Today, we have a guest post from RSPB Chief Executive Dr Mike Clarke. As the grouse shooting season begins, Mike talks about hen harrier conservation...

Two weeks ago I was at the CLA Game Fair, talking direct to a range of people from the shooting and countryside sports communities. This weekend I was in Buxton, Derbyshire, celebrating “Hen Harrier Day” with Birders Against Wildlife Crime and hundreds of others from across the country.

What was fascinating, was that despite the very different audiences (although there were a few people present at both), the topic of hen harriers and how to recover their populations, especially in England, was high on the agenda.

As you can imagine views on how best to do this were many and varied.

This Wednesday is the Glorious 12th – the traditional start of the grouse shooting season – and so it only seemed right to reflect on the conversations I've had over the last couple of weeks and update you on what we think should happen next.

Firstly Defra needs to publish its action plan for wider discussion.

From what we know of it there are in essence, six points to the draft Action Plan. The first four are all targeted at tackling illegal persecution – this is acknowledged to be the biggest factor limiting England’s hen harrier population.

The RSPB fully supports these and indeed we are getting on with delivering action to conserve hen harriers on the ground in northern England and southern and eastern Scotland through our EU Life co-funded hen harrier project. We are also working in partnership elsewhere.

The fifth point is a reintroduction scheme to southern England. We've not been a huge fan of this proposal, as it does nothing to tackle the main limiting factor on England’s hen harriers.

However, in the interests of finding a plan everyone can support, we have come to the conclusion we would be happy with such a project being progressed, as long as it was within the IUCN guidelines on reintroductions.

Female hen harrier. Image by Andy Hay (

This wouldn't be an alternative to tackling persecution – indeed, the project would be most unlikely be successful unless persecution was addressed – but if taken forward alongside the first four points of the action plan, it could increase the nesting range of harriers in England.

But, it is critical that a re-introduction element does not distract us from getting hen harriers settling and breeding successfully in the uplands of England.

Our view on the sixth point – a brood management scheme – remains unchanged. We think there are significant legal, ethical and practical questions to answer. But we’ve not said never to brood management.

All we’ve said is that there must be some level of reasonable national recovery before it kicks in. There’s two principle reasons for this.

The first is purely biological.

There are currently barely a handful of hen harriers nesting in England. It bizarrely seems to get forgotten in much of the debate, but the idea of hen harriers impacting grouse numbers in England is currently entirely hypothetical.

But we must acknowledge it can happen under some circumstances as was shown at Langholm moor, but currently there is no grouse moor in England that can claim hen harriers are adversely impacting on grouse numbers – there simply aren't enough harriers.

With that in mind, it seems daft to start the recovery of the hen harrier by prioritising a predation reduction scheme over all the other pressing points in the plan, especially as we know that diversionary feeding works very well!

The second reason is perhaps less concrete, but just as important – trust.

Trust is a hard thing to come by and in this area it’s sorely lacking. With an industry often in denial that there is an issue to be dealt with and attacks on the RSPB from some sectors, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that there is a lack of trust that a brood management scheme could be delivered.

After all the law says you shouldn’t interfere with harriers, but we know it happens. Only today we have confirmed news that Annie, a hen harrier tagged as part of the Langholm Demonstration Project, has been illegally shot in Scotland – and awful and timely reminder that this is far from a hypothetical argument.

A reasonable national recovery of hen harriers before brood management kicks in is vital not just for biological reasons, but to provide evidence that the grouse shooting industry can be trusted to work within the law and deliver on its promises.

In the interests of fairness, I should point out that the Moorland Association did tell me at the Game Fair that they considered many of the public comments made about the RSPB “inaccurate and unhelpful”.

It is perhaps worth at this juncture considering what the Government in England must do now.

First they have a duty under EU conservation law (The ‘Birds’ Directive) to maintain the populations of hen harriers across their natural range. They must also declare Special Protection Areas (SPA’s) for them, and ensure they are in Favourable Conservation Status (FCS).

Neither is the case at present and both require concerted action inside and outside of SPAs to effectively deliver these requirements. In England, two SPA’s (Bowland fells & North Pennine Moors) were designated for hen harriers. Both comprise significant areas of grouse moor.

So addressing the conservation problems on these moors is surely essential. That includes looking calmly at the latest evidence on illegal persecution and habitat management (e.g. managed burning, drainage) practised on these uplands, to ensure they provide what harriers need.

