The voluntary approach of the Hen Harrier Action Plan has failed, leaving licensing as the only viable option.

I’m generally very patient.  My natural preference is to build partnerships and work to make positive change from the inside with those who want to abide by the law and deliver progress.

However, sometimes that approach simply doesn’t work and there can be no clearer example of that right now than hen harriers, where illegal killing of this rare bird remains its most significant threat.

The RSPB played a full part in the production of Defra’s Hen Harrier Action Plan and despite disagreeing with certain points (notably brood management), welcomed its publication earlier this year. However, at the time, I noted the need for immediate progress to help build trust in the approach.

Unfortunately this has not happened.  

Image courtesy of Shay Connolly

In 2015, we were all extremely frustrated by there being just six successful hen harrier nests from 12 attempts in England.  2016 is on course to be much worse, with only three nests at the time of writing, none of which are on grouse moors.   

Some will argue that the weather or vole population is to blame, however, early returns from the national hen harrier survey suggest numbers away from intensively managed grouse moors in north and west Scotland have done ok. We remain convinced that the primary reason for the hen harrier‘s continuing scarcity remains illegal killing.  

Simply put, hen harriers (and other birds of prey) are illegally killed on some estates because they eat grouse. Crimes are committed to increase the number of grouse that can be shot. This year, there have been a series of depressingly predictable incidents in England and Scotland, the disappearance of the hen harriers ‘Chance’ and ‘Highlander’, the use of pole traps and the hen harrier decoy in the Peak District. And as well as hen harriers, it has also been a really bad year for red kites in North and West Yorkshire with several suspicious deaths.  In addition, there are more cases working their way through the legal system.

All of this adds up to a picture which shows that the commitments made in the Hen Harrier Action Plan are not being delivered. People are still breaking the law and not enough is being done within the grouse shooting community to effect change.

Some will argue that we should be more patient as behavioural change takes time.  But the hen harrier does not have time on its side and the longer hen harriers remain on the brink, the greater public antipathy towards intensive grouse shooting will become.

Hen harriers and other birds of prey in our uplands will not recover without a completely different approach.  

We have therefore decided to withdraw our support from Defra’s Hen Harrier Action Plan.

We have come to this conclusion because we believe that reform to protect the hen harrier will only come through licensing of driven grouse shooting where, for example, crimes committed on estates managed for shooting should result in the withdrawal of their right to operate.  

A licensing system isn’t about tarring everyone with the same brush, or blaming a whole community for the actions of the few.  Quite the opposite: it is effectively a targeted ban that will stamp out illegal activity and drive up the environmental standards of shooting.

Law abiding estates have nothing to fear from this system and, indeed, I believe that it is in their own interests to champion such an approach.  We believe that this is the only way to deliver a significant shift in attitudes and potentially secure a future for their sport. Licensing systems appear to work well in most other European countries, so why not here as well?

We fully support the current petition in Scotland and we would like to reinvigorate the call for Defra to introduce licensing in England too.

Of course, we will continue to work on the ground with our partners, especially raptor workers (who monitor and protect birds of prey), landowners who wish to see a progressive future, local people and the police to provide the most effective possible year round protection.

My preference is always for the partnership approach, but partnership requires action from both sides. In this case, that has failed. When shooting organisations are either unable or unwilling to lead the necessary change to rein in illegal activity, then reform must be delivered from outside. That is what we will now seek to do though promoting licensing.

I fully expect our critics (such as the grouse industry funded You Forgot The Birds) to push out a wearyingly predictable series of attacks on the RSPB in coming weeks.  I can only imagine that this is designed to divert attention from criminal activity on some intensive grouse moors.  But this won't shake our resolve to seek change.

An early opportunity to talk more about all of this will be at the Hen Harrier Day events. I’ll be at the Hen Harrier Day North East event at the RSPB's Saltholme reserve on Sunday 7 August, while my boss Mike Clarke will be at the event at Rainham Marshes on Saturday 6 August. Other RSPB representatives will be at various of the other events too. I hope to see many of you there and hopefully many more will be able to attend other events across the country.

Together, we can and will save our hen harriers.

  • THE petition (Ban Driven Grouse Shooting is now close to 82,000 signatures, adding an average of over 2000 signatures a day (and we now only need less than 450 signatures a day to make the 100,000 before the deadline of 20th September). I was wondering if RSPB will be getting behind this new (and very rapidly growing) pro-raptor petition; Suspend Natural England licence to kill buzzards Will you be signing Keith?

  • The truth (direct from the horse's mouth, oops Amanda Anderson) about the Moorland Association, criminal activity, and brood theft;

  • Martin,

    Had a good conversation with Mike Clarke yesterday at the Countryfile Live event.  Discussed amongst other things our Society’s decision to withdraw from the HHAP.  Good to hear some more of the reasoning behind the decision from our Chief Executive, however and notwithstanding, nothing Mike said changes my opinion that this was a premature and ill-conceived step that will do little to help efforts to save our hen harriers.

    And for James Clarke…’s some more shocking ‘anti-raptor propaganda’ - & & & & &

  • I'll come back when anyone else is reading, Keith (Director of anti-raptor propagandists Songbird Survival). In the meantime I'll be enjoying the fact that this petition is currently the fastest growing Parlimentary Petition (at 142 signatures an hour), totalling 71,509 at the time of writing. I like to think that you have made a (admittedly minor) contribution to it; if you could limit you hand-wringing self justifications to a single paragraph at a time (so that a few more people might actually read them) you could be of even more help. Cheers Keith!

  • Martin, having recently been side-tracked by non-relevant postings to your blog about the Hen Harrier Action Plan, I would like to comment on the subject in hand.

    As you know, my wife and I are keen advocates for the RSPB and have met you on a few occasions and even joined you on protest marches in London.

    We have been active supporters of hen harrier day events. We are proud members of the “sodden 570”, were present at the Goyt Valley rally last year and we will be at Rainham on Saturday to hear what Mike Clarke and others have to say. I have the hat and badges at the ready!

    I have also been happy to be one of the first on each occasion to sign Mark Avery’s petition on Driven Grouse shooting. I’m convinced that very many thousands of the signatories are RSPB members. A major reason for signing has been to try to bring to a wider audience how the shooting estates are managed to maximise grouse for shooting and the effects this has on the overall upland environment. The objective of getting a debate in Parliament now seems attainable. My expectations of getting a ban under this Government are minimal but hopefully some legislation like a licensing system or vicarious liability could be within grasp.

    I was dismayed when the RSPB signed up to the hen harrier action plan. The expectation of success, even in the long run, seemed remote. The RSPB was significantly outnumbered on the committee by the shooting community and I had little faith in the brood management initiative and the relocation objective. The RSPB’s insistence on getting breeding numbers up to viability on the moors before implementing other actions was laudable although no numbers were set. This, however, was very dependent on the cessation of all illegal killing and persecution of raptors, and with active support of breeding pairs by both gamekeepers and the RSPB. In only the first year it has become obvious that the shooting community has made absolutely no effort to achieve this and the RSPB are quite right to have withdrawn support.

    Let’s get a debate in Parliament by supporting this petition:

    We’re helping at the RSPB stand at Countryfile on Sunday; maybe see some of you there.

    Richard Ebbs. (aka Glossy Ibis, not the other way round!)