We're not giving up

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Martin Harper's blog

I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

We're not giving up

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I'm on holiday this week so I've lined up my colleague, Jude Lane, to post on my behalf. You might remember Jude from the end of last year when she posted about the death of a hen harrier, Bowland Betty. Jude is our Bowland Project Officermonitoring the breeding attempts of hen harriers on the United Utilities estate within the Forest of Bowland.

With the news officially out last week that no hen harriers bred successfully in England this year, where do we go from here?

We’re certainly not giving up on one of our most iconic birds of prey, that’s for sure.

Working in Bowland I am involved predominantly with species protection. Hen harrier nests (when we get them) are monitored 24 hours a day using cameras, but they also benefit from regular non-disturbance monitoring by staff and volunteers to ensure nests are progressing as we would expect and also to intervene should the nest be at risk from disturbance (at such low population densities, every nest needs to be given the greatest chance of success).

Sadly, Bowland had another blank year. However, in Northumberland, one of England’s two failed nesting attempts was protected by both cameras and a 24/7 manual watch. This was a partnership project involving RSPB staff, Natural England, the Ministry of Defence, The Forestry Commission, Northumberland National Park Authority, local raptor workers, tenants and keepers who were very cooperative and happy to deploy diversionary (artificial) feeding if the need had arisen. Back in Bowland, the work we do on the United Utilities estate has shown over decades the benefit of how good will and open communication can allow partnerships to work together in order to achieve the best possible outcomes for breeding harriers.

The loss of Bowland’s nesting harriers, for now, is part of a wider problem of providing effective protection for a bird that lives at a landscapes scale and calls the uplands of England and Southern Scotland home. Safety in one place is no guarantee of safety elsewhere. For example, take the story of Bowland Betty. This female hen harrier, from Bowland, was fitted with a satellite tag in 2011. After wandering around parts of the UK, she was located dead, after being shot on a grouse moor last year.  She was from the last cohort of harriers from Bowland.

The first blank year of hen harriers in England has to be a watershed. We believe the recovery of the hen harrier in the uplands, especially in England, will rely on the Government grasping the nettle and establishing a positive vision for managing the uplands sustainably.

This vision will take time to develop and even longer to see imprinted in our upland landscapes. In the short term we believe there are some immediate steps the Government can take.

Firstly, we believe that estate owners should be held legally responsible for crimes committed by their employees; invoking the principle of vicarious liability.

Also, we believe there should be tougher penalties for wildlife crimes and the introduction of a regulation scheme for grouse moors.

We will be working hard to try and achieve these goals in Westminster. But we can’t ignore what’s happening on the ground in some parts of our uplands.  As part of my role I also work closely with our investigations team. These guys and girls are a fantastic and incredibly passionate group of people who are driven by the desire to investigate wildlife crimes and bring offenders to justice. And believe me; you need to be passionate about this stuff to do their job.  Catching rogues Hell-bent on killing harriers is an almost impossible task, especially in some of our wildest landscapes.. Thankfully, our investigations staff are made of tough stuff, and tough stuff combined with support and intelligence provided by field staff, regional raptor study groups, local police forces, members of the public (you guys) and with the latest in surveillance technology at their disposal, they are certainly a team to be reckoned with.

Technology is helping in our battles against persecution.  One exciting area of development is radio and satellite tracking that is being carried out on hen harriers now and led to the discovery of Bowland Betty’s death. There is still so much we need to know about where harriers go once they leave their breeding areas, especially now that so few are fledging from England now (just 16 in the last 3 years). Understanding how much interaction there is between the various UK populations (especially as they are now becoming so few and far between) and what happens to harriers that don’t survive is critical in working to protect them and to catching their killers. The tragically short life of Bowland Betty highlighted both of these benefits. Although no harriers fledged in England this year, you can follow the progress of four fledglings from Langholm moor, just north of Carlisle over the border in Scotland at this page.

Hope for the recovery of the English hen harrier is not lost. But everyone with a role in this magnificent bird’s recovery, and the more sustainable management of our uplands, will have to play their part to the full.

  • Many thanks for publishing my comments Martin and in the process highlighting the link to the ePetition. If you can do that could you now email the  membership to shine the floodlights rather than a wind-up torch please?

    As George McGavin suggested in his excellent BBC program this week, the swarm often seem to intuitively know better than a handful of leaders. On that basis please let the membership make their own mind up about making a stand for nature.

  • Martin, you haven't published my last comment distinguishing between the Vicarious Liability initiative and John Squire Armitage's ePetition to licence game keepers.

    The RSPB has also not, as far as I can tell, publicised Mr Armitage's petition on your blog as your colleague Blánaid Denman the RSPB's Skydancer project Engagement Officer states you (the rspb) would in an email exchange with a commentator known as melodious:

    "While e-petitions can be a good way to raise awareness, they very rarely achieve their objective on their own merit. In the first year of the e-petition site being launched, only 10 out of 36,000 petitions reached the 100,000 mark (see here). Experience has shown that printing a link in a high-circulation magazine is unlikely to translate into a similar volume of hits on a website. The RSPB’s own Bird of Prey Campaign generated around 350,000 signatures but only through hard on the ground lobbying and collecting written signatures on specially printed pamphlets at reserves and events over a period of about two years and with significant monetary investment.

    What the e-petition does achieve, regardless of whether or not it’s successful, is a physical representation of public opinion and in that context, even 5,000, 10,000, or 20,000 signatures is still hugely positive. We will gladly draw people’s attention to the petition through appropriate tweets and blogs but I hope you now understand why we won’t be advertising it in Birds."

    Why not? And given the take up of blogs why not simply email your membership many of whom will have email addresses to raise awareness. You (the rspb) seem to saying one thing and doing another!!

    John Armitage calls for people like melodious and myself to "bore people rigid on the subject" and I've taken him literally with much "vacuous comment" on the Mark Avery blog. I won't be giving up any time soon, the Hen Harrier is the new Avocet, IMHO!!

  • Hi Martin, yes I'm aware of the vicarious liability initiative but the ePetition in question epetitions.direct.gov.uk/.../46473 is proposing a licencing or acreditation system for game keepers per se. This is a step further in my opinion and would give the individuals intent on disregarding the law something very real to think about. I suspect a great many of the million voices for nature would be interested in signing if only they could be made aware and that would be an infinitely more powerful force than the 6039 who have already signed. Simon Barnes spoke about some joined up thinking in one of his recent Birds magazine contributions. I for one could not agree more.

    In hope


  • Thanks for this Phil. Vicarious liability is one of RSPB’s advocacy priorities in this area. We were instrumental in getting it introduced in Scotland and will continue to push for the same across the UK by sharing this epetition with our supporters and encouraging them to sign.

  • Emily, would emailing the rspb membership with a plea to sign the ePetition that is being advertised elsewhere (Birdguides and Mark Avery) but with limited success? In fact the response is derisory (50 new signatures since I personally became aware of it 3 days ago). I believe the sad case of Bowland Betty is a big test of the birdy worlds (NGOs, clubs, societies and individuals) resolve to address the State of Nature report!! I see the rspb responding positively in other areas which is to be applauded but the credibility of the whole conservation world is on the line here.

  • Hi all, thanks for your comments.

    We certainly recognise the sum of efforts to save the hen harrier to date have not been enough – the proof of that is in the pudding. But it should be recognised that the RSPB is investing at least an order of magnitude more than any other organisation in trying to save the species, through direct species protection and public outreach efforts. We hope to do more and we hope to do it better, but we cannot do it alone – we need the shooting community and Government to also do their bit. Sooty is right that it wont be easy, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. It's not an either/or situation. We need both the longer term, harder to achieve, things and the on the ground action. It's time for kitchen sink conservation – to throw everything we have at saving England’s hen harriers.

  • All rather depressing in the north.....therefore, fresh thinking required.  Why not reintroduce in the south-west (Bodmin Moor, Dartmoor and Exmoor?) with translocated chicks either from Scotland or the continent.  

    The habitat and prey species are present in sufficient quantities, and as the birds are philopatric, a carefully controlled release scheme of young should do the trick.  Moreover, no grouse moors to conflict, plenty of restricted access MoD land around as haven/release site and SW is an entirely different area with different attitudes, so given a suitably flexible approach to IUCN guidelines, such a scheme would probably have a very good chance of success.  HH could then recolonise England from the bottom up.  

    And yes I know the overwintering issue remains, but plenty of good spots in the south and SW for that too.      

  • I have to say I am fully in agreement with Sooty's comment above the RSPB definitely needs to try and mobilise its members in respect if epetitions that will help Hen Harriers in England (and the rest of UK).  A bland statement saying we need VL and supporting the epetition is not really good enough now that we have reached the nadir of the Hen Harriers fortunes in England.

    I know the investigations team does good work and I have contributed to their work in the past, the Skydancer project is great also but we do need more positive and headline action from the people at the top of RSPB to bring this dreadful state of affairs into the focus of the general membership and the general public beyond!

  • A potentially useful government petition for licencing game keepers here epetitions.direct.gov.uk/.../46473  -  5938 signatures so far and closing date 27/2/2014. I see the RSPB responding to the State of Nature report lets hope the MILLION voices for nature do likewise.

  • There are lots of comments I could pass on this blog.

    Suffice to say that the proof of how good the rspb is doing in regard to Hen Harriers is in the first line of your blog.

    "No Hen Harriers bred successfully in England this year"

    Whatever gives you the impression the Government is will take any steps that will help Hen Harriers.

    For the rspb to now want Vicarious Liability as you say is really laughable after the way they more or less put no effort into giving the         e-petition on this a short while ago any help.A good push from rspb should have got that petition over the 100,000 signatures and made a statement.

    Your hopes are a million miles away from reality and you have missed a great opportunity to have done the one thing that was a real chance to help the Hen Harrier.Sadly these things you talk about are in dreamland and rather rudely I think you need to wake up.

    These people killing Hen Harriers must be laughing at the RSPBs efforts.

    The only thing helpful for Hen Harriers had to come from a private persons e-petition.  

  • Clearly the public subsidies to the estates of the 1% should be re-considered by the RSPB...."follow the money"...

  • I was at the BirdFair yesterday and heard the RSPB's Head of Investigations and the RSPB's Species Policy officer give talks in which they talked all about what is covered by this blog. I was encouraged by the determination expressed by each of the speakers to turn around the fortunes of birds of prey. As Gene Krantze said to his NASA team of scientists when they were trying to save the Apollo 13 astronauts after the explosion in the space craft, "Failure is not an option".

    I know the RSPB will not fail in this cause. My only concern is that, with the role the Government needs to play in all this, that it too will not fail. Unfortunately I have very serious doubts in this area. Their actions, if they are really positive, will speak much louder than their words.  

  • Martin,  It was good to see the Investigations Dept out in force at the Bird Fair,  They seemed to be busy passing on the right message, even if the message is unfortunately rather downbeat at the moment.  I hope that the message is picked up by the right people.

  • Hopefully the day will come soon arrive when crimes against nature are viewed with the same universal revulsion as crimes against humanity. The latest moves by the RSPB to raise awareness are all to the good. BBC Breakfast ran a piece about making a home for nature this morning. More, more, more please !!