Heads up for hen harriers? How about heads in the sand?

Last week we were treated to yet another ‘partnership-working’ charade, this time under the guise of PAW Scotland’s ‘Heads up for Hen Harriers’ project.

This project was established in 2013. It aims to ‘better understand the threats facing Scotland’s hen harriers –and ultimately promote recovery of the species – by working in partnership with land managers‘ (see here). The idea is that nobody knows why hen harrier nests are failing in certain areas (yes, really!) but by putting cameras on nests we might learn more about these ‘mystery issues’.

The whole project has been a farce right from the start (we blogged about it here), although, to be fair, it does seem that asking the public for hen harrier sightings has been fruitful in one or two cases. But the part of the project that relies on nest camera evidence is just absurd. It’s going to lead to a huge sampling bias because these cameras are only placed at nest sites with the landowner’s permission. Nobody in their right mind is going to illegally persecute those nesting hen harriers or their chicks with a camera pointing right at them, thus, any subsequent nesting failures documented by the project will be the result of natural causes, not illegal ones, allowing the grouse moor owners to proclaim that illegal persecution isn’t a problem.

Last year we criticised the project (here) because nest cameras were not deployed on any intensively driven grouse moors. Tim (Kim) Baynes, a spokesman for Scottish Land & Estates, disingenuously used those 2015 results (from non-driven grouse moors) to claim that nest failures ‘on grouse moors’ that year were due to the weather and fox predation. We argued that it was pointless, propaganda-fuelling bollocks to place cameras on nest sites in areas where persecution isn’t an issue (walked-up grouse moors) and then use those results to claim that persecution isn’t an issue on driven grouse moors.

Much the same has happened this year. In last week’s media releases (SNH press release here; Landward programme here [available for 27 days]; BBC news here [which is basically a shortened version of the Landward programme]), we were told that there was an increase in project uptake from estates this year (five estates in 2015, 13 this year) and this was seen as huge progress. However, only three estates had successful nests and none of those estates were intensively managed driven grouse moors. Well, one of them was Langholm and as they’re still not shooting grouse there and still not illegally killing hen harriers there, it can hardly be seen to be representative of driven grouse moors.

What was new this year was that some of those 13 signed-up estates ARE intensively managed driven grouse moors – notably some in the Angus Glens and further north in Aberdeenshire. But none of them had breeding hen harriers this year so they didn’t really actively ‘take part’ in the project, as is being claimed. It’s all very well signing up for the project and saying you’re part of it and how much you love hen harriers and want to understand what the issues are; it’s a lot like the grouse moor owners in northern England who claim to have signed up to DEFRA’s Hen Harrier Inaction Plan – it sounds great but has resulted in exactly zero breeding hen harriers on any driven grouse moors in England this year. It’s an easy PR stunt for these estates to pull but when hen harriers haven’t bred in these areas for ten years (Angus Glens – see here) or the hen harrier population has suffered a catastrophic population decline thanks to illegal persecution (Aberdeenshire  -see here), and when you’re still deploying gas guns, banger ropes, and inflatable screeching scarecrows at the critical breeding time for hen harriers, it’s probably a safe bet that you’re not going to have breeding hen harriers this year but hey, you can still say you’re engaged in ‘partnership-working’ and thus score some brownie points.

Of the nests that were successful this year, much has been made of the weather and of fox predation. Again, this is all just another opportunity to hide the known impact of illegal persecution. Yes, weather will affect productivity (as it can for most species) and yes, natural predation will occur (as it does in any ecosystem), but so what? We all know these natural causes of nest failure will occur in places, but we also know that illegal persecution has been identified as the main threat to hen harriers on driven grouse moors across the UK.

These estates, and SNH, need to stop pretending otherwise.

UPDATE 3 October 2016: Heads up for Hen Harriers: the ‘partnership-working’ sham (here)

34 thoughts on “Heads up for hen harriers? How about heads in the sand?”

  1. I watched the Landward programme and was horrified how the entire hen harrier persecution issue was blatantly slanted in favour of grouse shooting.
    The showing of film footage of natural mortality due to weather and predation was not balanced with the film footage illegal persecution shooting and trapping of harriers that has been gathered.

    And to claim that grouse moor management helps harriers by killing foxes…….the less informed may think this is entirely reasonable……truth is all predators including raptors, martens,wildcat, otter and badgers are killing on an industrial scale.

