RSPB response to the Hen Harrier Action Plan

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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

RSPB response to the Hen Harrier Action Plan

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For a number of years the breeding population of hen harrier has been on the brink – even failing to breed in England in 2013.  

The RSPB had been part of an Environment Council-led process to resolve the conflict between hen harrier conservation and grouse moor management.  It was clear that, while providing a forum for increased understanding between different groups, this had not resulted in the necessary action: a different approach was therefore needed.

In May 2012 (see here) we wrote 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.

Later on that year I published a blog by my colleague, Jude Lane, about the death of a hen harrier known as Bowland Betty.  It was an emotional report from someone working on the front line of hen harrier conservation and even prompted a call to Jude from the then Environment Minister, Richard Benyon. 

That phone call and subsequent conversations with Defra officials gave us the belief that they recognised the seriousness of the issue. And it’s one of the reasons why we stuck with the difficult debate on the Action Plan.

Today, after challenging and lengthy negotiations, this plan is published.  You can read it here.

Image courtesy of Guy Shorrock

I welcome this plan - not because it is perfect, it isn’t - but because it reflects real potential for progress on one of the most deep-rooted conflicts in conservation.

The plan has two main objectives: "The hen harrier has a self-sustaining and well dispersed breeding population in England across a range of habitats including a viable population present in the Special Protected Areas designated for hen harrier; and the harrier population coexists with local business interests and its presence contributes to a thriving rural economy"

We shall play our part in making it a success, of course focussing on tackling the primary reason for the hen harrier's adverse conservation status - illegal persecution. Our ultimate goal is to secure recovery for hen harriers, while recognising that this is only one aspect of a wider range of impacts of current land management practices in our uplands.

Last year we provided a home for over 60 pairs of hen harriers throughout the UK and invested in the EU match-funded Hen Harrier LIFE Project, which combines satellite tagging, on-the-ground monitoring, nest protection, investigations work, awareness-raising, and working with volunteer raptor field workers, landowners and local communities to protect hen harriers across northern England and southern & eastern Scotland.

Image courtesy of Dom Greves

There are still lots of hurdles to overcome, especially regarding the long-term funding of monitoring and enforcement programmes, but also regarding the detail of proposed lowland reintroduction, its fit with IUCN guidelines, and the legal basis and thresholds for any trial brood management scheme.  As set out in a blog by our chief exec last year, we think there are significant legal, ethical and practical questions to answer, but we’ve not said never to brood management.

The public profile of the plight of the hen harrier has rightly grown over recent years and there will understandably be a lot of interest on the detail of this plan.  The detail matters, but we also need everyone to work together to implement the plan – its success will ultimately be judged by whether more hen harriers breed in England. 

The RSPB is committed to working in partnerships to deliver the changes needed to restore the health of our uplands and we hope many others will share these aims and be willing to work together to secure a better future for them. 

What do you think of the Hen Harrier Action Plan?

It would be great to hear your views.

  • I have some serious reservations. Most importantly the second statement of the success criteria. We should absolutely reject this for two reasons:

    1. It is so vague that each interest group will have a very different interpretation of its meaning. "The Hen Harrier population coexists with local business interests." is capable of many interpretations. For example if the grouse shooters were to slightly modify their ambitions for bag size then a larger harrier population could be accommodated. If they want to increase bag size ad infinitum then no harrier population will be acceptable (as now). Therefore this statement must be replaced with a measurable quantitative statement.

    The second part viz "its presence contributes to a thriving rural economy" should be rejected out of hand. Are we really saying that each and every wild species of plant or animal must justify its existence by "contributing to the economy". We should be fighting for the protection and regeneration of biodiversity whether or not we can see some economic advantage in so doing. I hope that RSPB and NE would take that to be self evident.  I can't speak for DEFRA! 

    Left in this form this criterion could be used to scupper a successful scheme. The shooting lobby would always be able to argue that the hen harrier is not contributing to a thriving rural economy. What possible evidence could we call upon to refute this? The hen harrier is never going to attract tourists with money to spend! Especially if we're not allowed to have two nests within 10km of one another  (as the DEFRA proposal says).

    Presumably whinchats will need to show a profit before we can get them back.

  • Many thanks to all of you for sharing your views.  I shall reflect on what you have written and offer further thoughts soon.

    Best wishes,


  • Well Martin, you asked for views.  As a very long standing RSPB member who has lived and worked in the British uplands almost all my adult life I am deeply disappointed that the RSPB has agreed to this so-called 'action plan', let alone welcomes it.  This 'plan' is much more about sustaining  grouse shooting than conserving and significantly increasing breeding populations of Hen Harriers in the uplands and on moorlands there.

  • Thanks for the response, Lawrence. I don't see any greater pressure to end persecution though in what I have read. The pressure, if any, is to increase harrier numbers, wherever those increases are. Totally different, and in my opinion, areas where grouse moors want harriers to go, are also areas that don't want more raptors. It also has to be said that people representing the shooting industry has no more influence over all its members abiding by this goal of increasing hen harrier numbers, as the RSPB does over its members parking legally and considerately when rarities turn up in a residential area

  • Hi Robbo. People representing the shooting community now have more pressure than ever to end persecution (because of the action plan Mark Avery's efforts etc). There is no doubt that if some had it all their own way they would continue to blast em out of the skies till the cows come home - however, the point is that there is now greater pressure than ever to end it, so 'wanting' to end the persecution is linked to the fact that they want to protect their precious grouse shoots (rather than wanting hen harriers to increase per se - the outcome is the same though).


  • Sorry Lawrence, but how is members responding to Martin's last line of the blog, "It would be great to hear your views", an own goal? It is interesting that your think people who shoot want hen harrier numbers to increase. I can't find any evidence for that in the areas where hen harriers have occurred in recent years.

  • This Action Plan is very good news. Some people seem to be expecting something miraculous from the RSPB. Can anyone realistically believe that discussions that involve this government, gamekeepers, GWCT etc would ever result in an agreed plan that conservationists are 100% happy with? Surely the RSPB simply doesn't have that level of power, no matter how well it represents hen harrier conservation. Also, if the RSPB took the line some people are suggesting, then an agreed action plan would never have come about, and there would be no progress. And the harriers need progress NOW.

    The RSPB has to be positive about the Action Plan - being positive about it will massively increase the chances of it being successful. If they had come out with a very negative response, then how would that impact on attempts to work with other stakeholders (i.e. the people on the other end of the guns) when implementing the plan. Therefore, the response to the plan is actually prioritizing progress towards conservation over pleasing the RSPBs own followers, which would involve relentless attacks on shooters. Good on the RSPB.

    We all know England can support many hen harriers, so for this action plan to fail would be massively embarrassing for the government and representatives of the shooters. They will be worried that failure would give the RSPB more influence in the next round of discussions, and maybe would put the existence of their driven grouse shoots under greater pressure. Therefore, an important outcome of this action plan is that shooters will want to see an increasing hen harrier population.

    Hen harrier reintroductions would also have massive positive impacts on southern moorlands, not only because there would be hen harriers, but because it would surely require habitat management which would greatly benefit moorland wildlife at those sites (which are very much overgrazed etc etc)

    It also concerns me when conservation-minded people start bashing the RSPB - the state of British Birds, including hen harriers, would be so much worse without them. Thoughts and opinions on the RSPB's work is great, but actually attacking the RSPB is surely shooting ourselves in the foot/feet.

  • Welcome is hardly a term I would use in respect of this plan. But clearly as there is no end in sight to illegal persecution, something has to be done. I have previously argued that its time has come - nothing else has happened to improve the lot of the hen harrier (or other birds of prey) on and around most grouse moors. But the plan must be used as a serious test of the shooting community's oft quoted conservation credentials and the claim that it is the only way way to increase hen harrier numbers. The latter seems to infer some degree of control over persecution - what else will affect hen harrier numbers significantly, especially as grouse moors are described as havens for wildlife because of predator control. So, this breeding season we can expect a significant increase in nesting attempts and breeding success in Northern England as all parties work together to implement the plan. And certainly some serious questions have to be asked about the terms and objectives of any brood management. There must be a signficant increase in hen harrier numbers first and translocation to lowland sites cannot be used as a proxy for success in terms of numbers.

    And I have signed the ban driven grouse shooting petition. Not because I am an anti-shooting, vegan, animal rights, out of touch with rural life, economic dimwit townie (I am none of these!) but because I see the ever-increasing intensification of land management that drives driven grouse shooting as economically and environmentally unsustainable. But it is legal and I am a law-abiding citizen so I will stick to supporting the case for change to a land use that is economically and environmentally friendlier.I hope that implementation of this plan also encourages that debate as well for the long term well-being of our hen harriers, wider bio-diversity and the rural economy.    

  • Martin

    I know these things are difficult but the RSPB has welcomed a plan that has no target, has no new resources for tackling wildlife crime, has no progress on vicarious liability or licensing of shooting estates and yet gives a nod to a pointless and expensive reintroduction and to brood meddling.  And RSPB welcomed it? That’s like saying ‘thank you’ when you have been ignored and then slapped in the face.

    As a result, the shooters are going around saying 'The RSPB welcomed the plan – let’s get on with brood-meddling now’.

    Are the Moorland Association, BASC, GWCT and Defra all going to chip in a few hundred thousand pounds each for satellite tagging of Hen Harriers and other raptors in the vicinity of grouse moors?

  • I cannot agree that RSPB should welcome the action plan. Please excuse my scepticism in my comments below, because I am not happy at the RSPB welcome. Why does the RSPB say it's not perfect, but welcome the actions?

    The action plan has 6 actions

    1. Monitoring in England and Wales. Nothing new here. I hope they are already being monitored.

    2. Encourage diversionary feeding. No carrot, no stick? Is it no need, or no cooperation that drove the word "encourage". So that won't happen, then. Perhaps someone could monitor how many diversionary feeding locations arise from the plan, but reporting them does not seem to be in the plan.

    3. RPPDG will provide advice on the most effective enforcement and deterrent measures to protect hen harriers. Has that not happened before, then?

    4. NE to arrange nest and winter roost protection. Has that not happened before, then? Well with Natural England, perhaps it hasn't.

    Did the first 4 items really need an action plan before implementation?  Now we get to the really important bits, welcomed by both the Countryside Alliance and the RSPB, but surely not by anyone who has a real interest in getting hen harrier numbers up in England? Has the RSPB been sitting around the table so long, that it is happy with any plan, as long as it is published?

    5. Southern reintroduction. So that's how the numbers are going to grow. Presumably some of the  poorly performing Scottish birds will be taken down to England, to allow more practice for the guns down there, as they disperse. Perhaps a trial brood management plan, implemented before any real increase, will provide some English or Welsh birds?

    6. Trial brood management scheme. Well I just hope that the RSPB do not welcome the trial when it inevitably comes before numbers increase, and object to the scheme on the many grounds available.

  • Excellent post Paul B. I have often thought of the comparison with those early days of the RSPB. Now i fear RSPB decisions are made by top executives and not foot soldiers (of whom i consider, from his usually excellent press releases, Martin is one).

    But reading between the lines i gather the RSPB only supported this draft for a plan (that seems to be all it is at least as far as managed brood persecution is concerned) because it wanted to show the progress or lack of it on the plan. From what i understand, brood management will never be supported by the RSPB until there is a reasonable Hen Harrier population on English grouse moors. If independent science is the basis, of this threshold as stated in the plan, right now it is probably going to be Elston et al. which gives a vague hint of 35-70 pairs for the whole of England's grouse moors. I would hardly call those figures scientific but that is the source mentioned in the plan.

    What i don't understand is the lack of clarification on this by the RSPB. Mark Avery saw through this plan immediately as a strategy of kicking this into the grass, it took me a week. Presumably he has some experience of this kind of mandarin-speak but the ordinary person certainly doesn't and the Guardian swallowed it hook line and sinker as some kind of cause for celebration.

    I don't understand why the lack of a real plan isn't publicised more. Even assuming the 'successful' initiation of the managed brood persecution, where optimistically 70 pairs are breeding on English grouse moors is the threshold, is this going to be acceptable to the general public and RSPB members?

