I’ve blogged several times about the so-called “brood management” of hen harriers, including setting out two big unanswered questions and 25 more specific ones raised by the idea of brood management.

To be honest, I’d rather hoped not to have to write another blog on brood management this soon. I’d much rather be talking about the positive work RSPB and our partners are doing for hen harriers, for example through our Life project on the species.

But the Hawk and Owl Trust have now elaborated on their apparent plans for a Brood Management Scheme, with two pieces on their website covering the “conservation” and “science” around the idea, so it feels necessary to comment.

It’s worth saying I have a huge amount of respect for the Hawk and Owl Trust and a lot of the work they’ve done over the years. While we all make bad judgements from time to time, in this case the consequences could be extremely serious.

I also think it is unedifying that Defra have left it to another conservation organisation to try to justify a brood management scheme.

This is not the way to instill confidence from those sceptical that the brood management scheme is anything other than a sop to those running the most intensive driven grouse moors.

There is one section on the Hawk and Owl Trust website that exemplifies all that is wrong with this scheme.

“The six point plan has been agreed in principle by all parties but has yet to be ratified as one member believes that the brood management trial should be delayed until Hen Harrier numbers have recovered to a pre-determined number.

This is a worthy but sadly unrealistic objective, as it is not always understood or appreciated that Hen Harriers, as colonial or semi-colonial nesters, will become concentrated on a small number of individual moors. The fact of this concentration places these birds at huge risk of further persecution.”

I object to the implication that a brood management scheme is essential to prevent further illegal killing of birds of prey.

Let’s call it what it is. The brood management scheme is a persecution avoidance scheme. And its supporters primarily come from the shooting community including the Moorland Association, the Countryside Alliance and the National Gamekeepers’ Association. Its only support from the conservation sector has been the Game and Wildlife and Conservation Trust and now the Hawk and Owl Trust – an organisation that was not part of the talks which have taken place over the past two years.

These proponents and especially Defra will have to do more to explain how it be justified legally.

The brood management scheme is a project involving a European protected species. As such it would be subject to a series of tests under European law. These aren’t arbitrary bureaucratic tests – they are the embodiment of smart nature conservation decision-making.

The first test is to demonstrate that there are no alternative ways of meeting the objectives of the project.

There are clearly alternative ways of stopping illegal killing either through better enforcement or through the proven technique of diversionary feeding.

There are no imperative reasons of overriding public interest for intervening in this way. What is so peculiar is that Defra itself recognises that the alternative measures are necessary and appropriate components of the draft Hen Harrier action plan. By including these measures, it has essentially shot its own fox – or should I say, grouse.

Even if the alternatives test was somehow past, I struggle to see how it could be justified to issue the necessary licence under section 16 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

I could offer a point by point rebuttal (I really could - I have a piece of paper sitting on my desk that does exactly that) but I cannot see how that helps anyone.

I don’t want the Hawk and Owl Trust to be set up as the fall guy by being Defra’s champion of an ill-conceived and potentially unlawful scheme.

For now, I simply want to reiterate publicly what I have said privately on many occasions. Let’s get on with the non-contentious parts of the Hen Harrier Action Plan and consult more widely on the concept of the brood management scheme.

  • Ian. Couple of comments. I've never heard a behavioural or population ecologist describe hen harriers as a colonial nester, though I stand to be corrected. You're right to be sceptical. Prey availability is one factor that'll likely determine the density of settling hen harriers - the more prey, the higher the density, assuming the habitat is suitable. The more intensive forms of grouse moor management are designed to provide very high densities of red grouse, so it would be no surprise to see a high density of hen harrier nests in the absence of persecution. Presumably we'd see a lower density of hen harrier nests in less intensive grouse moors with lower densities of red grouse?

    One problem I have with the Hawk and Owl Trust's hen harrier removal proposal is that it takes high-intensity grouse moor management, producing extremely high densities of red grouse, as a given, as non-negotiable. Yet we know that such intensive management causes other problems, which need to be rectified. The hen harrier removal proposal provides implied endorsement to intensive game management - or at best turns a blind eye - by facilitating it through the removal of hen harriers.

