Hen harrier ‘reintroduction’ to southern England: an update

One of the six action points in DEFRA’s Hen Harrier Inaction Plan is to ‘reintroduce’ hen harriers to southern England:


DEFRA’s HH Inaction Plan has been widely criticised by conservationists, with the main focus being on the brood meddling part. The proposed southern ‘reintroduction’ hasn’t received much attention, largely because the scoping project on which it is based is still unpublished – it’s hard to scrutinise something that’s being kept secret.

There had been concerns that chicks removed from the northern uplands as part of the brood meddling scheme would be used as the source birds for the southern ‘reintroduction’. This would have been unacceptable on a number of fronts, not least because it would be in breach of IUCN guidelines – you can’t source birds from a donor population if their removal would negatively affect the donor population. However, our recent FoI to Natural England has shown that those brood-meddled birds will be released back to the northern uplands, and not in to southern England (see here).

We’re now in a position to shed a bit more light on the proposed southern ‘reintroduction’ (it’s not actually a reintroduction because hen harriers are not extinct in southern England). Revealed through another FoI, the following update was provided by Adrian Jowitt (Natural England) to Paul Ballinger (DEFRA) on 23 September 2016:

Southern reintroduction: the main work undertaken over the last few months has been setting up and starting early conversations with stakeholders in the areas proposed. We have had discussions with landowners on Exmoor and in early October are going to meet with some key farmers and landowners in southern Wiltshire. The discussions have in the main been cautiously positive although there is still a way to go. We have also been exploring different funding routes and are starting to explore possible sources for chicks. We will also be considering whether we need to do any further habitat suitability checks beyond what was done for the original feasibility study and to that end will be carrying out some basic field visits with our hen harrier ecologist‘.

So, it looks like Exmoor may be a potential ‘reintroduction’ site, as well as somewhere in southern Wiltshire. That’s interesting.


There has been at least one hen harrier breeding attempt in Wiltshire since 2002, although we don’t know the outcome. Here’s an image from a recent talk given by Natural England’s Stephen Murphy showing hen harrier breeding records between 2002-2015 (apologies for the poor quality photo – a reflection on us, not on the quality of Stephen’s slides):


Wintering hen harriers are seen around Exmoor, albeit relatively infrequently – indeed, a satellite-tagged hen harrier from Bowland (2014 – ‘Burt’) is known to have visited Exmoor, because that’s where his last sat tag transmission came from, although in Burt’s case his ‘disappearance’ was thought to be as a result of a genuine tag failure rather than anything more sinister.

Exmoor, including Exmoor National Park, is well known for game shooting. This report from 2004 demonstrates just how much driven game shooting takes place there (predominantly pheasant & partridge) and how many gamekeepers work there. Perhaps that’s why Natural England’s discussions with landowners are described as being only ‘cautiously positive although there is still a way to go‘. If this ‘reintroduction’ is to go ahead, as Natural England appears to expect, these landowners MUST be on-side before any birds are released. It’ll be interesting to see how things develop on that score.

There are still huge question marks about this proposed ‘reintroduction’. Many of us are not entirely supportive because we believe the grouse shooting lobby and Natural England/DEFRA are using it as a way of diverting attention from the ongoing criminal persecution of hen harriers in the northern uplands. Releasing some birds in to southern England (assuming a source population can be found) will not stop the grouse moor managers from killing hen harriers in the northern uplands, the fundamental cause of this species’ decline in the first place.

You could argue that, theoretically at least, the southern England ‘reintroduction’, if successful, would increase the range and conservation status of English hen harriers, and it would also bolster the English population, increasing its resilience from population decline. That’s true. However, it’s also true that if hen harriers were not still being routinely killed in the north, their breeding range would increase naturally, their conservation status would improve, and the population’s resilience to decline would increase.

You could also argue that the estimated half-a-million quid (and the rest!) of taxpayers’ money that’ll be spent on this attention-diverting scheme would be better spent on improving enforcement measures so the hen harrier killers can finally be brought to justice.

34 thoughts on “Hen harrier ‘reintroduction’ to southern England: an update”

  1. No doubt the south Wiltshire site is Salisbury Plain. I wonder if that would have an impact on the occasional Montagu’s Harriers breeding there.

  2. ..and there’s also the rather major problem of harrier migration – whats to stop these birds simply fledging and heading north to the usual killing grounds?..we know that scottish harriers move very large distances and are fatally attracted to managed grouse moors…this is the main problem I see with any brood meddling plan..

