Articles Hen Harriers: in the line of fire


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Mark Avery
Last year there were just two pairs of Hen Harriers breeding in the uplands of England — both unsuccessfully, as it happened — whereas government agencies tell us that those hills have sufficient suitable habitat to hold more than 300 pairs. This year there are three pairs, and some are telling us that this should cheer us up. Huh!

In the UK as a whole, the science shows that there could be around 2,500 pairs of Hen Harrier, and yet there is a third of that number.

This species isn't just rarer than it should be across the country: there are also some striking gaps in its range. Seemingly ideal areas have practically no Hen Harriers nesting in them — southern and eastern Scotland and the north of England are the main examples. What do these areas have in common? Their upland land use is dominated by intensive grouse moor management.

Birdwatch August 2014
One morning in north Wales in early summer this year, I saw a male Hen Harrier briefly as it floated over the heather and then quartered a wet area before disappearing from sight. This was on 6 June — the 60th anniversary of the Protection of Birds Act becoming law. This important piece of legislation gave full legal protection to (almost) all British birds, their nests and eggs, yet there are fewer Hen Harriers in England now than on that day when the law was enacted, and I had to travel to Wales for my best chance of seeing one.

This does not seem like progress. A fully protected and wonderful bird is being criminally killed because it is in conflict with a 'countryside sport' or 'countryside industry', depending on how you regard grouse shooting.

This year we are all waking up to the fact that we can do something about it. The summer of 2014 is seeing an unprecedented backlash against grouse shooting. We have been quiet for too long, and now birders, anti-shooting groups, those worried about damage to blanket bogs, ramblers and a host of other people are pointing at intensive grouse moor management and saying that it must clean up its act or its days are numbered.

There are several new initiatives under way that have been designed to help Hen Harriers by supporting the growing movement for change. You can participate too — it's easy and costs nothing to join the many who want progress to protect this needlessly threatened British raptor:

Read the full-length version of Mark Avery's article on Hen Harriers in the August issue of Birdwatch magazine, on sale now at all good newsagents.

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The information in this article was believed correct at the time of writing. BirdGuides accepts no responsibility for errors, or for any consequences of acting on information in the article. The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily shared by BirdGuides Ltd.

hide section Reader comments (31)

