Many people are keen to know how the RSPB intends to respond to Natural England’s decision to issue a licence for a trial brood management scheme of hen harriers in England.  This blog provides an update.

As stated in our initial comment on the matter and indeed consistent with what I have written before (for example, see here), the RSPB remains opposed to brood management of hen harriers.

This is why, today, we sent a letter to Natural England setting out our ecological and legal concerns in detail and requesting a response. This is called a "pre-action protocol letter" and is the first formal step before considering whether to start legal proceedings against NE.  It is an attempt to understand NE’s position, assessment and justification for this trial and see if there is further information available that may explain NE’s reasoning.

Image courtesy of Tim Melling

As a charity, we have processes in place when considering making such decisions and ultimately a Council of trustees that has to weigh up the costs and benefits of taking action. This is especially true when considering whether to start the legal process of judicial review.  While we do have to act promptly to comply with the judicial review process, we make decisions having carefully consider all angles. However, it does mean that when we do decide to take action we do so in a concerted and tenacious way to ensure we have the greatest impact.

The RSPB only takes legal action as a last resort after all other options have been exhausted, but it is a vital tool. During my time as Conservation Director, the RSPB has taken a few judicial reviews in including against Defra for its consent of a gull cull up on the Ribble, against Scottish Ministers for their consent of four offshore windfarms in the Forth of Firth and against the Ministry of Justice’s changes to the judicial review protected cost rules for environmental cases. The first and the third were successful and have helped ensure due process and compliance with legal requirements with the latter meaning NGOs and individuals once again enjoy certainty as to the extent of their financial liability at an early stage of legal proceedings.

But what about brood management?

We all know why numbers of this magnificent bird are at such worryingly low numbers: the illegal killing of harriers in order to maximise the number of grouse that can be killed on driven moors across England and Scotland.

So when England’s hen harriers are still disappearing we are keen to take whatever action is necessary to defend their future.

Brood management involves removing hen harrier broods from driven grouse moors once breeding numbers begin to impact significantly on numbers of red grouse for shooting. But the RSPB believes the first step in hen harrier recovery should be the cessation of criminal activity. By doing this, harrier numbers would begin to recover naturally and we could then look at other measures. Without that recovery, the hen harrier is at best, destined to be a rare moorland breeder and at worst will be lost from the English uplands altogether.

Fundamentally, and this is where we think NE have got it wrong, brood management is about forcing hen harriers to fit in with driven grouse shooting. That’s starting in entirely the wrong place, driven grouse shooting should instead fit around the recovery of hen harriers. And if it can’t… well, it needs to change.

I also want to point out that brood management is very different to what is known as ‘head starting’, which we support. The two interventions are very different. Head starting involves taking action to assist threatened species (such as black-tailed godwit or spoon-billed sandpiper) and give them, as the name suggests, a “head start” on their road to recovery. Once the population is faring better that active management is removed. For brood management, if it’s successful and there are more hen harriers "to manage" it would involve an ever-increasing level of intervention as density and the perceived conflict with grouse shooting increases.

In summary, while we have significant scientific and philosophical problems with brood management trial, we have taken action today because we have serious concerns about the process undertaken and the legal basis of the trial.

I shall say more as soon as we are able.  We shall still, of course, provide regular updates both here and on the Skydancer blog on the breeding season and our efforts to satellite tag as many hen harriers as possible to help monitor and protect them. 

  • As a long-term member of the charity, I fully appreciate that the RSPB often has to take a more cautionary approach to issues such as raptor persecution than some people would like to see. But I welcome your new stance to challenge brood management. When talking and persuasion gets you no-where, sometimes you have to take firmer action. I am absolutely sure that the vast majority of members and the general public would support this if they were made aware of the facts.

  • Nothing but my fullest support Martin. It is simply disgraceful that this Government, through Natural England, wish to put driven grouse shooting before our native Hen Harriers.

  • Great to hear this, Martin. As ever, the RSPB takes a considered, responsible approach, which makes your decision all the more significant.

    Once the end to persecution has enabled a meaningful recovery of hen harrier nmumbers, a hierarchy of steps should be taken to address any impacts on grouse shooting. First, can less intensive management allow harriers etc to coexist with viable grouse management? If there are still problems, can diversionary feeding address these in a particular case?

    It's wrong-headed to take high-yield, intensive driven grouse moor management as a given, as non-negotiable, and to remove things that get in its way.

    I very much hope that Jemima Parry-Jones (at the International Centre for Birds of Prey, which is planning on taking the lead on brood removal) will see her error here and think again.

  • Well done RSPB for taking this action - and for making it clear that you are united on the issue.

    As recent statements increasingly imply, the basis for this Government proposal is an acceptance of illegal activity. In what other part of society would this be acceptable ? especially when the owners of these grouse moors are some of the wealthiest people in the country.

    And what Hen Harriers are going to be meddled ? Because Hen Harrier is functionally extinct in the English uplands - only surviving on a slither of Forestry Commission moorland next to the Scottish border and protected from grouse moor managers by 10 kms of Hen Harrier inhospitable Sitka forest.

    For those who rightly quote the RSPB constitution excluding RSPB from taking a view on fieldsports, this is nothing to do with the rights and wrongs of shooting - for RSPB at least it is solely about its core charitable objective, the conservation of wild birds, and there is currently no other instance of a species in England being reduced to extinction by illegal human activity.

  • Welcome to the party, late, but still welcome.

    I'm please about the statement about tagging as many Hen Harriers as possible. The position taken by the government and Defra on these matters is completely exposed each time a tag "disappears" together with the bird. I just wish you didn't have to do this.