Guest Blog – a reply on Hen Harriers and grouse shooting from the Chair of RSPB Council

14.06.11 mh Cardiff Univ Steve Ormerod 13Professor Steve Ormerod is Chair of RSPB Council and Professor of Ecology in Cardiff School of Biosciences.

Here he replies to an open letter from me that was posted on 4 June where I asked the RSPB to clarify its position on the Hen Harrier and grouse shooting issue.

I’m grateful to Steve for his response and I’ll reply with my thoughts at 6pm this evening.





Dear Mark,

Huge congratulations on helping to organise last weekend’s Hen Harrier Day – a major success despite atrocious weather. Although I was unable to join you in person, along with tens of thousands of others I supported the day in spirit and through social media. The whole event has been a great way to bring the illegal killing of hen harriers and other birds of prey under the spotlight – and to continue the push to end what so many of us judge as immoral and deeply unethical as well as being plainly unlawful. But, as both you and I know, illegal raptor killing and disturbance are only part of a broader set of conservation issues about which the RSPB is deeply concerned.

You wrote to me in June seeking clarification on the RSPB’s position on grouse shooting. I know you’ve had various discussions with the RSPB since then, but I haven’t yet honoured my promise of a fuller answer to your challenge.

Eighteen months ago, the RSPB’s Council of trustees debated the growing environmental impact of intensive, driven grouse shooting and reached conclusions about how we should respond.

As an organisation, we remain appalled by the ongoing persecution of birds of prey: we’re committed to working with the police to detect wildlife crime, and to catch and bring to justice those responsible. Our new £2m EU LIFE+-funded 5-year project to track hen harriers will improve monitoring and surveillance of England’s most threatened bird. As I saw first-hand in June, this technological surveillance is supported by the dedication and courage of RSPB staff working under very remote and challenging circumstances to protect hen harrier nests around the clock.

The RSPB is equally dismayed by the terrible condition of upland SSSIs linked to intensive grouse moor management and the wider environmental damage posed by accompanying actions such as burning on peat soils and the use of medicated grit. As someone who researches freshwater ecosystems and their value, I’ve seen for myself the downstream cost of these practices, and RSPB believes it is wrong that the public purse must pay to clean up the resulting damage caused by private or commercial activity: increasing evidence shows how browner waters, erosion and eutrophication can all result from inappropriate upland management.

It was on all of these grounds that RSPB Council concluded that we would, in the absence of effective self-regulation, call for licensing of driven grouse shooting to deliver better environmental outcomes. You will have noticed that we are urging the political parties to introduce a licensing system after the next general election.

We note the success of your petition and the public desire for action to save the hen harrier and the upland habitats on which it depends. However, we do not consider a call for a ban on grouse shooting to be the right step. This is not because we are constrained by our Charter or our charitable objects, but rather because we think the next rational step from self-regulation is regulation. We also think that the introduction of a licensing system is a proportionate measure in the absence of self-regulation by the shooting industry. Arguably, any legally compliant business would also benefit from such a system as it would prevent unfair competition from those that cause environmental damage as they seek to increase the shootable surplus of grouse.

I’m delighted that there is cross-party support to explore how licensing might work in Scotland. We hope and expect such support in England and have presented principles for a licensing system, which any system would need to follow to effectively achieve its aims of better prospects for birds of prey and protected habitats. The RSPB is currently working with a number of willing landowners on these ideas as well as reaching out to the colleges where gamekeepers are trained. We are also committed to working with Defra and partners on the Hen Harrier Joint Action Plan, which we are helping to ensure is an effective species conservation plan.

Mark, you achieved a huge amount in your 25 years at the RSPB and, as an independent campaigner and writer, you continue to challenge anything that harms nature today. The RSPB applauds you resoundingly for that.

I hope that you’ll continue to offer constructive support to the RSPB as we continue to do whatever nature needs to thrive.

With my best wishes,

Professor Steve Ormerod


35 Replies to “Guest Blog – a reply on Hen Harriers and grouse shooting from the Chair of RSPB Council”

  1. AS driven Red Grouse can not survive with Hen Harrier and Short eared Owl between the beaters and the guns what is the RSPB proposing to do about these birds come the ‘Glorious 12th’? And can some one who is supposed to know about birds use the term ‘Red Grouse’ not grouse shooting as some one should tell him there is more than one grouse species!

