Can we please just have some honesty about the Heads up for Harriers project?

The controversial Heads Up for Harriers project got another airing at the weekend, this time on BBC Radio Scotland’s Out of Doors programme.

For those who missed it, you can listen to it on the BBC iPlayer HERE for the next 27 days (starts at 01.58, ends 07.39).

For the sake of posterity, here’s the transcript, and our comments are below:

Mark Stephen (presenter): Last year we covered the launch of an ambitious project to put cameras in hen harrier nests on grouse moors to see why the bird’s population numbers are so low. Now, we’d best not underestimate the challenge of this project in getting access to some moorland where privacy is treasured. The results are in and one of the main drivers behind Heads up for Harriers is Professor Des Thompson of Scottish Natural Heritage. Des has been talking to Euan.

Des Thompson: The hen harrier is one of our most special birds of prey, it’s a fantastically beautiful, graceful bird. It’s one of our most endangered birds. In the UK we’ve got hardly any birds nesting….[interrupted].

Euan McIlwraith: Is that just because they have a habit of taking grouse and they’re not welcome on the moors? Is that the main reason?

Des Thomson: Well historically that’s certainly been the case Euan, they’ve not been welcome at all on the intensively managed grouse moors. But they’re doing very well in the Outer Isles, we’ve got roughly just under 500 pairs at the moment but not doing anything like as well on the grouse moors.

Euan McIlwraith: So we should have them throughout Scotland or is it just mainly on the moorland?

Des Thompson: No, we should have them throughout Scotland, I mean historically they’ve nested in lowland areas but their best habitat and the best foods for these birds [is] on heather dominated areas.

Euan McIlwraith: The project last year, Heads up for Harriers, what was the idea of the project?

Des Thomspon: Well there’s two things we’re trying to do with Heads up for Harriers, one is just encouraging people to report their sightings of these birds, I mean they’re just so beautiful to see, and we’ve had a fantastic response from people throughout the country, just giving us information on where they’re seeing these birds and we can follow up to see how these birds are faring. But we’ve also recognised that on grouse moor areas they’re either absent or not doing well, so we’ve wanted to work with estates and conservationists to encourage these birds to settle. Where they’ve settled, with the agreement of the estates we’ve put out nest cameras to see what’s happening to the nests. If nests are failing, why? Is it because of foxes, crows, or disturbance or some other factor?

Euan McIlwraith: That was last year, what kind of results have you got?

Des Thompson: Well we’ve been very lucky because we’ve now got more than 20 estates participating.

Euan McIlwraith: Was that a hard thing, to persuade people?

Des Thompson: Yeah, it was actually, if I’m frank with you Euan. We’ve had to develop a very strong partnership involving Scottish Land & Estates, RSPB, Scottish Raptor Study Groups, SNH and other people, bringing them together, having candid conversations, which is sort of code for quite difficult discussions, but in the end we’ve had estates coming forward saying, ‘Ok, bring it on, we want to have hen harriers settle in our areas, we want to show that we can look after them’. Now, we’re not being naive, there are quite a number of estates I’d like to see joining the scheme, they’ve not come forward yet, and I would like to reach into these estates to see if we can get them to come on board.

Euan McIlwraith: So what did you do? Did you put cameras beside the nest and just monitor how many survive?

Des Thompson: Yes, we’ve had some fantastic people working with us, one person in particular, Brian Etheridge, who this year won the Nature of Scotland Species Champion Award, has been brilliant at working with estates, going out working with estate staff, locating nesting hen harriers, finding the nest, cannily putting out the camera and then re-visiting it to see how the birds are faring.

Euan McIlwraith: So what kind of results have you had?

Des Thompson: Well a sort of mixed bag, pretty much what you’d expect across the country. We’ve had some nests being predated by foxes, we’ve had some nests failing for natural reasons, but overall across all of our nest sites we’ve had 37 fledged harriers from the nests which is a great result.

Euan McIlwraith: So that would imply that if it went on, you should be able to re-populate Scotland?

Des Thompson: I don’t know about re-populating Scotland because we’ve still got a lot of estates that we need to reach in to and you’ll know that the Scottish Government has recently set up an expert group to look at the management of driven grouse moors, and there’s still a number of moors that we need to reach in to, to try and influence management.

Euan McIlwraith: What about the success rate of the chicks because they’re normally, I presume, 3 eggs laid and survival would be one?

