An update on the status of the UK hen harrier population

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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 the status of the UK hen harrier population

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The latest results from the 2016 hen harrier breeding survey make sobering reading. There are now just 545 breeding pairs left in the UK, down by 88 pairs from the last UK survey in 2010. Scotland remains the species’ stronghold with 460 pairs but even here there has been a drop from the 505 pairs recorded in 2010.

In England, the hen harrier has almost disappeared as a breeding species. In 2010 there were 12 pairs but last year only four pairs attempted to breed. There have been declines too in Wales and Northern Ireland.

Image courtesy of Mark Thomas (rspb-images.com)

Longer term figures highlight the dramatic decline the UK hen harrier population has suffered over the past twelve years. The national survey in 2004 pointed to an estimated 749 pairs, meaning hen harrier numbers have fallen by 204 pairs (39%) in the years following.

So why, when most of our raptor species are increasing does the hen harrier continue to buck the trend? Simple - they are being illegally shot, trapped and killed (for example, see here). 

We know that wildlife crime linked to grouse moor management is preventing the hen harrier population from recovering despite being fully legally protected. There are those that make this a binary issue: shooting vs conservation. This divisive simplification suits those who commit wildlife crime but undermines the work of some estates doing good work for wildlife.

The RSPB is not anti-shooting and is genuinely keen to identify like-minded people to work with within the shooting community. However, this approach only works if members of the shooting community are prepared to accept there are problems that need to be addressed. All too often when issues are raised with intensive driven grouse management, the reaction tends to be to pull up the drawbridge and deny there are any problems, rather than accepting the challenge to make things better. For as long as this denial persists, collaboration will always be challenging.

All of us who want to see these magnificent birds return to their rightful place as the totemic skydancers of our hills and moors are rightly angry and frustrated.  And there are many, for example the volunteers, who without their help, dedication and expertise we wouldn’t be able to build up this accurate picture of these magnificent birds of prey.

However, recent positive developments promised in Scotland (see here) show what might be around the corner, north of the border and perhaps one day south of it too.  The Scots want to look at the possibilities around regulating grouse moors, making them more environmentally friendly and clamping down on areas where birds are illegally killed. Licensing of this type could benefit shoots as well as wildlife. A fair set of rules for driven grouse shooting would stop unfair competition from damaging practices, and help those sticking to the law by improving the public’s confidence in the sport.

Ultimately, on many moors it comes down to the need for smaller ‘bags’ – the number of grouse shot across a season. The high end of intensification has practices that try and maximise the ‘bag size’ such as repeated heather burning, medication of grouse, drainage, burning on deep peat and the culling of mountain hares not to mention illegal killing of raptors; all of which would need to be reduced or halted in order to progress towards some semblance of sustainability.  

Grouse can still be shot but there needs to be acknowledgment that managing a moor purely to maximise ‘bag size’ is not a sustainable land management practice. If not, then public confidence in grouse shooting will deteriorate even further putting into question the future of driven grouse shooting.

Comments
  • Well you have not convinced me or your predecessor who says this morning "So, the RSPB needs a new strategy and there is a very faint sign of it in Martin Harper’s recent blog"

    I agree with you that the shooting industry is tiring of being put in the spotlight and the RSPB is in a position to accelerate these process by involving its membership - but it chooses not to.

    In the meantime the Hen Harrier is virtually extinct in England. In Yorkshire, according to your own survey, there are no breeding Hen Harriers at all, despite the incredibly extensive heather moorlands available for them. The shooting industry has achieved its aim (sic) here.

    We have more Spoonbills nesting in Yorkshire then Hen Harriers. I just hope for their future well being that they don't taste nice to eat.

  • A few of you have been in touch via twitter or email asking why we have focussed on the impacts of the wildlife crime targeting hen harriers which is linked to management of red grouse for driven shooting and have asked about the drop in hen harrier numbers in Wales, Northern Ireland and other areas where this form of grouse shooting is largely absent.

    The short answer is that we do not yet know the causes of the declines in places like Wales and Northern Ireland, but hen harriers face various threats and persecution may still be a factor in some cases. Hen harriers face several challenges – weather, changes in habitat management and prey abundance can all be contributing factors - but whilst wildlife crime is not the sole threat facing hen harriers, it is a key threat and the simple message is that any impact from wildlife crime is wholly unacceptable.

    Efforts everywhere to save this species are being severely compromised by the selfish acts of some who view hen harriers as a threat to ‘big bag’ grouse shooting and this remains an ongoing problem, with very little demonstration of change from the industry.

    But we firmly believe that collaboration is necessary to bring about the changes needed for hen harriers and other upland wildlife, which is why we continue to work with landowners who share our view and to seek others who are concerned about the current situation and want to help put their industry on a sustainable footing. Others are in a position to help this species and we hope those who are tiring of their sport being brought into question will share our view that a fair set of rules could help to put the grouse shooting industry on a sustainable footing, whilst introducing more effective means to deter criminal activity and the disrepute this brings, including loss of a licence to operate in the most serious cases.