    1. John, sorry to be so thick, but can you explain your first sentence please, especially what do you mean by… “As driven Red Grouse can not survive with Hen Harrier and Short-eared Owl between the beaters and the guns…”? If this is some form of ironic way of making a point, it’s gone way over my head.

  2. why doesn’t he say what’s wrong with calling for a complete ban?
    he doesn’t really answer the essential question: ban vs regulation!

  3. As Steve points out, killing or disturbing hen harriers from nesting is already illegal. Has this (or the RSPB’s previous activities?) stopped persecution from happening? Apparently not. Why then should they expect the same people who are ignoring current laws to adhere to new regulations?

  4. …..’increasing evidence shows how browner waters, erosion and eutrophication can all result from inappropriate upland management.’…..

    Also applies to continuing coniferisation of the hills especially in Galloway and the Borders. Let us hope that the RSPB will also oppose these policies of the Scottish Government.

  5. a really well presented and well thought out response to Mark’s open letter. I think the proposed RSPB action to try to bring in licensing of grouse moors is a feasible and practical way forward based on common sense. If a landowner trashes a moorland SSSI or his staff are caught illegally killing predators then he loses his license. Banning driven grouse shooting is a bit like banning fox hunting. It may be impossible to police. Just like the hunts saying that they are exercising their hounds, the grouse shooters or rather beaters may say they are exercising their dogs. also a ban on driven grouse shooting won’t make much difference to heather moor SSSIs being burnt and the intensive management of the grouse, because after all the moor owners are still going to want to maximise grouse numbers for the shooters even if they are walking up the birds.
    Nevertheless I still think Marks petition and hen harrier day has been good in that it has given some fantastic publicity to the cause of stopping raptor persecution

  6. Professor Ormerod’s reply seems reasonable and that is the problem. Such an appeasing approach risks making the RSPB the Neville Chamberlain of conservation. What worries me is that the proposed principles for a licensing system are so vague and it is easy to imagine estates complying with them and still having no hen harriers. If driven red grouse shooting is to continue (and I hope it doesn’t given its multifarious evils) then any state regulation governing it would have to have easily enforceable teeth. We have seen already how this industry flouts existing laws. Why would we imagine it would be any different with new laws? Until there are at least 200 pairs of hen harriers on our English uplands the whole industry is guilty by association with criminal persecution.

    Once more: we know that driven red grouse shooting depends on shooting absurd numbers of birds (truly this is not hunting) which in turn depends on destroying abhorrent numbers of predators, legally and illegally. There are also the associated issues of peat damage, water pollution, lead poisoning and flooding, to name just a few. Imposing legislation on what is fundamentally so damaging an industry is seeking to polish a t**d. Ban it, for if we don’t what message does this send about how seriously we take conservation?

  7. I am disappointed that Professor Ormerod doesn’t acknowledge here, as the RSPB has been happy to do before, the many conservation benefits that management for driven grouse shooting brings.

    I’m surprised that he doesn’t refer to the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project, where the RSPB is a partner in seeking to restore a driven grouse moor in the presence of hen harriers; thereby contributing to the conflict resolution process.

    And I am dismayed that he makes only the most cursory reference to the Defra Hen Harrier Joint Recovery Plan, which the RSPB has helped draft and which truly represents the best prospect of increasing the number of harriers nationally.

    1. Lazywell – I didn’t see you at the Bird Fair – greatly missed! Have you ever attended – I don’t recall seeing you there ever? You should come and see how the other half live, but you may have been blasting away at Red Grouse for fun over the weekend I guess. How many did you bag?

      Disappointed, surprised and dismayed – what a mix of emotions! Steve doesn’t need me to speak for him (and of course I don’t speak for the RSPB, ever, at all) but I’m sure he would say that the RSPB (and me too!) fully recognise the conservation benefits of driven grouse shooting. It’s just that the RSPB has decided, according to Andre Farrar’s interview for Countryfile, that they are not enough to outweigh the manifest conservation and other disbenefits of that system of land mismanagement. You did hear the Countryfile piece? Here is the link

      Langholm – seems to show that supplementary feeding works? Is that right? We’ve known that for quite a while. What a pity that Langholm has almost all the Hen Harriers nesting on grouse moors in the UK as far as I can make out? A beacon of hope or a damning indictment of so many the others? You choose? I have

      And as for the ‘unjoint’ ‘unplan’ – you’ll be glad to hear I will mention it in my blog of 6pm this evening.

