Hen Harrier LIFE project Community Engagement Officer Roisin Taylor reflects on her experiences working with gamekeeping students and finds reasons to be optimistic about the future of England’s hen harriers.  

Regular readers of this blog will know that the world of hen harriers can be difficult. Following the elation of the breeding season and new chicks making their way into the world , we then enter a seemingly constant cycle of news about the death or suspicious disappearance of birds, so it can be easy to believe there isn’t much to be optimistic about.

However, I’ve been lucky enough in my role as Community Engagement Officer to work with college students who are studying subjects such as gamekeeping, land management, animal welfare and countryside management, and young people often bring a sense of optimism and a willingness to move forward. As we come to the end of the project in 2019 and our community engagement programme winds down, I have been reflecting on some of the work that doesn’t hit the headlines, but is vitally important in reaching people who will be looking after our countryside.

Our team have worked hard to educate people about hen harriers and the challenges they face. To date, we have actively engaged with over 12,000 people through workshops, talks and events at schools, colleges and public venues.

During the Hen Harrier LIFE project, we wanted to work closely with the gamekeeping and land management communities, because the students on these courses would soon be out in the real world and making decisions in their work that would directly impact hen harriers in terms of how they were managing the moorlands where these birds spend their time. For example, when and where they choose to burn heather and plant trees or how many grouse they raise on hills for shooting and how they deal with predators that might try to eat those grouse

We start with a short presentation on the facts and scientific literature on hen harriers including where the birds live, their life cycle, what they eat and the results of the regular hen harrier survey showing how the population size is changing over time. We then call on the students to help us to find a way forward and prompt a debate on how we might progress things in the future. Should we just continue as we are and allow the hen harrier population to continue its decline to extinction? Should we look at initiating licencing and regulation of the grouse shooting industry to ensure hen harriers are allowed to live alongside working grouse moors? Should we just ban grouse shooting altogether?

As well as encouraging the students to think about their own personal feelings on the matter, we also ask each group to take on the thoughts and feelings of a particular person in the community who is affected by this issue, including a game keeper, a land owner, a local business owner, a conservationist, a scientist. Following discussions in small groups, we then asked the students to volunteer to share their views or what they thought the community might think.

Over the course of the sessions, there were very few people who felt that things should be allowed to continue as they are. It was clear that allowing hen harriers to become extinct was not an option, and it was encouraging to see the students discussing how this might happen and generally they tried to strike a balance between allowing grouse shooting to continue at a sustainable level whilst also encouraging hen harriers in their natural habitat.

This generation of land managers, countryside management students and game keepers were optimistic for a more balanced future. They saw the remarkable nature of the skydancing hen harrier and argued that options like diversionary feeding or vicarious liability were beneficial ways of tackling a population decline in the hen harrier species, whilst maintaining rural upland economies.

Wildlife tourism was seen as an advantageous addition to an economy based around management of grouse. Diversionary feeding was repeatedly argued to be an ‘obvious solution’ to a what has in the past been termed a ‘conflict’ between conservationists and members of the shooting industry.

I was encouraged and invigorated by the compromise and conversation, and feel optimistic about this new generation of gamekeepers and land managers.