Status of hen harriers in Scotland

hen-harrier Gordon LangsburyThe plight of the English hen harrier population has been well-documented, spiralling to near breeding extinction in recent years thanks to the criminals within the grouse-shooting industry who continue to show a zero tolerance policy for this species when it tries to nest on their grossly mis-managed grouse moors.

But what of the Scottish population? There hasn’t been as much focus on this, and some of what has been written has been immensely misleading.

One common misconception is that ‘Scottish hen harriers are doing ok, because there are hundreds of them as opposed to the single-figure breeding attempts in England, right?’ This false declaration is usually trotted out by representatives of the grouse-shooting industry, presumably in an attempt to cover up what is actually happening on many Scottish grouse moors.

Take the GWCT for example. They have a web page, written in 2014, called The Status of Hen Harriers in Scotland (see here). They paint a rosy picture and say that in 2004, hen harriers were nationally in favourable conservation status in Scotland, based on the results of the 2004 national hen harrier survey. The 2004 survey did indeed show an increase in the overall hen harrier breeding population (since the previous national survey in 1998), although this national increase masked the finer details of local scale: those increases were restricted solely to areas in the west and far north (i.e. areas without driven grouse moors) whereas breeders in the east and south (i.e. areas of intensively-managed grouse moors) had suffered significant declines. Sound familiar? It should – it’s exactly the same scenario for the golden eagle (e.g. see here).

Not only did the GWCT article fail to acknowledge the 2004 regional declines associated with driven grouse moors, but it also glossed over the results of the more recent 2010 national survey. Why? Well, perhaps because the 2010 national survey showed an overall decline of 20% in the Scottish hen harrier breeding population, and the species was only considered to be in favourable conservation status in five of 20 Scottish regions. Unsurprisingly, none of those five regions are in areas managed for driven grouse shooting.

For those of you who prefer to source your information from a more reliable authority, you’d do well to read this article, written by one of Scotland’s foremost hen harrier experts.

For an even more detailed view, the standard work to consult is the 2011 Hen Harrier Conservation Framework, written by leading scientists in the field. This report has since been updated although we’re still waiting for SNH to publish it, more than a year since it was submitted.

This report sets out very clearly what the main issue is: Illegal persecution is the biggest single factor affecting hen harriers and it is having a dramatic impact on the population, not only in northern England but also in Scotland:

  • The potential national hen harrier population in Scotland is estimated (conservatively) to be within the range 1467-1790 pairs.
  • The current national hen harrier population in Scotland as recorded during the most recent (2010) national survey is 505 pairs, more than a 20% decline from the numbers recorded during the 2004 national survey.
  • In Scotland, the hen harrier has a favourable conservation status in only five of 20 regions.
  • Two main constraints were identified: illegal persecution, and in one region, prey shortages.
  • The species is particularly unsuccessful in the Central Highlands, Cairngorm Massif, Northeast Glens, Western Southern Uplands and the Border Hills. There is strong evidence in these grouse moor regions that illegal persecution is causing the failure of a majority of breeding attempts.

The next national hen harrier survey will take place in 2016. We look forward to seeing the results.

In October 2014, a new five-year project was launched, ‘aiming to achieve a secure and sustainable future’ for hen harriers in northern England and parts of Scotland (we blogged about it here). The project website has just been launched (see here) – just an outline at the moment but more detail will be added as the work gets underway. Take a look at the map they’ve published showing the status of breeding hen harriers in seven Special Protection Areas (SPAs) in Scotland and northern England. These SPAs were designated specifically for hen harriers. Not one of them is functioning as it should.

2014 saw the launch of the first Hen Harrier Day, initiated by the campaign group Birders Against Wildlife Crime, which included a large social media campaign and a number of public demonstrations in England. Unfortunately, Scotland missed a trick by not holding its own demonstration, although a number of us did travel to demos in Northumberland and Derbyshire to show solidarity and support. This was appropriate given that ‘English’ hen harriers regularly visit Scotland, and ‘Scottish’ hen harriers regularly visit England. They also visit Northern Ireland, the Irish Republic, the Isle of Man and Wales, and vice versa. We shouldn’t view the hen harrier issue as just an English problem, because it isn’t; it’s a problem throughout these isles and we need to stand united against it.

