An update on England’s hen harriers in 2016

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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

An update on England’s hen harriers in 2016

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In March, I promised (here) to provide an update on the hen harrier breeding season in England. 

I genuinely hoped that this mid-season update would mark the beginning of a turnaround in the fortunes of England’s hen harriers, driven by the positive partnership approach set out in Defra’s hen harrier action plan. Unfortunately, the news on the ground suggests this is shaping up to be very poor year for England’s hen harriers, with only a tiny handful of nesting attempts to date.

Image courtesy of Dom Greves

This is obviously not what we were hoping to report. There are three principal factors which could, to varying degrees, explain the small number of nests this year.

  • Weather – various late cold snaps may have hindered the birds’ nesting attempts and successes. While it was a relatively mild winter, it has been a rather cold, late spring in some places. There’s a slim chance we may get a run of late nesting attempts.
  • Food supply – in particular, vole numbers. Voles are an important food source for hen harriers early in the breeding season and their populations fluctuate in cycles, with peaks in some years and troughs in others. Fewer voles means fewer successful nests and perhaps fewer territorial pairs. However, vole populations tend to fluctuate on a very local level, so while it may be a factor in some areas, it’s unlikely to be affecting things across the board.
  • Direct human interference – there have been worrying incidents, such as a man with a gun being seen with a plastic hen harrier (link), a man cautioned for the use of three illegal pole traps in North Yorkshire near to where a hen harrier was seen flying and numerous incidents of persecution of other birds of prey (link).  I was pleased that to see that the Moorland Association issued a statement condemning this.  In addition, the sudden and unexplained disappearance of another of our satellite tagged hen harriers, Highlander, is also huge cause for concern. Sister to Sky, who disappeared in 2014, and mate to two of the disappeared males from last year, you can read more about her story on our Skydancer blog (here).

And, of course, we know that persecution is the primary reason hen harriers are on the brink in the first place (link).  This is one of the reasons why we continue to call for licensing of driven grouse shooting.  As our Chairman, Professor Steve Ormerod, wrote recently (here in response to a challenge from my predecessor, Mark Avery) we believe that "a tightening up of regulation, with associated penalties and withdrawal of the opportunity to shoot on all areas if breaches are found, will achieve what we want incrementally". 

Perhaps most worrying of all, is anecdotal feedback highlighting a general lack of hen harriers in England (as well as south and east Scotland). It’s not just that hen harriers aren’t breeding successfully, there seems to be a notable absence of birds in many areas where we would expect to see them. This makes it even more important for people to keep their eyes out for hen harriers. Our hen harrier hotline (link) is there to report any sightings.

First reports are also coming in from other areas of the UK through this year’s national hen harrier survey. It’s too early to draw any meaningful conclusions from this, as we are only half way through the survey period.  Anecdotally, it does appear that the season got underway later than usual in Scotland, although birds are nonetheless present in areas which are free from a history of persecution.

A run of late nests might help to turn the situation around and it will be illuminating to see how the year plays out in northern England and south and west Scotland, compared with areas further north.

However, I must stress that, while this picture remains incomplete, the signs are not encouraging. 

The RSPB (through the dedication of staff and volunteers) will continue to work hard to improve the situation including through the RSPB Hen Harrier Life Project. We also remain committed to Defra’s hen harrier action plan. It would be premature to change tack based on early returns from a late season and it is in everyone’s interest for this plan to succeed. It might yet be that late nests save the day and we’re able to point to positive progress come the end of the season. The suspicious incident with the decoy and the pole trapping case were both disappointing and unhelpful in the extreme.  However, the the action plan must deliver results (link) and that means more hen harriers.  

I’ll report back in September when we have a complete picture of how the year has gone. Here’s hoping I’ll be able to relay some more positive news at that point. We'll continue to follow progress closely but, in the meantime, I’m looking forward to being at our Saltholme reserve on Sunday 7 August for one of several Hen Harrier Day events across the UK (events will also be held at our Rainham and Arne reserves).  

Do check out the Birders Against Wildlife Crime website (link) for your nearest event and please come along to show your support for these magnificent birds. Our hen harriers are missing and we want them back.

  • This is excellent news from the National Trust, James C, and we should all applaud them for taking this action. Of course the RSPB has been investing huge amounts of time and energy in tackling wildlife crime, at all levels within the organisation. For example, without the efforts of the RSPB, the EU nature legislation would probably have been weakened beyond recognition. Lets remember that the infraction proceedings now faced by the UK government for allowing on-going damage to designated upland grouse moors could not happen without strong EU nature legislation. Let's applaud the RSPB for its outstanding efforts too.