  3. Two comments.
    Source population. Please keep off the Scottish birds.
    Half a million pounds.
    Could be used to satellite tag every Scottish (and English, for completeness but there are so few…) Eagle and hen harrier for quite a while. Perhaps better to use a GSM based tracker on the eagles to give the same tracking without such long transmission gaps.
    That would produce a better outcome I feel than an introduction process.
    Every gun pointed in the air would mean the offender would know he would have to kill the bird and the transmitter, and hope that it’s location would not be disclosed before he has finished.
    Could the RSPB not crowdfund this as I’d rather Defra and NE were just ignored as not fit for this purpose?

  4. So indirectly taxpayers are going to pay for driven grouse moors to kill Hen Harriers.
    That may appear over the top but i don’t think so.
    Hen Harriers would spread to suitable areas in England fairly quickly, if they were not killed on DGMs. First the population would boom in the uplands and then the lowland.
    This scheme is putting a monetary value on one aspect of the crime.
    Is anyone in Europe really going to take this seriously and give them chicks?

  5. The ‘attention diversion’ logic is quite clear: bury bad news by generally sweeping persecution under the carpet and keeping satellite data secret; create a diversionary ‘good news story’ that swamps news coverage….”Hen harrier population recovering without the need to change grouse moor management….what’s the problem…”. It’s funny they’re not prepared to divert the attention of hen harriers through diversionary feeding.

    Quite how Adrian Jowitt could go along with this without deep shame is beyond me. Maybe it’s a case of Go along with what the government wants or get sidelined by your employer.

    Couple of questions / observations:

    – Did your FoI requests yield a copy of the scoping study itself? I’d be surprised if they had grounds to withhold it.

    – Are there any data of wildlife persecution incidents within and around the re-introduction areas? Even if a couple of land owners on Exmoor are prepared to host re-introduced hen harriers, their neighbours and far-neighbours may be less impressed.

    1. Hi Steve,

      In response to your two questions:

      1. An FoI request has been submitted asking for the unpublished scoping report.
      2. Re-introduction areas not yet clarified. Once they are, requests for persecution data would have to be submitted to RSPB.

  6. Interesting comment from Paul Trout on Facebook, particularly regarding partridge predation – are they simply expanding the hen harrier persecution problem?! (I’m not sure if I’m supposed to cut and past someone else’s comments made elsewhere)…….

    ”Hen Harriers are doing well across some agricultural areas in N. & NE France (at least last time I was involved in Grey Partridge work, 2003). I would be worried about negative interactions with the few pairs of Montagu’s Harriers in UK and think this is probably being proposed to take the heat off the grouse-moor owners.
    The southern birds will just get on the t*ts of the partridge mob, especially in Wiltshire, N. Downs and Hampshire. They are heavy predators on paired spring Grey Partridge in N. France but are sufficiently scarce in winter in S. England not to be an issue.”

  7. We monitor raptors across one of the named counties and have deep concerns about this ‘reintroduction’. In recent years, landowners have bombarded our group with anti-Buzzard, anti-Raven and anti-Red Kite vitriol, mainly on the numerous shooting estates found throughout the county we work in. Many are delighted by the issuing of Buzzard-killing licenses. Why would nearby estates ‘tolerate’ Hen Harriers on their land? The mentality of lowland land managers and gamekeepers is not dissimilar to those working in the uplands. Then there is the major issue of ‘reintroduced’ Hen Harriers dispersing onto driven grouse moors in the uplands… We are also concerned by Defra’s lack of consultation with the local raptor workers.

    1. Now there’s a surprise, a lack of consultation with local raptor workers ( I was being ironic!) the rest is taken as a given if you shoot you don’t like raptors with all the knock on consequences.

    2. “The mentality of lowland land managers and gamekeepers is not dissimilar to those working in the uplands.”

      I agree with that statement. Persecution in areas where large-scale pheasant rearing and release occurs, is every bit as bad as upland areas.

      The mentality of the majority of gamekeepers and those involved with the shooting industry is the same wherever they come from on Britain – a zero tolerance approach to all things predatory.

  8. Do we know under the FOI who the proposed donors are and what is their reaction to being asked to donate birds to a country that currently cannot adequately protect its native population in the north? If I where one of those countries I would say no!

    1. Hi Paul,

      According to the FoI they’re in the early stages of looking for a source population. It’ll be interesting! As you say, who’s going to agree to donating birds to a country that refuses to deal with illegal raptor persecution?!

    2. No just the country authorities, but also in-country conservation organisations. Presumably NGO’s (the BirdLife partner, for example), within the donor country will be consulted and may even find themselves involved in sourcing birds. I hope the RSPB and BirdLife Cambridge secretariat is on the case and will lobby its European partners to ensure they’re consulted.

