After getting a response to my questions about the plight of the Hen Harrier in England from the RSPB’s Jeff Knott, I was pleased to receive a further email from Andrew Gilruth, the director of marketing and membership for the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust. The GWCT say that their aim is for “a thriving countryside rich in game and other wildlife”, so it was important for me to understand this issue from their perspective.
- Why do you think the Hen Harrier failed to breed in England in 2013?
There were two known hen harrier nesting attempts last year in England, disappointingly, neither have resulted in chicks hatching. One pair built a nest in County Durham and laid eggs, but the male deserted, forcing the female to abandon the nest to feed. In the second attempt, an immature female laid two eggs in Northumberland, but the eggs were not viable despite the female incubating for the full term and the male provisioning her well. At one of these sites, the RSPB was involved in protecting the nest.
The British Trust for Ornithology estimate the UK population at 550-740 pairs and there is no doubt it could, and should, be higher. Ever since the GWCT published a conservation science paper in 1998 highlighting the reasons for conflict between hen harriers and grouse moor shooting interests, it has been working hard to support a resolution. There is a strong correlation between grouse moor management and the abundance and productivity of species such as lapwing, curlew and golden plover, which are otherwise increasingly rare. Last year, the GWCT published a paper in the Journal of Applied Ecology, which identifies that the control of predators such as foxes and crows, carried out to protect red grouse, can benefit the hen harrier.
- Are you confident that the species has a viable long-term future in England?
Yes. We remain optimistic that with all the parties and organisations that have written the hen harrier Joint Action Plan will recover the species in the English uplands.
- Is diversionary feeding a viable tactic which could be used in the future?
Yes. It will be interesting to see if the early success of the diversionary feeding trial at Langholm Moor can be extended to many other sites.
- What other measures have you recommended to the sub-group?
We are keen to see the implementation of the full package of options in the Joint Action Plan. There is a history of conflict between grouse shooting interests and hen harriers. Many organisations have been working together for a couple of decades to try and find a solution. The Joint Action Plan is a result of that work.
- What if any measures were suggested by other stakeholders that you were unable to support?
Our aim is to see more hen harriers nesting successfully in England. That said, some of the actions in the plan have not been tried before, so we need to go through a proper process and consultation. We must ensure, for example, we are meeting International Union for Conservation of Nature guidelines on reintroduction.
- Are any changes to the law necessary to protect the Hen Harrier?
The hen harrier is fully protected by law. What it desperately needs is a conflict resolution plan that allows the species to thrive.
In addition to answering my questions, Mr Gilruth added an extra section, reproduced below: –
· Why is there a conflict between hen harriers and grouse moors?
When hen harriers nest on grouse moors, they are capable of taking an awful lot of grouse chicks to feed their own young. They are called hen harriers because they harry hens and chicks. The 1990s study at Langholm Moor showed that within a short space of time, nesting harriers could wipe out a large number of grouse and make the grouse moor unviable. That is a serious lose-lose situation, because if you lose a grouse moor, you lose not only the economic activity, local employment and landscape management; by losing the gamekeepers, you also lose most of the upland waders and indeed some of the hen harriers themselves.
Hen harriers are ground nesting birds – they are very vulnerable to predation and without the gamekeepers controlling foxes, they don’t nest as successfully. In other words, there is a synergy between the keepering and harrier conservation, but only when there is a balance between the number of harriers and grouse.