"Mayflies in Sunset Dance Gilbert White Natural History of Selborne" by Gilbert White - Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -
“Mayflies in Sunset Dance Gilbert White Natural History of Selborne” by Gilbert White – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

The fifth ‘disappearance’ of a male Hen Harrier from an active nest in England marks 2015 as ‘May mayhem’ year (see here and here). If five male Blackbirds disappeared from a small number of monitored nests it would be pretty odd, and Hen Harriers are designed to live a good deal longer than Blackbirds.

A biologist speaks ‘These can’t all be natural  losses – there are just too many of them. Even though we don’t know what happened to each of these individual birds it is clear that something has. The science that has been done on this subject (see references at foot) shows that Hen Harriers are much more likely to disappear if they nest on or near driven grouse moors, and this is backed up by observations of actual pairs.  Major studies show that the nesting success and survival of Hen Harriers on grouse moors (the study was done in Scotland) combine to make driven grouse moors a ‘sink’ for the Hen Harrier population. It is the non-grouse moor population (a ‘source’) of Hen Harriers (primarily in NW Scotland and Wales) that send recruits to grouse moors each year.  If we could find a way of eliminating illegal killing of Hen Harriers then the UK Hen Harrier population might increase to 2600 pairs (of which c330 would be in England) from its current level of c800 pairs (of which 4 last year were in England)(although people keep telling me that there is a recalculation of these potential figures on the way which has lower (but still high) numbers but it seems a very long time in arriving).’.

"1AA". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
“1AA”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

A campaigner for Hen Harriers speaks ‘Illegal killing of Hen Harriers on grouse moors is a huge and embarrassing problem for the Westminster government and the Scottish Parliament. It shames the UK. Wildlife crime, involving not only Hen Harriers but Peregrines and eagles too, is rife in the British uplands – no, not every estate is ‘at it’ but enough are to have a massive impact on the range of protected species and their population numbers. It’s the FIFA-shaped elephant in the room. Why aren’t the statutory nature conservation agencies and government departments doing more to counter these wildlife crimes? Defra wasted last year being berated by those who want Defra to introduce a brood-meddling scheme to suit grouse moor owners. The scheme would allow grouse moor owners to remove Hen Harrier chicks from grouse moors so that the losses of Red Grouse are reduced. Defra should stop worrying about Red Grouse losses and start worrying about losses of protected wildlife by criminals.  But it appears that Defra are not the least bit bothered about wildlife crime on their watch. The quickest and easiest solution to this state of affairs is to ban driven grouse shooting completely.  With male Hen Harriers disappearing unnaturally left, right and centre this year, the criminal elements are hardly showing their readiness to turn over a new leaf. Such activity, and the publicity it receives, will drive more and more people to question the future of grouse shooting in our uplands.’

A real countryman speaks ‘It’s a well known fact that male Hen Harriers are closely related to Mayflies. They are a sign of spring up here in the hills where we shoot Red Grouse. They turn up, fly around looking pretty for a few days, and then their short lives are over and they’re gone. It’s like that every year – always has been. I don’t know why those townies are only just waking up to the fact.  I love to see them every year – I keep a special look out for them. Wouldn’t want to miss them!’


PS look at the image of the male Hen Harrier in the article in the Independent. It’s a young male with lots of brown in its plumage. One of the findings of the first paper cited below was that many more male HH on grouse moors (in Scotland) are young males than one would expect, and than occur on non grouse moors. This indicates the high turnover of males on these moors – they just keep disappearing.

PPS But what should we do? More on this tomorrow.


Etheridge, B., Summers, R. W. and Green, R. E. 1997. The effects of illegal killing and destruction of nests by humans on the population dynamics of the Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus in Scotland. Journal of Applied Ecology 34, 1081-1105.

Fielding, A., Haworth, P., Whitfield, P., McLeod, D. & Riley, H. 2011. A Conservation Framework for Hen Harriers in the United Kingdom. JNCC Report 441. Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Peterborough.

Green, R. E. and Etheridge, B. 1999. Breeding success of the hen harrier Circus cyaneus in relation to the distribution of grouse moors and the red fox Vulpes vulpes. Journal of Applied Ecology 36, 472-483.