Hen Harrier Day will take place again this year (Sunday 9th August) and this time there will be Scotland-based demonstrations. We’re not directly involved in the organisation of these events but we’ll post information here as plans develop.

HH Day orig2

14 thoughts on “Status of hen harriers in Scotland”

  1. Why not just call it “Ban Driven Grouse Shooting Day”?…..the time for “compromise” is long gone…recent history has shown us the almost total lack of understanding from the shooting lobby, to the extent as you say here, of them denying that widespread persecution on grouse moors exists….

    1. Dave, you’ve been working on wildlife crime for decades so please forgive a ‘new entrant’ speaking here, but I’d like to respond and explain why we at BAWC don’t think that’s the way to go – at least when it comes to Hen Harrier Day. Yes, we completely agree that persecution has been going on for far too long (no-one can realistically deny that), but outside of a few activists and insiders relatively few birders/countryside users etc really understand how bad things are. The public are – on the whole – completely unaware of the issues. We felt by focusing on wildlife crime we framed the argument in a way that everyone could understand (experts, interested people, and members of the public who don’t even know what a Hen Harrier is) and that was impossible to deny: Hen Harriers are protected, it is illegal to harm them. Framed that way it doesn’t become a matter of whether you agree with shooting or not, or some types of shooting and not others, or whether jobs are at risk or income threatened – it all comes down to the fact that Hen Harriers are protected, they’re verifiably missing from areas where they should be breeding, illegal persecution is suppressing local populations (experts acknowledge that), and that persecution must stop. That is absolutely black and white. Everything else can be developed from that if someone wants to (ethics, habitat destruction, whether its right to kill mountains of Mountain Hares or not, water resource issues etc etc), but at the centre we feel (whether correctly or not is up for debate of course) that boiled down to a central issue, when it comes to Hen Harriers the problem is wildlife crime and that is what BAWC was set up to help tackle. If Hen Harrier Day moved away from that to trying to ban something currently legal, we think that will divide opinion and probably lose general support amongst less ‘passionate’ sections of the general public, it will (we know) cause some major NGOs and conservation organisations to back away (and not support or promote Hen Harrier Day), and it will be easier for critics to say, ‘See, the issue all along was about shooting, not protecting Hen Harriers’. In our opinion that risks diluting the clarity of the message of Hen Harrier Day, diluting support, and making the crime issue easier to dismiss. That was the thinking behind last year’s HHDay. I would really hope that we could at least have one more year to organise, to co-ordinate, and to really push that message home and I hope that the reasons I’ve put forward make sense.

  2. I agree with all the above. But I de spare at the ignorance of our councils that have ruined several of our parks with domestic geese and Canada they cause great distress to our native species according to the E.U wildlife and countryside act 2006 they are breaking the law while authorities can break the law then what chance have we got. I love my parks but while children are growing up believing domestic geese are swans and feeding them wholemeal bread so they will be able to fly while authorities up notices in parks to this and we have cross bred Canada and D. Geese while I pointed this out one person said that’s biodiversity. God help us all !!!

  3. Absolute twaddle! Not all gamekeepers seek to destroy raptor species, just as not all “ornithologists” seek to conserve bird species.

    1. Hashtag:NotAllGamekeepers

      Will you decide to fold or raise with “this is actually about ethics in conservation journalism”. Oh, wait. You already did. Hilarious.

  4. Harriers along with other raptors and mountain hates will continue to be eradicated on driven grouse moors until the law is fully and correctly enforced. Too many people in places where they should be impartial and uphold the law are on the side of the shooting fraternity. Until this changes nothing will happen and British wildlife will disappear. That’s the price we are paying for having a royal family who own a good deal of moorland in England and they believe it’s ok to shoot grouse … I have no problem with people shooting grouse and eating it, by all means do it, but do it properly under wild conditions taking the rough with the smooth and leave all the natural life on the moors where it should be. That natural life belongs as a heritage to everyone in Britain. It is not there for the privileged few to murder it.

    1. He is a supporter of hunting with dogs and the Badger extermination programme currently being practised in England

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