For a number of years the breeding population of hen harrier has been on the brink – even failing to breed in England in 2013.  

The RSPB had been part of an Environment Council-led process to resolve the conflict between hen harrier conservation and grouse moor management.  It was clear that, while providing a forum for increased understanding between different groups, this had not resulted in the necessary action: a different approach was therefore needed.

In May 2012 (see here) we wrote 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.

Later on that year I published a blog by my colleague, Jude Lane, about the death of a hen harrier known as Bowland Betty.  It was an emotional report from someone working on the front line of hen harrier conservation and even prompted a call to Jude from the then Environment Minister, Richard Benyon. 

That phone call and subsequent conversations with Defra officials gave us the belief that they recognised the seriousness of the issue. And it’s one of the reasons why we stuck with the difficult debate on the Action Plan.

Today, after challenging and lengthy negotiations, this plan is published.  You can read it here.

Image courtesy of Guy Shorrock

I welcome this plan - not because it is perfect, it isn’t - but because it reflects real potential for progress on one of the most deep-rooted conflicts in conservation.

The plan has two main objectives: "The hen harrier has a self-sustaining and well dispersed breeding population in England across a range of habitats including a viable population present in the Special Protected Areas designated for hen harrier; and the harrier population coexists with local business interests and its presence contributes to a thriving rural economy"

We shall play our part in making it a success, of course focussing on tackling the primary reason for the hen harrier's adverse conservation status - illegal persecution. Our ultimate goal is to secure recovery for hen harriers, while recognising that this is only one aspect of a wider range of impacts of current land management practices in our uplands.

Last year we provided a home for over 60 pairs of hen harriers throughout the UK and invested in the EU match-funded Hen Harrier LIFE Project, which combines satellite tagging, on-the-ground monitoring, nest protection, investigations work, awareness-raising, and working with volunteer raptor field workers, landowners and local communities to protect hen harriers across northern England and southern & eastern Scotland.

Image courtesy of Dom Greves

There are still lots of hurdles to overcome, especially regarding the long-term funding of monitoring and enforcement programmes, but also regarding the detail of proposed lowland reintroduction, its fit with IUCN guidelines, and the legal basis and thresholds for any trial brood management scheme.  As set out in a blog by our chief exec last year, we think there are significant legal, ethical and practical questions to answer, but we’ve not said never to brood management.

The public profile of the plight of the hen harrier has rightly grown over recent years and there will understandably be a lot of interest on the detail of this plan.  The detail matters, but we also need everyone to work together to implement the plan – its success will ultimately be judged by whether more hen harriers breed in England. 

The RSPB is committed to working in partnerships to deliver the changes needed to restore the health of our uplands and we hope many others will share these aims and be willing to work together to secure a better future for them. 

What do you think of the Hen Harrier Action Plan?

It would be great to hear your views.

  • I have some serious reservations. Most importantly the second statement of the success criteria. We should absolutely reject this for two reasons:

    1. It is so vague that each interest group will have a very different interpretation of its meaning. "The Hen Harrier population coexists with local business interests." is capable of many interpretations. For example if the grouse shooters were to slightly modify their ambitions for bag size then a larger harrier population could be accommodated. If they want to increase bag size ad infinitum then no harrier population will be acceptable (as now). Therefore this statement must be replaced with a measurable quantitative statement.

    The second part viz "its presence contributes to a thriving rural economy" should be rejected out of hand. Are we really saying that each and every wild species of plant or animal must justify its existence by "contributing to the economy". We should be fighting for the protection and regeneration of biodiversity whether or not we can see some economic advantage in so doing. I hope that RSPB and NE would take that to be self evident.  I can't speak for DEFRA! 

    Left in this form this criterion could be used to scupper a successful scheme. The shooting lobby would always be able to argue that the hen harrier is not contributing to a thriving rural economy. What possible evidence could we call upon to refute this? The hen harrier is never going to attract tourists with money to spend! Especially if we're not allowed to have two nests within 10km of one another  (as the DEFRA proposal says).

    Presumably whinchats will need to show a profit before we can get them back.

  • Many thanks to all of you for sharing your views.  I shall reflect on what you have written and offer further thoughts soon.

    Best wishes,


  • Well Martin, you asked for views.  As a very long standing RSPB member who has lived and worked in the British uplands almost all my adult life I am deeply disappointed that the RSPB has agreed to this so-called 'action plan', let alone welcomes it.  This 'plan' is much more about sustaining  grouse shooting than conserving and significantly increasing breeding populations of Hen Harriers in the uplands and on moorlands there.

  • Hi Robbo. People representing the shooting community now have more pressure than ever to end persecution (because of the action plan Mark Avery's efforts etc). There is no doubt that if some had it all their own way they would continue to blast em out of the skies till the cows come home - however, the point is that there is now greater pressure than ever to end it, so 'wanting' to end the persecution is linked to the fact that they want to protect their precious grouse shoots (rather than wanting hen harriers to increase per se - the outcome is the same though).


  • This Action Plan is very good news. Some people seem to be expecting something miraculous from the RSPB. Can anyone realistically believe that discussions that involve this government, gamekeepers, GWCT etc would ever result in an agreed plan that conservationists are 100% happy with? Surely the RSPB simply doesn't have that level of power, no matter how well it represents hen harrier conservation. Also, if the RSPB took the line some people are suggesting, then an agreed action plan would never have come about, and there would be no progress. And the harriers need progress NOW.

    The RSPB has to be positive about the Action Plan - being positive about it will massively increase the chances of it being successful. If they had come out with a very negative response, then how would that impact on attempts to work with other stakeholders (i.e. the people on the other end of the guns) when implementing the plan. Therefore, the response to the plan is actually prioritizing progress towards conservation over pleasing the RSPBs own followers, which would involve relentless attacks on shooters. Good on the RSPB.

    We all know England can support many hen harriers, so for this action plan to fail would be massively embarrassing for the government and representatives of the shooters. They will be worried that failure would give the RSPB more influence in the next round of discussions, and maybe would put the existence of their driven grouse shoots under greater pressure. Therefore, an important outcome of this action plan is that shooters will want to see an increasing hen harrier population.

    Hen harrier reintroductions would also have massive positive impacts on southern moorlands, not only because there would be hen harriers, but because it would surely require habitat management which would greatly benefit moorland wildlife at those sites (which are very much overgrazed etc etc)

    It also concerns me when conservation-minded people start bashing the RSPB - the state of British Birds, including hen harriers, would be so much worse without them. Thoughts and opinions on the RSPB's work is great, but actually attacking the RSPB is surely shooting ourselves in the foot/feet.