Guest blog by anonymous.

Mark writes: I don’t normally publish anonymous guest blogs but in this case, knowing the circumstances, I can see why the person wishes to remain anonymous. And the text stands on its own. See also this recent blog on the same subject, from a different perspective, by our friends at Raptor Persecution UK.

The New Killing Fields – Why encouraging crop-nesting hen harriers defies logic

This year, Natural England will commence its project to create a population of arable-nesting hen harriers in southern England. The aim here is to encourage hen harriers to nest in cereal crops, as hen and Montagu’s harriers do in parts of Spain and France. Because UK hen harriers prefer to nest in the heather dominated uplands, and young birds fledged from such habitats will look to nest on heather moorlands, not arable, Natural England has reportedly decided to source its birds from arable areas in Spain or France. Being derived from an arable-nesting population, these translocated birds should thus nest in cereals in the England translocation area, rather than wandering off in search of heather moorland.

A big problem with this approach is that hen harriers nesting in cereal fields tend to fail without active human intervention. Farm operations destroy nests. Increasing the range of a species of conservation concern is a sound conservation strategy; deliberately inducing a species vulnerable to agricultural operations to nest in arable fields isn’t sound – it’s reckless.  

In fact, the conservationists working to protect arable-nesting hen and Montagu’s harriers in Spain and France say their efforts have created a ‘conservation trap’. They have succeeded, through costly interventions, to protect some hen and Montagu’s harrier nests in arable from farm operations. But as the hen harrier population has increased in these arable landscapes, the costs of protecting them has mushroomed. Today, these arable nesting populations are only viable because field workers monitor the population, locate nests, then intervene when farmers undertake operations.

The dubious ecological- and cost-effectiveness of this situation is analogous to the Wessex and Breckland arable nesting stone curlew population. This population has increased but so too has the cost of ensuring their safety and providing safe nesting plots in arable fields. In fact, Natural England has progressively cut funding for stone curlew conservation due to spiralling costs as the arable nesting population has increased. All this in the very same place they now plan to create an arable-nesting hen harrier population.

And hen harriers are likely to be even more costly: at least stone curlews can be induced to nest within relatively safe bare tilled plots in arable fields. Hen harriers of course nest within the cereal crops themselves, not on safe plots. If the translocated project is to succeed, Natural England will need to intervene to ensure cereal nesters remain safe from crop treatments and harvesting operations. There’s probably no such thing as a safe, self-sustaining hen harrier population within arable – if after, say, ten years, Natural England switched off funding for nest protection, nests in arable will be destroyed, and the southern England hen harrier population will probably decline. 

It seems very likely that Natural England funding to safeguard arable-nesting hen harriers will not be sustained for the long-term: as the stone curlew population in the same area has increased, Natural England has slashed funding. 

It’s difficult to think of another arable-associated species that is more vulnerable in intensive arable plains than the hen (and Montagu’s) harrier, yet Natural England is intent on creating just such an intervention-dependent population. This defies logic.


D. Torres-Orozco et al., (2016) From a conservation trap to a conservation solution: lessons from an intensively managed Montagu’s harrier population

Cardador, L., et al., (2015) Conservation Traps and Long-Term Species Persistence in Human-Dominated Systems


29 Replies to “Guest blog by anonymous.”

  1. This plan to locate Hen harriers into arable fields sounds like the logic of the mad house. It is just a further example of this Government being prepared to go to any very stupid lengths not to offend the grouse shooters in any way. For goodness sake, this major problem is with the grouse shooters so why not face up to this fact and either license or ban driven grouse shooting and come down really hard on grouse moor owners if Hen harriers are killed on their land.
    As Deiter Helm says in his new book and as quoted by Mark yesterday, it is the grouse moor owners that should pay for putting right the abuse they inflict on our moorlands.
    One again this Government and the Tories are showing they will go to any lengths to protect their vested interests and ar prepared to look absolutely ridiculous when doing so.

