Coping with grouse shooting and coping with hen harriers

Given the scale of illegal killing of raptors associated with driven grouse shooting it would be fair enough, in my opinion, for conservation organisations to campaign for the abolition of grouse shooting – but none of them yet does.

Instead, conservationists are putting their members’ money into trying to find a legal way out for grouse moor managers – and the grouse shooting community is joining in too.

If the problem for the grouse manager is that harriers (to keep it simple) eat too many grouse and can make driven grouse shooting uneconomic then let’s find a way out that reduces grouse depredation by hen harriers but doesn’t involve illegally killing the harriers.  There aren’t many options really are there?

The most promising is supplementary or diversionary feeding of harriers as has been tested at Langholm before, and is being more thoroughly tested again.  This involves providing extra food for harriers so that they don’t need to catch grouse.  It sounds a bit odd, and it isn’t the most appealing solution for any one, but it is, perhaps, a way to let harriers survive in those large areas of the country from which they are currently excluded.

Follow the link and you will see that years ago this was shown to be effective – the number of grouse chicks taken to harrier nests that were artificially fed (day-old chicks and white mice) was reduced hugely.

This method has not been taken up by the grouse shooting community.  I wonder why not.  Well, first, since there are hardly any harriers on grouse moors then the cynical would say that shooting harriers is easier and more attractive to grouse shooters than feeding harriers.  Could that be it?  It might be that the fact that even when harriers were fed at Langholm autumn grouse numbers didn’t go up – but there were unfed harrier nests at Langholm too so they presumably took up the slack – hardly a problem for the average grouse moor for years to come at present harrier levels.  And there is the fact that feeding harriers might result in there being more harriers around in the future and so it is suggested that there ought to be a cap on harrier densities beyond which grouse moor managers could legally reduce harrier densities.

And so we come to the subject of harrier quotas.  Except, not so fast!, let’s stay with feeding harriers for a while first.  If feeding hen harriers is practical, which it appears to be, but let’s wait for Langholm II to report, then should we expect many moors to be more tolerant to hariers?  I detect no such warming to the harrier. So conservationists need to think through their response if Langholm II shows that feeding reduces the pestilential nature of harrier predation on the shootable surplus of grouse.  If the shooting community don’t take up this option what should conservationists do?

The conservation lobby has already been soft, arguably, in not calling for an outright ban on grouse shooting since it demonstrably is a land use that excludes protected species through illegal means.   If diversionary feeding looks like a half-practical short-term solution, an escape from illegality, then why would grouse moor owners not take this route to demonstrate their good faith?  And if they don’t, then how much further backwards will conservationists bend over?

What do you think?

On Tuesday I will move on to the vexed subject of quotas – but let’s have a chat about diversionary feeding first.  And on Monday I’ll start telling you about my holiday in Dorset – as a bit of a break from all this nastiness in the hills – plenty of heather in Dorset though.


29 Replies to “Coping with grouse shooting and coping with hen harriers”

  1. yes diversionary feeding is an option and works, harriers hardly take grouse and brood size of the harriers is good and there is the rub. a keeper now retired once said to me” feeding them does not work because the f……… harriers are still here”
    I suspect that its not taken up for pother reasons too , who pays for the food? it seems somehow artificial, like pheasants or a safari park, its cheaper to kill harriers after all nobody gets caught.

    We conservationists don’t like it but it is preferred to what we have to all intents and purposes no harriers and we would embrace anything currently that would go towards rectifying that even quotas as long as there is no lethal control. I personally think quotas may be unworkable.

    If SF is not taken up at all it really shows that the grouse lobby will not change and we must be prepared for that and think of taking up less conciliatory options.

    One of the most galling things is that the English harrier population is so low that were the killing to stop even temporarily no moor will be made uneconomic, yet this symbol of good faith is also not taken up. Yet we are the ones accused of being unbending!

  2. Mark. One thing conservation bodies should do much more of is to publish the truth of what goes on in the UK’s uplands. A recent documentary was shown on Scottish television only. Why don’t we have more mainstream TV on the subject and let the membership of conservation bodies see for themselves where the guilt should lay ? We get plenty of spring watch and autumn watch and the good-old RSPB membership only see the fluffy side of things.