Given the paucity of harriers in England, even on the SPA’s declared for them, it is clear work needs to be done across the whole of the North of England.

The grouse moor owners say (and I paraphrase), we will work with you to help harriers but only if we can have brood management-now, and certainly before harriers become an impediment to our sport. We say, lets have some harriers please, and the best way to get them is to obey the law.

If numbers do build up, deploy diversionary feeding, and only when the population is on the road to recovery, and subject to the strongest legal safeguards and transparency, might we accept a Government led scheme using brood management, whose ultimate aim is really to avoid deep impacts on grouse numbers (stocks). Depending on your viewpoint we are still light years apart-or tantalisingly close to a deal. But surely moorland managers see the need to build public confidence in their activities?

But before we start to confidence build-as we surely should let’s get the Defra proposal out there in the public domain.

There’s too many conversations going on about it, without most of us having seen the full specific proposals which are being advanced. Let’s put the terms for a proposed brood management scheme on the table, and we can all have the debate in an informed way, rather than dealing in rumours and supposition.

And I don’t mean the mechanics of rearing birds in captivity-important though that is.

No, we need to agree how we get FCS on our Upland SPA’s, recover harrier numbers and have a system that roots out illegal activity, and builds long term public trust. It could trial a pilot ‘licensing’ system, to show what can be done, and yes if harrier numbers rise sufficiently to warrant it, introduce brood mangement.

The 12th will come and go and the grouse shooting season will kick off again. I hear there might not actually be much shooting as grouse numbers are well down due to the weather. Its a lesson that no matter what man does, in the end the weather is ultimately the biggest determining factor for most birds, even above the role of predation.

But one thing is for sure. As I said at the Hen Harrier event in Buxton, the RSPB will never ever give up the fight for our hen harriers. Protection of birds of prey is one of those issues that runs through this organisation like the pattern in a stick of rock.

We’re doing everything we can to help broker a deal, for the benefit of harriers and the other species of wildlife which rely on our iconic upland habitats. But we are absolutely clear what we still consider unacceptable.

Dialogue has its place and is undoubtedly important, but we’ve been talking for years with little measurable movement towards sustainable land management on driven grouse moor areas.

It’s time to act.

  • You are funny, Andrew.  Just because you keep saying it, doesn't make it true!

  • Martin - in short, Defra have a plan to increase hen harriers that the RSPB are blocking.

    Professors Ian Newton, Steve Redpath and Des Thompson, to name a few, can see the logic in this conservation plan (see link below) - but you are busy finding non-conservation objections.

  • Andrew - in short, the disagreement is, as you know over one part of the plan.  The Moorland Association and GWCT want to initiate an undefined brood management scheme now which has no basis in law.  We take a different position which we have explained. I think consensus on five parts of the plan is great progress.  The delay has arisen as we have worked hard to change each others minds.  We have not - hence we await the Ministers decision as to how he wishes to proceed.  It takes two to disagree!

  • Clarity of RSPB objections is important because Defra have said they are seeking consensus. By continuing to raise objections the RSPB is delaying the Defra hen harrier recovery plan.

    The RSPB helped draft the Defra plan so I am surprised the RSPB's CEO Mike Clarke has omitted some objections in his blog.

    The RSPB objections are now:

    (1)there are not enough hen harriers

    (2)you do not trust those on the ground to implement the plan

    (3)the objectives of a plan are not clear

    (4)the legal basis of the plan is not clear

    All four are:

    (a)not conservation objections

    (b)not applied, by the RSPB, to other species

    The aim of the Defra plan is simply to recover hen harrier numbers; so it is very odd that the RSPB should object or even question it. Equally to delay starting a recovery plan because there are not enough of hen harriers is illogical. People on the ground have said that they will deliver harrier recovery. If the RSPB don't trust them why not call their bluff? what has the RSPB got to loose? As for the legal paperwork the French will have some, they have been doing this for years. Why are the RSPB searching for a legal objection to the recovery plan that only contains proven conservation techniques that are used by RSPB elsewhere?

    It is ironic that a conservation organisation is so busy searching for non-conservation objections to a plan that aims to recovery hen harrier numbers.

  • Welcome back, Andrew! If only we had so much control over government ministers.  Of course, WE are not delaying anything.  It is for the Minister to decide what and when to publish not us!  As you know full well, there is a difference of opinion over the inclusion of brood management scheme and indeed neither the objectives of any scheme are clear nor is the legal basis been established.  Happy spinning, Andrew.