  8. I’m no great fan of the RSPB, despite having been a member for many years, and a fund raiser (pin badges) for over ten. Nonetheless, I think Professor Ormerod’s comments are sensible, and more practical than aiming for a total ban on driven grouse shooting. My misgivings on a total ban are:

    1. A bill banning driven grouse shooting would be very difficult to draft. The Hunting Act demonstrates this, and has shown that it would be even more difficult to police.

    2. It runs the risk of throwing out the baby with the bath water. As Sir John Lister Kaye said on Saturday, there are good estates and law abiding keepers out there, and in their absence,

    3. Who would look after the moors if they were not managed for grouse? Even the RSPB would not have the resources to undertake such a major exercise.

    4. I cannot imagine any government of any political party or coalition attempting to put it on the statute book. Again, think how long it took the Hunting Act to become law. Most politicians have little or no interest in these matters unless they can see votes in them.

    It seems to me that licensing moors and keepers would be the best way to remove the bad apples who do so much damage, and to encourage the rest who operate within the law. As no one in the grouse shooting industry would admit to any wrongdoing, they could have no objection to a licensing scheme.

    Quoting Sir John again, the identity of the perpetrator of the dreadful Red Kite poisoning scandal in Ross shire is known, and in a rural area this is not surprising. Word gets round, and a licence could be quickly rescinded. This might also have the added benefit of keeping the others in line.

    Maybe this is not a popular view, but I think it’s practical and would have more chance of success.

    1. David – of course the chair of RSPB sounds sensible! No argument there.

      That doesn’t mean he is completely right or that there is no other sensible, perhaps even more sensible, point of view. I’ll come back to this at 6pm (a bit) and later in the week (more) but your point 3 is dealt with already here

      Also, just think, if everyone knows who bumped off some red kites and they aren’t in court then how easy would it be to take away their grouse shooting licence? You need proof. We have proof that grouse shooting as a whole is a bad thing (I argue) – but it’s very difficult to get the evidence on a case by case basis. A ban is clear and non-bureaucratic.

      thank you for your thoughtful (and sensible) comment.

      1. Mark, I have signed your petition and am in full support of the reasons for it. Just to add to this point though, this seems to equate much more to the removal of a licence from someone like a pub licensee where you don’t actually need convictions but, being civil legislation, it is more about the balance of evidence showing that it is inappropriate for the licence to continue.

        1. Bob – I think the balance of evidence strongly supports it being inappropriate to carry on with driven grouse shooting – that’s a ban. But I do take your point.

    2. We keep hearing this argument “who will look after the moors if it wasn’t them?”

      Who “looked after” the moors before grouse estates?

  9. Steve, As indicated by others this is well thought out and reasonable approach for the RSPB to take. I strongly believe that any movement in this area is best achieved by using the ‘political’ strength of NGO’s supported by their members and others, of whom the contributors to this and other blogs are a part. You know that I am also aware of the work that the RSPB does in the background and of the successes that have been achieved in the past. Unfortunately this back ground work is not obvious to individual members or the public.

    Current publicity and the movement to protect Hen Harriers and other species has come about from a groundswell of support for some very public individual efforts and it should not surprise you that some may wonder why the RSPB’s approach has come at this stage rather than in support of any of the 3 e-petitions that have surfaced over the past year or 2. It may be beneficial to the RSPB, having now committed itself to this approach, to make its thoughts on the whole problem much more transparent than they are perceived at present.

    I personally don’t agree with the concept of criminal vicarious liability but the idea of licensing with the ability to remove that licence seems to me an appropriate way of helping to deal with this issue.