Also 4/5 pairs have disappeared mysteriously in central Radnorshire over the last couple of years.
   Pete Jennings, 05/08/14 19:52Report inappropriate post Report 
Well done Mark, keep up this good work and thank you. Peter Cartwright
   Peter, 06/08/14 11:45Report inappropriate post Report 
#1 Foxes perhaps? http://www.scribd.com/doc/233369217/Hen-Harriers-nest-failures-predation-on-Skye-From-Scottish-Birds-magazine-Feb-14
   KCOWIESON, 06/08/14 11:48Report inappropriate post Report 
#1 ....or perhaps there is a wind farm nearby? http://www.rspb.org.uk/news/336895-harrier-deaths-renew-calls-for-continued-windfarm-monitoringnd-cats/
   KCOWIESON, 06/08/14 13:03Report inappropriate post Report 
Here's a direct quote from the wind farm news item that Keith references in #4: "Sustained persecution has placed the hen harrier under significant pressure, with the raptor teetering on the brink of extinction in England. However, wind farm collisions, the apparent reason for the death of these two birds, remain very rare events indeed."
   Nick Moran, 06/08/14 14:20Report inappropriate post Report 
#5 But no driven-grouse shooting anywhere nearby, so must be something else in this instance? On Skye, and many other non-grouse moor locations, losses often thought to be due to mammalian (often fox) predation. Don't know the situation in central Radnorshire.
   KCOWIESON, 06/08/14 15:02Report inappropriate post Report 
#6 Keith, my guess is we'll never know why, as Pete suggests, "4/5 pairs [of Hen Harrier] have disappeared mysteriously in central Radnorshire over the last couple of years". I very much doubt Mark – nor anyone else who is outraged that "Last year there were just two pairs of Hen Harriers breeding in the uplands of England...whereas government agencies tell us that those hills have sufficient suitable habitat to hold more than 300 pairs" – would deny that there are a range of factors that negatively impact Hen Harrier productivity. Mark's point is clear and simple though: there is one constraint on productivity that it's high time we did something about – illegal persecution.
   Nick Moran, 06/08/14 15:30Report inappropriate post Report 
I shall expand: The adults, males and females, have 'disappeared' during the breeding season, mostly early on, having been established and quite stable in numbers for some years. No turbines and not foxes I'm afraid. The same 'mystery' here as in England.
   Pete Jennings, 06/08/14 16:08Report inappropriate post Report 
#6 Indeed. However, I was referring to Pete's observation @ #1, from central Wales, that some Harriers had mysteriously disappeared there, where there is little/no grouse shooting, and suggested some possible alternative scenarios. In the Skye case, where stable numbers also plummeted, it was the installation of nest cameras that helped solve the mystery of disappearing birds. There is nothing like incontrovertible empirical evidence, captured on camera, to solve such mysteries.
   KCOWIESON, 06/08/14 17:10Report inappropriate post Report 
Most of the heather moorlands in central Radnorshire are managed for grouse shooting.
   Pete Jennings, 06/08/14 17:30Report inappropriate post Report 
#10 Driven or walked-up?
   KCOWIESON, 06/08/14 19:24Report inappropriate post Report 
Undoubtedly there are natural circumstances that affect hen harrier populations locally, but to start blaming native predators like foxes or mustelids for the harriers' decline is a distraction favoured by interested parties. As conservationists we should be careful not to mimic the attitudes or practices of gamekeepers, or 'wildlife managers' as they like to be known nowadays. Having observed and monitored breeding hen harriers intensively for over fifteen years, I have come to the...more more
   Iain Gibson, 06/08/14 22:25Report inappropriate post Report 
I have long been of the opinion that it is LANDOWNERS and not managers or gamekeepers who should be prosecuted for not taking sufficient responsibility for illegal persecution of raptors on shooting land.
   Joan Morton, 07/08/14 08:21Report inappropriate post Report 
#12 Don't disagree, however this thread started with the mysterious disappearance of HH in central Radnorshire and I suggested that perhaps foxes, or maybe even a windfarm, could also be factors in areas where intensive driven grouse shooting was absent. (And it sounds as though my assumption that there was no intensive driven grouse shooting there may be wrong, as Pete Jennings alludes to at #10. Thanks for clarification Pete). I think the conclusion of the Skye study, referenced at #3,...more more
   KCOWIESON, 07/08/14 09:51Report inappropriate post Report 
If the Royal Family can escape prosecution then their 'friends' can and their friends the MP's will do little to help.....
   Laurie Allan, 07/08/14 10:49Report inappropriate post Report 
Can anyone explain to me why it is driven grouse moors on which raptor persecution appears to be higher and not "walked" grouse moors. Surely the incentive for gamekeepers to "control" predators is just as high on both types of shooting moors?
   Ian Bradshaw, 07/08/14 12:32Report inappropriate post Report 
#16 Ian: see Arjun Amar's (excellent) post on the BOU blog. Your question is answered, in part at least, by the two points under the photo of the moorland managed for grouse shooting.
   Nick Moran, 07/08/14 12:42Report inappropriate post Report 
it has long been recorded that HH have been declining on the northen uplands there is one reason for this and that is they are controlled by game keepers, its not rocket science where our raptors are going,they are not going on holiday to spain, my local wintering HH, simply do not return to the Durham dales this winter, please support the HH day where ever you can..........
   Nigel Bastin, 07/08/14 14:10Report inappropriate post Report 
Nick in #7 "there is one constraint on productivity that it's high time we did something about – illegal persecution." I gave up with the RSPB, BTO and my local group in utter frustration when I could not get any answers to, amongst many other issues, why it was that the RSPB would not publicise John Squire Armitage's epetition calling for the licensing of game keepers thereby potentially unleashing their so called million voices for nature. Not so long ago I was actively trying to put something back into the birds that have given me a lifetime pleasure in the hope they'll be around for future generations. I gave up not because of those who willfully destroy nature but because of those who purport to protect it. When they show a REAL interest in protecting nature I may return but they'll have to do a damn sight better than they're currently doing !
   Phil Davis, 07/08/14 21:06Report inappropriate post Report 
I agree with Phil in the above , I have done a lot of surveys in the past for both the BTO and Natural England, mostly on Hen-Harriers and Goshawk, and yet received very little in help from either. I and many other Independent Raptor researchers feel that the RSPB will never do very much or shout from the roof tops because of their Royal connection. But I will never give up, who has more right, who was in our green and pleasant land first the Raptor or the shooter.
   Nigel Bastin, 08/08/14 08:43Report inappropriate post Report 
