Scottish Natural Heritage (now re-branded as NatureScot) has published a new report today from it’s controversial ‘Heads up for Hen Harriers’ project.
It’s findings confirm what’s been known for decades – breeding hen harriers aren’t very successful on driven grouse moors but are more successful on moors where there’s little or no gamebird shooting. Gosh, who knew?
[This hen harrier was critically injured in an illegally-set trap next to a nest on Leadhills Estate in 2019. He was rescued by members of the Scottish Raptor Study Group, with an almost severed leg. A specialist vet at the SSPCA did all he could to save him but eventually the extent of his injuries were too much and he had to be euthanised. Photo by Ruth Tingay]
But before we get in to this latest report of the bleedin’ obvious, here’s some background for new readers.
The Heads up for Hen Harriers Project is a Scottish Government-funded initiative, led by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH, now NatureScot) in partnership with the grouse moor owners’ lobby group Scottish Land & Estates (SLE), RSPB Scotland and the National Wildlife Crime Unit.
The idea behind this project, which began in 2015, is that sporting estates agree to have cameras installed at hen harrier nests to identify the causes of nest failure. This is a flawed idea right from the off. We all know the main reason behind the declining hen harrier population – illegal persecution on intensively managed driven grouse moors – it has been documented time and time and time again, in scientific papers and government-funded reports. So, if you put an ‘official Project camera’ on a hen harrier nest situated on a driven grouse moor, the gamekeepers will know about it and won’t touch that nest (although they’re quite likely to try and bump off the young once they’ve left the nest but are hanging around the grouse drives, away from the nest camera). So if the nest then fails for natural reasons (e.g. poor weather, predation), the Project will only identify those issues as the cause of failure, and not the illegal persecution issue. The grouse-shooting industry will then use those (biased) results to shout about illegal persecution not being an issue. We’ve seen this many times already.
I’ve blogged about this project many times over the last five years and have been highly critical of its claims, particularly about the so-called ‘partnership working’. Basically it looks like a massive greenwashing exercise (e.g. see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here). Andy Wightman MSP also condemned the project in a Parliamentary debate in 2017. You can read the transcript here and watch the video here (and note the stony silence after Andy’s speech!).
The estates involved in this project have insisted on remaining anonymous, and this has allowed both SNH and SLE to publish some pretty outrageous claims without anybody else being able to scrutinise the taxpayer-funded data (e.g. see here and here). This is astonishing, and a preliminary look at the results presented in today’s report do not support some of the earlier claims made about ‘successful’ hen harrier nests on driven grouse moors. I’ll be looking at this more closely in due course.
So, back to today’s report. It’s a short-ish summary, presenting an analysis of a proportion of the camera images captured during the project. You can download it here:
The most important result is written on page 6, and there’s an accompanying table on page 7. It goes like this:
‘Fourteen (56%) of the 25 estates involved in the scheme had driven grouse moors employing full time keepers. Despite their involvement for 46 estate years only four nests were found. Just one was successful (25%) and produced four young‘.
If that isn’t damning evidence then I don’t know what is.
NatureScot has published a press release to accompany the publication of today’s report, as follows:
The success of one of Scotland’s rarest birds of prey, hen harriers, is closely linked to the age of the parent birds, prey availability and land use, concludes a report published by NatureScot today.
The report, based on five years of camera evidence on 28 estates participating in the Heads Up for Harriers partnership project, found the age of the adult male bird is a key factor in breeding. There was a 91% success rate when males were older than one year, irrespective of the age of the adult female bird.
Not surprisingly, the report also found that nesting attempts and fledging success were higher during warm, dry spring weather, with wetter weather having a negative impact on both the harriers and availability of prey.
The research also found that hen harriers prey were birds 89% of the time with mammals making up the final 10%. However, the report concludes that hen harriers rarely prey on grouse. Meadow pipits were by far the most abundant prey at 77% of birds, with red grouse accounting for only 5.6% of prey.
Over 2 million hen harrier nest camera images were meticulously studied to reveal harrier behaviour and factors impacting their survival. While the majority of estates have some game shooting interest, analysis indicated that harriers fare best on those estates with no shooting interests, with more breeding attempts, nesting success and higher productivity recorded on the majority of non-sporting estates.
Hen harriers have a low survival rate for young birds, and the project showed that where the reasons for failure could be determined, all the nest failures were due to natural factors or predation by foxes and other birds.
Chair of the Heads Up for Harriers Group, Professor Des Thompson of NatureScot, said:
“Hen harriers continue to struggle in Scotland and they remain a rare species, although Scotland holds by far the majority of the UK population with 505 territorial pairs. This report shows that almost half of breeding adult female birds are four years or older and 87% of male birds are older than one year, despite the females being capable of breeding much earlier. This indicates a high turnover of young birds, and while the report does not speculate as to the reasons, this is a worrying statistic.”
Report author, Brian Etheridge, said:
“Some fascinating patterns in hen harrier breeding habits have been identified, such as a tendency for nesting on westerly facing slopes, with an increasing preference for nests in higher areas, and the low occurrence of grouse within the sampled 500 prey items. This information should help land managers better cater for nesting harriers, while providing reassurance of the limited impact on game birds.”
Professor Thompson added: “The report is testimony to the work of the Heads Up for Harriers project group, particularly RSPB and Scottish Land & Estates, the project staff and those estates that have actively participated in the project.”
Information in the report was gleaned by analysing images from 52 hen harrier nests (37 of which had cameras installed), between them fledging 120 young birds.
Heads Up for Harriers is a Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime Scotland (PAW) Scotland project, led by NatureScot. From the project start in 2015, 52 hen harrier nests were located. 35 of these were successful in fledging a total of 120 young. Trail cameras were installed at 37 nests and over two million images recorded.
The Heads Up for Harriers Group are considering a shift in focus to concentrate on areas which can benefit most from intervention. The group will be discussing how best to achieve this with the PAW Scotland Raptor Group in the future.
That penultimate sentence in the press release is telling. Reading between the lines, it looks like the plug is finally being pulled on this ridiculous scheme. ‘….Considering a shift in focus to concentrate on areas which can benefit most from intervention‘ – FFS, why not just say it? Why not just acknowledge, in full, that ongoing illegal persecution of hen harriers on many driven grouse moors is what’s causing the catastrophic population decline of the hen harrier?
Look – 45 hen harriers ‘missing’ or confirmed illegally killed since 2018 (see here).
By the way, tomorrow marks the one year anniversary of the Werritty Review on grouse moor management being submitted to the Scottish Government. We are still waiting for the Government’s response.