Des Thompson: Yes, I mean in some cases four, five or even six eggs if we’re lucky, most of the chicks will fledge and that’s where it gets very difficult. Some are predated, some unfortunately are being persecuted, they’re either being poisoned or killed, the females tend to stay on the moor, the males migrate very long distances because they’re feeding on much smaller prey.

Euan McIlwraith: But the results, I’m led to believe, compared to England were much more impressive?

Des Thompson: Well, they are, but you would expect me to say that. Well in England, we’ve got virtually no hen harriers nesting. We don’t have the sort of partnership working we have in Scotland so I think we’re extremely fortunate. But I think its fair to say that raptor conservationists, a number of raptor conservationists are impatient for change, they want to see the fortunes of hen harriers much better, and I think they’re absolutely right, so that’s why I want to really throw down the gauntlet to those remaining estates where there’s intensive driven grouse shooting and to say we really would like to work with you, to see if we can extend the scheme.

Euan McIlwraith: Because it’s in their interests, isn’t it, if you can actually say, ‘I’ve put a camera on the harrier nest, they’re surviving, it’s not us’?

Des Thompson: Well I think it is, Euan, but I think also reputationally, for the wider brand of Scotland, why would we not want to see hen harriers in the wild uplands of Scotland, it’s such a fantastic spectacle, especially in spring when you’re getting males flighting, I mean it’s a wonderful thing to see so it’s in their interests to do so.


Photograph from a 2017 Heads up for Harriers nest camera:

For God’s sake, when are we going to get some honesty about the Heads up for Harriers project?

Let’s just be clear – the purpose of installing nest cameras is not ‘to find out what’s happening to these birds’ – we already know what’s happening, and Des even alluded to this in his interview. On intensively managed grouse moors, breeding hen harriers are not tolerated. They are illegally killed and this has been going on for decades, in England and in Scotland.

We know that at some nests the breeding attempt can and will fail, from a number of natural causes, but that’s perfectly normal. These types of failures are NOT the cause of the declining hen harrier population, nor the reason behind the persistent absence of breeding hen harriers on driven grouse moors – that is down to illegal persecution. It’s a fact, accepted by Governments, by statutory agencies, by police forces, by conservationists, in fact by everybody except those involved with the driven grouse shooting industry.

So let’s stop pretending that we need the Heads up for Harriers project to determine ‘what is happening to hen harriers’. No, the real reason for wanting these estates to sign up for the Heads up for Harriers project is to prevent them from killing nesting birds. If they know there’s a camera pointing at the nest, the gamekeepers will not touch those birds.

In this interview, when discussing the results from the 2017 breeding season, once again it was glossed over that none of the seven estates with nest cameras were intensively managed driven grouse moors (we’ve blogged about this quite recently, here, and we’ll be saying more in the near future). Those estates with cameras are not known as raptor persecution hotspots and they do not have a reputation for killing hen harriers. These are relatively progressive estates that do tolerate hen harriers and have done for some time, with or without this project. To claim this as a project ‘success’ is wholly misleading.

And while it’s true that of the 21 estates that have signed up for this project, some ARE intensively managed grouse moors (including a number in the Angus Glens), not one of those driven grouse moors has produced a hen harrier breeding attempt. Its all very well signing up for the scheme and using this for a bit of PR value, but until they support a hen harrier breeding attempt, their ‘participation’ is meaningless.

And even if some of those intensively managed grouse estates did manage to support a hen harrier breeding attempt, that wouldn’t stop the illegal killing of the fledglings. As we’ve seen over and over and over again, as well as breeding adults, dispersing young harriers are also illegally killed on driven grouse moors, and this would take place beyond the view of a nest camera.

And please, Des, stop also pretending that there’s ‘a very strong partnership’ between SLE, RSPB, SRSG, SNH and others involved with this project.

There is not!

Sure, there is partnership working with ‘decent’ estates (i.e. those that don’t kill raptors), as there always has been, but the relationship between raptor conservationists and the driven grouse shooting industry has never been worse!

We’ve seen grouse moor estate owners telling raptor workers they’re no longer welcome (here), we’ve seen a Director of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association repeatedly making outrageous and false accusations about raptor workers (here), we’ve seen the Director of the Scottish Moorland Group falsely accuse raptor workers of producing “deeply flawed” peer-reviewed science (here), we’ve seen the Chairman of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association falsely accuse the Scottish Raptor Study Group of ‘driving [gamekeepers’] wives, children and grandchildren from their homes‘ (here), we’ve got the Scottish Gamekeepers Association refusing to attend PAW Scotland Raptor Group meetings through a perceived lack of trust (here), and we’ve got SLE refusing to tell the RSPB (a Heads up for Harriers project partner) the names of the participating estates in this project (here).

Does that sound like ‘a very strong partnership’ to you?

Come on, stop with the spin, stop with the secrecy, stop with the pretence. We’ve had enough. And no, we’re not “impatient for change” – raptor conservationists’ patience has been tested to the limit over several decades – it’s no surprise it has now run out.

Previous blogs about the Heads up for Hen Harriers project: see hereherehereherehere, here, here, here, here

13 thoughts on “Can we please just have some honesty about the Heads up for Harriers project?”

  1. Sad fact is that those willing to have cameras are not likely to be the ones illegally killing hen harriers or other raptors. However it does tend to indicate that those opposed to cameras may have something to hide and therefore need watching more closely.

  2. I admire the courage and determination of those who have fought a long and frustrating campaign to protect Birds of Prey/raptors. I do not admire those in politics, who have not faced up to the deleterious effects of the persecution of such birds have had on other wildlife, and the environment. I have noticed however, a greater attention being shown by the Scottish Labour Party, over animal welfare and conservation. Those in the SNP who have made their concerns clear on the defiant continuance of those involved in the game shooting industry, are to be applauded. The Greens stand four square on this issue, as would be expected. What remains, does not seem to have much support for greater attention to be shown over the strong criminal elements operating in our countryside. What should be made clear is that the basic and decent Scottish public, just do not want the persecution of wildlife by being illegally killed by poisons, traps, snares and trashing. It wants an end to fox hunting, hare coursing, badger baiting, by groups and individuals who will not acknowledge that such “sports” are sadistic and anachronistic. Scotland has the chance to become a model country operating strongly enforced wildlife protection laws, along with a greater relative improvement in animal welfare, than what is being witnessed in Europe and elsewhere. There has to be a total reappraisal of how the landscape of Scotland is managed and by whom. No one should be allowed to purchase land here and just do as they please with it. The sporting gun and the paraphernalia of gamekeeping has to be brought under greater control, and those involved in the game shooting industry have their influence much reduced on what should live and die on the Scottish landscape. The word “vermin” should be banned, and our children taught that respect for the countryside and wildlife is paramount, and not an area where mass slaughter goes on of mountain hares and other wildlife to “protect” activities that have got out of control in their excess of killing. After all, the Scottish Parliament has brought certain human issues, long requiring attention and reform, to the fore, and made ethical improvements, so, should it not be time for a determined debate to be brought on the activities of certain shooting estates, and other areas, where much greater improvement could be made to protect and restore wildlife, native woodlands and endangered plant species?

    It would help to have civil servants and those holding the post of Minister of the Environment, to have it inculcated, that they must not defend the indefensible. There are economic activities that are environmentally damaging, but are being promoted as they bring jobs and revenue, without considering the real long-term cost. That cost is a degraded and depleted environment and a loss of biodiversity. However, we should be grateful, and not in a situation like in Albania, where a once protected environment, is now faced with the ransacking to its bird life by hunters from Italy and elsewhere, with Birds of Prey being wiped out, or captured to be shown as attractions in shops, pubs etc. That is why we need to keep our grip and even strengthen it here in Scotland, as the hunting horde could descend on us, and give the coup de grace to our Eagles, Buzzards etc.

  3. It has to be said, as well, that the estates involved in the project surely can’t be comfortable with their “successes” potentially coming to grief in other “parts of the country”

  4. As long as there are “sink” estates where hen harriers, golden eagles and peregrine falcons are poisoned, trapped or shot on sight as they travel over their boundaries then having a few “model” estates here and there will make no diference at all to the general picture. Even the “model” estates will benefit from the persecution of these “sink” estates as the number of harriers trying to establish territories will be greatly reduced. The worst they will suffer are slightly reduced “bags” for a couple of years until the focus on them retreats.
    Unless licensing with effective enforcement is introduced the only beneficiary by publishing glowing reports of the “model” estates will be the driven grouse industry itself and the wildlife criminals who reside within it’s ranks. This seems to be the current policy of the driven grouse industry to try to take the public’s eye off their continuing criminal activities.
    To begin to redeem themselves they must out the rogues amongst their ranks and join forces to ensure successful prosecutions, which, to be honest, I do not see happening. This seems to me to be a giant and joint deception strategy by almost all the driven grouse moors to fool the public with little or no sincerity present … similar to the Ladder Hills fiasco in 1998. The continuing persecution and harrassment of these birds on many driven grouse moors certainly indicate that
    Those in authority who claim to stand proud for harriers and other raptors should find the courage to stand up publically and unveal the truth behind the proaganda to the public.

