DEFRA finally publishes its Hen Harrier Action Plan

hh LAURIE CAMPBELLDEFRA has today published its long awaited Hen Harrier Action Plan.

As expected, the six ‘actions’ that apparently will contribute to the recovery of the hen harrier are as follows:

  1. Monitoring of hen harrier populations in England and the UK
  2. Diversionary feeding of hen harriers on grouse moors
  3. Analyse monitoring data and build intelligence picture
  4. Nest and winter roost site protection
  5. Reintroduce hen harriers to southern England
  6. Trial a brood management scheme

In its current format, the Action Plan provides a general overview and outline of all six actions. There’s very little detail available, which makes it a difficult plan to critique in full, but a few things did jump out.

Diversionary feeding has proven to be successful at deterring hen harriers from eating loads of red grouse at the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project. However, in this action plan grouse moor owners are only being ‘encouraged’ to use diversionary feeding as a course of ‘best practice’. That means that they are not obliged to implement diversionary feeding as a first course of action to reduce the conflict, which seems a bit odd.

Monitoring of hen harrier populations and the subsequent analysis of those data will continue, to ‘build the intelligence picture’. Nothing new there, and monitoring would continue with or without this action plan anyway. How those data will be used isn’t all that clear. The action plan states that a direct benefit will be ‘increased awareness of any hotspots of illegal activity and may allow better preventative measures to be taken at specific sites‘. That’s hardly inspiring. The hotspots are already well known (just look for the nearest driven grouse moor) and there’s not much that can be done if adult males are being killed away from the nest whilst they forage on neighbouring ground. We saw that last May with the ‘disappearance’ (killing) of five adult males.

Nest and winter roost site protection. Again, the nest sites (when the birds have been allowed to settle) are already well monitored and that would continue without this action plan. Protection of roost sites is much more problematic, especially when the harrier killers are armed with night vision and thermal imaging kit, and there isn’t any information about how this protection might be delivered.

The plan to reintroduce hen harriers to the lowlands of southern England needs much further scrutiny. At the moment the proposal is based on an unpublished feasibility report so it’s hard to comment on that. Nevertheless, the general principle of reintroducing the hen harrier is open to question. One of several IUCN criteria that have to be met before a reintroduction of any species can go ahead is that the cause of the species’ (local) extinction needs to have been both identified and rectified. If persecution of the hen harrier is the main reason for its absence in these areas, where’s the evidence that persecution has been addressed?

The final action point is undoubtedly the most controversial – a trial brood management (meddling) scheme. Brood management, in this context, means removing hen harrier eggs/chicks from driven grouse moors when hen harriers have reached a certain density on that moor (or on nearby moors) and rearing them in captivity and then releasing them at fledging age. We’ve blogged about this a lot, ever since the Hawk & Owl Trust announced almost a year ago that it was the way forward. It’s not an action we would support under any circumstances, no matter what the hen harrier population size is. In our view, it amounts to legalised persecution. If driven grouse shooting can’t exist without the need to remove hen harriers then it either needs to lower its expectations (bag size) or cease to exist.

Nevertheless, it’s interesting to read what this action plan says about the proposed brood meddling trial. It refers to a paper that was published last August (Elston, Spezia, Baines & Redpath: Working with stakeholders to reduce conflict – modelling the impact of varying hen harrier densities on red grouse populations). The action plan says brood meddling will be guided by hen harrier densities as determined in this paper. The generally accepted consensus is that once there are 70 breeding pairs of hen harriers in the English uplands, then brood meddling can be considered (depending on the density of hen harriers at a local scale). However, this calculation was made based on the cyclical boom and bust of red grouse populations. Not only have those natural grouse cycles now been eradicated (by the use of medicated grit – see here), but post-breeding densities of red grouse are currently higher than in previous years (an incredible mean density of 382 red grouse per km2, according to the GWCT – see here), which means that those moors can support a higher density of hen harriers. In real terms, this means the target density for hen harriers should be increased accordingly (i.e. there should be more than 70 breeding pairs before brood meddling is implemented).

Having said that, we’re not too concerned about the immediate onset of a brood meddling trial in England because we simply can’t see the driven grouse shooting industry tolerating 70 (+) pairs of breeding hen harriers. Last year there were six successful pairs in the whole of England – an area capable of supporting 300+ pairs. And that pathetic figure was a result of the driven grouse shooting industry supposedly ‘being on side’ and ‘fully supporting hen harrier conservation’!