    SNH once again allowed themselves to be used……..disgraceful and loses public faith

  2. Luckily for us SNH and PAWS have this fully under control. Those foxes are so damned cunning that they are able to read the internet but SNH and PAWS are one step ahead of them and are hiding all the tracking data so the foxes can’t locate the nests. In an even more cunning plan SNH and PAWS have taken down the website http://raptortrack.org/ for added security.
    The BTO have been one step of those foxes for decades and never publish breeding locations of rare raptors in detail. Ha, foxes we know your game. You can’t fool us.

  3. It’s gratifying to read RPS blogging that fox predation is natural predation, a point which is not appreciated by some raptor enthusiasts. My own analysis of over 100 harrier nests monitored over a 16-year period suggested that approximately 30% of nests failed due to fox predation (when fox control is minimal), almost equal to the number failing due to persecution by man. There was no evidence of nests failing due to any other natural predator, despite the presence of Carrion Crows and a non-breeding flock of over 100 Ravens on the study area. It is difficult to predict with a high degree of certainty, but these results suggest that if we remove the impact of human persecution, approximately 60% of harrier breeding attempts would be successful. That is clearly sufficient to sustain the population and fill most of the empty suitable territories.

    Environmental factors will undoubtedly lead to fluctuation in the population cycles, none more so than temporal local and regional changes in the field vole population. However my experience, and I don’t see any strong evidence to suggest otherwise, is that weather does not play a particularly significant part in breeding failure. Brood size can be reduced in years of poor productivity for Meadow Pipits, usually cold or exceptionally wet spells in May and early June, as the main prey supply for harrier nestlings is in short supply. More analysis is required on the differences in harrier productivity on grouse moors compared with other habitats where Red Grouse are scarce or absent. Of course such analysis is not helped by the difficult to measure effect of persecution on grouse moors, undoubtedly the major factor causing failure. It is also difficult to achieve due to some raptor workers being unwilling to allow their nest data to be used.

    Sometimes I find it takes a great deal of deep thinking to be fully aware of the shocking state of affairs regarding Hen Harriers, especially when the nature conservation agencies sometimes give the impression of being apologists for the grouse shooting industry. Even more so when Europe’s largest bird conservation society, the RSPB, seems not to care as much as it should about the fact that NO harriers bred on English grouse moors in 2016. Such an organisation should be constantly campaigning against the unquestionable cruelty, and harm to wild bird populations, brought about by our very own version of gun culture.

    1. Fox predation is obviously natural. What isn’t natural though is the number of foxes there are, at least in unkeepered areas. So hen harriers are hit by a double whammy, having firstly to survive an unnaturally high number of predators at the nesting site then persecution by the shooting industry.

      1. Sometimes I wonder why I bother explaining the outcome of research, when someone comes back with such an ill-informed remark. Didn’t you read my comment fully? Would you rather see 70% of harriers failing (100% on English grouse moors), despite intensive control of foxes, or a natural level of failure due to predation by foxes amounting to only 30%? If we want to rid the moors of the scourge of gamekeepers, we need to stop thinking like them. Harriers don’t need us to protect them from natural predation; they just require us to stop persecuting them. Your logic is odd anyway. How can harriers be hit with a double whammy in unkeepered areas? Who are we to say that foxes in unkeepered areas are at an unnatural level? It could equally be argued that we want harriers to exist at an unnatural level, because the habitat they frequent should be continuous woodland. Certain elements of the rewilding movement suggest this seriously.

        1. ‘Would you rather see 70% of harriers failing (100% on English grouse moors), despite intensive control of foxes, or a natural level of failure due to predation by foxes amounting to only 30%?’

          False dichotomy.

          I’d be happy for foxes to be controlled where they occur in high numbers and where they are having an adverse effect on the number of ground nesting birds.

          I’d aim to reduce their numbers to about the level they would be at if there were true apex predators present.


          ‘How can harriers be hit with a double whammy in unkeepered areas?’

          Well I would have thought the answer was fairly obvious. Because they don’t stay in unkeepered areas.

          1. Dave, I’d also be interested to know how you would determine the threshold of what are “high numbers” of foxes, and at what threshold does natural predation become an “adverse effect” on the number of ground nesting birds (which presumably includes Meadow Pipits, Skylarks, Stonechats, etc., as well as waders, gallinaceous species and Hen Harriers)? I can reassure you that nature does a better job of that than we could. I’ve already explained that under unkeepered circumstances foxes account for approximately 30% of failures in harrier breeding attempts. I would suggest that a success rate of over 50% is perfectly sustainable, and would allow recovery from the current exceptionally low level of the Hen Harrier population in the UK.

            How ironic that you accuse my argument of false dichotomy, and then go on to say that harriers don’t stay in unkeepered areas. Where did that particularly odd “fact” spring from? It’s a well known fact that Hen Harriers are more successful when they breed in unkeepered areas, and the data collected by Raptor Study Groups confirm that. The problem in grouse shooting areas is that they are attracted to the habitat, and eat a few grouse.