  2. The guest blog says that encouraging crop-nesting hen harriers defies logic.
    It is somewhat logical if Natural England has decided to abandon it’s statutory obligations and instead follow the wishes of it’s political master in preference. Many readers of this blog will agree with myself that this is a satisfactory explanation of many of the actions and decisions taken by the body in recent years. No more need be said.
    In Scotland, where I live, the situation with the equivalent body there can not be said to be the same. There is a feeling that the Scottish government and MSPs, perhaps even some from every party, as well as their board, are ready and willing to see performance in accordance with it’s statutory obligations by of the equivalent body, Scottish National Heritage. SNH may, I suggest have decided that it is preferable to be listening to one or more other bodies, but I’m not sure which. This is more defying of logic than that of NE, which is relatively straightforward, if disgraceful.
    These bodies are:
    Natural England
    Major landowners
    The establishment, whoever they are.
    The Crown Office.

  3. Excellent post! For many years I was able to spend a part of the summer at a residential centre in France which had Hen and Monties nesting, mostly in arable sites, next door. It also had areas of protected native chalk grassland which held a good population of Stone Curlews and breeding Little Bustard. One morning when prowling about looking for papillons et fleurs I was approached by a local who turned out to be the top man of the local hunting organisation. He was delighted when I said I was interested in birds, pointed me in the direction of more little bustards displaying, commented on the good season for harriers and even gave me the heads-up on sites for two pairs of Short-toed Eagles, of which he was inordinately proud!! The success of all these species was largely down to the active support of the hunting association which included most of the local farmers in its ranks. If NE or DEFRA could ensure a similar arrangement and attitudes in southern Britain, then this could be a winner, but that seems pretty unlikely !

    1. God that is depressing in regard to this backward, insular country. The mentality difference will take generations to shift which is why a ban on driven grouse moors combined with heavy licensing elsewhere, is the only solution. They can’t say they didn’t bring this upon themselves.

      1. I think we delude ourselves if we decide that persecution of raptors is a uniquely British problem. See the work of CABS – clearly there is a massive problem in various parts of the Mediterranean region but there are also problems further north. CABS regularly reports problems in Germany, whilst ‘bracconage’ of raptors in France and Belgium also still occurs. See for example this story concerning 13 raptors including Marsh Harriers, Buzzards and kestrels, shot in Belgium. It is alleged that the birds were shot by hunting (shooting) interests.

        Meanwhile, in France one of the threats faced by Golden Eagles (and other raptors) is poisoning through baits laid illegally for wolves and bears. Some French people have an enlightened attitude to wildlife but clearly not all!

        This does not in any sense make the situation in the UK any less deplorable. Rather it underlines the fact that wildlife in general and birds of prey in particular face serious threats both here in the UK and far beyond.

  4. There may be a rule that comments should not be longer than the original blog. If so apologies for this one.

    I find the continued hostility to this project extremely odd, especially at a time when almost all other reintroductions (including inappropriate introductions such as white stork) are widely applauded. We hear that RSPB are opposed because problems remain in the uplands and these should be the priority. Yet RSPB helped release kites in southern England. One of the justifications was that illegal persecution in the Welsh borders (associated with sheep farming) was limiting the spread of kites from Wales. So double standards. We also have projects proposed for White-tailed Eagles in the south and Golden Eagles in southern Scotland and Wales, both apparently widely supported, and both involving species that would be spreading naturally much more quickly if it wasn’t for illegal persecution. Double standards, once again. Golden Eagles would already be in Wales and England, and doing far better in southern Scotland, in the absence of illegal persecution.

    We have RSPB suggesting that persecution levels in the south would be too high to allow Hen Harriers to do well. And without a hint of irony they include the reintroduced Red Kite in their figures of persecuted birds. Thankfully, the Red Kite has done very well in the south despite being far more vulnerable to persecution than the Hen Harrier due to its behaviour. That being said, thousands (literally) of reintroduced kites have been killed illegally since the first birds were released, especially at release sites that were close to grouse moors.

    On arable nesting, this would need some work in the early stages but it would not be a significant problem once the population became well established. Hen Harriers nest much earlier than Montagu’s and so would be less vulnerable to harvesting operations in Britain. Much as crop nesting Marsh Harriers in East Anglia received conservation help when the numbers were small, they now just get on with it and the population is doing very well indeed. Yes, a few nests are no doubt lost but the population as a whole is doing well. They also use habitats other than arable crops and we would expect HHs to do the same given time. It won’t be a major problem in the longer term.

