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.

  • Excellent post Paul B. I have often thought of the comparison with those early days of the RSPB. Now i fear RSPB decisions are made by top executives and not foot soldiers (of whom i consider, from his usually excellent press releases, Martin is one).

    But reading between the lines i gather the RSPB only supported this draft for a plan (that seems to be all it is at least as far as managed brood persecution is concerned) because it wanted to show the progress or lack of it on the plan. From what i understand, brood management will never be supported by the RSPB until there is a reasonable Hen Harrier population on English grouse moors. If independent science is the basis, of this threshold as stated in the plan, right now it is probably going to be Elston et al. which gives a vague hint of 35-70 pairs for the whole of England's grouse moors. I would hardly call those figures scientific but that is the source mentioned in the plan.

    What i don't understand is the lack of clarification on this by the RSPB. Mark Avery saw through this plan immediately as a strategy of kicking this into the grass, it took me a week. Presumably he has some experience of this kind of mandarin-speak but the ordinary person certainly doesn't and the Guardian swallowed it hook line and sinker as some kind of cause for celebration.

    I don't understand why the lack of a real plan isn't publicised more. Even assuming the 'successful' initiation of the managed brood persecution, where optimistically 70 pairs are breeding on English grouse moors is the threshold, is this going to be acceptable to the general public and RSPB members?

    Are we really going to do a deal with criminals when we have laws which all citizens high and low are bound to follow. A conservative government is no excuse to abandon our rights but to fight more for them. If laws aren't being obeyed then we have to follow Scotland and create new laws to block the loopholes and force the criminals and their employers to obey.

  • I remain very sceptical about the chances of this initiative making any progress. You have attempted a dialogue with the grouse shooting industry and their only response appears to be the creation of the ‘You Forgot the Birds’, whose sole purpose seems to be to attack the RSPB. The fact that the PR firm they employed is unable to come up with a single defence of grouse shooting suggests that they it is indefensible. As Margaret Thatcher once said (I think this is correct!), “When my critics resort to personal abuse, I’ve won the argument.”

    Imagine the scene: 1891, two years after the foundation of the Society for Protection of Birds. Emily Williamson is frustrated by the refusal of hat manufacturers and milliners to discuss the future of the industry.


    The SPB has announced details of a new six-point action to reduce the use of egret feathers in the hat making industry:

    • Monitor the manufacture of feather hats via till receipts and invoices;

    • Share best practice with milliners, encouraging the use of artificial feathers;

    • Work closely with FUTILE (Foundation for Understanding The Inhospitable Life of Egrets) to analyse intelligence and deliver more effective deterrence and enforcement measures;

    • Monitor and protect nests and winter roosts from disturbance;

    • Work with milliners to re-introduce woolly hats as a fashion item;

    • Scope out (whatever that means) feasibility for trialling brood management.

    Martin, would this have been an effective strategy?

    A recent opinion poll suggested that about 75% of people support the continued ban on fox hunting. Fox hunting has a certain romantic appeal (what with the red coats, horses and hounds) and was in some ways accessible to the general public. Yet three out of four people do not want to see it return. I would suggest that driven grouse shooting has a miniscule public appeal and an opinion poll on the subject would see considerably more than 75% supporting a ban on the practice. On this issue, I firmly believe that the RSPB is not only out of step with its membership but also with the public in general.

  • To answer your question at the end of your blog.

    The Plan for a Plan is a disgrace. It is very obvious that the RSPB has been bulldozed on this. The National Park authority has a terrible track record regarding the protection of raptors on most parks which left the protection of Hen Harriers solely in the hands of the RSPB. It is obvious where the power lies in this country and it isn't with the people but the rich elite.

    I don't agree with any kind of cap on Hen Harriers or any other bird of prey especially for sport (rich man or poor). Brood management is another form of persecution.

    And i don't agree with the re-introduction of Hen Harriers in lowland England when re-colonization of the lowlands would happen naturally if 55-74 female Hen Harriers were not killed EACH YEAR in Scotland. Multiply that by at least 3 for males and immatures and that is only in Scotland (

    I I have discussed why managed brood persecution and re-introduction is morally and consevationally wrong, here (

    Dress it up any way Defra and the game lobby likes the so called plan is a deal with criminals who will only stop killing our Hen Harriers if they are allowed to cap their numbers and force them to breed away from the grouse moors'.

    Licencing (with permanent withdrawal with the first crime incidence) or an out right ban are the only ways.

    I really don't believe the RSPB are pushing hard enough on this. There used to Action Pages in the RSPB magazine. What happened? The RSPB is fantastic but needs to grow some cojones and have some trust in its members.

  • Thanks Martin.

    Please keep up and increase the push for Hen Harrier protection, the licensing, if not out right ban, on driven grouse moors.

  • Dear Prasad,

    Thanks for your comment.  

    As I have said previously, these have not been easy negotiations.  I agree that there is still ambiguity in the plan which is why the terms of reference for and composition of the groups on reintroduction/bms are important.  

    We need clarity (which we do not currently have) regarding objectives, scientific design, legality and conservation recovery which would trigger any trial.  We do not have any of this yet which is why we pushed hard to prevent a BMS being given the greenlight without clarification on these points.  

    On diversionary feeding, I agree with you.  

    My final point is that I am delighted that the plan is now in the public domain.  Everyone that has an interest in this issue can now take a view and that can only be good.

    Best wishes,