Interestingly, Martin Harper (RSPB Conservation Director) has blogged about the launch of the action plan (here) and although he acknowledges it isn’t perfect, he says he welcomes it. Eh? The last we heard, the RSPB was still challenging the brood meddling aspect of the plan – what’s changed?

No doubt we’ll be blogging more about the action plan as the 2016 hen harrier breeding season pans out.

Download DEFRA’s Hen Harrier Action Plan here: DEFRA hen-harrier-action-plan-england-2016

37 thoughts on “DEFRA finally publishes its Hen Harrier Action Plan”

  1. On face value there appears to be nothing in this to help protect the Hen Harriers from continued persecution at the hands of the grouse moor owners.

    More time wasting allowing more harriers to be killed while they continue monitoring hen harrier populations in England and the UK, more time wasted to analyse monitoring data and build intelligence picture, why? If they don’t know the status of the hen harriers now after years of monitoring and data analysis from the raptor study groups they never will.

    A reintroduction scheme without first putting a stop to raptor persecution will be like firing hen harriers into the air from a clay pigeon trap and wondering why they are being shot out of the sky.

    As was expected, they are still pushing brood managemnet (meddling), even though it’s almost universally accepted among experienced raptor workers and ornithologists to be a non starter unless persecution is stopped first, stop the persecution and the hen harriers and other raptors will recolonise suitable territory without brood meddling from DEFRA.

  2. Hi,

    I enjoy reading your blogs but have not previously commented.

    However, for the avoidance of doubt, the RSPB’s view on Brood Management Scheme has not changed. The Plan published today has established a group (led by Natural England) to look at the objectives, science, legal basis for any BMS and “conservation thresholds” (Defra’s words) before any trial commences. I would argue that this is progress because the debate thus far on BMS has been much too vague.

    We have repeatedly called for these issues to be looked at it more detail (eg on my blog on 13 November 2014, 27 Jan 2015 and 11 August 2015 from my boss, Mike Clarke) and I hope that this new NE-led group is open in the way that it conducts its business.

    To be clear, we would only support trial management of a BMS if these important legal, scientific and conservation concerns have been adequately addressed.

    Best wishes,

    Martin Harper
    Conservation Director

    1. I would hope that when you say legal and conservation concerns have been adequately addressed, you really mean that raptor persecutionhas been stopped prior to any trial management of any BMS. If this is not the case what safeguards will be put in place to ensure that all the harriers involved in the trial BMS will be fully protected, will the trial BMS be halted if guaranteed safeguards to protect the harriers cannot be implemented.

  3. It is far from a perfect solution and we are right to be sceptical. But I think it will put more pressure on our opponents,and as Rory is my MP, I am on hand to pressurise him re progress.He has already told me that he believes there has been a change of attitude-so now we will see if he is right. I don’t think he will want the shooting fraternity to ignore this,although considering the proposed Golden Eagle re-intro to south-west Scotland it will mean a substantial shift from where we are!

  4. Did anyone really expect any real measures to tackle persecution when we have a sitting Tory government?

  5. I agree with Nirofo that there is very little new here that could help harriers. I would go further however and say that it’s a pretty pathetic document and plan by DEFRA.

    The introduction gives the game away with some lovely phrases such as “it was lost as a breeding species from the British mainland…” (how careless of it) and “southerly range expansion has halted upon reaching the grouse moors of northern England…” (too Wuthering Heights darling?).

    If the document cannot spell out the single reason for the need for an action plan what is the point of the action plan? If there is no public recognition by the grouse shooting industry and DEFRA that illegal persecution is the prime reason why harriers are in such trouble how can this process work? Does DEFRA think that if we pretend it doesn’t happen will that stop it?

    Moving on to the action plan, the first 4 points are being done all ready, and harriers are still at pitiful levels in England. Furthermore, no new money is being made available for these action points (probably less if NE aren’t doing any more sat tagging) and the government is playing around with NWCU funding and treating it appallingly.

    There is also nothing about new legislation (licensing / vicarious liability) or beefing up the regulatory authorities that should be controlling the grouse shooting industry.

    And the final two points, reintroductions and brood management (forgetting the ethical, practical and legal issues for a moment), won’t do anything to help the species whilst the main driver of the species’ absence is not being addressed.

    At the end of the day however, the focus on hen harriers should not allow DEFRA to forget that it’s not just hen harriers that the grouse moors of the UK are having such a deleterious effect on. What about the peregrines, goshawks, eagles, kites, owls and all the mammal species that are disappearing from our uplands? And what about the effects on carbon release, floods, water quality etc.

    I hope I’m wrong, but this action plan looks to me like nothing more than a government ploy to kick the can down the road for yet another few years, during which the majority of the uplands and its wildlife will continue to be badly damaged by moorland management, the sole purpose of which is to enable the bloody enjoyment of the few.

  6. This is just one almighty mess, giving the impression that many of the individuals involved in putting together this so-called ‘Action Plan’ don’t really know Hen Harriers very well. One factor, well several actually, which are rarely mentioned is what makes this a very special bird in the first place. In a sense it is meant to be rare, not under threat, but rare, an evocative and even enigmatic bird of wild places, the essence of wilderness and windswept moorlands. Not something to be treated as a commodity and introduced into places it doesn’t choose to occupy, or to be fed cafeteria rats on bird tables set up next to their nests. I feel we’ve become bogged down with an ideology that says we should compromise with unreasonable people, most of them rich beyond belief, who see the moors as their playground and compete to bag as many grouse as possible on a day out. Greed, selfishness, power, social posturing and cruelty are the name of their game. Let’s stop beating about the bush.

    The idea that this Action Plan is a step in the right direction, which will lead to everlasting happiness for harriers and the harrier lovers, is simply naive. Yet again we witness the RSPB putting a certain message across to those they seek to influence, but denying implications of their statement behind the scenes. I’ve yet to see a meaningful explanation of why the RSPB is not prepared to grasp the nettle, rather than seeking to appease those who are happy to persecute raptors and other predators, legal or not. I feel they have become so wrapped up in the politics of conservation that they are forgetting fundamental principles. It’s so difficult to lay down such criticism, when those of us who do so are attacked from all directions, especially by RSPB conservation staff who easily take personal offence. It seems that the leadership of their organisation is politically conservative, unable to see the anti-social nature of the wildlife killing entertainment industry.

    Let’s examine the practicality of the various ‘actions’ outlined in the Defra plan. To attempt to do this objectively and realistically, I think we need to ask ourselves why are the shooting organisations, who until now have ruthlessly allowed persecution of harriers to be a top priority for their ‘wildlife managers’ (a soft term for gamekeepers), suddenly become enthusiastic about a plan which purports to protect the species? That alone should make us sceptical and suspicious, if not downright cynical. Another factor we should understand (although I’m not convinced this has sunk in to everyone’s mentality), is that the impact on grouse productivity of harrier predation is hugely exaggerated. The Langholm studies ignored certain key aspects of the site’s ecology, which provided a highly skewed picture of the impact by harriers at a national level. I note that even RPS mentions the Langholm results of diversionary feeding preventing harriers from taking “loads of Red Grouse,” without counterbalancing by reference to other studies which have shown that harriers do not show a specific preference for grouse as prey. Incidentally, I don’t know how universal the following practice is, but on moors I have been involved with it was gamekeepers, who are responsible for ensuring healthy grouse stocks, who undertook post-breeding survey counts. I know for fact that at least two of the keepers I knew exaggerated their data to make it look as if they were doing a grand job. One even won the “Young Gamekeeper of the Year” award on the back of his invented results! So without independent verification I would take some of the densities quoted with a pinch of grit.

    1. Monitoring of the hen harrier population in England and the UK. Speaking from my own perspective, southern Scotland, this is already well covered by Scottish Raptor Study Groups, and I believe the RSPB and Raptor Groups have the matter well in hand in England (although ‘You Forgot the Birds’ claims that half of England’s harriers in 2015 were unmonitored – is this true?). Scottish Natural Heritage were committed to supporting the monitoring of SSSIs until 2008, but funding was then withdrawn and direct support for fieldworkers now extends only to travel expenses. Will funding be restored? It remains to be seen how effectively the Defra plan would fund the proposed additional monitoring. It is my opinion from personal experience that current monitoring levels in Scotland are quite good, but obviously not intensive enough to catch the criminals at key sites.

    2. Diversionary feeding of hen harriers on grouse moors. I am philosophically opposed to this practice, and do not believe that the trials have been sufficiently robust and comprehensive enough to justify the intrusion into the harriers’ nesting territories. Has potential bio-contamination been investigated? At a site which I observed closely one year, the harriers did not touch the dead rats (and Mountain Hares!) left out for them, BUT they did attract potential predators in the form of large gulls to within metres of the harrier’s nest, causing excessive stress to the birds. The smell of rotting corpses I suspect was also likely to attract foxes to the vicinity.