    Are we really going to do a deal with criminals when we have laws which all citizens high and low are bound to follow. A conservative government is no excuse to abandon our rights but to fight more for them. If laws aren't being obeyed then we have to follow Scotland and create new laws to block the loopholes and force the criminals and their employers to obey.

  • I remain very sceptical about the chances of this initiative making any progress. You have attempted a dialogue with the grouse shooting industry and their only response appears to be the creation of the ‘You Forgot the Birds’, whose sole purpose seems to be to attack the RSPB. The fact that the PR firm they employed is unable to come up with a single defence of grouse shooting suggests that they it is indefensible. As Margaret Thatcher once said (I think this is correct!), “When my critics resort to personal abuse, I’ve won the argument.”

    Imagine the scene: 1891, two years after the foundation of the Society for Protection of Birds. Emily Williamson is frustrated by the refusal of hat manufacturers and milliners to discuss the future of the industry.


    The SPB has announced details of a new six-point action to reduce the use of egret feathers in the hat making industry:

    • Monitor the manufacture of feather hats via till receipts and invoices;

    • Share best practice with milliners, encouraging the use of artificial feathers;

    • Work closely with FUTILE (Foundation for Understanding The Inhospitable Life of Egrets) to analyse intelligence and deliver more effective deterrence and enforcement measures;

    • Monitor and protect nests and winter roosts from disturbance;

    • Work with milliners to re-introduce woolly hats as a fashion item;

    • Scope out (whatever that means) feasibility for trialling brood management.

    Martin, would this have been an effective strategy?

    A recent opinion poll suggested that about 75% of people support the continued ban on fox hunting. Fox hunting has a certain romantic appeal (what with the red coats, horses and hounds) and was in some ways accessible to the general public. Yet three out of four people do not want to see it return. I would suggest that driven grouse shooting has a miniscule public appeal and an opinion poll on the subject would see considerably more than 75% supporting a ban on the practice. On this issue, I firmly believe that the RSPB is not only out of step with its membership but also with the public in general.

  • To answer your question at the end of your blog.

    The Plan for a Plan is a disgrace. It is very obvious that the RSPB has been bulldozed on this. The National Park authority has a terrible track record regarding the protection of raptors on most parks which left the protection of Hen Harriers solely in the hands of the RSPB. It is obvious where the power lies in this country and it isn't with the people but the rich elite.

    I don't agree with any kind of cap on Hen Harriers or any other bird of prey especially for sport (rich man or poor). Brood management is another form of persecution.

    And i don't agree with the re-introduction of Hen Harriers in lowland England when re-colonization of the lowlands would happen naturally if 55-74 female Hen Harriers were not killed EACH YEAR in Scotland. Multiply that by at least 3 for males and immatures and that is only in Scotland (

    I I have discussed why managed brood persecution and re-introduction is morally and consevationally wrong, here (

    Dress it up any way Defra and the game lobby likes the so called plan is a deal with criminals who will only stop killing our Hen Harriers if they are allowed to cap their numbers and force them to breed away from the grouse moors'.

    Licencing (with permanent withdrawal with the first crime incidence) or an out right ban are the only ways.

    I really don't believe the RSPB are pushing hard enough on this. There used to Action Pages in the RSPB magazine. What happened? The RSPB is fantastic but needs to grow some cojones and have some trust in its members.

  • Thanks Martin.

    Please keep up and increase the push for Hen Harrier protection, the licensing, if not out right ban, on driven grouse moors.

  • Dear Prasad,

    Thanks for your comment.  

    As I have said previously, these have not been easy negotiations.  I agree that there is still ambiguity in the plan which is why the terms of reference for and composition of the groups on reintroduction/bms are important.  

    We need clarity (which we do not currently have) regarding objectives, scientific design, legality and conservation recovery which would trigger any trial.  We do not have any of this yet which is why we pushed hard to prevent a BMS being given the greenlight without clarification on these points.  

    On diversionary feeding, I agree with you.  

    My final point is that I am delighted that the plan is now in the public domain.  Everyone that has an interest in this issue can now take a view and that can only be good.

    Best wishes,