Hayhow, D. B., Eaton, M. A., Bladwell, S., Etheridge, B., Ewing, S., Ruddock, M., Saunders, R., Sharpe, C., Sim, I. M. W. and Stevenson, A. 2013.The status of the Hen Harrier, Circus cyaneus, in the UK and Isle of Man in 2010. Bird Study 60, 446-458.

Natural England. 2008. A future for the Hen Harrier in England? Natural England.

Redpath S.M. and Thirgood S.J. 1997. Birds of Prey and Red Grouse. Stationary Office, London.

Sim I.M.W., Gibbons D.W., Bainbridge I.P. and Mattingley W.A. 2001. Status of the Hen Harrier Circus Cyaneus in the UK and the Isle of Man in 1998. Bird Study 48, 341–53.

Sim, I. M.W., Dillon, I. A., Eaton, M. A., Etheridge, B., Lindley, P., Riley, H., Saunders, R., Sharpe, C., and Tickner, M. 2007. Status of the Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus in the UK and Isle of Man in 2004, and a comparison with the 1988/89 and 1998 surveys. Bird Study 54, 256-267.

Stott, M. 1998. Hen harrier breeding success on English grouse moors. British Birds 91,107–108.

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19 Replies to “Mayhem”

  1. "What should we do?" Is indeed the question, Mark. Unfortunately, I think it unlikely that this state of affairs will be reversed in the next five years, whatever we do. It seems the government and the shooting industry will not listen to petitions and conservationists. I suppose enough people need to care and I don't suppose they ever will. I don't like to admit defeat but I it seems to me that the hen harrier is doomed to become extinct in England and maybe the UK too. Its future is far from guaranteed in Ireland either. The outcry from the conservation world and the "birding" public, will die down eventually, the public will go one caring more about immigrants and dole cheats and the grouse shooting industry will carry on untouched as before. I expect your next book will be called "Henry," sadly. I hope you can prove me wrong.

    1. We can't afford to concede defeat because 'extinct' in England refers to the risk of extinction of successful nesting pairs. But new pairs will continue to attempt to nest, each and every year, and will continue to vanish - be killed - without action. Pairs still manage to produce young in Scotland every year, and some of these young birds will continue to try to nest in England, only to be killed by game keepers. This will be a never ending tragedy, year in, year out. This is why something dramatic needs to happen.

  2. This is crazy! Why isn't the government not now getting involved? If this was anything other than 'stupid nature that only the green blob care about' then they would have done a long time ago. This is a real tragedy today.

  3. I still think that a mass trespass in the same way as Kinder Scout, on Aug 12, is going to be the only way to shift opinions. The gathering last year was a triumph in bringing some attention to the issues and fair play to all that attended but the grouse shooting industry as whole has taken no notice and is getting some serious 'negative' backing now. Chris Packham very bravely illustrated that a more direct and high profile face-on campaign in Malta caused the authorities there huge embarrassment. The result was a vote and only by a whisker did the hunting lobby win.
    Like Peter Bagshaw I'm starting to believe that this is one battle that under current governance cannot be won without radical action.

  4. The campaign against driven grouse shooting has to continue, even if the threat is seen as a distant one it has the criminal elements rattled. The more these tragic events occur the stronger the arguments, simply on the basis of statistics and probability. I would again urge the strengthening of a second front to destroy the still upmarket 'brand' enjoyed by the grouse industry: restaurants, hotels, game retailers, 'country' clothing outlets (important for tourism in Scotland). I would love to see the economically important birding industry - magazines, travel, optics etc increase support for the ban campaign and lobbying against the essentially criminal grouse industry. The RSPB needs all the support it can get from the birding economy.

