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.

  • Please Martin could you explain the part of the plan quoted below.

    As the RSPB has approved of this plan i'm sure you must understand it, i don't. It appears to be open to interpretation and is incredibly vague. What is a contiguous groups of estates? Is the lower case part of the sentence dependent on conditions of the upper case part of the sentence being fulfilled first. Does it mean as has been reported in other blogs that there must FIRST be an English grouse moor population of 35-70 pairs (as hinted at in Elston et al) before managed brood persecution will be considered on any given estate?

    'A trial scheme ... would be open to driven grouse moors that had brood numbers in excess of the modelled densities ... AN AGREED THRESHOLD, BASED ON INDEPENDENTLY DERIVED, OBJECTIVE CRITERIA,AND AGREED BY MAIN STAKEHOLDERS, WOULD BE SET FOR CONTIGUOUS GROUPS OF ESTSTES. When harrier numbers within estates increased above the density determined by Elston et al, their eggs or broods could be moved to a rearing facility away from managed moorland.'''

    Why does it say 'main stakeholders' as opposed to 'all stakeholders'? Could the RSPB be side-lined even more than it obviously has been already.

    Incidentally i have been very impressed with your stance and press releases on raptor persecution in the past but not with this present blog. The RSPB must be the only 'stakeholder' (i hate that word) which represents the public interest and the Hen Harrier on this issue and yet it couldn't get a stronger input on this Action Plan. I'm extremely disappointed in the RSPB for not pushing harder on this. At the very least diversionary feeding should have been a requirement not an an option.


  • I have to agree with those suggesting 'status quo'. What has the shooting industry signed up to? All I can see is 'an increase in hen harriers' long as it is somewhere else in the country, and some vague plan to tackle persecution, which appears to be a continuation of volunteers monitoring nests and tracking, only to find individual birds disappearing in mysterious circumstances and non existent trails being instantly cold. Not sure what has been signed up to by the shooting industry that concedes any ground whatsoever. Hopefully, you are right, Martin, and I am proved wrong.  

  • Many thanks for sharing your view, Paul.  I disagree that this is the status quo.  We have the landowning community signed up to a plan to tackle persecution and increase hen harriers.  Of course, action will speak louder than words and this year's hen harrier breeding season will obviously be the first test of their commitment to the plan.

  • As a volunteer for the RSPB, I am finding it increasingly difficult to support the charity's stance on this issue.

    In the six point plan, two points refer to monitoring (what happened to the monitored birds in 2015?), one to 'working closely with', and one to 'share best practice.' Where is this best practice? In your blog on 9 Oct (

    you seemed to imply a growing impatience with the grouse shooting industry, their reluctance to 'come to the table'and the complete lack of grouse moors that come anywhere near to being managed in a sustainable way. In your words: "If there is, we would love to know."

    You concluded the blog with the words: "The status quo is not an option and we cannot allow it to persist much longer." This is precisely what the Hen Harrier Action Plan is doing.

    The fact that this plan has the wholehearted support of Tim Bonner, chief executive of the Countryside Alliance (CA), should be ringing alarm bells. The CA's primary purpose is to campaign on behalf of the hunting and shooting interests who see the hen harrier as a pest.

    Point five: "Work with landowners to reintroduce hen harriers to suitable areas in the South of England." - In other words: introduce a dozen harriers in an area well away from grouse moors so that, in five years time, when the half dozen harriers on the Forest of Bowland 'disappear in mysterious circumstances', the shooting brigade can point to the brilliant success of the plan in doubling harrier numbers in England.

    The point that is missing: There is enough habitat for 300 breeding pairs of harriers in England, our aim is to have at least 100 by 2030.

  • Inevitably, James, we focused our efforts on measures to tackle persecution.  We have always supported the first four parts of the plan, which if properly resourced/adopted, should help crack down on illegal persecution.