Guest blog – Hen Harrier reintroduction by Ian Carter

Ian Carter has worked as an ornithologist for more than 25 years. He was involved with the Red Kite reintroduction programme in England and has a keen interest in the conservation of raptors, bird reintroductions and wildlife management more generally. He is particularly interested in human attitudes towards wildlife and the complex ways in which they interact with science.


Reintroducing Hen Harriers in Southern England

The recent hostility towards this proposal from conservationists surprises me. I had a very limited involvement in helping to progress the project when at Natural England but I can take a more detached view now and I think it has a lot going for it.

Firstly, take out all the politics (just for a minute) and there is the obvious direct benefit to the conservation status of the Hen Harrier. If it were to work (and I think it would have a pretty good chance) there would be a new population, well away from the worst excesses of persecution in the uplands. It’s inevitable that, as with reintroduced Red Kites and Sea Eagles, there will be some persecution, both in the release area and for young birds that wander to the uplands. The judgement is surely not whether persecution has been eliminated entirely (as suggested by RSPB in their recent statement) but whether persecution levels would be sufficiently high to prevent a new population from becoming established. The complete elimination of illegal persecution was not a requirement for reintroductions involving Red Kites and Sea Eagles and nor should it be for a project involving Hen Harriers. I think it very likely that for Hen Harriers released in the south, well away from grouse moors, persecution would not be sufficient to prevent the project from achieving its aims.

The argument that not everything has yet been done to help birds in the uplands has also been used. I would suggest that pretty much everything within the power of conservationists has been tried and proven unsuccessful. It is simply too difficult at the current time to detect and prevent persecution in the uplands. RSPB, raptor groups, Natural England and others have all invested considerable time and effort on this issue but in the vast expanses of these remote upland estates, keepers are able to continue to get away with routine persecution. Government, estate managers and perhaps also the Police could do more but that, as we have seen, is beyond the control of those who wish the help the Hen Harrier.

The RSPB statement that reintroduction should only be considered when natural recolonization is not possible through other measures is unexpected, to say the least, given their involvement in other reintroductions involving species with existing and expanding populations in Britain. If the argument applies to Hen Harriers then should it not also apply to Cranes, Kites and Cirl Buntings? The last species, for example, could spread quite happily if agricultural practices surrounding its existing range in south Devon were less intensive. That is beyond the control of RSPB and others so reintroduction to Cornwall was deemed to be the only practical way to improve its conservation status – and fair enough too, it’s an excellent project. It’s interesting to reflect that Natural England were not at all keen on the Crane reintroduction for just the reasons now being put forward by RSPB in relation to Hen Harriers – natural recolonisation should be given every chance first. The difference is that natural colonisation of southern England was already starting to happen with Cranes but seems unlikely at the current time for the Hen Harrier despite the occasional isolated breeding attempt.

Another argument used by opponents of reintroduction is that it would serve only to distract attention away from the situation in the uplands. I don’t buy that for one minute. If it’s successful then there will be a new, expanding population of Hen Harriers in England and while many of the young will remain in southern England and recruit into the new population, some will wander. As the population expands, more and more young will be produced and that will make it increasingly hard for those who do not wish to ‘let them in’ to the uplands. It will be especially hard given that many of the young birds are likely to be carrying technology that is improving all the time and will soon allow birds to be followed in close to real time. If, despite this, estate managers do succeed in keeping them out, there will be an increasingly stark contrast between what can be achieved away from grouse moors and what people visiting grouse moors still have to put up with. The old chestnut about Hen Harriers being limited by disturbance from birdwatchers and by ground predators will be found out for what it is – nothing but spin.

I can certainly understand why shooting and landowning interests would want to scupper this project and my guess is this is exactly what will happen. Vocal opposition stymied the proposed Sea Eagle project in East Anglia and there are already signs that it is there, waiting in the wings, for this proposal. Conservationists can help make it easier for them but I’m not sure that would be a wise thing to do.


28 Replies to “Guest blog – Hen Harrier reintroduction by Ian Carter”

  1. Once the southern population is expanding you will hear over and over again that the population in England increased by 20%, 50%, etc. No further action needed – end of story. All subsequent statements about the expansion is only for the lowland population and upland birds still being shot and poisoned will be portayed as nitpicking and the force of the argument will be lost. A national disgrace will be turned into local difficulty.