    The 2 things that concern me are, firstly, the idea that we need a new approach because self regulation isn’t working and secondly the thought that somewhere we can come to a consensus on the removal of Hen Harriers. There is already regulation in place and it is called the Wildlife and Countryside Act. This clearly lays down the offences that are still being committed. Whilst I support the licensing approach I would hope that this is in support of the law and not a replacement.

    Most people break the law because they either think they can get away with it or don’t think it applies to them. We need commitment to effective enforcement as well as ideas such as envisaged in Hen Harrier day and in recent petitions.

    Persuading this Government or the next to support enforcement in practice as well as in words is something the RSPB does have the clout and contacts to do and do it effectively. Mark’s petition has reached 15,000 but the RSPB takes the, albeit often silent, implied support of over 1 million people, all of whom I am sure would welcome the strong public involvement of the RSPB in bringing the Harrier back to the English countryside.

  10. No, you’re right, I’ve never made it to the Bird Fair; unfortunately it coincides with my summer holiday which I always spend at home in Scotland, and I fear Rutland’s not exactly local. And yes, as it happens, I was indeed shooting on Saturday (with a mutual friend – if such a thing is possible, bearing in mind I only mix with my own). You might even have commended the manner in which we were doing it: we were walking up. It was on a moor brimming with biodiversity – we saw lots of blue hares, for instance – but significantly managed for driven shooting.

    Yes, thanks, I did see Andre’s contribution to Countryfile, and I have noted the fact that the RSPB policy towards driven grouse shooting has shifted. But it hasn’t shifted so far as to be against it in principle. It would have withdrawn from Langholm if it had.

    There’s more to Langholm than diversionary feeding, by the way. As we discussed here the other day, for example, the project is now exploring whether winter predation by buzzards is limiting the recovery of the grouse population to driveable levels.

    In the meantime, yes, it’s exciting how many successful harrier nests there have been at Langholm this year. But whatever you say, it does remain mystifying that they all turned their nose up at the prime habitat at Geltsdale just a short flight away. But I know you remain adamant it’s the result of historic persecution by that bloke in the balaclava way back in 2000.

    As for my “mixture of emotions”, if Steve can say in his piece that he or the RSPB is “concerned, appalled or dismayed”, I don’t see why I can’t express similar sentiments at what I regard as material omissions from the response he’s had 2½ months to work on. After all, if, as you are good enough to concede, there are positive things to say about grouse moor management, I would have hoped that Steve might have acknowledged them, albeit while criticising – perfectly legitimately – some of its unacceptable excesses.

    1. Lazywell – I do love your comments. You are such a gent!

      I’m glad you enjoyed your walked up shooting.

      I can’t see why the RSPB would have to withdraw from Langholm – it’s always good to research things.

      Although you are a ‘proper gent’, you do put words into my mouth sometimes. Langholm is, as far as I know (and my knowledge is not complete or perfect, I’m sure) the only place for miles with any Hen Harriers. Why aren’t there any HH on the adjacent, truly adjacent, grouse moors in South Scotland? Why aren’t you asking your mates elsewhere in the north of England why they don’t have any HH? Your fixation with one small spot in the north Pennines is a bit odd – don’t you think? There are only 3-4 pairs of HH in the north of England (remember there should be c330) and they can’t live everywhere can they? When we have 50 pairs and they are still absent from Geltsdale then you might have a good point with the RSPB and I’ll back you up on it fully. Until then, give it a rest, eh?

      I wonder whether you were shooting grouse with your friend when I was talking to a packed Bird Fair audience (admittedly, in quite a small arena) about grouse shooting with my friend Chris Packham – that would be quite fitting.

      Is it a good year for the grouse shooter? Lots of grouse?

      1. Grouse moors adjacent to Langholm? Really? Look at Google Earth. Langholm Moor is 25,000 acres of open hill surrounded by about 300,000 acres of sitka spruce plantations from Catlowdy in the west to Byrness in the east and from Hawick in the north to Crag Lough in the south. Any HH nests in these degraded areas would probably be picked off by the forestry foxes. A very wise Langholm HH has flown over the lot to Wooler.

  11. How terribly disappointing this response from the RSPB head shed is! The time for trying to work with the Raptor murdering Red Grouse shooting fraternity has long since past. The sum total of progress is zero, what the is regulation of Red Grouse Moor’s going to bring? It’s patently clear that years of systematic illegal raptor extermination has continued in the face of the all efforts to stop it using the type of approach that Professor Steve Ormerod is proposing.

