It's good to see (here) the shooting community supporting the need for a recovery plan for the hen harrier in England - this is a positive step forward.
As I have written previously (for example, see here), we want a world richer in nature and we want to see a recovery plan that does what it says on the tin, i.e. it secures recovery for the hen harrier in England. This is something to which the UK Government is committed to through its Biodiversity 2020 Strategy and for which it has legal obligations under the EU Birds Directive.
A target-led approach to species recovery which focuses on tackling the key threats has long been a theme of nature conservation and, indeed, was the basis of the UK Biodiversity Action Plan established in 1994 by the then Environment Secretary, John Gummer, now Lord Deben.
In our discussions with Defra, we have sought to ensure that the developing plan focuses attention on the right issues, especially tackling the root causes of decline. In the case of the hen harrier, the key threat constraining recovery is illegal persecution.
There has been some debate about the relative merits of a so-called brood management scheme (BMS) whereby hen harrier chicks would be removed from a moor when a threshold of birds was reached to remove perceived predation pressure on grouse.
This is an idea that emerged a few years ago and which we have given considerable thought – indeed we even wrote an article in the Journal of Applied Ecology on the subject in 2009 (see here).
We have concluded that this may merit experimental investigation in England in the future, but only once hen harrier numbers have recovered to a pre-agreed level and less interventionist approaches, particularly diversionary feeding, have been widely attempted.
It is regarding the conservation target that we and the shooting community differ. They would like to pilot the BMS now. We think this is not only premature but potentially not compliant with existing legislation. It would also send a terrible signal to nature conservation that it is appropriate to 'manage' a highly threatened population of an iconic species.
To survive in the 21st century, driven grouse shooting must be able to demonstrate that it can operate in harmony with healthy populations of birds of prey like the hen harrier and that it can address the other negative environmental impacts associated with grouse moor management (here). This is why we think it is right and timely to license driven grouse shooting.
The conflict between grouse shooting and environment is understandably becoming an increasingly emotive debate and there have, over the past three years, been four separate e-petitions on the Number 10 website about birds of prey and grouse shooting. Most people want the wildlife in our uplands to flourish and I note the growing support for Hen Harrier day being organised on 10 August. While I shall be on holiday for the day itself, I shall be there in spirit hoping that it helps put a spotlight on illegal killing. I know many RSPB supporters, staff and volunteers will be attending and adding their support to the call for the end of illegal persecution of the hen harrier.
In the meantime, we look forward to continuing our work with Defra, the shooting community and others to secure an effective hen harrier recovery plan so that everyone can get behind it soon. It's only by working together that we'll save the hen harrier and we're determined to reach an agreement.
Martin – many thanks for sharing your thoughts.
Whilst no two ecological situations are ever identical, there are close parallels. They both involve wildlife conflict.
In France and Spain the introduction of schemes that allows eggs to be collected (where there is genuine conflict with land use) and the chicks released some six weeks later, at designated releasing points, has ensured their birds of prey have thrived - because the root cause of illegal killing has been removed.
So why did the English partners that drafted the hen harrier recovery plan (including the RSPB), also want to include such a management scheme as part of the package of measures? Because they saw it as an essential part of the plan, since it addresses the root cause of the conflict – just as it does in France and Spain.
The principle of captive-rearing is well established and has been successfully used for a wide range of endangered species - as highlighted by the RSPB’s former Chairman of Council, Ian Newton, in his book Population Limitation in Birds. These schemes are so successful, in part, because captive-reared birds generally have better body condition and better post-fledging survival.
So, if brood management is an internationally proven conservation technique, that helps achieve the recovery of threatened populations, why are the RSPB now suggesting they could only support such a scheme after the hen harrier population has recovered? From an international perspective brood management is part of this package to get us to that position – the position where we have a thriving population of hen harriers in England, with diversionary feeding in place.
You are right that nest management has been a useful tool to improve the breeding success of harriers in southern Europe where they face the threat of nest destruction from farming. Yet, as is often the case, the context and needs are different. My understanding is that this is a temporary measure where the birds are returned following harvest and the measure is specifically designed to bolster rather than ‘manage’ the population.
As I said in the blog, it is possible that a similar approach could help hen harriers in England in the future. However, recovery must start with the end to illegal persecution and nest disturbance. Brood management is an avenue to be explored when the population in England is thriving with widespread diversionary feeding in place.
There is acceptance in the shooting community that persecution continues and it would be great if your organisation and others could do more to put an end to it. I note, for example, the efforts that the Angling Trust make to put an end to angling crime - www.anglingtrust.net/page.asp
GWCT aims to secure recovery of a species in its natural habitat, so I'd hope you will join with us in supporting the staged approach above, without the need for highly interventionist measure of nest manipulation until it is absolutely essential, and we can get the recovery plan signed off asap.
Here's the research on relocating Montagu's harriers in France from arable fields about to the harvested
The hen harrier globally is in fine fettle but as the UK is unique in its use of heather moorland for driven grouse shooting, some form of conflict has been unavoidable.
Resolving this will involve compromise from both sides and the key is obviously not the level of intervention (see above) but the point at which it occurs based on numbers of breeding hen harriers in England.
We might never know that figure, because if I had a breeding pair on my land, I'm not sure I would let anyone know!
Mainly for the sake of the birds themselves.
Martin - the RSPB were founding partners in drafting this Defra-led hen harrier recovery plan so your comments are important.
On the trial brood management scheme (BMS) - I am curious about the idea of a ‘threshold’ being reached before it could begin. In France and Spain such schemes have been used to achieve thresholds for birds of prey. Why would we not do the same in the UK?
Whilst we must not send out the ‘wrong signal’ - is there not a greater risk that, from an international perspective, the UK is seen as failing hen harriers by not testing BMS, a recognised conservation technique for threatened species?
Either way, thanks for highlighting the e-petition to publish the plan - the sooner people can read it the better.
It seems very sad that we have to agree to a plan that allows for the control of a protected species, not in response to its negative impact on the bio-diversity of the environment in which it lives but to accomodate the law-breaking activities of a minority in pursuit of sustaining unnaturally high numbers of another species for shooting. I should fully understand Keith's pragmatism if it was not having to be made as a consequence of the continued threat of human persecution. If we maintained the status quo laid down by the law, then everybody would continue in their legitmate activity whether protecting hen harriers or running grouse shoots ie no hen harrier persecution and numbers, other factors notwithstanding, would rise over time to environmentally sustainable levels.
But I know this is probably naive thinking on my part so I tend to agree with Keith about implementing the plan. However, I should like to see some more quid pro quo in the form of commitments from estate owners and their supporting organisations to engage pro-actively in activities that prevent persecution of hen harriers, reverse the catastrophic decline of hen harrier breeding success in England, and other legal measures that reduce hen harrier predation on grouse. And any evidence of illegal persecution in a particular location would allow any control measures in place to "protect" that location to be re-assessed. Otherwise, the recovery plan allows business as usual with the added legal control that hen harrier numbers may be managed in locations where they happen to do well but have an impact on managed grouse moors.
Let us also not forget that other birds of prey are also in the firing line. Any Hen Harrier recovery plan for a particular location should take into account the track of bird of prey persecution in that location.
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