    One important attribute of any tactic is that it has to be legal. If hen harrier removal were proposed within a Special Protection Area, it would need to be subject to an Appropriate Assessment under the UK Habitats Regulations. This assessment process requires that the agency giving consent considers mitigation first. So, if a problem of excessive hen harrier predation at a particular site arises, one has to look to see if the problem can be mitigated. Diversionary feeding is a potential form of mitigation, and one would need to provide an evidence-based justification for not trying diversionary feeding first. Available evidence suggests that diversionary feeding might work. So you'd need to try it. If in the specific case diversionary feeding has been tried but was shown not to work - unlikely in my view - then one might move on to consider other ways to mitigate the problem. Another obvious option might be to reduce the intensity of grouse shooting. To my mind, a combination of less intensive grouse moor management and diversionary feeding might well do the trick.

    All economic sectors are bound by this legislation - game shooting interests are no exception.

    I think the way forward here is to open up the debate on brood management, allow us all to see precisely what is proposed by Defra and the Hawk and Owl Trust, and then take stock once we've all had a chance to consider and comment upon the detail.

    I think the Hawk and Owl Trust's tactic of negotiating brood management in secret has been hugely damaging. This is no way to handle human-wildlife conflict. I'm surprised that the scientists backing brood management cannot see the problems their approach is causing.

  • Steve - please I really do not disagree with anything you or others have said in response to Martin's blog. I am just saying that tactically the time may have come to call the shooting community's bluff. I can't see anything else changing. And I certainly agree that this no precedent for doing anything similar with any other bird of prey. No other has anything like any kind of "colonial" breeding habit which is what the shooting community labels for hen harriers. I am not convinced about that anyway - it is just about densities that territorial birds of prey will tolerate dependent on food supply. In fact, the hen harrier brood management scheme must be linked to any illegal persecution.

  • Ian - you say brood management will provide the shooting community with an opportunity to end persecution. Yet the whole idea of it is to remove the hen harriers, to prevent any but the tiniest number from rearing their brood on grouse moors. It really is a hen harrier disposal service offered to unscrupulous grouse moor managers as an alternative to shooting them. Either way, the harriers have been removed.

    Quite a few hen harriers have already been satellite tagged, and have vanished - without evidence as to their fate. So the current scheme will take us no further, as far as I can see, in catching the 'red-handed.' You'd need both more advanced technology and people 'on-the-spot', as a harrier is shot, before one can catch the culprits.

    And, if it's fine to remove inconvenient hen harriers, what logic dictates that it is not fine to remove inconvenient peregrines, or buzzards? It will be extremely difficult to resist calls for 'brood management' of other birds of prey if one is concurrently condoning the same for hen harriers.  

  • I agree with all the comments made here but clearly we have reached an impasse. Those in the shooting community that break the law or turn a blind eye to others that do,will be quite happy with a status quo that sees birds of prey absent from many of our uplands. Implementation of the brood management scheme, while not justified on so many grounds, provides an opportunity to challenge the shooting community to deliver the only card they have on the table - an end to persecution. And this means not only the wilful destruction of birds of prey and their eggs but also the various practices of moorland management that are designed to disturb or prevent breeding. Parts of the grouse moors on private estates in the Bowland Forest where hen harriers have traditonally nested are burning as we speak and just as the first sky dancing has started. Brood management will help breeding success in the short term and provide birds that can be tracked with the shooting community fully in the spotlight if they disappear. Only then can we catch the burglar red-handed.

  • Sadly, I have to agree with your conclusion, Martin - maybe one day there may be a place for a debate about limiting Hen harrier numbers but it is certainly not now. What in effect is being proposed is that a burglar, caught in possession of your property, is negotiating as to what proportion of his spoils he should return to you ! I'm very clear - and have said this in discussion with friends in the Hawk and Owl Trust - that the first move has to come from the shooting side and, far from there being any concessions, as discussions have continued over the last decade hen harriers in England have gone from very few to none. It is not even as if there were any contrition: far from it, shooting interests are using strong arm tactics, financial muscle and simple abuse against bodies like RSPB. As Steve Redpath rightly says on the HOT website, there are only two options - some sort of compromise or a winner/loser fight. Grouse Moor interests have, sadly,  clearly opted for the latter and under present circumstances discussion of brood management is no more than an inadequate fig leaf for an unacceptable situation.