I wrote last year that Biodiversity Minister, Richard Benyon, might lose sleep over known threatened species which might be committed to extinction on his watch. The parlous state of Hen Harrier as a breeding species in England ought to force the Minister to jump out of bed and take action immediately.
It is clear that Hen Harrier is on the verge of extinction as a breeding bird in England. This season there has been just one known breeding attempt. This compares to four successful attempts in 2011. While it is early in the season to draw conclusions, the signs are not good.
If we lose Hen Harrier, the Government will have failed in its England Biodiversity Strategy commitment to avoid human-induced extinctions of threatened species in England.
Government-commissioned research 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 Government has identified raptor persecution as one of six UK wildlife crime priorities, focussing on golden eagle, white-tailed eagle, hen harrier, red kite, peregrine and goshawk.
The RSPB is doing its best to protect hen harriers in England, with the support of HLF, United Utilities, Northern England Raptor Forum and other partners, including many volunteers. We have initiated our Skydancers programme and you can read more about it here.
We have now written to Defra and Natural England to urge them to lead and fund a comprehensive conservation plan for hen harriers, endorsed by stakeholders including landowning and shooting organisations.
We think that years of talking must now translate into action.
Adult hen harrier in flight with twig (Andy Hay rspb-images.com)
I accept that this is challenging for the shooting/landowning community. It is, of course, the case that hen harriers can be a problem for game managers by eating grouse. However, long-term declines in grouse bags are related to land use practice and habitat condition.
Our point is simple - grouse moor owners and managers should comply with wildlife law, protect hen harriers and adopt legal approaches to minimising predation of grouse, such as diversionary feeding which has been shown to effective in places such as Langholm.
There has been much talk about an approach termed 'a brood management scheme' which would involve translocation of eggs away from moors and establishment elsewhere to remove the conflict with grouse. We have said to Defra that this could be included in a recovery plan and may merit experimental investigation in England in the future, but only once hen harrier numbers have recovered to an acceptable level and diversionary feeding has been widely trialled.
Finally, we are pleased that the Law Commission is seriously considering the introduction of vicarious liability for birds of prey persecution. We think that this is an appropriate measure to help take to tackle the problem. It has been introduced in Scotland and we think that it is timely for it to be adopted in England and Wales.
If you agree, please do sign the petition here and then please tell your friends and family to do the same.
One last point, I want the UK Government to lead the world in tackling climate change and halting biodiversity loss. I want Mr Clegg and Mrs Spelman to play strong leadership roles at the Rio +20 Summit in June this year and make the case for urgent global action to decouple economic growth from unsustainable exploitation of the natural world. Losing Hen Harriers as a breeding species in England would seriously blot their copybook.
How do you think the Government should respond?
It would be great to hear your views.
Sooty - a powerful argument! It is coming through loud and clear!
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