    We are encouraged at positive developments in Scotland and demonstration of how technological solutions like satellite tagging can be used to bring places where birds of prey are being illegally killed under a spotlight. Satellite tagging may also help to reveal how hen harriers move around the UK and how the impacts of wildlife crime linked to grouse moors impacts on the whole population. The RSPB’s Hen Harrier Life project is helping to satellite tag hen harriers and track their movements. Existing long-term hen harrier satellite tag data that Natural England have may also hold some of these answers, which is why we have suggested an independent investigation of these data.

  • It is illegal to shoot, trap or poison raptors incl hen harriers but despite increased public awareness it still goes on.

    I see the Yorkshire Dales as my patch. Recently we have had poison discovered in East Arkengarthdale, pole traps set in Widdale, Hen Harriers shot in Cumbria and Thwaite, Red Kite shot on Blubberhouses Moor and a buzzard shot in Malham, of all places.No prosecutions though.

    Public pressure is clearly turning the tide but RSPB management, who represent over a million voices, still seems unduly quiet on this issue. Most RSPB staff that I speak to seem to agree that the RSPB management could do a lot more to mobilize the voice of their ordinary membership. A great deal of the illegality is discovered in the first place by the sterling work of the RSPB investigations team. Eagles led by pigeons springs to mind.

    Time to jump off of the fence I think."Collaboration will always be challenging" says Martin. Don't collaborate.

  • I think one will find that while grouse shooting has a tradional history driven grouse shooting definitely does NOT. Mark Avery's books on the subject point out that driven grouse shooting is a peculiarly British practice and relatively recent one.

    Notwithstanding this, it cannot be right to excessively burn grouse moors, to kill mountain hares and other animals that get in the way of intensively manage grouse moors, as well as all the other nasty illegal practices that take place.

    It is DRIVEN grouse shooting that leads to all these excesses and one day it will be stopped, once we have a Government whose Party has no vested interest in the nasty business.

    Having said this I think the RSPB is quite right to adopt the approach it does, as Martin sets out above. One needs a lot of patience in this matter, but in the end those responsible for the nasty and illegal practices on grouse moors will be stopped and hen harriers will return to their rightful numbers.

  • Alan, a dream ticket I'd say. Is the moor big enough to protect nesting HH ? We won't know until we try.

  • I may be a lone voice Nightjar but I would have thought it would be brilliant PR for the NT to go into partnership with the RSPB and use thw moor that the guy got thrown off early for persecution for the stewerdship of Hen Harriers.

  • I know it isn't your job to defend the National Trust, but Alan's raising of the issue is highly pertinent because the National Trust's shooting on a large part of the Dark Peak is coming back to them this year. It is in the heart of perhaps the worst blackspot for raptor persecution in the UK but the Trust seem determined to re-let it despite the fact that no Hen harriers whatsoever are nesting on English Grouse Moors. Argument's that grouse shooting is 'traditional' and should therefore be continued really don't wash - and whilst most moors are in private hands this one clearly isn't. The NT really needs to step up to the mark - it badly  needs some Hen Harriers of its own alongside those clinging on on Forestry Commission and RSPB land in England if it is to maintain any sort of reputation as a serious nature conservation organisation.

  • Thanks for this, Alan,

    The RSPB is working hard to secure a future for hen harriers in the UK. RSPB Reserves provide a home for more than one in ten hen harriers in the UK. In addition, running until 2019, our part EU-funded Hen Harrier LIFE Project involves satellite tagging, on the ground monitoring, nest protection and investigations work. This involves working closely with a range of partners, including volunteer raptor field workers, landowners, and local communities. We work closely and productively with the National Trust in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and the National Trust for Scotland. This has included the satellite tagging of Harriet, one of four hen harrier chicks which fledged from a nest at the National Trust for Scotland’s Mar Lodge Estate last year.

    The reality is that a large proportion of hen harrier habitat is on privately owned grouse moors. As I have said above, we are keen to work with like-minded people within the shooting community who accept there are problems with intensive grouse moor management and are willing to help address these, including the wildlife crime which risks bringing the future of driven grouse shooting into question.

  • I've already posted this on the survey blog but will add it here...

    Sadly I predict they will be extinct within 5 years unless there is some way to persuade people like the National Trust to go into partnership with the RSPB to manage part of the moors for a safe breeding area instead of using them for Grouse shoots.

    And before anyone says they don't stay on the same moors as they get older so would still be at risk we do a lot of work to help Turtle Doves who get blasted out of the sky as the migrate...come on RSPB and National trust get your acts together