    3. Analyse monitoring data and build intelligence picture. What to say? I agree with RPS above.

    4. Nest and winter roost site protection. I can’t add much to what RPS has said, except to disagree slightly that nest sites are well monitored already. I couldn’t put my hand on my heart and say that myself or any other member of the team working on our harrier SPA would claim to be monitoring nest sites as thoroughly as they would like. This is partly for reasons of time (we’re all volunteers), but also because we try to minimise disturbance at or near nest sites. This is an area where someone (Defra/NE/SNH?) would need to employ professional ornithologists to monitor potentially vulnerable nests on a 24-hour basis, with night monitoring equipment. This would be quite costly coming from the public purse, but I see no reason why in the medium term at least landowners shouldn’t pay for this service. They can afford it.

    5. Reintroduce hen harriers to southern England. Totally unnecessary, and just a PR exercise to justify controlling their numbers on grouse moors. Allow the existing population to grow to its natural level, and let the birds colonise whatever new areas they choose. It is debatable whether the lowlands of Britain provide sufficient habitat for the right sort of prey for Hen Harriers, and farmland is becoming increasingly impoverished for opportunities. Good quality upland habitats used by breeding harriers contain very high densities of Meadow Pipits (over 100 breeding pairs per kilometre square), and just as important, a rich supply of Field Voles to build the female harrier’s fecundity in spring. Farmland breeding as on the continent seems unlikely to develop in the UK, for a variety of reasons.

    6. Trial a brood management scheme. Deep breath… This is THE most ridiculous suggestion of all, and it literally shocks me that RSPB doesn’t rule it out unconditionally. RPS has already pointed out its main flaws, and apart from breaching the IUCN guidelines, it is simply not ethical. We already know enough of the Hen Harrier’s breeding biology to know that this scheme would not be feasible. It is the plank of the grouse shooting industry’s motives in developing the Defra plan; the rest is just window dressing by comparison. Their vision is not to allow harrier breeding density to exceed one breeding pair per ten-kilometre square, a ridiculously low population level and unsustainable without “brood management” continuing for ever more. This is interfering with the harriers’ ecology to an unacceptable degree. Apart from anything else, the Hen Harrier is known to be a natural wanderer, and the idea that a bird will stay wherever it is released is wholly unrealistic. If successful at all, such birds would gravitate back onto the best available breeding habitat, most of which are grouse moors in an English context, only to be shot or have their brood “managed.” This proposal should be discredited and removed from any draft Action Plan.

    Some will no doubt say I’m being negative, and what do I suggest to solve the problem. That’s relatively easy. Enforce the law, and if grouse shooting has to continue, accept lower bags in principle. The irony of that is that I believe if harriers were left alone, it wouldn’t make much difference to grouse stocks anyway. However the systemic environmental problems inherent in grouse moor management cannot be allowed to continue in this enlightened age, so it’s time for the grouse shooters to accept change.

    1. Well said Jack. Lets uphold the law of the land and stop trying the impossible – which is trying to appease these criminals.

  7. Wise words Jack Snipe which certainly encapsulate my thoughts and feelings about the bird and its place in our world. We have both the government and RSPB ‘fiddling while Rome burns’ as they posture and try to appease with an approach which will simply get mired in the sphagnum. What a spineless and bureaucratic state we are in!

  8. Jack Snipe, thank you. You are not being ‘negative’ but realistic.

    The following contribution is naive – sorry for that:

    I am an only an enthusiastic amateur in this matter and when I started reading RPS and Mark Avery’s blog, had no idea what landowners and gamekeepers were being allowed to do – indeed, encouraged to do.

    Nor did I know that such processes as diversionary feeding and brood meddling existed and were defended by some conservation groups.

    It seems outrageous that the lives and habitats of wild creatures – who have as much right to try to exist in the world as we do – are being interfered with and endangered in these various ways, sometimes with unethical intent, sometimes out of well intentioned motives.

    Can we not just respect other species – and leave them alone?

    Especially stop killing them – whether they are grouse, pheasants, foxes, mountain hares, gulls, pigeons – or the rarest of all creatures, like the hen harrier.