  5. Mixed feelings part of me wants to believe this is a clever ruse by SNH to publicise the problem and to isolate estates who don’t take it up, to say “whats wrong with you have you something to hide”. Knowing full well that cameras at the nest are not the solution, but are being used as a tool .
    Deep down however I don’t think this is the case I think SNH are being naive perhaps even cowardly in their approach to the criminal estates. And further this is a total waste of time and money. The conciliatory, sycophantic tone of Des Thomson to these estates had me reaching for the bucket , Its a sorry state of affairs when I was warming more to McIlwraith who is a shooter and not the brightest button.
    The point made regarding the fact that the fledged young will simply be bumped off is a good one and should not be forgotten. Des we lost patience years ago and if this turns out not to be a cunning trap but a cowardly smoke screen and a waste of public money then we will have totally lost patience with SNH as well.

  6. Its simple really,

    if estates do not invite the cameras in, then it must be assumed that they have something to hide.

    So…they should be named.

    They should find it hard to get fire arms licences. They should be exempted from the general licence and forced to apply for special licences. They should be excluded from public led business support projects. They should be regularly inspected…

    They should feel a bit of pressure. This could happen this season…no need for any new legislation.

  7. If the shooting interests invested as much effort into stopping the illegal persecution of wildlife as they do into pretending it isn’t happening or that it is a thing of the past, there would be thriving raptor populations in the uplands. Instead what we see is impoverished uplands, working groups trying to justify their existence in the face of continued lack of progress all the while shooting organisations undermine those who are really working hard to highlight these issues.

  8. Des Thompson has a well deserved reputation, but I have to say I was deeply disappointed with this interview which amounted to defending the indefensible on both sides of the debate (assuming ‘Heads up for Harriers’ is genuinely on the harriers’ side). Des is a decent, amenable man, but wearing his civil servant hat comes across as too amenable and too comfortable in being willing to associate with estates which are, to all intents and purposes, a criminal element of our society with regard to raptor persecution. I suppose that’s his job in a way, but I can’t think of any other criminals in society that we delicately try to persuade to give up their criminal activities as a kindly gesture, which seems to assume they are nice guys really. This largely unspoken truth is plainly obvious from the fact that no driven grouse shooting estates participate in the camera scheme. As far as I’m aware none of the well known offending estates has agreed to take part. Let’s not kid ourselves or anyone else. Raptor Persecution UK doesn’t.

  9. You mention the Angus glens and are rightly sceptical regarding their involvement. I came across an interesting observation from one of the Angus glens chief and most vocal apologist stating that the moor he was on was in the heads up for Harriers scheme and the Head keeper had seen several ringtails , indeed he himself had seen them too ( unfortunately he hadn’t managed a photograph, strange that as he photographs everything but his own belly button) Now don’t laugh but he goes on to state that ” the head keeper is desperate to host a breeding pair. Well there’s generosity if I ever heard it.
    It will be very interesting to keep an eye on this one.Personally I think the way they will play this will be to either state that there are loads of ringtails but few males and no breeding attempts were made or to “allow “one breeding attempt ( and bump off the fledged young later) so they can wallow in the subsequent PR .

  10. I’m a Bird enthusiast from south shields Tyne and wear over the last couple of years I’ve definitely noticed an increase of hen harriers in Tyne and wear dales. Only ever come across 1 nest by accident in Caithness which contained 6 eggs. Retreated approx 2 miles away and the hen returned within 20 minutes. Luckily it was a warm day. Anyway in my opinion there numbers are slowly increasing. Kind regards John

    1. Interesting opinion, and also an interesting name. Are you any relation to John Dodsworth of South Shields, Tyne & Wear who has featured in the RSPB’s Legal Eagle newsletter over the years?

Leave a Reply

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

You are commenting using your 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: