The Hen Harrier Action Plan – two big unanswered questions

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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

The Hen Harrier Action Plan – two big unanswered questions

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The content of the Hen Harrier Action Plan has once again been subject to much commentary through social media (see here and here) .  This was triggered by news that another conservation organisation, the Hawk and Owl Trust, has agreed to run an experiment to test a scheme known as brood management.

This is not the way to formulate policy in a highly contested area and it reinforces my view that the brood management scheme should have been put out to public consultation.  There is little trust between the grouse and raptor communities and I fail to see how deals done behind closed doors will instill confidence.

Our position on the Action Plan and the proposed brood management scheme – see here - has not changed.

We believe brood management could merit experimental investigation in the future, but only once hen harrier numbers have recovered to a pre-agreed level and less interventionist approaches, particularly diversionary feeding, have been widely attempted.

We think that’s reasonable, given that it gives estates a chance to tackle impacts through diversionary feeding, and puts the beleaguered hen harrier first by giving the species a chance to recover naturally.

Those designing or promoting the plan will have to answer a number of questions to carry public confidence (we've posed 25), but by far and away the most important ones are...

1. What are the objectives of the trial?

2. What is the legal basis for carry out such a trial?

The former matters because a trial is a trial – it is designed to test a proposition and report on whether it was successful.  The latter – well, you’d want any scheme to operate within the law wouldn’t you?  But, given there is a proven and less interventionist way of reducing predation of grouse by hen harriers (ie diversionary feeding) or reducing illegal killing (ie stop illegal killing), I remain unclear as to how a trial would respect protected species legislation.

While all of this is rumbling on, I thought it would be useful to reiterate what we should all be trying to achieve i.e. recovery of one England’s most threatened species.

Back in 2011, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) published ‘A Conservation Framework for Hen Harriers in the United Kingdom’ . The JNCC provides the Government with advice on nature conservation issues. The document sets out targets for what is known as favourable conservation status and identifies the constraints acting on hen harrier populations across the UK. But, what is this so-called favourable conservation status and what does it mean?

The wording in the EU Birds Directive and Habitats Directive is the key. They say that ‘‘conservation status of a species means the sum of the influences acting on the species concerned that may affect the long-term distribution and abundance of its populations’’ and that ‘‘the conservation status will be taken as ‘favourable’ when:

  • population dynamics data on the species indicate that it is maintaining itself on a long-term basis as a viable component of its natural habitats;
  • the natural range of the species is neither being reduced nor is likely to be reduced for the foreseeable future; and
  • there is, and will probably continue to be, a sufficiently large habitat to maintain its populations on a long-term basis.’’

Favourable conservation status does not mean that when criteria are reached populations can be capped or managed through culling. It simply defines a ‘safety net’ to ensure populations, like that of the hen harrier in England, do not drop below dangerous threshold and when they do, that urgent action should be taken to seek recovery.

In the current JNCC Framework, regional targets for favourable conservation status were set as follows:

  • A minimum of 1.2 young fledged per breeding attempt; • at least 44% of the apparently suitable habitat occupied; and
  • a density (number of pairs per 100 km2) threshold of 2.12 pairs per 100 km2 of suitable habitat.

Based on an estimate of 6,636 km2 of habitat, this suggests that England should be supporting at least 61 pairs to achieve favourable conservation status. Yet, based on the total area of suitable habitat available and the best available data at the time, the authors estimated that the potential English population could be as high as 323-340 pairs.  I understand that a second version of the JNCC Framework is to be published soon.  We'll see if the numbers change.

In 2014, there were only four successful hen harrier nests in England. So, whether you agree with JNCC’s criteria or not, we have a very long way to go to reach their estimate for favourable conservation status and even further if these birds were left to settle and breed in the areas where they should be an integral part of our countryside. Whatever methods Defra decides to back in the Hen Harrier Action Plan, we believe the test of its success will be the recovery of the hen harrier across all suitable habitat and that this should be the ultimate objective.