    1. Robin – maybe. I know it feels different when you are working inside those conservation organisations and there may be a bit of harrier/grouse shooting fatigue setting in too.

  3. Andy if we could get the evidence we would but these things do not happen with witnesses. If you believe it is not happening (and if that were the case the grouse interests would not be attending the conflict resolution process).

    What is your explanation of all the missing harriers?

    Why is harrier nest success so much lower on grouse moors where there are fewer natural predators?

    Why do peregrines always fail on grouse moors yet succeed in limestone quarries within 15 miles?
    Your answer is very important.

  4. In my eyes diversionary feeding of harriers is totally unnatural – I was always led to believe that they were not carrion feeders – please correct me if I’m wrong.

    Are we also hoping that this is a long term solution to this age old conflict?

    I’m concerned on several fronts that DF runs the risk of potentially weakening the gene pool of this magnificent raptor. Firstly male harriers who were inefficient providers would still raise a family and perhaps more importantly runts of all broods would more than likely survive.

    If we look back in time, pre-Langholm harrier numbers were on the increase on managed grouse moors (Status of the Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus). We have to ask the question why was there a change of heart towards this raptor post Langholm? The answer to me is quite simple – ”fear factor”. Since 1998 the number of breeding pairs of harriers on managed grouse moors has nose dived from 286 to just a handful today.

    Some estates have proven in the past that harriers can breed successfully on managed grouse moors. For the sake of the harrier can we not turn the clocks back and find a ”common sense” approach to this bitter conflict and even allow this raptor the dignity of living naturally.

  5. No Mike you are right harriers are not carrion feeders but they will take DF, to see how it is done go on the Langholm website.

    I agree with most of your sentiments but that fear factor is huge and seemingly insurmountable and any estate or individual who breaks ranks is under enormous peer pressure to conform to todays norm.

    Genetically weak or otherwise unfit harriers will almost certainly die in their first year, there is quite high natural mortality anyway.

  6. Let’s not lose sight of the distinction between driven and walked-up grouse shooting.

    How much is a harrier worth? It may not be an acceptable solution in present company, but pay estates enough to look after harriers and the problem is solved overnight. When all is said and done, it’s all about the money.

    1. JamesM – I toyed with the idea of offering £20k a year for successful harrier nests in the north of England. Do you think that would be enough? I wonder whether you and I could raise the cash from subscriptions?

      1. Mark,
        If my memory serves me correct when DF was initially thought up a payment of £900 + £200 (in first year only) was proposed to any estate that took up this scheme in Scotland. In the grand scheme of things this surely was an poultry sum.

        Around this time I remember suggesting giving this DF payment automatically to all estates that had breeding harriers and didn’t want to adopt DF ( a kind of good will gesture). The response – it was inferred that we couldn’t be seen in the public eye as paying an estate not to break the law. To this day I’ve never quite managed to work this one out!!!!

        For £20,000 Mark you may have a taker but how would it be perceived in the eyes of the general public?

    2. James,

      It’s not a simple question of money. I too many years ago thought that the answer was compensation for loss of grouse to harriers. This couldn’t be further from the truth. I’ve spoken and worked with several estates over many years and the bottom line is that grouse moors want grouse to shoot, not money for loss of grouse.

  7. Diversionary feeding may lead to genetical selective pressure producing evolutionary traits which are not suitable for a normal living harrier and which without diversionary feeding may cause survival problems.
    What i do not understand is why birdwatchers/ twitchers/birders are so obsessed with raptors. i have an interest in wildlife photography and abhor these predators killing my garden birds. If I were given the choice of a moorland full of beautiful endemic red grouse or a moorland with a few pairs of hen harriers and hardly any red grouse then I would choose the abundance of red grouse

    1. Dave,
      A reasonable sized estate could still be viable with a couple of breeding pairs of harrier. You would still have plenty of red grouse to photograph.

    2. Dave, your response exposes your lack of understanding which I wouldn’t expect given you like wildlife photography. I might remind you that Hen harriers are unlikely ever to have fed on any species of bird that you might encounter in your garden – I would be interested what species you do get in your garden if my judgement here happens to be wrong.

