again.

I could go on, poking fun at some of the surreal suggestions set out (I really could, I’ve had references to Monty Python from colleagues), but I’m not going to. It would be wrong to make light of what is in reality a very serious issue – hen harriers remain on the brink of extinction as a breeding species in England and three birds have disappeared from their last stronghold in a matter of weeks.

Nor am I going to go through and offer yet another point by point rebuttal of why brood management scheme isn’t justified on legal, moral or conservation grounds. I’ve done that plenty of times before (see here, here and here).

Instead I’m going to respond to one of Mr Botham’s points and one point only. I try to respond rationally to almost every situation and, away from sport, I’m not given to spasms of emotion. But the statement from Mr Botham that the RSPB are “rubbish at conservation” is just egregiously wrong.

At the end of last year, I was delighted to report on a huge range of RSPB achievements on and off our nature reserves (see here). These are not the achievements of a "rubbish" organisation. To come out with such offensive, ill-informed comments as that, I can only assume Mr Botham has never met any of the staff and volunteers I am honoured to work with.  Indeed, my offer to show Ian Botham the work we do on and off our reserves has yet to be accepted.

One final thought. Buried at the bottom of the list of editor’s notes in the press release is this gem – “The You Forgot The Birds Campaign is funded by the British grouse industry”. Now many of us may have suspected this, but I don’t think they’ve claimed this in public before and who knows if they really do represent the whole industry.

It’s also interesting to note grouse shooting being referred to as an ‘industry. In many ways this seems right – after all, on some intensive grouse moors of northern England and southern and eastern Scotland, red grouse are produced on an industrial scale for shooting. Yet, any industry's licence to operate is in part dependent on social and environmental impact. This is why I have repeatedly said that the industry representatives should have a zero tolerance of illegal killing of birds of prey and do more to restore our uplands. Standards of social responsibility and delivering for the public good are concepts which seem notably absent from the You Forgot the Birds rhetoric.

The cause of hen harrier’s continued rarity and the solution to tackle this is clear. The RSPB will continue to focus on ending illegal persecution, rather than Ian Botham's dubiously legal nest-interference scheme based on half-truths and prejudices.

*Male hen harriers disappearing while part of an active nesting attempt is exceptionally unusual in most habitats.  A 2008 Natural England report “A Future for the Hen Harrier in England?”, found that it was almost never recorded in most habitats, while nearly 70% of nesting attempts which failed on grouse moors, did so because an adult disappeared (see figure 4 on page 14).  Government-commissioned research (here) has shown that the English uplands could support more than 300 pairs of hen harriers. The authors conclude that persecution, associated with the practice of managing moors for driven grouse shooting, is to blame for the harrier’s plight.  What's more, Natural England has previously stated that there is compelling evidence that persecution, both during and following the breeding season, continues to limit hen harrier recovery in England.  

  • The Natural England figures clearly show a correlation between grouse moors and poor hen harrier breeding success. Even the Skye hen harriers, despite heavy predation by foxes, have far more success than virtually any upland grouse moor in England or Scotland. This is brought into even sharper focus in comparing breeding success and causes of failure on United Utilities owned grouse moor with other Bowland grouse moors. The gamekeepers on Bowland were clearly doing something right on UU land with a presumably more conservation sensitive approach. The same cannot be said for other private estates on Bowland where, despite predation control, breeding success is much poorer. The Langholm project really brings it home - conservation minded gamekeeping + no persecution = thriving hen harrier populations.

    But unfortunately, the Natural England report is now out of date in respect of Bowland and the position is much worse. In 2010, there were 11 nesting attempts of which 10 were on UU land - that tells a story in itself and bear in mind this actually represented a collapse in breeding attempts from the 30 to 40 prior to the mid 80s. Now the situation is catastrophic with even UU land not providing sanctuary. And this is not just about hen harriers. In 2009 there were 17 occupied peregrine territories resulting in 11 successful nests with 24 fledged young and this was considered a poor year. Now Bowland will be lucky to see one successful nest.

    There is the need to find a solution to the conflict between grouse moor management and birds of prey. But if the shooting community can deliver an end to persecution (as they seem to suggest and as we can see from above that is the only card they have on the table) why is it not done now rather than used as a bargaining chip? There is something particularly distasteful about being held to ransom by a threat of continued illegal activity.  

  • There appears to be an intensification of persecution in the Bowland area in the last 5 years or so. The 2008 NE report would look very different (much worse) if done now in terms of nest failures attributed to persecution as defined by Natural England. Throw in the loss of 17 out of 19 peregrine territories since 2010, sustained decline in short-eared owl nesting successes, absence of goshawks and the systematic annual destruction of eagle owl nesting attempts, there is a clear pattern. The only raptors doing well are merlin and kestrel.  And this pattern is repeated across most grouse moors in England and Scotland - the exception is Langholm for obvious reasons. Hen harrier nest failure in Skye due to fox predation is oft quoted in response to challenges about the impact of persecution. The fact is that Skye is still a far more productive place for hen harriers (and other birds of prey) than keepered grouse moors where foxes are controlled. If gamekeepers do such a good job, the reverse should be true.

    But all this cannot continue so as much as it pains me to submit to the continued threat of criminal activity, I think the RSPB should commit to the brood management scheme as the only way to publicly test the shooting community's resolve to stop persecution.  

  • Martin

    Agree that Botham 'swinger' is a distraction (try and ignore it) though not convinced - though understand default position - by your 'most likely reason' that it is persecution. This is because everyone (shooting interest, Utilities landowner, NE, RSPB etc) at Bowland is working hard to secure these harrier nests - indeed the Nat England report you refer to, notes in pages 12/13 that the Bowland area nest losses not generally due to persecution.

    There is no denial persecution happens, but meanwhile, let's not allow fox in the door...(seems gamekeepers do a great job at Bowland) www.scribd.com/.../Hen-Harriers-nest-failures-predation-on-Skye-From-Scottish-Birds-magazine-Feb-14 while we keep working together for a solution that works for all - and not dance to the tune of entrenched extremists who I sense might be bereft if a solution was agreed.

    Let us help it recover so we can then all work on a Hen Harrier Action plan.

    best

  • Alex - thanks for your thoughtful comment.  Our position, agreed by our Council, is that we would only consider experimental trial of brood management scheme once there has been a conservation recovery of the species.

  • It is, as you suggest, difficult to take this seriously, but I think we should.

    I see that there is a problem for the RSPB here. Whilst watching over these nests, it would help if it was known that the adult male was no longer able to return. Sir Ian is  offering a £10,000 reward to the first conservation group which moves the abandoned eggs into an aviary and then releases the fledglings back into the wild. If he is not aware that the eggs quickly become unviable perhaps he could arrange that the "grouse shooting industry" puts £10,000 towards a new HOTline to The Hawk and Owl trust. If the industry phones into the hotline whenever they shoot a male hen harrier, the HOT would, with RSPB co-operation,  be able to remove the eggs before they become unviable.

    I see a second possibility. For a while the "grouse shooting industry" has not permitted a single pair of hen harriers to nest on managed English grouse moors. Perhaps the RSPB could contact Defra and promise that if the "grouse shooting industry" permits hen harriers to settle on grouse moors, the RSPB will support brood relocation. Obviously, this was not possible up to the present time, because the "grouse shooting industry" had not put it's head over the parapet.