    On the RPUK blog I see that hostility to this project has resulted in a personal attack on one of the individuals involved, including questions about his motives. He effectively has no right of reply as an NE employee and whilst I support pretty much everything RPUK stands for, and read every post, I found that particular attack unnecessary and unfortunate. He is a fellow conservationist trying to do the right thing.

    I have avoided saying this before but I will say it now. I think people fear the southern reintroduction and use arguments against it that somehow don’t get applied to other projects because the HH is needed as a rare upland flagship species to help target driven grouse shooting. That is understandable. There is a bigger picture in the uplands and much to gain if driven grouse shooting can be stopped. But, for me, using illogical and inconsistently applied arguments (rather than the real argument) to oppose a project that would improve the conservation status of this bird is a step too far. HHs (unlike white storks) should be breeding in southern England and they would be there already but for human activities. Putting them back is a legitimate approach to their conservation.

    I would add that, ultimately, I think lowland HHs will help, rather than hinder, the campaign against illegal persecution in the uplands. It will help highlight the divide between what goes on in the uplands on grouse moors and the far lower levels of persecution everywhere else. Kites have been helpful in that regard. We now have several thousand pairs in southern England but they are taken out as soon as they wander to the uplands and that receives much publicity.

    1. Ian , I accept some of your logic here but not all of it, as you know like many, if not most raptor workers from the uplands I am opposed to this scheme. It was originally proposed by, I think GWCT in a throw away remark at the Hen Harrier Dialogue( how long do we have to pander and talk to the criminals it got us nowhere!). The conservation side ( NERF, RSPB) thought it an irrelevance to solving the problems in the uplands, largely I still do. The dark side will point to the population in the south and say “what’s your problem there are your harriers” Pressure will come off DEFRA and to an extent NE to do the right thing in the uplands. Yes you may be right in that direct comparisons between a southern population suffering little but some persecution and a northern one virtually extinct due to it may help against the criminality that is endemic and wholesale in grouse shooting. However that will take quite sometime and frankly I and I suspect many others are growing rather impatient, we have already spent far too much time, effort, blood sweat and tears, and money on this and want answers NOW, not in some future scenario, that may be no more productive.
      Finances are limited very limited for such conservation projects and whilst you will argue problem solving in the north is a financial black hole, I still believe we should be attacking the problems of Hen Harrier conservation directly, where the root problems lie.
      The “new” things DEFRA brought into the “Plan” whilst excluding the raptor workers organisations from the discussions— brood meddling and southern reintroduction are both admissions of a lack of will power, admission of failure or acceptance of current levels of persecution by Government ( DEFRA and NE) all of which we law abiding conservationists should find totally unacceptable. This scheme may, despite all the misgivings work but many of us think it totally misses the point.

      1. Hi Paul – that’s fair comment. Can I ask how you feel about the recent Golden Eagle reintroduction proposals? Are you opposed for much the same reasons as you set out above?

        1. Yes Ian I am. It may be that Golden Eagles have a natural difficulty crossing the Edinburgh-Glasgow conurbation. However the reason they were so reduced south of that conurbation was persecution and to me at least that threat has not been removed and removing that threat from most the eagles natural range would probably provide the population pressure on some birds to cross that conurbation more readily.
          Whilst I now live in Wales I would be surprised if the North Wales uplands could provide enough food to sustain successful breeding. I am very sceptical of the whole idea and think WTE would be a far better candidate for coastal sites in Wales.

        2. I’m not aware of a g eagle reintroduction proposal?

          There is already a reinforcement program from the species in the south of Scotland.
          There is one very significant difference between Scotland and England. In Scotland the government are honest enough to acknowledge that raptor persecution is a serious issue, whereas in Enland they are in total denial.

