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.

  • Sorry Lawrence, but how is members responding to Martin's last line of the blog, "It would be great to hear your views", an own goal? It is interesting that your think people who shoot want hen harrier numbers to increase. I can't find any evidence for that in the areas where hen harriers have occurred in recent years.

  • 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.

  • Welcome is hardly a term I would use in respect of this plan. But clearly as there is no end in sight to illegal persecution, something has to be done. I have previously argued that its time has come - nothing else has happened to improve the lot of the hen harrier (or other birds of prey) on and around most grouse moors. But the plan must be used as a serious test of the shooting community's oft quoted conservation credentials and the claim that it is the only way way to increase hen harrier numbers. The latter seems to infer some degree of control over persecution - what else will affect hen harrier numbers significantly, especially as grouse moors are described as havens for wildlife because of predator control. So, this breeding season we can expect a significant increase in nesting attempts and breeding success in Northern England as all parties work together to implement the plan. And certainly some serious questions have to be asked about the terms and objectives of any brood management. There must be a signficant increase in hen harrier numbers first and translocation to lowland sites cannot be used as a proxy for success in terms of numbers.

    And I have signed the ban driven grouse shooting petition. Not because I am an anti-shooting, vegan, animal rights, out of touch with rural life, economic dimwit townie (I am none of these!) but because I see the ever-increasing intensification of land management that drives driven grouse shooting as economically and environmentally unsustainable. But it is legal and I am a law-abiding citizen so I will stick to supporting the case for change to a land use that is economically and environmentally friendlier.I hope that implementation of this plan also encourages that debate as well for the long term well-being of our hen harriers, wider bio-diversity and the rural economy.    

  • Martin

    I know these things are difficult but the RSPB has welcomed a plan that has no target, has no new resources for tackling wildlife crime, has no progress on vicarious liability or licensing of shooting estates and yet gives a nod to a pointless and expensive reintroduction and to brood meddling.  And RSPB welcomed it? That’s like saying ‘thank you’ when you have been ignored and then slapped in the face.

    As a result, the shooters are going around saying 'The RSPB welcomed the plan – let’s get on with brood-meddling now’.

    Are the Moorland Association, BASC, GWCT and Defra all going to chip in a few hundred thousand pounds each for satellite tagging of Hen Harriers and other raptors in the vicinity of grouse moors?

  • I cannot agree that RSPB should welcome the action plan. Please excuse my scepticism in my comments below, because I am not happy at the RSPB welcome. Why does the RSPB say it's not perfect, but welcome the actions?

    The action plan has 6 actions

    1. Monitoring in England and Wales. Nothing new here. I hope they are already being monitored.

    2. Encourage diversionary feeding. No carrot, no stick? Is it no need, or no cooperation that drove the word "encourage". So that won't happen, then. Perhaps someone could monitor how many diversionary feeding locations arise from the plan, but reporting them does not seem to be in the plan.

    3. RPPDG will provide advice on the most effective enforcement and deterrent measures to protect hen harriers. Has that not happened before, then?

    4. NE to arrange nest and winter roost protection. Has that not happened before, then? Well with Natural England, perhaps it hasn't.

    Did the first 4 items really need an action plan before implementation?  Now we get to the really important bits, welcomed by both the Countryside Alliance and the RSPB, but surely not by anyone who has a real interest in getting hen harrier numbers up in England? Has the RSPB been sitting around the table so long, that it is happy with any plan, as long as it is published?

    5. Southern reintroduction. So that's how the numbers are going to grow. Presumably some of the  poorly performing Scottish birds will be taken down to England, to allow more practice for the guns down there, as they disperse. Perhaps a trial brood management plan, implemented before any real increase, will provide some English or Welsh birds?

    6. Trial brood management scheme. Well I just hope that the RSPB do not welcome the trial when it inevitably comes before numbers increase, and object to the scheme on the many grounds available.