            I’m in favour of the principle and support the rewilding movement, but unfortunately the new romantics have taken over, and will not be satisfied until the food web is perfectly in tune with an environment without man’s influence. For rather obvious reasons that will never happen. In the meantime we have to deal with reality, and accept that foxes are currently the best apex predators we have. I for one would be extremely unhappy about gamekeepers to control fictitious “enemies” of game birds being replaced with gamekeepers to protect raptors from natural predators.

            1. I think we’ll just have to agree to disagree on the matter of trophic cascade in relation to fox numbers.

              Regarding movement of hen harriers, my point was simply this. That a hen harrier can fledge in an unkeepered area, where it has to deal with potential predation by fox (which I would regard as being present in unnaturally high numbers) and then fly to a keepered area where it then has to deal with the entirely unnatural threat of persecution. That’s all I meant by a double whammy.

              The idea of controlling predators to protect a species that is struggling is hardly a novel idea. The RSPB have been doing it for years.

              1. ‘The RSPB have been doing it for years’ – indeed they have, and that’s an argument I get flung in my face almost whenever I try to discuss persecution with farmers and gamekeepers. And the brighter ones really enjoy pointing out that that gamekeepers kill predators (including BoP) to protect species that are of economic importance (like pheasants and grouse and lambs) while the RSPB kill predators to protect species of zero economic importance (like Lapwing). And for many of them, that’s the end of the argument.
                Moral high ground totally cut from under me.

              2. Oh, that’s okay then if the RSPB have been doing it for years! They’re not infallible, in case you hadn’t noticed, and did not support Mark Avery’s petition to ban driven grouse shooting. Their licensing “solution” is a feeble compromise destined for failure to resolve the harrier persecution problem.

                1. Driven grouse shooting will not be banned until such time as we can come up with an alternative, pragmatic and acceptable use for upland areas. That’s the Realpolitik of the situation.

                  The issue of predator control will be an essential part of any such alternative land use.

                  My concern is that there are those who simply will not countenance predator control in any circumstances, as a matter of principle, and that their intransigence will stop the project in its tracks.

                  1. That’s just pompous narrow-minded nonsense, and not worthy of a reply, except to say you appear to be stuck in a Victorian time warp. We all know that the ecosystem of this country has been messed up by Man. Further attempts at tinkering will not resolve the problem, and neither will dogmatic restoration of apex predators. Radical and ethical thinking is the intelligent route to take. It’s not as simple as reintroducing Lynx or Wolves. The simplest and most effective measure we can take is to get our own species’ house in order by giving up killing wildlife for pleasure or for our own individual self interests.

                    1. OK, so your solution is for an outright ban on all shooting.

                      Good luck with that.

                      I’m afraid I won’t be with you on that one. Neither, of course, will be Mark Avery.

                      I leave others to judge who is being pompous, narrow minded and dogmatic here.

                    2. It seems I’ve found myself a pro-shooting troll here. If you read my comment again you will see that I did not actually state we should call for an outright ban on all shooting, albeit a very good idea. And if you care to read Mark Avery’s blogs, you will see that he, like me, expresses abhorrence at the practice of shooting for pleasure, although the term he tends to use is “shooting for fun.” As for your misunderstandings relating to the role of the Red Fox in the ecosystem, I suggest you buy yourself a copy of “Ecology for Dummies.” It might also help to get in touch with reality. Maybe you could google it.

                    3. i’m not a shooter. I’m probably more opposed to shooting than Mark Avery is. Others have a different viewpoint. I know two RSG members who are active shooters, for instance.

                      ‘I did not actually state we should call for an outright ban on all shooting’

                      Well what you said was:

                      ‘The simplest and most effective measure we can take is to get our own species’ house in order by giving up killing wildlife for pleasure or for our own individual self interests.’

                      Maybe you could explain how that objective is to be achieved without an outright ban on shooting.

                      And verb sap, in any discussion, resorting to ad hominem abuse is usually a sign of weakness rather than of strength.

                    4. Resorting to circular arguments and not being able to concede defeat is the ultimate sign of weakness. The “ad hominem” abuse you refer to is simply frustration at dealing with the pomposity of someone who uses Latin to seem clever. Verb sap indeed!