    1. I agree Richard. Mark's ban on driven grouse shooting, and the RSPB's licensing proposals, are options for tackling the supply side, i.e. the shooting estates. We also need to do much more on the 'demand' side, with those who pay to shoot, and those, such as restaurants and supermarkets, who supply game to customers. This is what's being done with the palm oil industry: WWF and EIA is exposing the antics of oil palm plantation companies with hard-hitting investigative reports; concurrently, WWF established the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an aim being to force retailers and others to source only from demonstrably wildlife-friendly palm oil growers. I wonder if it might be possible to establish some sort of wildlife-friendly game management certification scheme, with suppliers (grouse moors) subject to independent verification, to confirm that their practices conform to certification standards?
      Sounds like Mark is already on the case with this, having started to lobby Rules Restaurant etc?

  5. There is absolutely no chance of banning driven grouse shooting; we'll be lucky to keep the ban on fox hunting now the Tory bully boys are back in charge. We should know our place; they've tried often enough to put us in it. We should ban the thugs. It is a cruel act to kill things just for fun. If we forgot class, and jailed people for what they have done, rather than who they are, then just maybe it would stop.

  6. I agree with a 'mass trespass' rally on 12th of August. A physical presence of all supporters standing up against blood sports is essential for getting the message across. Total disruption on shoots would have an impact for sure. This would hit them financially. Equally, a petition calling for a ban on all 'live game birds' would cut off the main artery!

    1. Yes think something has to be done, this looks as if there has been a co-ordinated plan to spite conservation movement, virtual eradication of hen harrier in England should be PR disaster for shooting estates, but obviously they don't care. What about flying hen harrier kites from public rights of way across grouse moors on and after the 'glorious' twelth? Makes a statement at least. Leafleting outside sporting goods shops, game dealers etc. If lot of the business is from abroad as driven grouse shooting is unique to UK (other countries not stupid enough to have it) then maybe coverage in foreign press, lobbying abroad would help a bit. Fear despondency will set if we don't move forward and people will just give up.

  7. "I have succeeded because I have willed it. I have never hesitated,which has given me an advantage over the rest of mankind"

    Napoleon's quote-and we need to adopt it.We can win,but we need to be more inventive.

    1. Peter - Indeed, and thanks. But let's not give up on what we are doing, please. Nobody said it would be quick. Nobody said it would be easy. But it will be successful in the end.

      There may be ways of making it quicker, but giving up on public pressure through lobbying, through PR and through taking the mickey still need to be done.

  8. Thanks for the blog Mark, and particularly for being so relentless and inspiring with this campaign. I was at holkham today with the kids and was feeling quite despondent about the continuing bad news.I was planning to check whether you had an entry about what people can do and it sounds like it's on the way. I look forward to reading wishes.

    1. Tom - see blog tomorrow. But I spent some time being despondent and frustrated and angry too. That is probably the right mixture of emotions.

  9. I'm not quite sure whether I am down caste because I'm so bloody angry or because I feel so immediately powerless AND bloody angry. I was out on some moors today looking for wader chicks, remarkably I saw both a Marsh and a Hen Harrier along with a Wildlife Crime Officer keeping tabs on both--- great to see. There's something ironic about two vehicles( one a police 4w drive) containing a policeman and five conservationists stopping in the middle of bandit country (grouse moor) for a chat and to exchange news-- it was good to see you ! We cannot let these bastards win they are bigoted, ignorant criminals even if some of them are aristocracy (what was it i said the other day about revolutions!) or ex cricketers then there are their lapdog lackies the keepers who do it and the powers that be that do nothing. Keep the faith their time will come or is that come uppance.

  10. Gun Laws? Ask the police to check them for alcohol levels... its not unknown for shooting parties to be a bit of a binge. Check for lead ammo over wetland (ie any peat soil.)

  11. Interesting. I got 11 "dislikes" for my original comment on this blog regarding my pessimistic conclusion that the hen harrier is doomed in England and possibly the UK. I presume (and hope, it was because of my pessimism and not because I said I was sad about its demise!) Thus far, i have not seen 11 constructive suggestions as to what should be done other than from you on your new blog this morning, Mark and from about two ther people. I love optimism and I fervently wish I could be but I am not. It's easy to press the "dislike" button from the annonymity of the Internet but less easy to offer constructive ways forward. I hope all those " dislikers" have some suggestions that are more than pure blind faith, because, in the face of such powerful and disgusting people within the grouse shooting fraternity, I have none.


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