Nigel (#20) not many people agree with me! so many thanks. I saw giving up as a last ditch but positive approach because after years of funding the "State of Nature" report told me I'd been wasting my time and money! Shedding light on failure might wake these guys up and move the focus from the "pension funds" to actually delivering what the vast majority want to see for their money! The RSPB would not help when I tried to tackle, as an individual, the issue of shooting trips to Morrocco arranged by a UK company to blast Turtle Doves from the skies. I tried suggesting a tagging and monitoring scheme also that was met with prevarication by both the RSPB and BTO. A month or two later I got an email asking for funds to do precisely the same thing! Do they not understand what that does to committed individuals who want to provide practical help?
   Phil Davis, 08/08/14 09:41Report inappropriate post Report 
Phil (#19) and Nigel (#20) - I understand your frustrations. Two points I think need to be made: 1) Whatever has gone before, the current HHD initiative seems to me to mark a (big) forward step in drawing the matter to the attention of the general public and thus raising its profile. 2) BTO is a non-campaigning organisation (it does not have the resources or skills to campaign; furthermore to do so would be seen by some as jeopardising the impartial nature of its science). We're fortunate to have a rich tapestry of conservation organisations in Britain; this can and does work because these organisations operate in different niches and bring different skills to the table. With this in mind, it does not seem appropriate to compare the response/support you felt you received on a campaign-related issue from a non-campaigning organisation to that which you received from organisations that can and do campaign.
   Nick Moran, 08/08/14 09:47Report inappropriate post Report 
Good morning. I agree with the views and opinions made by Nigel & Phil above, so thank you guys for taking the time and making the effort to express them. I am fortunate enough to reside just a few easy miles away from a HH breeding territory, I just hope that they are still there after the moor was dug up and turned into a conifer plantation! Just who exactly allowed that to happen? Now, once again, I'm being asked to do my bit. However, I couldn't agree more with Nick, there are plenty of us out here, mostly like me, just sitting shaking our heads in despair at it all, but with a more joined up approach and with a more direct leadership we might just achieve something at last.
   David Kinnear, 08/08/14 10:30Report inappropriate post Report 
Nick (#22) I had the pleasure of meeting you when you made a great effort to address my local group on their home patch regarding the adoption of BirdTrack as a replacement for a home grown system that was proving problematic in the succession of our local recorder. You are a one of the good guys!! However, you have no idea about the frustrations suffered by myself and it seems others when trying to get through to "conservationists", both amateur and professional, the idea that nobody other...more more
   Phil Davis, 08/08/14 19:00Report inappropriate post Report 
Like Phil (#24) I find it difficult to be optimistic, but like Nick (#22) I'm hoping a significant sea change is finally taking place. I've often found myself out on a limb over the years, having advocated a bolder approach to campaigning for wildlife and nature conservation. Ethics has never been a strong point in the movement, as a sometimes elitist higher education system persuaded some to distance themselves from the scientific 'crime' of sentimentality. On its own that can muddy many an...more more
   Iain Gibson, 08/08/14 22:38Report inappropriate post Report 
Iain, in his book The Aristos in which the author and philosopher John Fowles presents his views on all of life, he stated the christian church offers sanctuary but takes great care to ensure sanctuary be needed! My criticism of the RSPB is much the same. Of course it does a great job of plugging the dam but personally I don't want my future bird watching to be confined to a series of theme parks. The more people get this then perhaps they, the RSPB, will be forced to change and truly harness their existing support and build upon it. If they don't then lets shine a light on the failings. John Squire Armitage's epetition was badly let down by the RSPB IMHO. If the royal charter is an imediment to full on conservation then drop it. It was suggested the lack of interest in my appeals for help regarding Turtle Doves in Morrocco was precisely because of the "royal" thing.
   Phil Davis, 09/08/14 10:10Report inappropriate post Report 
Another alternative view of this debate/initiative is provided by Charles Clover in yesterday's Sunday Times. The headline is here http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/comment/columns/charlesclover/article1444695.ece. You'll need the paper or a subscription to see the complete artilcle but Charles provides a reasoned argumnent for a win-win "art of the possible" approach to Hen Harrier revival and ongoing conservation.
   Phil Davis, 11/08/14 08:10Report inappropriate post Report 
And in addition to #27, the BTO has posted an excellent summary on its website here - http://www.bto.org/national-offices/scotland/our-work/selected-highlights/hen-harrier
   KCOWIESON, 11/08/14 10:54Report inappropriate post Report 
Finally(?), here is Prof Steve Redpath and others' potential solution to this thoroughly divisive, goodwill-damaging, scarce resource-consuming, ultimately futile conflict - http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1365-2664.12315/abstract
   KCOWIESON, 12/08/14 14:54Report inappropriate post Report 
#29 A direct quote from that paper: "The hen harrier is a species of high conservation concern in the UK and on Annex 1 of the EU Birds Directive (79/409/EEC, now codified in 147/2009/EC). In the UK, the principle threat to the breeding population is thought to stem from illegal killing by those involved in the management of grouse. Such illegal activity limits the breeding success, numbers and range of harriers on moorland managed for grouse shooting (Etheridge, Summers & Green 1997; Stott 1998; Anon. 2000; Holmes et al. 2003; Sim et al. 2007)". From what I've read in the past few weeks, many people see this as the root cause of the conflict to which you refer, and it is this issue that is the target of the campaign featured above.
   Nick Moran, 12/08/14 15:53Report inappropriate post Report 
Matt Ridley in yesterday's Times draws attention to the "art of the possible" again (Charles Clover before him) refering to a win-win scheme that moor owners are ready to sign up to. Why not give it a go rather than employ tactics that Keith (#29) so rightly suggests will lead to nowhere fast. Despite all the self congratulatory stuff on various blogs, the current "campaign" looks to be heading for the same outcome as John Squire Armitage's ePetition, with 13,000 signatures and a few hundred (of the million voices) turning out on the day likely to draw a similar, less than satisfactory, response from a "short trousered lad" somewhere in governement. But if as is likely the "campaign" in its current form is to blunder on, at what point would Barry Gardiner really take note I wonder? My guess is a million voices would do the trick.
   Phil Davis, 12/08/14 16:47Report inappropriate post Report 

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