    I see it as weak and likely to give far too much wriggle room to those that practice the raptor extermination to completely finish the job in making the Hen Harrier extinct as a breeding species. Lets face it they don’t need much extra time do they?

    I dearly love “our” Harriers (and that’s as in, our collective responsibility to conserve not to own) and after years of trying to do my bit to help locate, protect and monitor Montagu’s Harrier nest sites in Summer and likewise for Hen Harrier roost sites in Winter in my local area. I shudder to think of what the future holds for both species in England if we carry on as we are. Thirteen fledged Montagu’s Harriers this year from 3 successful nests this Summer and whilst they face the guns after a few hundred miles whilst on migration, the Hen Harriers most likely won’t get very far from their nest sites before they get slaughtered!

    We need more action and not more talk from the likes of the RSPB and other NGO’s. Whilst talking at the RSPB stand at the Bird Fair yesterday I was shocked and angered to be told that there is only one member of staff in the RSPB Investigations Section who is dealing with Hen Harrier related crime and he has no administration support whatsoever, he is a one man army! The staff at the sharp end need more resources and staff to be able to cope as my five year old Son pointed out! I wonder how big the marketing department is?

    On the positive side I think Hen Harrier Day was a fantastic idea, brilliantly put into practice and the resulting use of the mass media to get the message out to the wider general public was a very smart move and I believe as the message about the appalling state of affairs is gaining traction we will see positive results.

    I was not able to go to any of the events but it was evident that even at the Bird Fair how many people knew nothing about the plight of the Hen Harrier and upon seeing my Hen Harrier Day T-shirt and questioning what it was all about a fair few, well all of the people actually were either open mouthed in anger or shaking their heads in shock when I briefed them on the situation.

    Maybe the RSPB PR department could put some of the funds towards running some TV advertisements. Not quite “Give Nature a Home” but something along the lines of ” Stop the Slaughter of our Birds of Prey” with associated footage of the carnage and a web link to find out more. Surely this would be a far better use of the organisations media production expertise?

    We have seen how the efforts of Chris Packham’s self funded production team has highlighted the plight of migratory species being slaughtered over Malta why can’t we see the RSPB enter the fight for using visual media as a weapon too? That’s where the vast majority of the battle is going to be best fought. It’s not as if we don’t have evidence for you to make a good case is it!!

    Finally, please can we have some more effort put into Montagu’s harrier conservation in England as the current state of play is also dire! We need more than an action phone line and a very small number of field staff primarily working with Stone Curlew and Montagu’s Harriers as a secondary concern. From my experience more resources are needed without a shadow of a doubt.

  12. While I side with Mark’s ideas rather than the licensing that the RSPB propose I applaud Steve for telling us exactly the stance RSPB is taking so thank you Steve.Why other top people there could not explain exactly their reasoning is hard to understand.

  13. I would like to address a number of points contained in Dave Hickson’s reply to Mark Avery. Should a licensing system be introduced consider this, in the last 40 years during my involvement working to protect both peregrines and hen harriers on red grouse moorland in the Forest of Bowland, although persecution was and still is widespread, not one single gamekeeper has ever been caught killing any schedule 1 species or destroying any nest. Not one gamekeeper, except two cases in Cumbria, has ever been seen or caught at or near any peregrine or hen harrier nest site, and yet their nests, chicks and eggs continue to be destroyed.

    Even if a licensing system was introduces tomorrow, unless nests were protected 24/7 as demonstrated in Bowland this year, almost certainly they would continue to be destroyed. Who would be involved on the ground to ensure no breaches of the licence conditions occurred? Would the revocation of a licence granted only occur following a successful prosecution, is so the scheme is doomed to failure? If any occupied nest was discovered by gamekeepers before anyone else, then sadly the nest along with content and adult birds would most likely simply disappear. Importantly where would the funding and experienced man power resources come from to ensure birds and their nests found were adequately protected throughout the moorland upland’s of England?