The RSPB will work with everyone who wants to secure favourable conservation status and then build on that to secure full recovery across suitable habitat. That’s why we support the majority of the Defra-lead Hen Harrier Action Plan (the actions that tackle illegal persecution threat directly and promote diversionary feeding) and are stepping up our own efforts through our new EU LIFE+ funded project. You can read more about this new and exciting project and how you can get involved at


  • Clearly diversionary feeding has not delivered the artificially high density of grouse required to support driven shooting at Langholm within the timeframe, but as the report states, numbers started at a very low base.

    Diversionary feeding, alongside other legal gamekeeping measures, has helped to increase the grouse population at Langholm considerably in the last few years.  So, for grouse moors which currently are economically viable - i.e. where there is already an extremely high grouse population producing the required surplus to be shot - it seems to me that it would be well worth trialling diversionary feeding before we start to interfere with broods.

  • Ollie - Langholm is intended to be a practical demonstration of an economic driven grouse moor. So what is success? To avoid any ambiguity (as illustrated by this exchange) project partners set the evaluation criteria and targets (p5&6) at the beginning and they have reported against these(p13). What did they (including the RSPB) say about grouse numbers? They are not on target, nor are they predicted to be, unless new raptor management options are adopted (alongside diversionary feeding). I hope this helps.

  • I don't understand Mr Gilruth's comment - according to the 7 year review (p19), the grouse population at Langholm has roughly quadrupled in the last six years and is at its highest level since 1992?  

    Dreadful news from Ireland today - another Hen Harrier found shot dead.  I saw my first ever HH last weekend (on RSPB-owned land) and couldn't help but wonder what that bird's ultimate fate would be, as I watched it fly.  

    I note Mr Yorke's comment - "Let's try something that could return harriers to English moors by giving those that persecute them a reason not to."  There's already a very good reason not to - it is illegal.  

    Let's proceed with diversionary feeding and focus on monitoring of roost sites and nests, plus satellite tagging - then we can gather more evidence of what is happening to these fantastic birds and hopefully deter, or at least detect, criminality where it is happening.

  • The RSPBs position in this is absolutely right. I have to say that I'm disappointed that the Hawk and Owl Trust chose to actively discuss brood management with Defra 'behind the scenes', failing to state its position while its chairman, Philip Merricks, watched and engaged in hen harrier discussions on Mark Avery's blog and elsewhere.

    Such secrecy does nothing to instil confidence among the rest of us.

    Further, the Hawk and Owl Trust refuses to endorse calls for the brood management component of the plan to be published for a period of public consultation, preferring the speculation as to its aims to continue. Let's be clear: with only four pairs of hen harriers in England in 2014, there is no need whatsoever to conduct a brood management trial at this juncture - there is ample time to consult the public before harriers recover to such a level that they might begin to pose a problem for driven grouse shoots.

    Again, the Hawk and Owl Trust's headlong does nothing to build support.

    The Hawk and Owl Trust must realise, surely, that the issue has a high public profile. The details cannot be kept under wraps for much longer. If it is to retain its standing as a reputable, science-driven nature conservation charity, it must ensure that the full aims, evidential basis and legality of brood management trial is demonstrated in public.

    One also has to ask why advocates for brood management, notably Stephen Redpath and others on the Hawk and Owl Trust science committee, see the management of hen harriers as the only solution. We are faced with an intensified land management regime - high-yield red grouse management for shooting - taking place within landscapes of international wildlife importance, areas which the UK has international responsibilities to protect. An even-handed analysis by Stephen Redpath and other scientists would surely also examine whether a reduction in the intensity of driven grouse shoot management might be part of the solution to this conflict.

    Objectivity in science is important, after all.            

  • It is hard to swallow that full engagement in this plan will be done under the threat of the status quo - ie the absence of hen harriers and other birds of prey from many of our upland areas through illegal persecution. But I have to say that the Hawk and Owl Trust approach in reaching its decision has much to commend it and what it proposes to do seems reasonable under the circumstances.

    Driven grouse shooting is legal - I don't personally understand the pleasure derived from it or the argument that producing unnaturally high numbers of grouse and other game birds for shooting is somehow good conservation practice or sustainable in the long term. But as an RSPB member, I do take the view now that implementation of the plan including brood management, should happen with the RSPB as a full partner. It seems the only way that we can challenge head on those in the shooting community who break the law.