    2. Ian you write ‘I find the continued hostility to this project extremely odd.’
      I think you then cherry pick why.
      I doubt there is one opponent of this scheme who does not think the overall objection is that it is a deflection from the real issue. Chris Packham called it a sop to the grouse industry.
      Instead you have argued with the supporting arguments. That is upside down.
      Perhaps we need a poll to see in what order we quantify our objections then you could try arguing top down rather than bottom up.
      I think your argument that data on released bird which are killed in the uplands would be good news, is in breach of IUCN guidelines no matter how true it is.
      Does it not occur to you that if the grousers are in favour of this scheme along with brood management, and those only, that we are being conned. If not i have a used car for sale.
      Your logic may be sound but not your ethics.

      1. I should add that none of the arguments against this scheme can be taken in isolation they all connect back to the overwhelming objection, that it is a sop to the grouse shooting hobby. Any counter argument has to also take into account these combined factors. Persecution and organized crime is the sticky glue that sticks to everything involving this issue.
        For example Ian’s logic taken out of context would conclude that the RSPB tweet at the bottom of the RPUK blog
        proves the RSPB are being duplicitous. They don’t seem to be publishing figures around Red Kite introduction schemes?
        That is logic without context. The context is uncontrollable persecution in the uplands.

    3. ‘On the RPUK blog I see that hostility to this project has resulted in a personal attack on one of the individuals involved, including questions about his motives.’
      Not sure the military terms are helpful. Possibly a projection?
      RPUK were criticising false and misleading information presented at an official presentation. I don’t see any questioning of motives. Why are they not allowed to do this freely without condemnation. That seems to be case of the black pot and kettle.

      1. Hi Prasad – I’ll ask you the same question that I asked Paul. Given what you say about the HH proposal how do you feel about the proposed Golden Eagle reintroductions? Are they too a sop to upland landowners? Another way to help eagles would be to tackle ongoing illegal persecution in their existing range. Young eagles will also wander far and wide in search of territories – inevitably some of the released birds will be killed illegally, as will happen with some of the released HHs and as did happen with many of the released kites.

        1. As i commented i am against all introductions until the raptor persecution problem is solved or at least the mass organized crime element is removed. So yes very much against the lowland Golden Eagle re-introduction. I don’t think it so much a sop to landowners because they manage to kill Golden Eagles without too much problem and right now there are none in England. Try introducing them on driven grouse moors and it will be a different story.

    4. Hi Ian

      I think you are missing the point. I know of no evidence that says Hen Harriers can be introduced into a given area. In other words if you release them in Southern England, that they stay there, will nest there, and keep nesting there. After all, outside the breeding season many Hen Harriers over-winter in Southern England, so they know where it is. But these same birds tend to leave it come the Spring and venture elsewhere to find somewhere to nest.

      If you look at the location data and maps released with the satellite tagged Hen Harriers which have gong missing, you will see that they have ranged over very large areas. Often flying up to northern Scotland, then back down to England, to the Midlands, then over to Wales. I really don’t see how these Hen Harriers will be any different.

      I am not aware of anything which says Hen Harriers are faithful to certain areas like Red Kites.

    5. This project seems to assume/hope that any juvenile and adult winter dispersal will be south to France and Spain rather than north.

      Is there any evidential or scientific reason to support that assumption?

      And why is there a concern about northerly dispersal? Why is it to be avoided?

      Also, what’s the point of bringing in birds from mainland Europe to southern England only for them to return to and quite possibly remain in mainland Europe on dispersal?

  5. This may well be a scheme which has some possibility of producing beneficial results for Hen Harriers in southern England. And as a tax payer, and a natural historian, I would not take exception to part of the revenue from my taxes funding such a project. With one small proviso, which is that none of the revenue from my taxes should then be spent on funding criminal activity, i.e. illegal persecution of a protected species, in the uplands.

  6. I find the thinking behind this attempt to get Hen Harriers nesting in arable fields in the south, extremely odd, and lacking in ecological insight. Yes, bird like Hen Harriers will nest on farmland. However, my understanding is that this is not first choice habitat. In other words, they nest on farmland on Continental Europe because in the areas where they do, there are large populations, and all the first choice breeding territories are already taken. In other words they nest in farmland because all the territories on moorland etc, are already taken, and there’s no one shooting them.