      An abhorance to natural predation is a lack of understanding of nature and in general terms, if those species at the top of their food chain can be allowed to thrive, then nature must be doing something right. It’s a bit like finding Lions abhorrant in the masai mara – misguided if you ask me.

  8. I’m probably the wrong person to reply Dave as I have had a passion for all birds but especially raptors for most of my 60 years.

    However what I would like to see is our moors with both a proper level of harriers, determined as naturally as possible and plenty of grouse. Without the latter we cannot have the former anyway.

    The key is how to achieve that state or at least a situation near to it that allows grouse shooting to continue without illegality.

    We should as good citizens obey the law, birds of prey are protected by law, that is unlikely to change, so killing them is wrong anyway.

  9. Valid points galore, and still no definitive answer, how annoying.
    Dave’s point is interesting and shared by many, possibly the majority. On a similar note, generations have become familiar and indeed warmed by the views of heather clad moorland, which of course would not exist but for the requirements of red grouse management.

  10. I think you are very much on the right lines Mark. One could campaign against stopping grouse shooting, period. However I can’t help feeling it is so engrained into the mentality of those associated with it and some others, that it would be a long and very hard slog and meanwhile the illegal killing of birds of prey would go on. The problem has been that conservationists have long needed a “lever” with which to really campaign strongly against illegal hen harrier killing. I do hope that diversionary feeding does/will provide this long needed lever such that, although obviously a few grouse maybe taken, that nevertheless with diversionary feeding the surplus of grouse need for driven shoots remains fully viable. If the Langholm project can demonstrate that then I think there is really a viable agruement for going to the Government and asking that diversionary feeding of hen harriers is made a legal requirement of any grouse moor shoot, paid for by the owner as well as the owner paying for an independent monitor to monitor their activities. The monitor could be part time on any moor and so cover a number of moors so reducing the costs to any one owner. I think and hope we are now approaching the point when conservationists can start to become much more demanding and strident on this subject.

  11. “Dave’s point is interesting and shared by many, possibly the majority.”

    Hi Will and Dave. I would agree that Dave’s view is held by the majority in the shooting fraternity, but probably not elsewhere. Fortunately most of the people I speak to understand that raptors play a vital part at the top of the food chain, and feel privileged to witness a Sparrowhawk hunting through their gardens. I am afraid that to be “abhorred” by such a sight displays a lack of understanding of the role played by birds of prey in the natural environment. May I suggest that you take a look at the following link Dave?

  12. I know you want to talk about diversionary feeding here, and I apologise for anticipating your post promised for Tuesday. But I can’t help noticing a hint of a consensus developing here, at least in some of the comments, if not in your original post. It seems to me that that what conservationists, moorland managers, bird watchers, statutory agencies would all ideally like to see are an increased number of harriers, no illegal persecution and economically viable driven grouse moors because of the wider conservation benefits they bring. A pipedream? With the law as it currently stands, yes. But forgetting for the moment the current level and nature of illegality; and ignoring for a moment the huge areas of unmanaged grouse moor in the country which should be suitable harrier habitat but for whatever reason don’t hold any, let’s imagine a scenario where a given area of managed moorland, say 8,000 acres, were to carriy a pair of harriers, which I agree with Mike Groves should be economically sustainable. But if the harrier population there were to go above that ceiling, then the surplus harriers could be translocated, or their chicks removed to aviaries during the sensitive grouse breeding period, or as a very last resort their eggs be pricked. Then replicate that scenario throughout the country.

    The RSPB, as I’m sure you’ll confirm Mark, has never denied that such an approach would result in a significant increase in the number of harriers. In turn I am pretty confident that moor owners, both in Scotland and England, would accept the principle of such a ceiling. After all, as has been alluded to here, it’s the fear of harriers colonising in the way that they did during the Joint Raptor Study at Langholm that has almost certainly led to the continuation of persecution to the extent that it still occurs. It might sound simplistic, but I suggest that the result of such a ceiling scheme would be a Win Win Win.

    The trouble is that the RSPB has never publicly acknowledged that there should be any kind of management or intervention of the harrier population beyond diversionary feeding, but rather chooses to focus exclusively on the current level of illegal persecution that does take place. I very much hope that they are being less rigid in the course of the deliberations being facilitated by the Environment Council (which I note you have still not referred to yourself, Mark). I quote again the conclusion of Redpath et al: “Importantly, progress requires that all sides in this debate consider alternative viewpoints, are prepared to maintain open and inclusive dialogue and not retreat too readily into their pre-existing positions.”