  9. I think something about deck chair management on the Titanic vis-a-vis iceberg avoidance is probably appropriate at this point.

  10. Hen Harriers predate on young grouse and eggs. This should not be a problem for the wretched Pheasant and Partridge brigade, as only mature birds are released, and this stinking recreation does not depend on eggs. Red Kite introduction has proved enormously successful in southern counties, so why not Hen Harriers?
    Gotta say I don’t see a downside to this, more to the point, anything that increases numbers must be good.

    1. Not the native grey partridge. The small population is still wild here and in the area that looks possible as a release site.

    2. I wasn’t aware that harriers predate eggs, nor that they are equipped to deal with them! As for pheasant and partridge surely released poults would suit Hen harriers well but regardless the reception for any predator, real threat or imagined, will probably be the same.

      1. Please see my comments to Bob Philpot Mike. I thought Hen Harriers predated eggs, but it was simply an assumption.
        I completely understand your point of view, but would like to give these birds an opportunity.Introduction of Red Kites has been so successful, and was probably subject to the same arguements.

        1. Yes and look at the Red Kites on the Black Isle. I would bet money that the populations in Yorkshire and east Scotland will be severely limited soon as they reach higher numbers. Any bets?
          In retrospect it is clear that they shouldn’t have been released until the crime stops which isn’t going to happen without a ban or licensing, probably of all game shooting.

          1. I can see he’ll freezing over before game shooting is licensed across the board, certainly unlikely in my time.
            Better to have loved and lost is my philosophy.Cannot see the same level of persecution in southern England as is witnessed in the back lands of the Scottish and Yorkshire grouse moors.

  11. ‘If this ‘reintroduction’ is to go ahead, as Natural England appears to expect, these landowners MUST be on-side before any birds are released.’


    How exactly do they ascertain whether or not landowners are onside?

    ‘If you see a hen harrier, will you kill it?’

    1. “How exactly do they ascertain whether or not landowners are onside?”

      A good point, because if the majority of shooting industry and landowning representatives are to be believed, persecution is either a thing of the past, or it no longer occurs in any form.

      1. This is the insanity. A landowner who is asked to host this on his land could be excused from objecting on grounds of increased access etc. but any neighbouring landowners would, in effect, be being asked, ‘are you going to obey the law or not’. As Chunkymark would say ‘YOU WHAT’.
        If those being asked to donate chicks can’t see through this looking-glass, i would be astonished.

  12. Half a million pounds of public funds to support a diversionary PR exercise, as an underhand deal with criminal elements of the gamebird shooting industry? On ethical grounds alone this should be a non starter, especially in these days of austerity and nature conservation budgets being slashed. As already pointed out by others, this is not a proper reintroduction along the lines of Red Kites or White-tailed Eagles which were rendered extinct due to past misdemeanours, it is a form of bribe to get conservationists off the case of grouse moor gamekeepers illegally killing Hen Harriers. Personally I don’t believe it will work, but even if it did it would involve the quid pro quo of allowing the brood meddling programme to go into full swing. In other words the Hen Harriers of many parts of Scotland and northern England would effectively be reduced to levels not significantly higher than at present. And how exactly could it be guaranteed anyway that gamekeepers would not continue to take the easy option, i.e. continuing to kill the birds rather than bothering with all this relocation nonsense? With the pressure off, the killing could continue on an even greater scale. There is little doubt that some Scottish harriers already migrate to winter in southern England, where I feel sure many of them meet their demise already. If not in the south, then certainly on their way back north through the killing moors of northern England. It worries me that not everyone seems to be aware of the dangers of going down this particular route. We should be resisting it strongly, and end existing persecution so that harriers can spread their range naturally into the lowlands, if (and it’s a big if) the habitat is actually suitable for their ecological requirements.

  13. Stand back a minute and look at this – the whole issue is so ridiculous! It just doesn’t hold water, it’s like an episode of Blackadder playing out before us! Trying to find a political solution to an ecological situation is simply not going to work when the idiots simply do not understand the basics of Hen Harrier ecology. If you have a basic grasp of the ecology then the politics appears ridiculous and the puppets involved lose all credibility.

    1. Mike, you’ve summed it up nicely here. They can play their silly games now but, realistically, how long is it likely to be before their dodgy plans would be triggered (sorry) by having two pairs of HHs breeding within 10km of each other in England?

  14. Largely, if game keepers and farmers see a hen harrier, they will shoot it. We’ve seen how, even if this bird were protected, those aforementioned would still kill them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: