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RSPB Scotland calls for action to protect hen harriers

Last modified: 20 June 2014

Female hen harrier in flight

Image: Steve Round

RSPB Scotland is calling for more sporting estates to take action to protect the country’s hen harriers during the breeding season.

The conservation charity says grouse moor managers and gamekeepers must do more to prevent illegal persecution, following a 20% decline in the population between 2004 and 2010.

Effective and legal techniques, such as diversionary feeding, have been proven to reduce the predation of red grouse by hen harriers and should be more widely embraced, the charity says.

Examples of illegal persecution involving the bird of prey include a shocking incident last year, unreported until now, in which a male hen harrier was apparently shot in the eastern Cairngorms, within the boundary of the Cairngorms National Park.

Two outraged members of the public contacted Police Scotland on May 30 last year after witnessing what they described as a coordinated “hunt” on the moor, ending in the shooting of the protected bird of prey. They explained watching for almost three hours as two individuals, armed with shotguns, criss-crossed the moor, with at least one other individual directing them by radio from his vehicle to the location of where the bird was seen perched.

An investigation by Police Scotland was launched but failed to turn up sufficient further evidence to charge anyone in connection with the incident, which has never formerly been made public.

Ian Thomson, RSPB Scotland’s Head of Investigations, said: “All the evidence indicates that this appears to have been an appalling, organised killing of one of our rarest birds of prey, which shows a complete disregard of the laws protecting our wildlife. Had it not been for the presence of these two witnesses, no-one would have known about this incident.

“The hen harrier population in Scotland is in trouble, with a 20% decline from 2004-2010. The intolerance shown towards this species on grouse moors, with this latest case being yet another example, gives a clear indication of one of the main causes of this decline.”

In response to concerns about the level of persecution threatening hen harriers, PAW Scotland launched its “Heads up for Harriers” project last year, which is aimed at raising public awareness of the bird of prey’s plight and preventing wildlife crime. All partners from land management, conservation and the Scottish Government have supported this initiative, however positive words must be translated into a real change of culture on the ground if this collaboration is going to have any beneficial effect for hen harriers. 

Over the past seven years, work has been carried out at the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project to reconcile sustainable grouse shooting with maintaining a viable population of hen harriers.

Duncan Orr-Ewing, RSPB Scotland’s Head of Species and Land Management, said: “This work has clearly shown that using techniques such as diversionary feeding of harriers during the breeding season markedly reduces their predation of red grouse.

“It is exceedingly disappointing that so few sporting estates have used this legal and effective management tool. The illegal killing of hen harriers is condemned by all of the PAWS partners, and needlessly threatens the population of one of our most spectacular and rarest birds when there is a practical solution.”

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