My passion for wildlife was stimulated in my teenage years, mainly thanks to my Mum (a biology teacher) who made me look at the world differently and being inspired by writers such as Paul Colinvaux. This early interest developed into biological research in my 20s, when I did practical conservation work in places such as the Comores and Mongolia.
Today, any free time I have I spend pottering around the flatlands of East Anglia or escaping to our hut on the Northumberland coast looking for wildlife and castles with my wife and children.
I studied Biological Sciences at Oxford and Conservation at UCL, and worked at Wildlife and Countryside Link before spending five years as Conservation Director at Plantlife.
I joined the RSPB as Head of Government Affairs in 2004, became Head of Sustainable Development in 2006, before becoming Conservation Director in 2011.
I’m afraid to be the bearer of extremely bad news regarding one of our rarest birds of prey. I’ve just received confirmation that three male hen harriers have disappeared from active nests in the Forest of Bowland.
The disappearances have happened over the last three weeks. At one nest the male disappeared three weeks ago, with males at two other active nests not being seen since last Thursday. Fortunately, a juvenile male appeared at the first nest almost immediately and was accepted by the female, so thankfully her eggs have been saved. However, the other two nests have not been so lucky. In the absence of males to provide them with food, the hungry females were forced to abandon their eggs or face starvation, resulting in the failure of both nests.
Andy Hay's image of a male hen harrier
All three of the nests affected are on the United Utilities Bowland Estate. We have a fantastic relationship with the water company, United Utilities and their shooting and farming tenants, built up over decades of partnership working. The United Utilities estate has for many years been the hen harriers last stronghold in England. I’m sure all of their staff and tenants will be as saddened as RSPB’s staff on the ground and I am disheartened by this news.
Male hen harriers disappearing while part of an active nesting attempt is exceptionally unusual in most habitats. A 2008 Natural England report “A Future for the Hen Harrier in England?”, found that it was almost never recorded in most habitats, while nearly 70% of nesting attempts which failed on grouse moors, did so because an adult disappeared (see figure 4 on page 14).
Obviously it’s very early days and there will certainly be more to come on this case. In the meantime, anyone who thinks they may have any information relevant to the disappearance of these three harriers should contact the local police.
What’s been happening to our hen harriers?
We mean to find out.
The news of three hen harriers vanishing in as many weeks has rightly received a lot of media interest and concern (for example see here and here). History* tells us that the most likely reason is illegal persecution but, unfortunately, not everyone seems as intent on helping us and the police find out what happened.
Hay fever, summer colds, England’s search for an opening batsman to partner Alastair Cook. Some things just will not go away. It appears we can add the steady stream of Ian Botham fronted “You Forgot the Birds” press releases to that list.
When a press release (now covered in the Daily Telegraph, see here) landed on my desk yesterday announcing that England's second-highest Test wicket-taker had decided to wade into hen harrier conservation, I honestly thought it was a joke. My suspicions were raised still further when I read the release and discovered Mr Botham was offering £10,000 to anyone who could take the eggs from one of the failed Bowland hen harrier nests into an aviary, raise the chicks and release them back into the wild. These would be the eggs which had been abandoned and were no longer viable. The RSPB is committed to bringing the hen harrier back from the brink of extinction, but we’ve not yet worked out how to bring them back to life. I can only assume Mr Botham is getting a little too excited about the new Jurassic Park film and is confusing fact and fiction again.
I could go on, poking fun at some of the surreal suggestions set out (I really could, I’ve had references to Monty Python from colleagues), but I’m not going to. It would be wrong to make light of what is in reality a very serious issue – hen harriers remain on the brink of extinction as a breeding species in England and three birds have disappeared from their last stronghold in a matter of weeks.
Nor am I going to go through and offer yet another point by point rebuttal of why brood management scheme isn’t justified on legal, moral or conservation grounds. I’ve done that plenty of times before (see here, here and here).
Instead I’m going to respond to one of Mr Botham’s points and one point only. I try to respond rationally to almost every situation and, away from sport, I’m not given to spasms of emotion. But the statement from Mr Botham that the RSPB are “rubbish at conservation” is just egregiously wrong.
At the end of last year, I was delighted to report on a huge range of RSPB achievements on and off our nature reserves (see here). These are not the achievements of a "rubbish" organisation. To come out with such offensive, ill-informed comments as that, I can only assume Mr Botham has never met any of the staff and volunteers I am honoured to work with. Indeed, my offer to show Ian Botham the work we do on and off our reserves has yet to be accepted.
One final thought. Buried at the bottom of the list of editor’s notes in the press release is this gem – “The You Forgot The Birds Campaign is funded by the British grouse industry”. Now many of us may have suspected this, but I don’t think they’ve claimed this in public before and who knows if they really do represent the whole industry.
It’s also interesting to note grouse shooting being referred to as an ‘industry. In many ways this seems right – after all, on some intensive grouse moors of northern England and southern and eastern Scotland, red grouse are produced on an industrial scale for shooting. Yet, any industry's licence to operate is in part dependent on social and environmental impact. This is why I have repeatedly said that the industry representatives should have a zero tolerance of illegal killing of birds of prey and do more to restore our uplands. Standards of social responsibility and delivering for the public good are concepts which seem notably absent from the You Forgot the Birds rhetoric.
The cause of hen harrier’s continued rarity and the solution to tackle this is clear. The RSPB will continue to focus on ending illegal persecution, rather than Ian Botham's dubiously legal nest-interference scheme based on half-truths and prejudices.
*Male hen harriers disappearing while part of an active nesting attempt is exceptionally unusual in most habitats. A 2008 Natural England report “A Future for the Hen Harrier in England?”, found that it was almost never recorded in most habitats, while nearly 70% of nesting attempts which failed on grouse moors, did so because an adult disappeared (see figure 4 on page 14). Government-commissioned research (here) has shown that the English uplands could support more than 300 pairs of hen harriers. The authors conclude that persecution, associated with the practice of managing moors for driven grouse shooting, is to blame for the harrier’s plight. What's more, Natural England has previously stated that there is compelling evidence that persecution, both during and following the breeding season, continues to limit hen harrier recovery in England.