    This is common with many species of bird. They first nest in the preferred habitat, and then chose second and third choice habitats when the first choice are taken. I’ve seen this with Curlews on the West Pennine Moors and the Forest of Bowland. When the breeding population was large you would find Curlews nesting in the surrounding farmland. When the population started shrinking, none nested in the surrounding farmland, because their first choice was moorland.

    What’s more, outside the breeding season Hen Harriers disperse far and wide. Presumably this is why grouse shooting estates have to keep killing Hen Harriers, because they are not faithful to the area they were brought up in, and will search for optimum habitat to nest in.

    Therefore I’d assume if you release Hen Harriers in the south, they will likely tend to disperse in a search for optimum breeding territories. I’d assume they prefer open moorland, because as a ground nesting bird, in normal circumstances this would mean there was the minimum chance of them being found on the ground. Of course they didn’t evolve in an era where there was gamekeepers and driven grouse shooting.

    We know from the location data of “missing” Hen Harriers, that these birds have ranged over huge areas of the country. On the face of it, Hen Harriers don’t seem to have the same fealty to areas, or where they were born, that other birds do. However, I’m not a specialist ornithologist, but an all rounder. So I don’t know if it’s known whether Hen Harriers have fealty to areas where they were raised. I suspect not.

    This is quite unlike Red Kites which seem to have a fealty to the area they were raised in.

    Can any more experienced ornithologist provide some insight into this? This is because if these released Hen Harriers just go off looking for some upland moorland to nest, or check out whether there is any, they will just likely get shot by grouse shooting interests.

    [PS. What I’m saying is that if there was no one killing Hen Harriers on upland moorland, is that I suspect in Britain that they would already be nesting on farmland, because there would be a much bigger population, and they all couldn’t nest on upland moorland.]

    1. There is an argument that says you are right and that harriers are inveterate wanderers with no fealty. However if you look at long term data that is not entirely true. Also if it were entirely true why would birds have continually returned to Bowland to breed until that population was essentially exterminated and then Bowland was recolonised. There are some places and we don’t entirely know why that are intrinsically attractive to harriers– Bowland, the Nidderdale moors, the Goyt and Derwent moors in the Peak District. Whether they settle to breed ( excluding winter persecution) certainly depends on Vole and Pipit numbers but these are places Harriers are drawn to year upon year.

      Before breeding Harriers became extinct in England in the Victorian/ Edwardian persecution era they did breed in other habitats. Coastal marshes, commons lowland heaths and more than probably rough grassland and probably some crops. This part of the UK population is gone, I suspect almost all UK breeders will gravitate to moorland now ( otherwise we would have more of them !). What NE are trying to do is take crop/grassland nesters in the hope that they will always gravitate to that habitat, (there are no equivalent moors in France or Spain) in an attempt to establish a population that does just that. Some young harriers certainly also go back to where they were bred to breed as a first choice. Hope that makes sense.
      On a different tack I sometimes wish we had the sort of game guards for our harriers that places like Kenya have for elephants and Rhinos. Make of that what you will.

      1. Obviously to some extent Hen Harriers and all birds which over-winter in different areas, must have some sort of affinity with where they have bred before. However, I would thought that they had a stronger preference to what they perceive as ideal habitat.

        I think that Hen Harriers probably nested in a wide variety of habitats in England in the past, because there is only so much moorland, and the other sites were second choices. In their non-managed state, moorlands probably had a much lower population of potential nest predators than lowland sites, simply because moorland is less productive, and would have less prey available to sustain corvids, Foxes and mustelids. In other words, upland moorland probably meant less likelihood of the Hen Harriers having their nest predated. We are talking about evolution, in which this behaviour developed.

        It’s interesting that the Hen Harrier’s close relation the Northern Harrier has a similar preference for moorland.

        Overall, I highly suspect that if Hen Harriers weren’t persecuted on upland moors in England and elsewhere in the UK, that they would be found nesting in a far wider variety of habitats, because all the prime upland territories would always be full.