    I'd say keep questioning the RSPB position, but respect it, because its approach may well prove more effective than anticipated. The ball is very much in the grouse moor manager's court - demonstrate that your hobby can coexist with wildlife-rich uplands, including a sustained recovery of hen harrier populations. Are the grouse moor managers up to it, or will they fail to deliver?

  • Roll over RSPB, The National Trust (astonishingly) takes the lead;

  • Thanks Martin. I will be encouraging every member I know to do the same - just pay for the aspects of the RSPB's work that they consider as still being effective without having that sick feeling in the their stomach about paying for the Conservation Director to keep digging further down the hole he has made for himself.

  • Many thanks to all of you for your comments.  While I don't agree with all of you, I respect and value your different perspectives.  

    Yes, it is my job to ensure that we have the best strategy to tackle the many conservation problems that we face: saving sites, recovering threatened species and finding ways for humans to live in harmony alongside the millions of other species on which we share this planet.  

    Sometimes it takes time to turn things around eg recovery of an individual species.  For example, you probably know that marsh harrier was down to 1 pair in the early 1970s.  It was a bird that had suffered from persecution and the impact of the use of DDT which led to thin eggshells unable to support the weight of the incubating bird.  Today, thanks to the success of the RSPB’s 12 year campaign to ban the use of these pesticides, stronger legal protection, increased effort to tackle illegal killing and years spent restoring and recreating reedbeds, the marsh harrier population is much healthier - up to 380 breeding pairs).  

    I don't say this to be complacen, simply to say that any strategy we adopt is led by evidence, driven by our charitable mission and informed by the context within which we are working.

    And that applies to our approach to improve the environmental condition of the uplands and to tackle ongoing illegal killing of birds of prey.

    As our chairman wrote in response to Mark Avery - "We believe fundamentally that grouse shooting practices need to change and we are determined to use the European Commission process [legal action against UK Government for consenting burning on peatland SACs] and DEFRA’s Hen Harrier Action Plan to test the industry’s willingness to tackle bad practice. But, where positive steps are taken, and change occurs, we will welcome them. That will help drive reform and isolate those who behave as if they are not subject to standards set by Parliament."

    And yes, I still hope to be in a position to welcome change. But, if not, we shall still, of course, report the results at the end of the breeding season and take stock.

    In response to James, I am sorry that you have decided to resign your membership.  If you want to support the investigations team directly (which would be much appreciated), you can send a cheque to Supporter Services at The Lodge, Sandy, Bedfordshire SG19 2DL with a note saying YOU wish it to be restricted to our Investigations appeal (REF 12-0-073) or call on 01767 693680 (Mon - Fri 9am - 5.15pm) and say the same making payment by credit or debit card.  The team can then code it to this appeal. All appeals are restricted and audited as such.  If you are a UK tax payer then you would ideally indicate that you wish the donation to be gift aided and we'll confirm the decision in writing.  If you have any problems, let me know.

  • Red Kite - what negotiations and discussions are taking place - I think we should be told? You might find a visit to Blubberhouses Moor in Yorkshire to be most educational.

    It is BAWC, Raptor Persecution UK, The League Against Cruel Sports, Vice Presidents of the RSPB and Mark Avery who are most likely to "bring the goods in" The RSPB staff and volunteers on the ground are doing an excellent job and are irreplaceable. The management of this issue by the RSPB is woefully weak and compromised and more and more paying members are realising this uncomfortable truth.

    Keith - are there sufficient hen harrier babies to throw out with the bath water this year, if so I will withdraw my criticism. If the shooting industry laid down strict guidelines and penalties should their members shoot, trap or poison protected birds then short-term reactions would be unfounded.In the meantime actions speak louder than words.

  • Well said Red Kite!  I endorse wholeheartedly the 'good luck' wishes to Martin and the team.  It is often a case of '2 steps forward - one step back' in such situations when there are multiple variables and strands at play.

    Much political capital and goodwill will have been invested by many in this initiative to date, so no point in throwing the baby out with the bath water at the first setback.  It will likely take several breeding seasons before HH populations reach around 40 pairs, so patience and forbearance will be  required.  No instant gratification for the short-termists likely I'm afraid.    

  • Good luck Martin with the negotiations and discussions that are obviously current. If the RSPB can't " bring the goods in" than nobody can. From my experience great patience is demanded in these sorts of situations and it does no good at all to "shout the odds" when one is nojt aware of the actual facts. Good luck.