    Look to the situation with Red Kites. Expansion in northern Scotland is limited by persecution. It is a problem, most definitely. Does it get the attention it deserves, probably not because overall the population in the country is somewhat secure. With the reintroduction in the lowlands, hen harriers will suffer the same fate in England.

  2. Thanks Ian. I can’t see much wrong with your argument. In fact, what’s there to lose?
    But I wonder if the Montagu’s Harrier deserves as much, if not more attention, than the Hen Harrier in the south? That may be a daft question because I know very little about either bird.

  3. Ian – thank you for a stimulating and challenging blog.

    I’m generally regarded as pretty keen on reintroductions by those with whom I’ve worked, and took the RSPB further into that area with several of the examples you mention. Such projects are always a matter of judgement, sometimes difficult ones.

    My take on the subject is a bit different from yours – using the same information – which shows that these are judgement calls.

    I agree that a Hen Harrier reintroduction to southern England might work – we’d only find out by doing it. My concerns with several of the sites being investigated may well have low food availability and high levels of disturbance, as well as potential persecution either locally or of birds wandering far afield. If HH were gagging to live on Dartmoor, Exmoor or Salisbury Plain then there would be many moor nesting attempts and there would be a nest protection role rather than a reintroduction one. We know that HH can nest in the English lowlands now and again – but nothing ever comes of these attempts in the long run, and they are scattered all over the place geographically which doesn’t suggest that there is a top spot waiting for the HH to arrive. But,as I say, a reintroduction might work – birds are amazing.

    But if I were looking for a conservation project on birds which would cost c£1m then I think this one would be way down the list. And it is about spending limited conservation money. In my view (I could be proved wrong) the prize is quite small and the price is quite high – not an investment I would back.

    If I had to spend c£1m on Hen Harrier conservation this would not be where I would spend it either. I think you take an unnecessarily narrow view of what conservationists can do – changes to the law (banning driven grouse shooting would be my favourite one but others favour licensing) would be useful across a wider range of conservation issues than just Hen Harriers. Improved enforcement – through tagging birds of prey of various species and following up persecution incidents, and even better economic analysis of the overall costs of intensive moorland management would help the Hen Harrier and many other species. So there are other things that could and should be done.

    Some brief comments on other avian reintroduction projects. Cirl buntings – the Cirl bunting population had increased something like ten-fold (by memory) thanks to RSPB and EN and others working with farmers and the use of agri-environment schemes but the range had hardly increased at all and showed no sign of doing so when RSPB considered reintroduction. Existing a-e schemes were also under threat. Reintroduction seemed like a good move (and still does to me). Cranes – it is unclear, or it was at the time, whether the small breeding population was of wholly natural origin and at the time the evidence of population increase and range expansion was not very clear (as I recall). Your analogy with HH is not a good one (IMHO) – HH breed quite regularly, and often successfully, in lowland England but these scattered attempts never lead to colonisation – that must be telling us something about whether HH would become established through a reintroduction project. I cannot recall Cranes attempting to nest in the areas where they have been reintroduced so this falls into the ‘it’ll take ages for them to get there on their own but if they do then they’ll do very well’ category.Reintroduction still looks like a good move to me. Corncrakes – would never get to East Anglia in decades and decades. It still seems to be a bit of a toss-up whether this scheme is working or not.

    I think there’d still be a better case for reintroducing White-tailed Eagles to southern England than HH.

    Thanks again for your stimulating counter-arguments – I’ll be interested tos ee what others say.

  4. Mark, just a few comments on your thoughts and those of others

    Maybe best to agree to disagree on its chances of working. The commissioned feasibility study looked into this in some detail and thought that food supply was reasonable and it would have a good chance. There are many places we know are highly suitable for HHs where they don’t currently occur both in the uplands and, I think, also in the lowlands. But yes, it’s a judgement call.

    On Cirl Buntings I agree with what you say and that was the point I was making. Changes to agri-environment would have done the trick and aided natural recolonization but conservationists still went for the reintroduction because that was within their gift at the time (but quite rightly they carried on calling for better agri-environment). With HHs banning driven grouse shooting would do the trick (and it’s a case of when rather than if) but it might be sometime away and the reintroduction is something that can happen now.

    Is the prize ‘small’? The prize is a self-sustaining population of HHs in England. Yes, I’d much rather spend the money on Sea Eagles but that proposal sadly fell by the wayside. Actually, one wonders if it’s about time for it to be re-visited though it certainly wont be led by Natural England this time around.

    On Stuart’s point I’d take issue with the Red Kite analogy. Kites are now back in parts of the lowlands which is great in its own right, but they have been hammered whenever they have attempted to move into the upland fringes. That has received lots of publicity and helped to highlight the extreme contrast between persecution in parts of the uplands and most of the lowlands. That has been very helpful I think. There are several thousand pairs in southern England and perhaps 100 odd pairs in northern Scotland. We can thank driven grouse shooting for the difference.

    1. Ian, in relation to the Red Kites in the north of Scotland (and Dumfries and Galloway for that matter), it’s not just driven grouse shooting that has kept the populations at bay, but also pheasant shooting and farming in general.

      The hatred and prejudices against raptors and other predators, are inbuilt into many in these sectors, leading to widespread persecution and a determination to curtail the species spread, and I’m afraid to say thst the exact same thing will happen to Hen Harriers in the south of England.

  5. On the face of it an introduction of Hen harriers to south west England away from the killing fields of upland moorland ought to be a good thing but is it? This is of course part of the DEFRA Hen Harrier Recovery Plan, a plan that no conservation organisation other than a very discredited Hawk and Owl Trust still supports. The plan itself has six clauses of which clauses 1-4 were happening anyway and are uncontroversial, to do with monitoring/protection and encouraging supplementary/diversionary feeding. So should we see this ” introduction” as a stand alone or part of that plan?
    We know that the uplands of England could and most would say should host a population of circa 330 pairs of Hen Harriers but it does not, indeed the species teeters on the brink of national extinction due largely to the continued routine illegal killing on grouse moors throughout the year (most are killed in winter). The other controversial and entirely unacceptable clause is about limiting the breeding density on grouse moors to one pair per 314 sq km, by brood meddling( for which there is currently no funding, god forbid that the moorland owners should be expected to pay rather than the tax payer!) this is a density about 30 times lower than grouse moors could support without damage to the annual grouse harvest.
    Bluntly it is a tragic bloody joke.
    Currently England supports about 3-5 pairs annually and none on the grouse killing moors.
    How many pairs will the south west support? The cost would probably be better spent tackling the unacceptable and illegal fate of most Harriers on their preferred habitat in upland northern England, particularly given scarce financial resources rather than providing a tokenist population the owners and managers of the killing fields of the north can point to and say well England has Hen Harriers.
    In short it is not about whether it will/would work but should it be a priority in a time of limited resource when the real problem for Hen Harriers in their core preferred habitat remains unchanged and unchallenged.
    I for one say no to this and suggest that NE and their cohorts tackle the real issue and not fiddle whilst Rome burns.

  6. I can see the advantage of an introduced species like the Hen Harrier into southern England if it works, and I sincerely hope that it does. However if the project fails to deliver the credibilities of those involved will be damaged, if not destroyed.

    Having read Ian Carters words very carefully, he is more or less saying the project in southern England is an admission of failure in the uplands of northern England where the Hen Harrier is now facing imminent extinction. We simply can’t turn our backs on the ongoing destruction of England’s protected raptors, including Hen Harrier, Peregrine, Goshawk and Short-eared owls on moorland used predominantly to shoot Red Grouse for sport. Game shooting is the only major English industry that I can think of that does not function within the laws of our country to flourish. Why therefore is this industry being allowed by our government to destroy moorland ecosystems just to support one species, the Red Grouse? The game shooting industry, their estate owners, managers and gamekeepers should and must be held to account at some point for their criminal actions like the rest of society!

    Natural England is the government’s wildlife advisor and are well aware, perhaps more than anyone, that the Hen Harrier has a right to breed and flourish on grouse moors here in northern England. We should not forget either the Hen Harrier has been the logo of the Forest of Bowland ANOB for over 50 years but now counts for nothing, and is now likely to remain a testament to the Hen Harriers demise because of criminal activity.

    The failure of successive English governments to safeguard the Hen Harriers future throughout the uplands of northern England is appalling and an embarrassment to our country. Releasing captive reared Hen Harriers into southern England will do little if anything to bring an end to the criminal activities being undertaken with impunity on grouse moors. It appears our current government prefers instead to turn a blind eye to what is taking place, while at the same time indirectly providing support to a criminal industry which is out of control.

    Forgive me Ian Carter but the current situation on our grouse moors is all about politics, bad politics by a bad government.

  7. A typically thoughtful piece from Ian. I have a problem however with –
    “I think it very likely that for Hen Harriers released in the south, well away from grouse moors, persecution would not be sufficient to prevent the project from achieving its aims”
    I wonder if this is based on science rather than just Ian’s judgement. If the latter and Ian is wrong, then it raises the obvious ethical question of whether it is acceptable to translocate harrier chicks to an area where there survival chances will be reduced.

  8. Ian

    To my mind the hen harrier is totemic – it’s a symbol of the wider crisis of intensifying management at driven grouse moors that is driving biodiversity loss, enhancing downstream flood risk, causing biomass carbon loss and prevention its sequestration, damaging water and increasing water treatments costs – the list is quite long.

    Where moorland subject to driven grouse moor management is also designated as a Natura 2000 site, resources – both cash and NE staff time – should be spent using the tools available to them to bring these designated sites into favourable management.

    These tools are Article 6(2) of the Habitats Directive (which require the UK government to take appropriate steps to avoid deterioration and disturbance at Natura 2000 sites), and Articles 6(3) and (4) of the same Directive, which governs plans and projects within Natura 2000 sites. These provisions are also available to NE in the UK Habitats Regulations.

    The NE staff time currently tied up pursuing a re-introduction project, plus the £1m+ cash, could make a sizeable dent by using these tools to tackle damaging land management across designated driven grouse moors. I’d anticipate that, with lighter land management achieved this way, hen harrier killing might actually also be reduced ‘by default’.

    The harrier population would increase and spill into less favoured lowland habitats as the density in favoured uplands increases.

    It’s just a better way of deploying the same resources.

  9. Paul – It wouldn’t be a ‘tokenist’ population it would be a real population, breeding away and hopefully expanding in an area where they would already be present now but for persecution in the past. They were wiped out from the lowlands as well as the uplands by persecution at the hands of humans don’t forget. This would be a reintroduction not an introduction. I agree about the scarcity of resources but think how much has been spent on HHs in the uplands over the last 20 years. I dread to think actually – £10 million, £15 million, more than that?

    Terry – I think by any possible metric you can come up with the work on HHs in the uplands has failed to deliver – through no (or not much) fault on the part of those trying their very best to turn things around. I think a reintroduction would be great for HHs overall in the short term and helpful to HHs in the uplands in the medium and longer terms.

    1. Ian, your focus on a single species is unhelpful in my view.

      Natural England should use the tools available to it within driven grouse moors that are SPAs and/or SACs, rather than diverting staff time (including fundraising capacity) and funds to a reintroduction project.

      Your approach not only risks abandoning hen harriers within driven grouse moors – your approach also risks abandoning a huge amount of biodiversity that’s also being damaged by increasingly intensive driven grouse moor management.

      Innumerable land users are having to moderate their activities to avoid damaging SPAs and SACs: ABP could not build a port in Southampton; an airport has not gone ahead within the Thames Estuary; house-building plans in the Thames Basin and Dorset Heaths have been greatly modified……all sorts of sectors have had to change their ways to avoid damaging these designated sites. I’m sorry, but driven grouse moor owners can be no different.

      The legal tools are available. These tools can be used to bring about less damaging land management within designated driven grouse moors. Less intensive management will reduce grouse density and thereby reduce the financial incentive to kill hen harriers.

      Frankly, even if one ignored hen harriers, intensive driven grouse moor management is damaging to Natura 2000 sites and must be addressed by Natural England.

      So, please, take a wider perspective.

  10. Tim – thanks. It’s based on science to some extent in that a detailed feasibility study was undertaken. Of course it’s not an exact science and different people will read the report and draw different conclusions. As with other reintroductions there would be no guarantees. I think it would have a very good chance and others who know the bird well and have thought hard about it think the same thing. When they do try to breed in the lowlands they tend to mange to rear young successfully. And they often winter in small groups. This is far from proof not a bad indicator.

  11. I’m intrigued by Ian’s confidence.

    Quote: “I think it very likely that for hen harriers released in the south, well away from grouse moors, persecution would not be sufficient to prevent the project from achieving its aims”.

    On the contrary, my view is that the current persecution rate IS sufficiently high to prevent the project from achieving its aims.

    Putting aside the questionable ethics of this proposed reintroduction (which for me are reason enough to oppose this plan) and just focusing on the science for a minute, the available evidence on HH juvenile dispersal indicates that many (although certainly not all) young birds are likely to travel considerable distances away from the release site(s) during their first few months. The feasibility study on which NE appears to be basing its judgements relies on old data from a wing-tagging study in Scotland (1988-1995), which showed limited natal dispersal distances. Based on the findings of this early study, NE is suggesting (hoping?) that young birds released in southern England will stay relatively local to the release site(s), thus not running the gauntlet of intensive persecution on the upland grouse moors.

    However, since that study (Etheridge et al 1997) was published there are more recently available data from sat tags which have shown just how far some of these birds move. The probability of young birds released in the south travelling to the upland grouse moors is high, the probability of being killed there is high, and so the probability of surviving for long enough to return to the south to breed is low. This seems, to me, to be a fundamental flaw in the feasibility study. At the very least, NE should be revising the feasibility study to include more recent data so that a more informed assessment can be made.

    I wrote a more extensive blog about this very subject:

    1. Ruth – thanks. You’re right (of course). There’s nothing wrong with the Etheridge et al. data, but natal dispersal cannot be used to examine risks of wandering around. My natal dispersal (birth to breeding) was Bristol – Northants, but I visited 4 continents in between.

      1. Exactly, Mark. The Etheridge et al data are fine, but they are inherently limited by the study’s methods (wing-tagging). These days, thanks to sat tagging, we have a much better understanding of juvenile dispersal (as opposed to natal dispersal) and it is THESE data that NE should be assessing.

        NE did use juvenile dispersal distances when they modelled potential HH population spread from southern England, but again, these were from the Etheridge et al paper AND they assumed ‘no illegal activity’ in their modelling variables.

        Sure, when the original feasibility study was written (2012), there were few data available. My argument is that there are now many more data (from sat tagging) and NE must incorporate these recent data, and more recent persecution data, in to any feasibility analyses. The results would, I suggest, consign the feasibility of this project to the dustbin.

        1. Ruth – I agree NE should have used them – after all, we paid them to collect them!

  12. In a sense I don’t entirely disagree with you Ian and yes I know it is a reintroduction, although there are already those in the game lobby who claim otherwise. Rather like Terry I think this, along with the rest of the DEFRA plan, is an admission, not only of failure in the uplands but that really in the opinion of NE nothing will change and frankly that is totally unacceptable. Yes harrier work in the uplands has cost millions and the landowners and agents are still sticking two fingers up to us all, doubly so those who get agricultural subsidies to carry on their cycle of death. Yet we should not be walking away and for whatever reasons many raptor workers feel that is what NE/DEFRA are doing.
    However good a population arises if this happens ( partridge shooting interest is already being mobilised against it) it will still to my mind weaken the arguments for change in the uplands. This idea was after all suggested many moons ago by the grouse lobby to deflect pressure on them at a time when NE still had some balls left ( now completely removed by DEFRA).
    We need the pressure for change in the uplands as much as we ever did, Messi and Terry Pickford remind us the problems there are not just about harriers but all protected predators that may eat grouse and the intensity of management as a whole. With the increased dubiously legal use of flubendazole grouse densities are now on average three times what they used to be and yet somehow there is still no tolerance of protected native predators. Raptor workers are rightly frustrated and clearly bloody angry about the whole thing and largely see this southern scheme as irrelevant to their concerns. All not helped by moorland restoration schemes where public money is being used to pay for grip blocking, re-wetting and bare peat restoration the estates themselves should be paying for due to enforcement action not grants after cosy chats at NE/DEFRA by the very people responsible for the illegal killing.