        It’s interesting that after extinction in England, Hen Harriers re-colonised upland moorland. There was a massive decrease in gamekeeper numbers after WW1 because so many were killed in it, and gamekeeper numbers never got back to the same level again. It’s simply that quad bikes and thermal imagers etc have made modern day gamekeepers more efficient in persecuting Hen Harriers.

        I don’t think there is much or any evidence to suggest that there is a sub-population of Hen Harriers that prefers to nest on farmland and other habitat.

    2. SteB, i think there was some evidence from tag data that one of the sexes and certainly some individuals remained quite faithful to their natal area. But that was on grouse moors the prime habitat. It is a reckless gamble to assume that the same applies to the lowlands and if it does to what degree. One things is absolutely certain, some, most probably many, will roam onto the uplands and get killed. Any that survive in the lowlands will be declared a success story and the status quo will be maintained.

      1. I agree that Hen Harriers probably have some faithfulness to nesting sites, and even over-wintering spots, when that habitat is perceived as being ideal for them. It’s after all not too different to other birds which over-winter in different areas to where they breed.

        However, I do question whether this will be the case with not first choice habits, and agree with you that it is likely many will stray into the uplands and be killed by shooting interests, the real problem.

    1. maybe our impending post March 29th chaos will mean that the EU will be unlikely to hand over any stock for this project to a country not in the EU (not that I WANT us to leave, but…..) ? A chink of light glinting through the dark clouds over this country?

    2. Maybe Theresa will give her magic money tree a shake, and some other pariah regime will hand some over for a brown envelope full of readies. It is what I expect from the tories when it comes to foreign negotiations.

  7. It just cannot work.
    It is not only harvesting that is a problem,farmers leave tramlines for regular spraying of the crop which would mean every nest being found and something put near it to ensure it was not damaged.Of course that means it is more likely in the UK to be obliterated.

  8. The one thing this article confirms is conservation is very expensive, the people who work and are pensioned in conservation are also expensive to maintain too. I’m of the firm opinion that for those who want it will eventually have to pay directly to maintain species to survive. By that I don’t mean the idiotic suggestion put forward in the People’s Manifesto of a tax similar to the TV licence. That’s almost as bad as the poll tax; both taxes are too divisive a set-up that creates a division of animosity.
    Most of you don’t have the faintest idea of the daily costs involved in maintaining an independent rewilding project, sure, you’ll happily donate your £20.00 for a good cause, well, add some noughts and that’s your monthly total for just the basic maintenance.
    Our nature charities have to change, at the moment they are top heavy organisations, fixated on fund raising, they’ll have to wean themselves off the financial nipple of membership subscriptions and Government hand outs, and start to think and act to stand up on their own two feet.
    The hen harrier future doesn’t look too good; banning or licencing grouse moors, whatever this blog thinks is never going to happen. It’s eleven years reminds me of the classic line in Blackadder goes Forth, regarding Haig’s latest big push, that it moved Haigs’ drink’s cabinet, six inches closer to Berlin.
    I’m against brood meddling, it abhorrent to think that we need to remove a species from its chosen breeding environment just to protect it from ourselves. But, it’s the only idea put forward with regard to the bird itself, if it means we can start to have a dialogue and a working relationship and importantly access with the landowners – it may not be the solution, but, perhaps the start of a solution.
    I can’t see how the southern introduction will work, if the bird doesn’t want to be there in the first place. Should we try? Well we have plans for the white-tailed sea eagle introduction in one of the most inhabited areas of the UK.
    I’m not against compensation, linked to subsidies but the need of a guarantee for the preservation and independent monitoring of the hen harrier would be paramount, break these rules and risk, loss of subsidies, heavy fines and my wish (please) prison sentences. Conservation is a financial logarithm, the more raptors (substitute any other species in other scenarios) you get, the more you get paid, as long as other species are not targeted to achieve your rewards. (RSPB please note).
    We live very much in a tribal blame culture; someone opposite or something is always to blame other than ourselves. The hen harrier is pinprick of a problem in amongst a pincushion of other conservation problems that face us. The question we should ask ourselves is whether we have enough cash to meet these problems.

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