Hen harriers on the brink: it's time for action

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I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

Hen harriers on the brink: it's time for action

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I wrote last year that Biodiversity Minister, Richard Benyon, might lose sleep over known threatened species which might be committed to extinction on his watch.  The parlous state of Hen Harrier as a breeding species in England ought to force the Minister to jump out of bed and take action immediately.

It is clear that Hen Harrier is on the verge of extinction as a breeding bird in England.  This season there has been just one known breeding attempt.  This compares to four successful attempts in 2011. While it is early in the season to draw conclusions, the signs are not good.

If we lose Hen Harrier, the Government will have failed in its England Biodiversity Strategy commitment to avoid human-induced extinctions of threatened species in England. 

Government-commissioned research has shown that the English uplands could support more than 300 pairs of hen harriers. The authors conclude that persecution, associated with the practice of managing moors for driven grouse shooting, is to blame for the harrier’s plight.  What's more, Natural England has previously stated that there is compelling evidence that persecution, both during and following the breeding season, continues to limit hen harrier recovery in England.

The Government has identified raptor persecution as one of six UK wildlife crime priorities, focussing on golden eagle, white-tailed eagle, hen harrier, red kite, peregrine and goshawk.

The RSPB is doing its best to protect hen harriers in England, with the support of HLF, United Utilities, Northern England Raptor Forum and other partners, including many volunteers.  We have initiated our Skydancers programme and you can read more about it here.

We have now written to Defra and Natural England to urge them to lead and fund a comprehensive conservation plan for hen harriers, endorsed by stakeholders including landowning and shooting organisations.

We think that years of talking must now translate into action. 

Adult hen harrier in flight with twig (Andy Hay rspb-images.com)

I accept that this is challenging for the shooting/landowning community.  It is, of course, the case that hen harriers can be a problem for game managers by eating grouse. However, long-term declines in grouse bags are related to land use practice and habitat condition.

Our point is simple - grouse moor owners and managers should comply with wildlife law, protect hen harriers and adopt legal approaches to minimising predation of grouse, such as diversionary feeding which has been shown to effective in places such as Langholm.

There has been much talk about an approach termed 'a brood management scheme' which would involve translocation of eggs away from moors and establishment elsewhere to remove the conflict with grouse.  We have said to Defra that this could be included in a recovery plan and may merit experimental investigation in England in the future, but only once hen harrier numbers have recovered to an acceptable level and diversionary feeding has been widely trialled.

Finally, we are pleased that the Law Commission is seriously considering the introduction of vicarious liability for birds of prey persecution.  We think that this is an appropriate measure to help take to tackle the problem.  It has been introduced in Scotland and we think that it is timely for it to be adopted in England and Wales.

If you agree, please do sign the petition here and then please tell your friends and family to do the same.

One last point, I want the UK Government to lead the world in tackling climate change and halting biodiversity loss.  I want Mr Clegg and Mrs Spelman to play strong leadership roles at the Rio +20 Summit in June this year and make the case for urgent global action to decouple economic growth from unsustainable exploitation of the natural world.  Losing Hen Harriers as a breeding species in England would seriously blot their copybook.

How do you think the Government should respond?

It would be great to hear your views.

  • Sooty - a powerful argument!  It is coming through loud and clear!

  • Can understand if you are bored hearing from me Martin,appreciate you still put my comments on.

    Going to tug at you heart strings,I probably will not see large numbers of Hen Harriers in England but you need to get your employers to back this petition with all their might so your 5 year old daughter gets the chance lots of us have been denied.

  • Thanks Martin. Will prepare for a state of readiness and contribution this autumn then.


  • Ornquest - to clear things up - the Law Commission intends to consult on its proposals late July-Nov this year.  It is then obliged to make recommendations to Government.  Following that Government will need to find legislative time to enact changes.  So, yes, it will be tight - but this is the key opportunity to get viarious liability in law.

  • I'm confused!  I thought the results from the Law Commission were due in a couple of months time , not in two years time. Will that not mean there is probably no time for the present Coalition to frame, and then enact, new legislation and the proposals will be delayed further?. What then are the proposals we might expect in a couple of months?  Am I getting two distinct processes mixed up or have events simply ended up being extended?  Thanks

  • Thanks for keeping the debate going.  And John - good to hear from you and read your blog!

    I hear your words about profile raising.  We are not deaf to criticism and we will reflect on what you are all saying.

    But I want to leave the last words to Simon Barnes who writes much more eloquently than me on the subject.  Here is his article from this week's Sunday Times:

    "A strange cry escaped me. Ralph stood on the brakes and performed an exemplary emergency stop and I came barrelling out of the passenger side like Starsky and Hutch. I performed a fast draw and got a bead on my quarry — and no mistake whatsoever.

    Hen harrier. Years since I’d last seen one in Suffolk. Used to see them every winter, again and again. But here one was, and in the spring: a male, caught in the binoculars, flying with that almost contemptuous self-confidence; leisurely, measured and deadly. He was a vision in silver and black, broad wings carried (like the marsh harrier mentioned here last week) in an easy dihedral.

    They are birds of the north for the most part, but they come drifting down south — or they used to — for the winter. They nest north and west of the line between Cardiff and Middlesbrough. This one, then, was something of random bird: a non-breeder, for all that he was an adult male.

    A crow came down to mob him in that hooligan manner that crows have, the harrier twisting adroitly, matador-style, to evade the harassing plunges. This harrier was a small miracle: one of the wild world’s sudden majestic dramas played to an audience of one — no, two, because Ralph managed a glimpse before the harrier side-slipped off behind the trees with the crow croaking abuse at his vanishing tail.

    Every hen harrier you see is a kind of miracle. The birds went extinct on mainland Britain before the First World War, so far as can be seen from the records. They made a comeback during and between the two wars.

