It’s rapidly approaching the time of year when hen harriers will be setting up territories and attempting to breed. This is always a nerve wracking time for anyone who cares about these magnificent birds.

We’re never quite sure where they will attempt to breed and, as last year so graphically illustrated (link), we definitely can’t be sure how things will pan out.

Nesting depends on a variety of factors, including suitable breeding habitats, vole numbers and meadow pipits.

The hen harrier breeding season is always a roller coaster of emotions for all of us, most of all for those dedicated staff and volunteers on the ground trying to protect these birds. Unfortunately in recent years it’s been a rollercoaster with more downs than ups.

But this year could and must be different.

In England, the Defra Hen Harrier Action Plan (link) has now been published. This has support from Defra, its agencies, the landowning community and others like the RSPB.

Image courtesy of Mark Hamblin (

Not everyone is happy with the content of the plan (see here) and as I’ve said before, it’s not perfect (see here). Despite the imperfections, we have welcomed it, principally because of the positive opportunity for progress it presents.

Now it is for others to demonstrate that their words are matched by credible actions.

Confidence is fragile unless it is built on firm foundations, and if harriers are interfered with or illegally killed, then those foundations - the basis of the plan - will have been undermined. 

Government will inevitably then come under greater pressure to regulate grouse shooting. There is a lot at stake.

As demonstrated in a recent scientific paper from my colleagues (see here), the current intensity of grouse shooting does have significant environmental consequences – not just for hen harriers - which is why we support its licensing as a way to facilitate steps towards securing long term sustainability.

Tangible actions and progress are the key words here. We have an opportunity and it must be grasped. The RSPB will play our part in progressing the action plan but will focus our finite conservation resources on the first five elements of the plan.

For example, we have accepted an invitation to sit on a group to discuss a possible harrier reintroduction to southern England and of course we will continue satellite tagging harriers through our Life project (link).

We’ve chosen not to sit on a group to scope a possible trial of brood management.  This group has to address a number of questions (see here) including objectives of any scheme, its scientific design, its compatibility with existing wildlife legislation and the adequacy of conservation recovery before any trial can commence. Those advocating brood management will have to come up with convincing answers to these questions.

For this plan is to work, everyone must play their part to deliver its key objective - more hen harriers.

To give us confidence that the plan is working, we must see real progress this year. We’re not setting hard and fast numbers, as we recognise that any number of variables could play a part. But we are clear that progress means more hen harriers breeding successfully in more places across northern England, including on private estates, and that ‘Favourable Condition’ on the land designated for harriers in England becomes a significant step nearer.

To ensure focus remains on the conservation outcome we want, we won’t be providing day by day updates on the breeding season.

Instead, we’ll provide a mid-season update on 6 June and then let everyone know how the season has gone in late August with a detailed update. We will, of course, not hesitate to involve the police if anything untoward is found, and press for a full and speedy investigation, but we hope and expect a better season for hen harriers.

We want to be in a position to report positive news. If that happens it will give confidence to all of us that the Plan is working. If however we don’t see real progress, then it will call in to question this approach and  Defra, will need to consider how to meet its nature conservation responsibilities. We have therefore sent the minister, Rory Stewart, a letter outlining these key points.

2016 is a pivotal year for hen harriers. The action plan gives us the best opportunity for real, meaningful progress. We hope everyone will rise to the challenge. It’s vital that opportunity is grasped by all involved.

  • As you say Martin this is clearly going to be a very important breeding season for hen harriers. While it is important to fully work with and cooperate in making sure the Defra action plan is successful at least in respect of the first five elements, it is also important, I think, to maintain the high profile of the issues and environmental abuses surrounding driven grouse moor shooting. So while I understand the RSPB does not want to report daily during the nesting season, nevertheless I think as high a profile as possible of what issues are at stake here  needs to be maintained in some shape or form. I am sure that if the general public  were more fully aware of the abuses perpetrated by some driven grouse moor owners  then there would be an ever increasing ground swell of support for the RSPBs position with a corresponding abhorrence of the moorland abuses .

    The very best of luck to all for the coming nesting season.

  • Thanks both. First, it would not be tenable to translocate birds from threatened population in the uplands to the lowlands. That would be contravention of the law and IUCN guidelines. Regarding impact on Montagus, this and any other impact would have to be picked up on assessment of any reintroduction. However, the southwest is likely to be the region considered which may reduce risk.  But all these issues are to be explored and would need to be addressed through any scoping study.

  • With regard to any proposed Hen Harrier reintroductions in southern England, do we know how an additional population of HH might impact on Montagu's.   I know they exist together in Europe but our MH population is potentially fragile being at the extreme of its range.

  • You're correct, Martin, to state that a lot is at stake - what's at stake includes both the trust shown in the grouse management industry and also the credibility of the RSPB's position.

    I have a great deal of respect for the RSPB, and always have - you do incredible, solid work. But, on the issue of grouse moor management, that respect has been shaken.

    You welcome and even support a plan that 'isn't perfect'. The very notion that it's acceptable to shunt a protected species - hen harrier - off of driven grouse moors, to get the damned things out of the way, thus facilitating the on-going intensification of driven grouse shooting - you're damned right, the plan isn't perfect. Removing hen harriers in this way is just plain wrong.

    If driven grouse shooting cannot take place alongside thriving populations of wildlife then the problem is driven grouse shooting - or rather the extraordinarily high yields of shootable grouse it depends on.

    It's a land use that isn't fit for the uplands, and shifting hen harriers to facilitate its on-going intensification isn't acceptable.