  13. I don’t disagree with much of what is being said about the uplands and their mismanagement. Perhaps the main disagreement here is in whether a HH reintroduction would, ultimately, help with uplands work or distract attention away from it. I think it could help in the longer term for reasons set out earlier. Others clearly disagree.

    On the dispersal issue it seems that HHs can hold their own in areas of the UK well away from persecution hotspots, despite the wandering tendencies of the young produced in these areas. That, to me, suggests there is a good chance that releases well away from grouse moors could result in a viable population. Young Kites wander all over the place which has greatly limited the Black Isle population and other populations close to grouse moors, though not prevented them from becoming established. In contrast, the Chilterns and surrounding areas in southern England now support thousands of pairs. Different species I know. Maybe it would be worth doing some work to compare the dispersal tendencies of young RKs and HHs – there should be plenty of data.

    1. The tools are already available to tackle the problem on driven grouse moors that are designated SAC/SPA – so NE shouldn’t be deflected by a southern reintroduction which is drawing staff time and resources away. They should deploy staff time towards securing favourable condition / favourable conservation status, thereby securing all of the various interest features within this designated sites, including hen harrier. How a southern reintroduction can help when the tools are already available but not being used by NE escapes me, frankly. Every other land owner in charge of a SAC/SPA is being required to get them into favourable condition, so why not driven grouse moor owners?

    2. Don’t think this comparison is helpful at all. Red kites have different requirements and persecution on uplands was never going to stop their spread.

  14. One factor that has not been mentioned in all the erudite comment on this issue is the habitat changes which have taken place since the hen harrier was a widespread breeding species in southern England. The moors of the south west and the New Forest are more intensively managed and subject to human recreational disturbance than was once the case and heath, rough pasture, fen and marshland are confined to much reduced areas.

    rough pasture and marshland are far less widespread than was once the case

  15. I must admit I did not understand the hostility to a reintroduction of HH to Southern England and after reading the comments still dont. We are fortunate on Mull to have a healthy and what looks like stable harrier population despite birds wandering to areas of high persecution so it should be the same if persecution is low in the reintroduction area in the South. Whether the habitat is still suitable in the South is down to the experts but as a lot of harriers spend the Winter in the SE it cant be that bad . As to reputational damage to experts if it goes wrong those involved in the golden eagle reintroduction to Ireland still seem to be on the go despite what happened there. Terry Pickford is correct the reintroduction will not stop the carnage in areas like Bowland but that is no reason not to try to set up a new population in the South. I suspect a lot of the hostility to this project is down to entrenched attitudes on the part of some of those concerned and they should perhaps take a deep breath and have another read of Ian’s blog.

    1. The shooters in the south of England who raise and shoot partridge are not too happy I am told with the reintroduction.

    2. A stable population on Mull! Which books are you reading? Why have 4 satellite tags been placed on Mull this year? To see where the young go in winter and who kills them!

  16. Taking the politics to one side it’s an interesting blog and plan.
    But why is the south considered a location of less persecution? In at least two different counties in the region peregrines have recently persecuted, calls for other species to be culled like the boar even a reward was posted for the killing of the beaver that somehow got into the rivers of the region.
    Sadly what’s driven us to this situation is the mentality that’s it’s ok to kill wildlife to protect commercial interests the same interests in the south as in the north and sadly the same attitude.
    The relocation will obviously be kept under tight wraps but landowners and keepers will find out and any persecution will be hard to prove.
    If the reintroduction went ahead I hope all birds released are satellite tagged.

  17. Hen Harriers are now known to be drawn to ‘game cropping’ where they can easily be shot. So why are Southern Hen Harriers going to survive this?

    A Welsh Hen Harrier population is on a big slide due to birds wintering in Northern and Southern England again due to persecution. Isle of Man decline the same. Please tell us where it will be safe for these birds to feed?

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