    These birds have gone extinct once; they are now, it seems, on the edge of going extinct in England for the second time. Shocking information reaches me from the RSPB: hen harriers have made only one attempt to breed in England this year.

    This extraordinary spring has held everything back and there may be new attempts — but all the same, a single try at breeding means that something has gone drastically wrong. The bird is almost gone from England, so far as breeding is concerned.

    A similar situation was reached in 1971, when we were down to one breeding pair of marsh harriers in this country. Since then, phenomenal conservation efforts and the eradication of certain poisons has brought them back in very decent numbers; round here in Suffolk they are almost common.

    Can hen harriers recover? It really doesn’t look good. The fact is that the drastic decline of the hen harrier over the past 15 years is not just one of those things. This all-but-extinction is deliberate. The birds are persecuted, relentlessly and remorselessly, primarily on grouse moors.

    This is not surmise or guesswork or assumption; it is hard fact. People have been working towards extinction coldly and deliberately. It has, you might say, been nothing less than a triumph. Take a bow, chaps.

    This is not a problem that conservation organisations can take on directly. It’s not the job of a charity to enforce the law or to point out that the law needs enforcing. The RSPB is in consultation with the Government — in the form of Defra and Natural England — to see what action should be taken. It doesn’t, after all, look good for a country to have an extinction on its CV.

    At the same time, a prolonged in-depth review of wildlife law is continuing. It is examining 70 different bits of legislation and results can’t be expected for another couple of years. One possible change — and you can imagine how England landowners love the idea — is for something called vicarious liability. This principle already exists in Scottish law; under its terms, a landowner is responsible for his gamekeeper’s actions. You don’t just fine (and give a criminal record to) the gamekeeper; you do the same to the owner.

    There are continuing discussions continuing about the policing of this constantly repeated crime. There are also investigations of ways of managing moorland that maximise such hen harrier prey species as voles and meadow pipits. There have also been impressive results for “diversionary feeding”: putting out alternative food for hen harriers to feed their young on.

    All these things require a willingness to make them work; an acceptance of the principle that hen harriers have a place in the scheme of things or at least an awareness that not everybody thinks extinction is a frightfully good thing. It has been estimated that England could hold 1,200 breeding pairs; a total of none would be a poor result from such potential.

    Extinction. It’s a big word, a big concept. Extinction can be local and it can be global; local extinctions generally prefigure global ones. To get close to wiping out the breeding population of an entire nation is a remarkable achievement; especially since the whole process is against the law. Are we going to accept this, I wonder? Or will we do something to stop it?"

  • Glossy Ibis,feel sure you are right and some sort of agenda and my guess is the RSPB has another similar thing in mind in the near future so are not seriously backing this one.

    I think it would have been a simple worthwhile thing to put a flyer in the last birds magazine asking for support for this petition.

    Think some of us find it upsetting that a organisation that does so much good are seemingly failing on this.

  • Excellent blog Martin, I have signed the e- petition on vacarious liabilty some time ago but as I said yesterday I don't think this is sufficient in itself to have this horrible practice stopped. There must be contact with shooting estates and the RSPB/NE on this issue and the only way this can really happen is by the law being amended to say it MUST happen and at the right level, eg. landowner level. Something on the lines I suggested yesterday, coupled with diversionary feeding, I am sure would work. but the only party that can set the legislative frame work in place to make sure it does work is the Government. So all strenght to your elbow in your discussions with the necessary Ministers. Politics is politics, so how much "noise" is made over this issue must be judged by people like yourselves. It is no good making a lot of noise if quite contact and discussion is deemed to be more fruitful in the long run but on the other hand wildlife conservationists do feel very strongly on this issue.

  • Martin, the front page on the RSPB webpage today highlights the plight of the hen harrier. Nowhere in the article does it mention the e-petition for vicarious liability. I know you put the link on your own blog today so why not put it out on the front page? More people are likely to see that page. It does seem that the RSPB has some sort of agenda here!

  • Often think I have said too much on this subject on your blog Martin and though it may not seem like it we are obviously on the same side and perhaps even you feel as strongly as I do but are unable to express what you really feel.

    We should in this country have a flourishing breeding population of H H and when on holiday on Mull this was brought home to me when watching some large birds with white at base of tail right at the end of scope range when after watching about 5 of these birds it dawned on me it was a family of 1 or 2 females and young H H.No chance of seeing that in England

  • Thanks Martin all explained happy with that.

  • Ben - great to hear from you.  On your point about moderation - which I think is worth mentioning to anyone reading this blog - it is simply a standard way of preventing inappropriate comments.  It no reflection of your comment - it applies to everyone and depends on me finding the moment to accept the comment!

    And thanks to others for the support.

    The fire in my belly still rages.

  • For egg collectors i have always considered that sentence conditions should include reporting 2x a day to their local police station for 5/10 yr period from mid March to late May.

    Re Sustainable Development I will be putting to the Bishop of Bristol who played a part in Occupy Protest here, that those who are holding wealth offshore are failing to adhere to Christ's injunction "to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's". That is morally wrong and the trillions held offshore should be repatriated to national or international control and duly subject to national or an international tax to deliver a fund for tackling climate change  ??????????

  • Why does my comment require moderation?  That is part of the trouble with the conservation lobby too polite,  little fire in the belly.  With mankinds cavalier attitude to the natural world we need sometimes take the gloves off.

  • Desperately sad situation with regards to birds of prey. Vicarious liability must be enacted.

    As regards persecution outside this gun happy upland area, there is always the odd dead raptor found in my neighbourhood, usually with gunshot wounds, one cannot legislate against the odd sad loser that gets pleasure from this crime, it is very upsetting as most people get great pleasure from the sight of a bird of prey