A new paper has been published today, describing the catastrophic decline of breeding hen harriers on grouse moors in north east Scotland.
This won’t be totally unexpected news to many readers of this blog; it’s well known, and has been known for over 30 years, that hen harriers are illegally killed on most driven grouse moors in the UK. This paper can be added to the piles of other scientific papers that have documented the illegal persecution of certain raptor species on grouse moors (e.g. hen harriers, peregrines and golden eagles – see here for a brief list of some of those papers).
But what’s different about this latest paper is that it shows it’s not just grouse moor managers screwing over hen harriers in North East Scotland – it’s also the government’s statutory nature conservation advisor, Scottish Natural Heritage.
The paper has been published in the February 2016 edition of British Birds (vol 109, pages 77-95). Unfortunately we’re not permitted to provide a full copy of the paper here – you have to subscribe to BB to access that – but we can publish the abstract and we can discuss the contents. Here’s a screen grab we took of the abstract:
The paper’s authors are all members of the North East Raptor Study Group (NERSG) and/or the RSPB, and they have drawn on their own data (comprehensive and thorough monitoring from 1980-2014 where the vast majority of hen harrier breeding attempts were believed to have been recorded) as well as a wide array of other data that were collected as part of national surveys for other moorland priority species by various statutory and NGO agencies.
From these data (which included studies on habitat and prey availability), 118 hen harrier breeding areas were identified as being suitable, 87% of which were on managed grouse moors. In 2014, only one hen harrier breeding attempt was recorded. To say that is pretty damning would be a gross understatement. It’s as shameful as the data from the grouse moors of the neighbouring Angus Glens, where there hasn’t been a single record of a hen harrier breeding attempt since 2006 (see here). It’s important to reiterate that these data are from Scotland. Usually the bad news stories about hen harriers are from English sites, and the grouse-shooting industry will often point to Scotland as a reason why we shouldn’t be concerned – ‘Ah, there’s hundreds of hen harriers in Scotland and they’re all doing fine, what’s the big fuss about?’ (see here). Forget ‘concern’; this latest paper, along with several others, shows exactly why we are right to be outraged.
As mentioned earlier, this paper not only puts grouse moor managers in the frame (again), but it also reveals SNH’s role in this sordid tale. Before we discuss that, it’s worth looking at this map to get your bearings. The purple boundary depicts the monitoring area of the NERSG, including the following important areas for hen harriers: lower Deeside (blue back-slashed hatch), upper Donside (blue forward-slash hatch), the Glen Tanar Hen Harrier SPA (orange zone), and the Ladder Hills potential SPA (brown zone). The green border shows the Cairngorms National Park boundary as of 2014.
The following text is para-phrased from the paper:
In the mid-late 1990s, SNH was considering the Ladder Hills as a proposed Special Protection Area (pSPA) for hen harriers and in 1995 and 1999 SNH approached the NERSG and RSPB for information regarding Annex 1 species that were using this area. The NERSG and RSPB strongly suspected that illegal persecution of hen harriers (and other raptors) was taking place at the Ladder Hills: in 1998 (a national hen harrier survey year), eight of the nine hen harrier nests located in the Ladder Hills failed, with no obvious biological causes, and most pairs disappeared between survey visits (harriers often attempt to re-nest following a natural failure). In 1999 only three pairs were located in the Ladder Hills. Based on the data received, in early 2000 SNH proposed the Ladder Hills SSSI as an SPA, with hen harrier as the main qualifying interest.
Subsequent discussions between NERSG and RSPB with SNH revealed that landowners had objected to the proposal, claiming there were insufficient numbers of hen harriers and questioning the authenticity of earlier data. In some years data was collected by NERSG members with informal access and in others by workers with full access arrangements. ‘Full access arrangements’ means that RSPB fieldworkers participating in the 1998 national hen harrier survey were required to liaise fully with Estates over access and report their findings (to the Estates), and in extreme cases were accompanied by a gamekeeper during survey visits. We’ll come back to this.
In late 2000, the SNH position was that raptor persecution was likely on the Ladder Hills, but also that other factors such as habitat condition and prey availability might have also been contributing to the low occupancy and poor productivity of hen harriers. NERSG and RSPB did not support the ‘habitat and prey deficiency’ hypothesis and were convinced that human interference was the primary cause of the decline, yet this was difficult to prove.