    As for diversionary feeding, well it may work, and could indeed be part of an overall solution to this wretchedly protracted conflict; certainly the early results from Langholm 2 are quite positive, albeit with relatively few harriers nesting. But it is early days and as Mark concedes there are practical, economic and even social arguments that may arise. It’s also worth noting that the RSPB’s own experience of diversionary feeding (of kestrels for the benefit of little terns) was inconclusive at best.

  13. A quite reasonable synopsis Lazywell but a couple of points need a little clarification.

    We might argue the 8000 acres as all research shows 5000 acres per pair of harriers does not damage grouse shoots economically.

    Translocation is currently not an option here and one would need to find a suitable recipient! The rules are quite strict you cannot translocate in order to affect the donor population, although that might be overcome by a relatively short translocation. Last time this was even suggested no moors would accept translocated harriers.

    Egg pricking ( a lethal control) even as a last resort is a no go for most if not all conservationists, yes we might revisit at a much later date when harrier populations are much healthier, but there is no guarantee.

    DF has worked for harriers where ever and when ever used properly. Whilst I can see issues with it, as a stop gap and as an act of good faith I cannot see why moors at least do not give it a go now, rather than killing.

    1. Paul,

      Many years back estates didn’t take up the practice of DF even when they had breeding harriers on their moors.

      Today they don’t even have to consider this option because there aren’t any harriers, apart from Langholm and Glen Tanar.

      The bottom line is unfortunately very clear – ”most” estates don’t want breeding harriers under any circumstances.

  14. They do not want Hen Harriers or any other Bird of Prey at any time of the year especially from 12th August on wards as they may cause a ‘drive’ to be unsuccessful. Some thing not one of the previous comments have made. I have personally seen even Kestrels destroy a ‘drive’. There is also the famous Geltsdale shooting of a Short eared Owl which was driven to the butts only to be shot by the neighbouring agent. A second bird was also about to be shot but was saved by the beaters screaming at the gun man. There is only one solution and that is ban ‘driven’ Red Grouse and have only ‘walked up’. There would be no money loss at all. So if you do not believe me, try it and see.

    1. John – I’m sure others will want to argue with that. I think they will say that walked up shooting commands much lower prices than driven shooting. But it demands lower inputs too. How exactly th ins and outs work out i don’t know.

  15. I think that the very valid point john is making is that much of the persecution takes place outside the breeding season and is thus not affected by the solutions we have been discussing.

    It is claimed by the shooting people that walked up shooting is not economic but as you say Mark there would be a lower input. I suspect they are talking about current high inputs and a low return based on walked up.

    Walked up shooting could be over many more days as it has a much lower bag. also have they considered renting such days to falconers another source of oncome.

  16. Having declared in an earlier post my involvement with the GWCT I will now confirm another interest, namely as a keen grouse shot.

    The fact is that there is a world of difference between walked up grouse and driven grouse shooting. The best analogy I can draw in sporting terms is between facing, say, the late Malcolm Marshall bowling at full pace and my late mother bowling under arm with a tennis ball.

    I loved my mother and I love walking up grouse; it can be a magical way of spending a day. You get fresh air and exercise, lovely views, good company, the opportunity to watch dogs in action and some enjoyable sport. But there is simply not the same sporting challenge that is provided by a covey of grouse approaching you downwind at head height at 80 mph: you don’t know when they’re going to come, where from, at what angle, and very often before you know it, they’ve passed you. There is truly no sporting experience like it. And that is reflected in the economics. It is why people are prepared to pay twice the amount to shoot driven grouse as against walked up grouse. And no, John, it is simply not true that if driven grouse shooting were somehow banned the same people would pay for walked up days; rest assured they would go elsewhere for their sport.

    Furthermore, if it were a case of walked up grouse only, the reduction in income would inevitably result in a severe reduction in the amount of keepering management that moor owners would be able to afford or prepared to undertake. And the effect in terms of broader biodiversity would be devastating. It is no coincidence that one of the key objectives of Langholm 2 is to restore a viable DRIVEN grouse moor.

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