The future of driven grouse shooting in the UK is going to depend rather more in the end, I suggest, on its wider environmental impacts, than it is on its harmful impacts on birds of prey, especially Hen Harriers. However, illegal raptor persecution is a massive problem that this government and previous governments have failed properly to address.
How might brood management (or brood meddling) play a part in this issue?
The Hawk and Owl Trust has recently become, rather bizarrely, the main proponent of this scheme which is largely supported by upland landowners and organisations representing upland landowners. This might be because the Hawk and Owl Trust’s chair, Philip Merricks, is a lowland landowner.
Rare Bird Alert ran a poll earlier this year which suggested that ‘ordinary’ birdwatchers were very against a scheme where Hen Harrier chicks would be removed from grouse moors to lessen the impact of nesting Hen Harriers on the shootable surplus of Red Grouse. They are running another poll now, and since quite a few people voted for the ‘I’d like to know more’ option last time around, let me tell you a bit more about the scheme (which I oppose, as does the RSPB and Chris Packham (who resigned from his post as President of the Hawk and Owl Trust over their position)).
Hen Harriers (but also Peregrine Falcons, Golden Eagles, Goshawks and maybe even Buzzards, eat things – yes really – including Red Grouse. This makes them unpopular with those people who would rather be the agents for destruction of Red Grouse and are prepared to pay big money for a day shooting at them. If there weren’t a conflict between a pointless field ‘sport’ and birds of prey we wouldn’t be having this discussion. So, do remember that brood meddling is about making life easier for a sport whose point is killing wildlife. It’s good to understand where we are starting from.
Since birds of prey are fully protected by law, the easiest and most honourable thing to happen would be for grouse shooting interests to put up with fewer grouse and stick to the law. They aren’t prepared to do this, it seems. It’s good to understand where the second base camp is.
Diversionary feeding has been shown to reduce the take of Red Grouse chicks immensely in several experiments and trials but this method has not been taken up across the grouse moors of Britain because it is too much effort. In other words, a feasible solution, at least in the short term, has been rejected by grouse shooting interests, pretty much categorically in practice, for over a decade whilst they support it in principle. We are now at third base camp.
There should be, according to the current science (though some more is rumoured to be coming down the track but it never seems to appear), c330 pairs of Hen Harrier nesting in England. This year there were a dozen, last year there were four. Illegal killing of Hen Harriers, so that they are not nesting on grouse moors, and not eating Red Grouse that someone wants to shoot a few weeks later, continues at a very high, and scandalous level. Some birds are found killed, and many others ‘disappear’ long before they should. We are at our final camp and are prepared for our assault on the summit of Hen Harrier brood management.
Brood management has not been fully explained but it certainly involves getting rid of Hen Harriers from grouse moors so that they aren’t unsporting enough to eat Red Grouse before people shoot them. It’s not a conservation measure, it’s a different means of helping the poor grouse shooter.
Given that we don’t have any details of what is proposed then we should be sceptical of it right from the start. And given that it emanates not from conservation organisations but from shooting ones then we should be even more cautious. And given that every time that Philip Merricks attempts to justify it, or explain it, people wander away shaking their heads, then we should be sceptical. That’s probably why the RSPB challenged Defra to publish a proposal and consult upon it. But, so far, it hasn’t done that. Defra hasn’t done very much in fact.
There are at least two types of brood management that the grouse moor managers might quite fancy – although it remains a moot point whether any grouse managers currently engaged in illegal killing of Hen Harriers will stop and adopt brood management instead. It’s difficult for criminals to say this type of thing, and it is very difficult for any of us to believe that Philip Merricks has talked to all the criminals involved in Hen Harrier persecution and got them to sign up to his scheme.
Type 1: remove eggs, or chicks, from Hen Harrier nests to cause the pair to ‘fail’ so that the grouse moor in question experiences fewer hungry mouths and therefore less predation of Red Grouse. Rear the chicks in captivity and release them back into the wild on the estate from which they were removed at some unspecified date (presumably after the end of the grouse shooting season in December). There is no reason to think that this would work any better than diversionary feeding and so I honestly can’t see why we should consider it until we’ve seen lots of estates carrying out diversionary feeding.
Type 2: is like Type 1 except that you take the Hen Harriers a long way away from any grouse moors and release them. It’s not clear where they go, and I suspect this is one of the reasons for enthusiasm for a lowland reintroduction scheme for Hen Harriers.
What is envisaged is a Type 2 scheme which will, in the words of one of its proponents (Steve Redpath), on the Hawk and Owl Trust website, create a cap on Hen Harrier numbers on any estate and therefore on the population as a whole.
‘What essentially a brood management scheme proposes is a cap on the numbers of harriers breeding on any one estate. Once harriers get beyond this threshold density the excess broods would be removed, reared in captivity, and then released back to the wild, but in a different location from where they were removed.‘
It’s a cap. It’s a proposed cap on the numbers of a fully protected but highly persecuted, bird. It’s giving the criminals a legal way to get what they are getting illegally at the moment.
I’ve spoken to many people about this (unpublished) scheme over many years. Some, many actually, are dead against it under any circumstances. Some including the RSPB (and myself) would potentially stomach it once the Hen Harrier population makes a sizeable recovery in numbers, which would show that the proponents of the scheme have some control over the criminal elements in the shooting community. That is a necessity to begin to win some brownie points, and gain some trust, from the rest of us. Show us that you will mend your ways and we will reward you with a partial solution to Hen Harrier impacts of grouse bags further down the line. That is a very generous offer – sometimes I feel it is too generous. But it has been on the table for ages and yet the grouse shooters are too intransigent to take it.
They want brood management now, straight away. Their greed and their naivety have no bounds it seems.
Defra, who the grouse shooters think they have in their pockets, their game pockets presumably, are looking inept because they haven’t said anything or done anything that moves things on. No doubt they will eventually.
Defra will know, but I’m happy to remind them, that if they were to sanction brood management without it being dependent on a prior recovery of Hen Harrier numbers then they would be giving in to the criminals and also they would face a legal challenge for sanctioning an activity on an Annex 1 species that caps its numbers at below (well below) those required for it to be in favourable connervation status. If the RSPB didn’t take legal action on this matter (and I would expect that they would) then we all ought to club together and challenge it ourselves.
But that’s for the future. Today you should simply vote in the Rare Bird Alert poll that you aren’t the least bit keen on what the Hawk and Owl Trust propose for brood managment of Hen Harriers because it caps their numbers.
Whatever happens on this issue, it won’t solve the Hen Harrier conservation problems because the illegal route will still be so attractive.
And whatever happens on the Hen Harrier issues there will still be issues over Golden Eagles, Peregrines and Goshawks so the bird of prey issue will not be solved. Brood management for them, Cormorants, Sparrowhawks, Otters, Pine Martens, and everything else with beaks and teeth, talons and claws, next?
And whatever happens on the issue of illegal persecution of predatory birds and mammals, it won’t address the wider environmental damage done by driven grouse shooting. We should simply ban it and have done with it.