A cap on Hen Harrier numbers

A brood fit for meddling? Photo: Ian Newton
A brood fit for meddling? Photo: Ian Newton


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.



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26 Replies to “A cap on Hen Harrier numbers”

  1. I don't see much distinction between brood management and what's currently happening to them! It should just be banned- end of.

  2. The whole concept of brood management is mad. What happens when the re-located birds appear on a grouse moor? Will they be granted safe passage I wonder? Not a chance. I agree Mark, concede nothing until the shooters comply with the law.

  3. It's about time Philip Merricks held his hand up and told us exactly what he and HOT stand to gain from the brood management proposals: funding from Defra for HOT to 'rear and release' the taken nestlings and his own lowland 'estates' being among those chosen as the re-release sites, to mention just two. After which, he'll be charging people to go and see Hen Harriers. Come on Philip, deny this publicly and some of us might be a little bit less cynical about your motives. Though we will nonetheless continue wholeheartedly to oppose brood management until the objective conservation argument genuinely stacks up.

    1. Once his warped experiment is over then presumably there will be a free market in harrier management.... with competitive tendering. This process only drives standards down to the point where they fail...

  4. Mark what did you mean here?
    '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.'

  5. A cap on numbers of a wild species 'sport' has almost made extinct? It's a shame as Sculthorpe is a lovely reserve, saw some awesome birds there, but membership of Hawk and Owl Trust duly stopped. The money would have been up for grabs for another charity if they had reeled me in at Birdfair, but as others have noted there was much less of a hard sell this year so nobody has it and I can enjoy an extra couple of coffees a month until I decide what else to join! Lol. Although I think I spent an annual subscription's worth and then some at the excellent BAWC stand anyway!

  6. The poor moor owners shall not pay a penny towards this scheme to enable them to live legally... oh no, the public shall fund their grouse moors viability for ever and ever.... what a result..Kerching!

    I like the laws the way they are... just obey them.

  7. The Catch 22 situation of the raptor haters & brood manipulators is surely worthy of some consideration. If the brood meddlers can guranatee the survival of harriers it confirms a cabal of criminal estates co-ordinating the killing. Something their representatives have been reluctant to do. The alternative scenario is that the shoot on sight policy is not co-ordinated, in which case how can they deliver on their promise to abide by the law? If the situation is the former then they shoukd fess up to give others confidence in what they say. Which is it?

  8. The problem with this whole, sorry proposal is that it maintains excessively high yielding driven grouse moor management as a given, and it identities hen harriers as the problem - too many hen harriers will scupper high yielding driven grouse shooting. This is what Stephen Redpath's clever population model does - it assumes that high yield grouse moor management shall remain unchanged, asking how many harriers can be acceptable given this fact. An alternative model might be used to ask, What sort of grouse management is compatible with a healthy hen harrier population? To my mind, Stephen Redpath is using clever science to answer the wrong question: it's not reasonable to assume that high yield driven grouse shooting is a given, non negotiable. Surely Stephen can see that high yield driven grouse moor management causes various problems, and can come forward with more thoughtful science?

    1. I was looking at Benny Génsbøl's book on Bird of Prey (1995 edition) today to check up on lowland breeding of Hen Harriersin other countries, to get clued up on the truly mad HOT scheme to introduce continental Hen Harriers to try to get them to breed in lowland England. In that book i noticed that in his list of prey items for Hen Harrier, Red Grouse was not even mentioned! This is in spite of the fact that the highest populations of Hen Harriers in Europe was in Finland where there is an overlap of both species and also an overlap in 'European' Russia.
      A few years ago i spent 10 days walking on Hardangervidda plateau in Norway, hoping amongst other things to see Willow Grouse. It was an exquisite, wonderful landscape and environment, as close to a true wilderness as can be found nowadays. In the whole 10 days i saw one small covey of Willow Grouse. In the UK most people believe that heather moorland is natural, it just isn't. It is grouse mono-culture.

    2. Forgive me if this is wrong but I believe Professor Stephen Redpath is a scientist and this blog almost always says we have to believe science.
      Maybe with tongue in cheek that should be when it suits us.
      I do think he deserves more respect for his scientific observations from anyone with differing views.

      1. Science is by its nature subject to heated debate among academic peers and an informed public, and Stephen is quite rightly critical of bits of science himself when necessary. The peer-review process in science (where anonymous peers are asked to review submitted paper transcripts before considered for publication in a journal) is often highly critical, and Stephen will have acquired a very thick skin. That's how robust science progresses and how bad science is spotted and weeded out.

        It's quite legitimate for me to ask Stephen and his ecologist colleagues advising HOT about the validity of their model - just as Stephen published papers critical of the work of other scientists (not of the scientists themselves; of their science).

        A problem I have with all of this is the secrecy. We know that HOT is in active discussions with Defra and Rory Stewart over the detail of a brood removal trial, and yet when we ask to see, and be consulted upon, the detail, and the science underpinning the trial, we're met with silence. Stephen has published several papers and book chapters in which he stresses the importance of open dialogue in tackling human-wildlife conflict. So why the secrecy in this instance?

        Stephen has a great opportunity to open up with a guest blog here, in which he can set out his case for brood management, and doubtless mount a robust defence. Many people have raised some really insightful points on this blog and elsewhere, and Philip has not addressed quite a few of them - Stephen is surely well-placed to engage?

        1. I should add........a point I was trying to make was that Stephen's model is too limited in scope. It really only asks ''What population density of hen harriers is compatible with the shootable surplice of red grouse demand by driven grouse shooting interests?.''

          A model of this type is useful if driven grouse shooting is otherwise benign.

          Science tells us that driven grouse shooting isn't otherwise benign. According to the science emerging from the EMBERS study it adversely affects water quality and stream ecology; it results in high carbon dioxide emissions; it entails damage to peatlands; and in some situations it may increase downstream flood risk.

          So, a useful model really needs to address this question: ''What sort of grouse moor management is benign in terms of hen harriers, water quality, CO2 emissions, flood risk......''

          The Committee on Climate Change cites burning on grouse moors as of serious concern in the context of tackling climate change. This committee counts no fewer than six Professors among its ranks, including two world-leading ecology Professors - Professor Robert May (previous president of the Royal Society) and Professor Lord John Krebs (previous NERC CEO and chair of the Food Standards Agency). Removing hen harriers is unlikely to allay their fears about the problems caused by grouse moor management.

          1. Well obviously then we only believe the science we want to believe and the scientists we want to believe as like everyone else they will disagree on just about everything.
            My impression is that Stephen in that particular article was only writing about H H and did not get into the debate about the damage being done to the peat etc so he can hardly be criticised for that.
            I do not need to defend him but his ideas need to be thought about without people just saying they are no good and it would obviously be pointless doing a guest blog stirring things up when people seem unable to consider other points of view.
            I do not think from the H&OT point of view this is about money and while I do not agree with their view I feel sure they genuinely believe in what they say.

          2. Hi Dennis
            In reply to your points below......
            I don't mean to be critical of Stephen himself: he's a top-notch scientist, one of the best upland ecologists, and his population models are pretty robust as far as they go. My contention is that they only go so far, and we need the science to go a bit further, to begin to address some of the other issues surrounding land management for driven grouse shooting. It was OK a few years ago to simply ask ''How many hen harriers is compatible with high-yield driven grouse shooting?'' Stephen's model is an excellent tool for answering that question. We now know, though, that the land management needed to achieve that sort of grouse density also demands excessive killing of other predators, release of damaging amounts of CO2, damage to water quality and supply, etc. All of these variables could be included within an integrated model to ask ''What sort of grouse moor management is the most benign?''. So a hen harrier only approach is OK as far as it goes, but we need to move beyond hen harriers and ask slightly more sophisticated questions.
            And Stephen didn't get to be a tenured Professor at a top UK university by shying away from contentious issues - he's a scientist, and science is organised skepticism. One of the first tasks a university ecology student is often set is to find a published scientific paper in a peer-reviewed paper and critique it - to ask oneself, Were the data collection protocols appropriate or could they be improved, Were the best statistical tests applied to the data, Are inferences drawn from the results of the analysis reasonable? This isn't because all scientists are at each others throats, but rather because scientists are trained to be skeptical. Bits of science are improved upon, built upon, rejected or survive scrutiny - a body of evidence in support of particular contentions is built up through time.

  9. Why not consider going one step further and simplify this whole debate on brood management and consider a non-lethal quota system trial?
    This would surely involve very little cost and maintain a more natural way of raising young harriers with their parents on managed grouse moors.
    What amazes me in all of this debate is that the likes of the RSPB are scared of the word ''quota'' when surely at the end of the day brood management is just that in disguise?

    1. We have gone a step beyond the brood management argument...we are asking for driven grouse shooting and the associated management to be banned.. simpler and much more cost effective.

    2. How would such a quota work other than through brood management?
      I note that for favourable status we need 1 pair of harriers per 47.something sq km yet the DEFRA plan as published by GWCT has the managed density at 1 pr per 314sq km. Even if BM were acceptable (which it currently isn't) this density proposal is not.
      Also what is not clear is whether we are talking truly about BM where birds are released where they came from or translocation where release is elsewhere. If the latter it needs to comply with IUCN guidelines and using it as a population limitation tool does not comply.
      What about SPA density designations?
      Its all pie in the sky delaying tactics by the grouse lobby and will not work or have any point at all if persecution continues.
      To my mind they should OBEY the law FIRST. Lets have proof of that with a growing thriving harrier population of 50 plus pairs. Then and only then should BM be considered on a proper scientific basis not moor owner prejudice (they really don't want any harriers at all).
      HOT may survive this but not with Merricks at their head in the longer term.

      1. Paul could you go into a bit more detail. Where do your figures '1 pair of harriers per 47.something sq km' come from?
        Do you know how many Hen Harrier in England does the DEFRA/HOT scheme, translate into?

      2. OK, answering my own question, i think you got it from the JNCC Conservation Framework for Hen Harriers
        which has favourable status as 2.12 pairs per 100 km2 of suitable habitat which comes to 1 pair per 47.1 km2.
        So please, what is your source for 'DEFRA plan as published by GWCT has the managed density at 1 pr per 314sq km.
        All i can find is them not allowing nests closer than 10km and they mention 'Given a crude estimate of the area of suitable habitat, a sustainable number could be 82 pairs of hen harriers in England'
        'so there could be up to 41 pairs on English Grouse moors'
        Ref: http://www.gwct.org.uk/media/404835/henharrierguide.pdf

        The JNCC report has English suitable habitat as 6,636 km2. Using the 82 pairs quoted above by GWCT that comes to a density of 1 pair per 80.9 km2.
        But using the population potential of the JNCC report that comes to 1 pair per 20.5 km2.

        Detailed facts are incredibly hard to find on GWCT and HOT websites for what they call a scientific trial but whatever way i look at the brood meddlers want a significantly reduced Hen Harrier population on suitable habitat, a quarter of the English potential.

        1. pairs kept at 10km apart translates as 1 pr per 314 sq km. GWCT have or had on their awful to find anything website that BM when pairs closer than 10 km as part of the 6 point plan. Given silence everywhere else we must assume that this is the working figure. In past comments here I asked Merricks if this was the working density, as with almost all questions to him there was no response.

  10. Perfect money making scheme for the hawk and owl trust. Release them at their reserves then people pay money to come see them? Then hopefully they breed on their land so they can stick a camera on the nest site and milk more money from the poor unsuspecting public

  11. More nonsense from Mr Avery this hen harrier persecution is totally fiction made up to demonise sporting estates. Hen harriers have little impact on grouse and there is no scheme in place to relocate broods. I help manage a grouse moor and we actively promote the well being of moorland raptors. The biggest threat to not only harriers but other ground nesting birds are incorrect managent of foxes and other ground predating species. People need to grow up and put sentiment aside or you can say goodbye to more than harriers

    1. Chris - thank you for your comment which is spectacularly ill-informed. And thank you for your email to which I have just replied. You really should read Inglorious so that you can look as though you know something about the subject. I'm very glad you promote the well being of moorland raptors - thank you.


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