  9. All the comments above are valid, but we do need to realise where we currently are. Unless sufficient numbers of us are willing to be active in the field to fight these people, we have to deal with the reality.We do not yet have the physical presence out there or the electorate’s support to do things our way.I wish it was different. So for now if this helps to raise the subject in the public’s mind and also puts further pressure on our opponents,then that is a step in the right direction. Personally, I am up for a direct fight, but there would not be enough of us.Unless we can change the current way of things,which we have so far not been able to do,we need to make the best of what we can do,until we can change the Government and further engage public opinion.Our perfect solution can not happen yet, but we can make this a step along the way,whatever the intention is from the other side.

  10. Do you honestly believe that all grouse moors are going to comply, its not about sport anymore its all about money. If estate x has 200 birds per km/2 and estate y only has 100 birds in the same area while supporting a pair of hen harriers do you really believe they’ll be happy. We stopped subsidising our pits, a stopped subsidising our steel works why the hell are we still subsidising these scroungers. Open a centre parks type facility to create the same amount of employment and let people enjoy the natural environment, let Donald trump build a golf course on a small section of it, again still employing more than a sterile grouse moor

    1. It is not even about money anymore either, it is about being able to do as they please in a neo-fuedal context. It is about demonstrating they are above the law, and that the proles cannot have any say over them. It is about specifically spitting in the eye of the conservation charities and the general public and proving they are beyond being controlled.

      1. That is absolutely correct. Their criminality is a political statement and one that no self respecting government should tolerate. The fight is about far more than raptors and it is encouraging to see some closer interchange last year between RPS and the land reform activists. You would hope that the grouse moor scandal will be seen even more in that wider context.

        1. The trouble is that the moor owners are people from the government, from people that own the government, and from the those with titles who technically supervise the government, and from the friends of all of the above. This particular government has no interest in reining this in, because it serves their message that they have the right to rule.

  11. I agree with all your assertions-but that is not changing what happens. In the long-term we may get our way, but we only have to look at the history of this subject to realise any progress is worth having. Our ideal is not yet within our reach,but we can control what happens with this project and the raising of the issue with the public.I am in the process of writing to as many organisations that sell grouse as I can to try and persuade them not to use “driven-grouse moors” so I am doing what I can to affect the debate. But simply re-stating our ideals will not get us where we need to be. It is totally wrong what we are having to do, but I find that with much of our current democracy!

    PS Any help that anyone can give me on the facebook page of Westin Gourmet would be good, as I am sure to get plenty of abuse from the opposition.

    1. So glad you’re writing to grouse retailers. I had an email “conversation” with Abel & Cole when I (naively) thought it was it was an ethical organic supplier of food boxes and saw they were including “wild” game such as partridge and pheasant. They politely told me where to go but at least they didn’t sell grouse. Then I found out they had been taken over by a large commercial outfit that did ready meals for supermarkets & mass catering etc. Not quite the image that they wanted to promote. They ignored the lead shot issue .
      Otherwise, there seem to have been a lot of restaurants offering grouse now e.g Northcote Manor , sourcing supply from that paragon of legality the Duke of Westminster’s estate at Abbeystead.

      PS If any reader is from the Ross, Skye and Lochaber constituency, only one more signature needed to get a darker shade on the e-petition map. Any takers?

  12. This plan is so full of ifs and buts its a complete joke. If I was a member of an raptor study group in England I would refuse to co-operate with this project. No more data….. plan fails at stage 1.

  13. Well said, Jack Snipe and Merlin. I am of the opinion that there is nothing else we can do but to confront them at every turn. To do otherwise would simply allow them to kick the issue in to the long grass while everything remains much the same other than the odd ebb and flow. “Brood Management” would simply provide an avenue for persecution of raptors to continue in the long run. Though not a member of any Raptor Group I made the effort to get to Glen Turret for Hen Harrier Day and will continue to make any effort I can to stop this particular aspect i.e. raptor persecution, of a huge crime against the ecological well being of our country by those who believe themselves to be “untouchable.” Such an example of organised crime in our midst brings to mind Edward Burke when he said “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”

  14. If Jack Snipe,Merlin and George M are proposing direct action, then let us know,as I am more than willing to help. My doubt is simply if there are enough of us.I have been campaigning to rid Newcastle United of Mike Ashley for 6 years and still there are 50,000 supporting him, so maybe that affects my judgement! People are often willing to talk-not always to act.

  15. One thing the EU could do to help is to reinforce the wildlife directives (currently under review, or, as I see it, threat) so that no derogation is allowed. This would make the government directly responsible for the non-enforcement of the wildlife protection laws and could see them dragged into court to explain themselves..

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