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Vision to resolve hen harrier - red grouse conflict

Last modified: 20 August 2009

Adult male hen harrier perched on heather, RSPB Loch Gruinart reserve, Islay

Image: Andy Hay

We have challenged grouse moor managers to adopt techniques that could help resolve the conflict between grouse shooting and hen harrier conservation.

In an article for the Journal of Applied Ecology, we've laid out a vision for tackling the long-running conflict, in which hen harriers have paid the ultimate price.

Illegal killing

Hen harrier numbers have been kept low because of illegal killing and disturbance over decades, with problems particularly associated with areas where moors are managed for intensive, driven-grouse shooting.

Hen harriers eat red grouse chicks, voles and meadow pipits, and we recognise that on some sites, high densities of hen harriers can lead to driven-grouse shooting becoming economically unviable, as happened at one Scottish site, Langholm Moor.

'Hen harrier numbers have been kept low because of illegal killing and disturbance over decades...'

Last year, only five successful nests were recorded on driven grouse moors in England and Scotland, despite there being enough suitable habitat to support nearly 500 pairs.

This year, fewer than 10 successful nests are expected across the whole of England, despite the English uplands having enough suitable habitat for many more than 200 pairs.

In response to suggestions that the law should be changed to allow birds of prey to be culled on grouse moors, we question whether a sporting activity that relies on protected birds of prey being disturbed and killed is a sustainable land-use. Instead, we're calling for management techniques, which reduce the impact of hen harriers on grouse numbers, to be trialled and encouraged by game managers.

Novel techniques

The article (http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/122563618/abstract) says grouse moor managers are not trying techniques that could help solve the problem.

Diversionary feeding has been shown to reduce the number of grouse taken by hen harriers by 86%, yet has not been adopted by grouse moor managers, other than at Langholm Estate in Scotland. Here, the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project is seeking to re-establish driven grouse shooting alongside a thriving population of hen harriers and is showing encouraging signs of progress.

Other more novel techniques should also be explored. One of these simply involves allowing golden eagles to settle and breed in the vicinity of grouse moors, where their presence may deter hen harriers from settling. Sadly, the killing of golden eagles persists, making their return to grouse moor areas in England and Scotland unlikely as things stand4.

The article cautiously welcomes a proposal by Professor Steve Redpath (Aberdeen University) to trial a brood management scheme. This would require grouse moor managers to allow hen harriers to breed freely on their moors. Where numbers of successful harriers nests exceeded an agreed threshold, additional broods would be reared in captivity nearby and released at the end of the season to rejoin the population, thus avoiding high levels of predation on grouse during the key period for shooting.

Working together

Lead author, Dr Pat Thompson, RSPB’s Uplands Conservation Officer said:  “Moorland managers and conservationists must work together to resolve this long-running conflict.  Hen harriers are on the verge of extinction as a breeding species in England, and to lose such a magnificent bird because of continuing intolerance towards it would be a sad indictment of society’s ability to protect wildlife.

“We understand that many people involved in shooting are as appalled by wildlife crime as we are. The next step is for grouse moor managers to adopt techniques such as diversionary feeding more widely, and demonstrate that driven grouse moor management is compatible with bird of prey conservation.

If this turns out to be impossible, then it may be time to consider other approaches to managing our uplands.”

How you can help

Birds of prey continue to be mercilessly killed, despite the fact that it is illegal and has been for decades. Please add your name to our online pledge and say 'the killing must stop'.

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