                      On the issue you won’t let go of, I was merely pointing out that you were misquoting me. In a world scenario there are apparently some people who still require to use guns to acquire animal protein for their families, but in the UK there is no actual need to do so. Thus while I wouldn’t say guns should be banned on a global scale (although it’s a nice dream), there is no reason why it couldn’t happen in the developed world. It’s a huge aspiration, I realise that, but it’s my honest opinion and I argue in favour of a society where all killing for pleasure is controlled. If we stopped culling native predators tomorrow it would make no significant difference at all. That might be a sweeping statement, but it bears scrutiny if a sensible argument and a level-headed understanding of nature is adopted. Shooting fanatics and the gullible will always disagree, of course.

        1. I would posit that where apex predators are removed mesopredators will increase in number.

          I would suggest that such an increase would result in, by definition, an unnaturally high number of such mesopredators.

          The fox is a mesopredator which has become an apex predator.

          An entirely reasonable, indeed mainstream view, I would have thought.

          1. Assuming the apex predator you have in mind is the wolf, your logic is entirely clear, although it may not capture all the complexities of the situation. It also carries the implication that your understanding of ‘unnaturally high’ is actually something like ‘higher than in the 14th century’.
            I’m not at all sure that this is a useful definition for present day conservation issues. I might have more enthusiasm for it if the wolf had become extinct, say, 20 years ago.

            1. I assume that historically lynx, bear and wolf will all in their time have suppressed the number of foxes present.

              I also assume that ground nesting birds will have evolved to deal with that ‘naturally occurring’ number of foxes.

              I’m not sure how ground nesting birds could have evolved, within the time period you suggest, to deal with an increased number of foxes.

              I’m concerned as to what would happen if, as some seem to advocate, all control of fox numbers is abandoned.

              Perhaps a comparative study with an ecosystem where true apex predators are stil present would be worthwhile.

              It may sound like an academic issue but I think it’s a matter that is going to have to be addressed and resolved if an alternative use for the uplands is to be found. And without such an alternative use, we are not going to get rid of driven grouse shooting.

              1. Dave – there is truth in what you say, I fully respect your position, and I don’t propose to prolong this exchange. I don’t take the same position as you for three main reasons:
                1. I don’t know if your position is correct or not. I don’t know whether fox numbers or total predation pressure are greater now than 500 years ago. My guess is that numbers of many species, including foxes, have gone up and down for many different reasons over that period. I don’t know what a ‘natural’ predator population level means.
                2. I think it can be misleading to assume that predation is necessarily the dominant factor in determining population sizes. It is often said that the modern deer population is ‘out of control because they have no predators’ – but their main predators died out centuries ago, yet the population increased dramatically after about 1970. We don’t know the reasons for sure, but it almost certainly isn’t the loss of predators.
                3. Performing and emphasising predator control plays into the hands of those who persecute BoP. If all sides agree that there should be a ‘nasty list’ of wildlife species that ought to be killed, then the argument is reduced to precisely which species should be included on that list. Many farmers, landowners and gamekeepers want eagles, goshawks, harriers, and buzzards to be on the list because these people like lambs, pheasants and grouse. Bird enthusiasts don’t want these species on the list, because they like to see impressive birds. It becomes just a squabble between two vested interest groups which, imo, will never energise the general public or persuade the powers that be to make significant changes.
                Alternatively, we can try to take a more ‘hands off’ approach involving fewer guns, poisons and traps, and see how the wildlife responds. I certainly wouldn’t rule out intervention, but I’d want to have a hard look at the habitat before I killed any native wildlife. We might even be able to capture the imagination of the man, woman and young person in the street.

                1. 1. Theory, which presumably is drawn from some evidential basis, suggests that when apex predators are removed from an eco system the number of mesopredators increases. A ‘natural’ population number (and OK it’s a clumsy shorthand) would be the number that would occur in a balanced, healthy ecosystem, and would therefore be the number that a prey species would have evolved to cope with.

                  2. I am not suggesting that predation is the dominant factor in determining population size. I’m suggesting that it is A factor, and one we can influence.

                  3. You’re suggesting that predator control is a door that simply must not be opened, for no other reason than it might be tactically disadvantageous in a propaganda war with the shooting industry. That’s not an approach I can agree with. The issue should be decided on its own merits ie would it be to the benefit of the threatened species or not.

                  1. A last, admittedly glib, comment – it’s difficult to criticize others for doing something that’s conceptually almost indistinguishable from what you’re doing yourself.

                    1. More cryptic than glib.

                      If I have deciphered your post correctly I think you’re saying that anyone who advocates predator control in a particular set of circumstances to achieve a particular outcome is not in a position to challenge those who advocate predator control in entirely different circumstances to achieve an entirely different outcome.

                      I wouldn’t find any difficulty whatsoever in doing that.

                      I’d suggest it’s a weak argument.

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