    Implementation of the plan should be challenging. I should go further than the Hawk and Owl Trust and say that any confirmed incident of persecution of any bird of prey, not just hen harriers, and on any grouse moor, would bring the brood management trial to an end. If grouse moors are such havens for birds because of how they are managed including predator control, then the only factor to explain the absence of birds of prey is human persecution. That is what the shooting community brings to the table when they say the plan is the only way to bring back the hen harrier - an end to persecution or else why do we need the plan in the first place. It seems to me that sign up to the plan by the shooting community requires a commitment from them to issue clear instructions to their gamekeepers - birds of prey are strictly off-limits!

  • Martin - so is the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project Seven Year Review (Status report - page 13) correct when it says it has failed to restore the grouse population; nor is it predicted to work, unless new raptor management options are adopted (alongside diversionary feeding)?

  • It seems very easy to comment and ask for the RSPB to compromise and think of the Hen Harriers, for decades the shooting estates have been killing not just Hen Harriers but many birds of prey in general. Now that they are in the spotlight, and there is a wave of public concern about the practices of the Grouse moor managers, they try and turn the tables and blame others for what is totally and utterly a problem caused by them. If the law was followed, yes there would be fewer Red Grouse, but more importantly the numbers of bird of prey could be at self sustainable levels and we wouldn't be having this debate. Other industries adapt to changing circumstances and alter the way they do things in order to keep the business viable, why should it be ok for the shooting estates to revert to breaking the law? They receive huge subsidies from us and in return they should show a little respect and listen to our views. I personally still favour a total ban on driven Grouse shooting to bring back a more natural ecosystem on our moors but admire the RSPS's stand.

  • Andrew - I simply note, Langholm has seen an increase in hen harriers and grouse.  I also note that the objectives of the hen harrier action plan are to recover hen harriers.  Diversionary feeding has helped recover hen harriers for which the UK Government has a legal and political obligation.

  • Martin, many thanks - are you suggesting that the status report contained in the (December 2014) Langholm Moor Demonstration Project LMDP Seven Year Review (page 13) is wrong?

  • Andrew - as you know, the graph here tells a very different story -

  • Martin - you omit to mention that we have spent seven years trying to make diversionary feeding work at Langholm. It has failed to restore the grouse population - nor is it predicted to work unless new raptor management options are adopted alongside it.

  • Rob - those who persecute hen harriers already have a reason not to - it's illegal. And has been illegal for decades.  But they seem to think that that particular law should not apply to them because it is inconvenient  They put themselves above the law for their own selfish ends.

    Your suggestion is not being brave - it's being craven. Standing up to bullying is brave. Well done RSPB.

  • Nothing but the fullest support for what you have set out here Martin.

    To all conservation organisations concerned about the preservation of the Hen Harrier and all the other wildlife associated with our uplands, I would say it is very important in this battle, that a consistent common policy and front is presented to the shooting industry, the owners of driven grouse moors and Defra. If this is not done then for sure the shooting industry and grouse moor owners will play one organisation off against the other with a consequential weaking of the cause.

    Some interested conservation organisations and individuals may well have some  differences of emphasis on policy and the way ahead etc. However I believe the RSPB is the best qualified organisation to lead this battle for the Hen Harrier and other upland wildlife. It therefore behoves these other conservation organisations with any differences of view, in the final analysis, to sink those differences and give all support to the RSPB in this most important cause.

  • Yes Martin - did you see my comment underneath Stuart's blog?! I am acutely aware of the report having assisting the Langholm Moor Demo Project partnership turn the 'hard wrought' science into a readable (arguable!) document.

    The results are not to everyone's taste but then very little in human:human conflicts is. If we actually see who's involved, we might be able to try trusting each other to then find a workable way to help wildlife. See this paper from recognised expert conservation scientist Steve Redpath

    Fighting for wildlife is one thing, painting ourselves into a corner is another. The RSPB is running its great LIFE+ project but you can't 'own' it all. Enlightened grouse moor owners have said they want more harriers on their moors - if they can deliver this biodiversity public benefit, then who are we to try and prevent it.    

  • Did you read this, Rob?