A new study has provided compelling evidence that many young hen harriers in England are being illegally killed in areas associated with grouse shooting. The RSPB’s Head of Nature Policy Gareth Cunningham discusses the significance of this scientific research and what we think needs to happen next.

Published in Nature Communications yesterday, Revealing patterns of wildlife crime using satellite tags: a case study of hen harriers Circus cyaneus in the UK is the culmination of a ten-year study involving 58 satellite-tagged hen harriers. The analyses of this Natural England data have been led by the University of Cape Town and Aberdeen University with provision of key supporting data by the RSPB. .

 The paper investigated three different lines of evidence associated with hen harrier movements and their deaths or suspicious disappearances. The evidence revealed that 72% of tagged hen harriers were either confirmed as illegally killed or disappeared in circumstances in which illegal killing is the only plausible explanation. Furthermore, the likelihood of an individual hen harrier dying, or disappearing, was ten times higher within areas predominantly covered by grouse moor, compared to areas with no grouse moors.

Regular followers of this blog will know that the hen harrier, or ‘skydancer’ named after the male’s spectacular acrobatic courtship displays, is now one of England’s rarest and most vulnerable birds of prey, with the majority of the remaining UK population in Scotland.

Female hen harrier - RSPB

Hen harriers nest in upland moorland and scientists estimate there is sufficient breeding habitat in England for around 300 pairs. Yet, the bird is teetering on the brink of extinction in England. In the summer of 2018 there were only nine successful breeding attempts fledging 34 chicks – a slight increase on the previous few years but still only a fraction of what there should be.

Through the RSPB’s Hen Harrier LIFE project, we tagged some of these 34 English chicks and discovered that many of them disappeared in suspicious circumstances, including: River, Arthur, Athena, Thor, Hilma and Octavia. In fact, eight young hen harriers were lost over a 10 week period in late summer and early autumn 2018, a staggering average rate of a loss of one bird every nine days. The pattern of loss was similar for these birds– their tags were transmitting data regularly, then suddenly stopped with no sign of technical malfunction, leaving criminal interference as the most likely cause. And these are just the ones we know about through tagging.

Thor - Steve Downing 

It’s been known for a long time that hen harriers and other birds of prey including golden eagles and peregrines are illegally killed on grouse moors across the UK, and this is widely acknowledged as the main factor limiting their populations in these areas. Grouse moors are likely to be acting as “population sinks”, with raptors seeking to settle in these areas and then being killed.   

Driven grouse shooting relies on high numbers of grouse and is marketed as an elite and unique hunting system. Some people will pay thousands of pounds for a day’s shooting. Moorland managers therefore need to ensure there is a large surplus of game birds for their clients to shoot by what has become known as the “glorious twelfth” of August, when the driven grouse shooting season begins.

Representatives of the grouse shooting industry often seek to downplay the scale of illegal persecution. However, this latest paper adds to the overwhelming body of evidence, which shows that illegal killing, associated with grouse moors, is the main factor responsible for the population decline of hen harriers.

For example, the 2008 Natural England report – A Future for the Hen Harrier in England? identified wildlife crime as a main factor preventing recovery of England’s hen harrier population. And in 2013, a Strategic Assessment produced by the National Wildlife Crime Unit stated: “Intelligence continues to indicate a strong association between raptor persecution and grouse moor management”.

Identifying the true scale of persecution has been difficult. This is because the crimes take place in remote areas, the criminals involved are likely to destroy incriminating evidence and, therefore, successful prosecutions are rare.

The value of this new long-term study is that it has enabled patterns of disappearances to be assessed across a large number of birds. It provides overwhelming evidence that illegal killing of large numbers of hen harriers is occurring on grouse moors.

From an RSPB perspective, it’s clear from this study and other supporting evidence that self-regulation from within the driven grouse shooting industry has failed to stop illegal and damaging practices. Illegal persecution must stop and, in our view, it’s time for a fresh approach. We believe that driven grouse shooting estates must follow a fair set of rules and standards in the form of an effective licensing system, including provision for the removal of hunting licences where illegal practices are proven. This type of system is already commonplace in other countries across Europe and North America.

Hen harriers - Tim Jones

Furthermore, many businesses linked to the natural environment are already regulated in the UK including water, forestry and wild fisheries. There is no reason driven grouse shooting should be treated differently. Law-abiding grouse moor owners should have nothing to fear from such a licensing system, which will also provide safeguards for their legitimate interests.

We welcome steps taken by Scottish Government to set up an independent enquiry to examine grouse moor management and regulation. In May 2017, Cabinet Secretary for the Environment Climate Change and Land Reform, Roseanna Cunningham MSP, commissioned an independent enquiry to “look at managing grouse moors sustainably and within the law” and “to recommend options for regulation including licensing and other measures which could be put in place without new primary legislation”. We expect this group to report this summer.

On the back of the latest scientific evidence, showing the impacts of illegal persecution on hen harrier populations in England, we believe that there is an urgent requirement for a similar independent review of regulatory options for grouse moor management in England.

  • The NE study was based upon 58 birds. The RSPB has stated that even in 2018 they tagged more that 30 Hen Harriers. The RSPB may hold even more data than that which the excellent paper is based upon. I would like to ask the RSPB if they are prepared, using the same methodology, to provide annual updates about the satellite tag data which they hold. This would give a good indication, over time, of the success or failure of the various projects being mooted. 

    In addition , the NE data does have some contribution from birds hatched in Scotland. The annual data could possibly separate out the same figures for all nations by place the tag ceased to function, assuming the dataset is large enough. The NE data did not provide any simply presented data outside England.