  • I'm curious to know what it would take for the RSPB to withdraw from the joint plan?

  • I am angry, where is the RSPB's backbone? If it's not obvious to you by now that the Grouse Shooting industry is taking you for a ride then you should resign! It seems there has been one big push from Grouse Moors to get rid of Hen Harriers before a recovery could start. No HH no problem to sort? I always said I would not cancel my membership but boy am I getting close. I will expect a letter any day now asking for my hard earned cash for a reintroduction programme. Grow a pair and do what needs doing before we lose HH, on your watch!!!!

  • Martin, is there anyway I can donate directly to the Investigation Team's work with the assurance that this is the only place the money will go? I'm a birder with over 35 years under my built, latterly working as a professional ecologist, and it genuinely pains me to say that your pronouncements have convinced me that the RSPB leadership is so out of touch with my views, and with the reality of the situation, that membership is no longer an option for me. I quite simply don't want to make any contribution whatsoever to your salary; I don't want to pay for wishful thinking ('here’s hoping I’ll be able to relay some more positive news'), I want to pay for effective action.

  • I am sure you have checked out the comments on Mark Avery's blog and that of Raptor Persecution UK. Neither you nor the RSPB are attracting a sympathetic press to say the least.

    3 Points if I may.

    1. It seems abundantly obvious that the RSPB needs to make a clear statement on the state of Hen Harriers in England before the 12th August.

    2. If their are no or few hen harriers nesting this year then why do members of the Moorland Assoc need to put out pole traps? Where does a 23 year old acquire pole traps these days by the way. The head gamekeeper or his employer could not have possibly supplied them as they deny all knowledge.

    3. Terry R.Pickford, North West Raptor Group

    JUNE 6, 2016 AT 1:09 PM says

    "I had a talk with the ice-cream man in the Forest of Bowland yesterday afternoon, he told me an RSPB employee had confided to him this week there were no nesting raptors left to protect this year". I am a member of your organisation and I prefer to be updated by you rather than by an ice cream salesman.

    I am sorry to have to say this but it is clear that you are losing the support of your own membership.

  • Thanks all for your comments.  In answers to Mark's questions, alas we cannot share any details at this stage about failed or ongoing attempts for protection reasons, but will report back on how the season has gone in September when we hope to be able to offer more information.  I know this is frustrating for folk but I hope you'll understand the sensitivity.

  • It is noted Rob, as is the fact that Hen Harriers (despite the occasional predation of nests) have coexisted with foxes and stoats for thousands of years. What do you reckon might have made the difference over the last 150 years? Couldn't be the advent of driven grouse shooting could it? But let's not divert from the issue, yes, it's down to birdwatchers, though they only seem to be making a difference where grouse are shot. Funny coincidence that. And you're absolutely right, it's just because we all hate the toffs and, clearly, by making Hen Harrier persecution an excuse we have the most direct line to the glorious revolution we crave. Rumbled again.

  • Martin

    Predation must be noted. Isle of Skye's harriers failed due to foxes in and we can only wonder what will happen at Langholm Moor now that keepering has stopped

    While not diverting from the persecution issue, which I acknowledge in full, 'indirect human interference' does not help when over zealous 'ownership' from those watching birds may inadvertently disturb nesting harriers. A path to a nest is most useful to a fox or even a stoat.

    Tricky times ahead but perhaps best not to promise updates when there are plenty out there itching for the Hen Harrier Action Plan to fail before it has even been given a chance to fly (little to do with wildlife, more about conflict between human interests


  • We were all hoping for much brighter news from the RSPB at this time.I fully endorse the views put forward today by Raptor Persecution UK.

    You mentioned that "We also remain committed to Defra’s hen harrier action plan. It would be premature to change tack based on early returns"  Not all RSPB members would agree with you on this point especially in light of recent developments in Yorkshire, where I live.I have been lucky enough to see a female hen harrier in Widdale.

    I would like to see the RSPB ask the membership for its wider view on licencing / banning driven grouse shooting and also whether there is widespread support for the Defra Action Plan. Brood management must be very difficult practical concept when there aren't any!

    I think the practical steps and initiatives the RSPB and its volunteers make every day is to be widely applauded and supported and I, for one, am very grateful. I am not alone in thinking that the RSPB needs to be further away from the protagonists than they currently are. YFTB, GWCT etc are using the RSPB for their sport.