Jeff Knott is RSPB's Head of Nature Policy. Here he shares his own personal perspective on the decision to walk away from Defra's Hen Harrier Action Plan. 

It’s always disappointing when you invest a lot of your time and energy into something and it doesn’t work out as you’d hoped. Whether it’s work, sports or relationships; nothing stings quite as much as the disappointment of unfulfilled potential.

The Hen Harrier Action Plan, created under Defra’s Upland Stakeholder Forum has been like that for me and has had a bit of all three. The potential of a positive opportunity. The misplaced optimism of an England football campaign. And ultimately the disappointing realisation that it’s just not working out.

Four years. That is, to coin a technical phrase, a bloody long time! Four years ago we were gearing up for the London Olympics – seems an age ago doesn’t it?

But four years is also how long discussions went on to try and hammer out an agreement that all parties could agree on and that most importantly, would deliver the recovery of hen harriers. I was the RSPB representative in most of those meetings. While discussion was often difficult and debate was usually forthright, it did feel like there was potential. Getting everyone – conservationists, shooters, landowners, the Government - around a table to try to agree on how to save England’s hen harriers (and only that) was always going to be challenging, but it was a prize worth fighting for. And that’s what kept me going through years of meetings.

When the plan was published earlier this year, we welcomed it. Not because it was perfect – it wasn’t (but then I’d argue no compromise agreement ever is) – but because it represented the potential for progress. Unfortunately, that potential has proved to be as fleeting and as unfulfilled as that of Roy Hodgson’s men at Euro 2016.

I’m not going to repeat the evidence for the lack of progress. For that, give Martin Harper’s excellent blog from last Monday a read. It is clear that the opportunity the action plan presented has not been grasped. The events of this season have made it abundantly clear that the people I spent years sitting round tables with are unable to deliver the real changes we need to see on the ground. And when it’s clear a partnership can’t deliver what it needs to, then it’s time to separate.

And let’s be abundantly clear. The action plan has not failed to deliver because of the RSPB. It has failed to deliver because illegal killing has not ended and hen harriers remain in danger.

What’s my over-riding sentiment to this? Anger? Depression? Disappointment?

No – its determination.

Determination that this will be the last failed process. Determination that we will all, especially law-abiding shooting estates, grasp the real opportunity presented by licensing. Determination that we will continue to work with partners on the ground to protect the birds. Determination that we will save our hen harriers.

And licensing really does offer an opportunity. It’s not a blanket approach, but targeted specifically at driving up standards. Progressives in the shooting community should be looking to embrace licensing as a way to identify and marginalise illegality and bad practice. There are plenty out there calling for a total ban on driven grouse shooting. Over 64,000 have signed this petition. For me, taking licensing seriously provides the grouse shooting industry with an option to avoid the failure of the Hen Harrier Action Plan being seen as another milestone on the way to ever increasing calls for an outright ban on driven grouse shooting and the land use and practices that support it. It’s an opportunity they mustn't let slip by.

Have I wasted the last four years working on an action plan that has failed entirely? I don’t think so. Because much like failure in sports, in relationships, indeed in life, with hen harriers if we learn the lessons and move forward to achieve our goals in the future, ultimately it will all be worth it.

If you share my determination, please attend one of the upcoming Hen Harrier Day events on 6th/7th August and, if you live in Scotland, sign this petition supporting calls for licensing.

  • Jeff,

    Multi-agency, 6-element plans involving 2 pillars that are still in their formative stages are very unlikely to deliver ‘immediate progress’, not least because those 2 elements haven’t even commenced - hence my question about the ‘Measures of Success’, and their associated timelines, that our Society was working to.  What exactly were they?

    On the southern reintroduction I will ask around, as you suggest.  And on the subject of reintroductions, just been reading in ‘British Birds’ about the successful 6 year-long, multi-agency, multi-stage, cirl bunting project in Devon/Cornwall, see here - .  That's the way to do it!  Thank goodness the team there didn't give up when it wasn't looking good, but chose instead to extend the project by 2 years.

    Finally, as I recall, the phrase used was the Pythonesque ‘give him a knee-in-the-groin from me’ (that your colleague seemed quite keen to deliver I might add), and very happy to do so in person when we next see each other :-)

  • Keith

    As a member and volunteer, thank you for your ongoing support and for your thoughts here.

    We were supportive of the action plan, but only on condition it deliver immediate progress. Having so patently failed to do so, continued support was untenable.

    On southern reintroduction, as I no longer sit on the group, you'd have to ask those on the group where it has now got to.

    And as you'll have noticed, I wasn't at Ragley. Maybe we'll bump into each other at Birdfair. If we do, you can kick me in the balls in person, rather than asking my colleagues to do it on your behalf ;-)


  • Jeff,

    As you are well aware, I take an interest in all birds.  I have enjoyed watching and photographing breeding and wintering hen harriers for 40+ years, in Scotland, the Netherlands and Germany (and their close ‘cousins’ in North America and New Zealand).  I am posting here in my capacity as an RSPB member and volunteer (as I thought the second sentence of my posting below stated fairly clearly, but perhaps not).  Here's the relevant sentence again - "Here’s a member and volunteer’s perspective."  

    As members, my wife and I are some of those folk who fund our Society, you know the staff salaries, (underfunded) pension plan, upkeep of existing, and acquisition of new, nature reserves and all the other seemingly boring but essential stuff.  As a volunteer I am one of those folk who saves the Society money by carrying out surveying, protection and representational duties in my spare time.  That way, the Society doesn’t have to take on extra staff, or hire ecological consultants or the like – I do it for free, as well as paying membership fees to help fund full and part time staff, infrastructure and other fixed, incidental and opportunity costs.  Not to waste them on half-hearted, on-the-bus/off-the-bus participation in what I consider to be a very important government-endorsed, multi-agency, conservation initiative that warrants fully-engaged, wholehearted commitment for however long it takes to secure the hen harrier’s future.    

    Glad to hear that our Society is continuing to support two thirds of the HHAP, why then announce with great fanfare that we were withdrawing support from the scheme?  And you still haven’t answered my query about the Southern England reintroduction pillar of the Project – what is happening with that?  And still struggling to understand how the situation changed between the Conservation Director’s clear and unambiguous statement on 6th June, and his volte-face on 25th July – please enlighten us.  For my part, if our Society wishes to Influence, positively, law abiding estates and responsible organisations - and anyone else for that matter - then it needs to engage with them in a sustained and fully constructive and collaborative manner, for the long-term, not flounce out of painstakingly built partnerships and initiatives at the first hint of difficulty.      

    Finally, I won’t be attending next week, because I have no desire to support the RSPB’s former Conservation Director - the chief proponent of the events - after his shocking blog postings of 6th and 7th October 2014 when he incited his readers to denigrate, disparage and generally abuse gamekeepers en masse, see here - and here - .  This thoroughly nasty piece of on-line, rabble rousing and incitement was very aptly dubbed a ‘Gamekeeper Hate Fest’ by one of our very own Skydancer Project volunteers – see the final Comment on the 7th October 2014 posting.  I prefer to support the hen harrier by getting out on the ground and reporting anything suspicious I see or find to the police – like the dead hen harrier I found in the Scottish uplands last year.  No signs of foul play in that particular instance according to the Police Service of Scotland and the Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture experts who analysed the samples I collected (because no-one else was prepared to).    

    Looking forward to seeing you tomorrow at Ragley?