    Once a licensing scheme had been introduced access to private moorland estates in England to monitor, protect or ring/satellite tag nestling’s would be a significant issue to overcome. Employees of Natural England and RSPB, because they receive a salary, must first obtain permission from the estate owner to enter his or her property to undertake these licensed activities. In my opinion estates may not be too eager to provide approval unless they were happy to allow hen harriers to breed on moorland they own. Access approval applies only to licensed individuals who receives payment for the work he/she has been requested to carry out. Under separate rules set by the BTO, access consent must also be obtained by all licensees, paid or otherwise, to ring or tag any wild bird in England, particularly on moorland where red grouse are shot.

  14. And it has taken him since june 4th to come up with this weak pathetic reply,it is the answer we where all expecting,the RSPB backing down to landowners yet again,its no wonder he did not join us all getting soaked on Hen Harrier day,he knew this reply was coming and he would have been a hypocrite.
    Who does he think is going to monitor this licensing system,the landowners? i dont think so,if he really believes that then he is being very naive.
    The RSPB have been patting themselves on the back all spring and summer tweeting about being on the frontline protecting the 2 nests in Bowland,if they really want to save the Hen Harrier a ban on driven grouse shooting is the only way we all know that.

    1. Reading all the comments, everyone has their own opinion on whether or not licensing is going to work. I went up to the Forest of Bowland to take my selfie for Hen Harrier Day and I was so dismayed with what I found, I decided to write about my experience which Raptor Politics kindly posted on their website

      I really can’t see how licensing will work, if Grouse Estates are breaking the law now, a licensing system isn’t going to make any difference. It seems to me there are a lot of cover ups in Bowland, it’s like being in an episode of The League of Gentlemen.

      At the end of the day it’s the human race that has caused problems for wildlife by encroaching on their habitat. How the hell did they make it through thousands of years without our help? It’s only through persecution and habitat loss that they are suffering.

      There are reports on weather, lack of prey that supposedly affect populations, but if you round it all up, it’s us, humans that are to blame, greenhouse gases, pesticides, contamination etc etc. Cause and effect.

      We have a responsibility to protect our wildlife and our landscape and the Government needs to do more, a lot more. Is there a new Government ready to take a stand with the GE in 2015. I’ve yet to see any good proposals.

      The people that do care are the people who make no gain from exploiting and killing wildlife. If we don’t do something drastic now species like the Hen Harrier will be lost to England and that’s something I won’t stand by and watch.

      1. I agree here with Julie and I can’t see a licensing system working under an umbrella of discreet cover-up of illegal activity.
        Show me the good shooting folk of Britain stepping into the courts to condemn the actions of those who choose to make it their livlihood to remove protected species and I might have a tad of optimism.
        I think the RSPB are and have been far too passive in standing up to the consequences of sport shooting in Britain. If you make a business case for protecting the HH it wouldn’t read particularly well in terms of consumption of scarce funds given that we have less birds than ever before. I support the RSPB for many of the good news stories the organisation has delivered against but I’m afraid this is not one of them.
        Lastly, I note that it took two months for a response from Steve to your letter Mark. This may have been planned but my experiance when writing to the CEO of the RSPB about matters that matter to me such as this are that I am met with silence. Was Mike at the Hen Harrier day – didn’t see him in any pictures?

        1. Rob thanks. There were RSPB staff at the Hen Harrier Day in ‘work time’ and it was good to see them there. There were a lot of RSPB staff attending as individuals too – which was also nice.

  15. Hen Harriers make their nests in well known areas, raise their young and then spend the rest of the year somewhere else, often roosting in numbers in very well known locations. Can I have my £2m of EU money please? Otherwise could someone explain the value of this research and what it will do to end persecution?

    “We note the success of your petition and the public desire for action to save the hen harrier and the upland habitats on which it depends. However, WE do not consider a call for a ban on grouse shooting to be the right step.” Of course the RSPB would not consider that that a lot of the people who have signed this petition and have a desire for action are probably RSPB members, and a good many other RSPB members who have not signed the petition would probably have similar views if presented with the facts. So who are WE? Out of touch with the rising tide of opposition to grouse shooting, that’s who WE are.

  16. It’s a shame that despite the RSPB’s support for it, Hen Harrier Day never featured anywhere on the Homepage of the RSPB’s Website.

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