A decision on SPA classification was deferred in 2000–03 while SNH commissioned further population survey and monitoring, and assessed prey availability and habitat suitability. In 2002 and 2003 these studies extended to other areas in Aberdeenshire and Moray to enable comparison. The assessment concluded: “There are large areas of breeding habitat with suitable nest sites available across the site and no evidence of lack of prey” (R. MacDonald, SNH Area Manager, Grampian, in litt. to Ian Francis, February 2004). Nevertheless, breeding numbers did not recover and the site was removed from the pSPA list following review. Concurrently, the site was designated as an SAC under the EU Habitats Directive and is now also part of the recently established Cairngorms National Park.
The paper’s authors welcomed the SAC and subsequent National Park designations, but do not consider them as appropriate substitutes for an SPA for hen harriers. They say that in the 1990s they had one of the best areas in the UK for this species. Grouse moor owners and managers did not agree with this assessment (and possible SPA designation) presumably because they believed their management would be open to greater scrutiny. The authors contend that SPA designation should have been pursued using either the average hen harrier breeding figures from the 1990s, as had been done for similar notified pSPAs in Scotland, or on the basis of the suitable ecological conditions, with the expectation that harriers would recolonise the area with protection.
The authors point out that the Scottish Government appears committed to eradicating hen harrier persecution and enhancing its breeding status but the Ladder Hills scenario is inconsistent with these objectives. There was no support for the ‘habitat and prey deficiency’ hypothesis following the commissioned research, and no reasons were given for the non-designation of the pSPA. The habitat and prey availability at the Ladder Hills SSSI/SAC are still considered suitable for breeding hen harriers and if harriers were to recover in North East Scotland, the site should be reconsidered as a pSPA.
[End of para-phrasing].
The Ladder Hills case study provides a fascinating insight to several things. First of all, it shows just how weak SNH has been in standing up to influential landowners. We’ve known this for some time but to learn that it was happening as far back as 16 years ago is surprising (to us at least, maybe not to some older readers of this blog). Even after commissioning further research to identify potential threats to hen harriers (which ruled out lack of suitable habitat and lack of prey availability as potential causes), and despite accepting that persecution was indeed one of the causes of breeding hen harrier failures in this region, SNH dropped their proposal to designate the Ladder Hills as a Special Protection Area. What’s the point of commissioning research (with tax payers money) if you’re then going to totally ignore the findings? Talk about not fit for purpose! SNH buckled when they were in a position, with strong supporting evidence, to create an SPA for this species. Not that designating a site as an SPA will automatically lead to species protection – look at all the other hen harrier SPAs in the UK (see map below, taken from RSPB’s Hen Harrier Life+ Project website – they’re all failing miserably – but at least the designation would have given conservationists some leverage to apply some pressure with European legislative backing.
The second point of interest from this paper is the revelation that RSPB fieldworkers who were participating in the 1998 National Hen Harrier Survey were required to inform Estates about their survey visits and any subsequent survey results pertaining to their land, and in some cases were accompanied to those sites by the Estates’ gamekeepers. Is it just coincidence that many of the hen harrier nests that were recorded in NE Scotland during that survey year ‘mysteriously’ failed, and the number of sites found the following year dropped significantly from previous years? We don’t think so. Two + two = four, not five.
This issue of ‘transparency and trust’ is quite timely, given the blog we wrote four days ago about landowners wanting access to raptor study group data (see here). Tim (Kim) Baynes of the lairds’ lobby group Scottish Land and Estates stated that ‘The persecution of raptors is becoming a thing of the past, but there is also a duty on [the] raptor lobby to engage and share information“. Given the contents of this latest paper, he’s having a bloody laugh. Indeed, the authors write: “Levels of trust and cooperation between most raptor enthusiasts and grouse-moor estates in NE Scotland are at an all time low“. And who can blame them?
The authors discuss several potential solutions to help conserve hen harriers in NE Scotland, including the use of buffer zones around nest sites (already routinely used by SNH to protect harriers at windfarm development sites), the use of nest cameras, the use of supplementary feeding, and encouraging more golden eagles to reach natural densities in these areas as they’re predicted to naturally suppress the hen harrier population. All good suggestions, but all doomed to failure if the grouse-shooting industry is allowed to continue behaving with impunity.
UPDATE 4th Feb 2016
Two other blogs have been written about this paper and are both well worth a read:
Mark Avery here
Ian Thomson (Head of Investigations, RSPB Scotland) here