Hen Harriers and moorland management

Hen Harrier unmeddled brood. Photo: Gordon Yates

The week after next may see a flurry of activity on the future of driven grouse shooting and Hen Harrier conservation. On Monday 25 January we may see a Westminster Hall debate on driven grouse shooting (following one on trespass) and then on Tuesday and Wednesday 26 and 27 January the much delayed appeal of the judicial review judgment on brood meddling will be heard.

I say ‘may’ because Westminster Hall debates are under consideration under the current COVID crisis as these debates only take place through MPs attending in person and would you travel from Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales or Yorkshire to London to take place in such a debate when non-essential travel should not take place (different rules apply in all four UK nations)? I’m keen to see this debate take place but one has to say that an e-petition that qualified for debate in September 2019 (stet) is not urgent in January 2021. However, if it does go ahead, then the DEFRA minister, presumably Rebecca Pow, will have questions to face.

When Ms Pow was last answering questions about grouse moor management in Westminster Hall (18 November debate on moorland burning) she cheerily said that government was committed to publishing a peatland restoration strategy which would commit to restore 35,000ha of peatland by 2025, and she quipped that was not very far away – well it’s another two months closer now and we still haven’t seen this strategy that was promised for 2020. I’m sure that she will be asked whether the government really has a strategy for peatland or whether its strategy is to avoid having a strategy.

And since Ms Pow was last talking about grouse moors Scotland has decided to bring in controls on grouse shooting and moorland burning. Ms Pow may well be asked why there has been so little activity south of the border compared with so much north of Hadrian’s Wall. The honest answer might be ‘Because the Scottish government really cares whereas we are only pretending’.

Ms Pow also said back in November that moorlands are a haven for wildlife but she can’t have been thinking of that moorland inhabitant the Hen Harrier which is fully protected by law but which is ten times as likely to disappear (presumed or known to be dead) on grouse moors than on other habitats.

It is only because of Raptor Persecution UK’s dogged determination to flush out what Natural England (we pay their salaries) have known for months, that we now know that three tagged Hen Harriers from the 2020 English cohort disappeared in northern England way back in September (a brood-meddled male next to a grouse moor in North Yorkshire on 20 September 2020, another male (with one of the dodgy tags) on a grouse moor in North Yorkshire on 19 September 2020, and a female at an undisclosed roost site (which may or may not have been a grouse moor) in Northumberland on 16 September 2020). Some haven!

Why Natural England has kept these facts hidden for so long only they can answer. It might simply be shame.

When my appeal on the legality of brood-meddling of Hen Harriers is heard at the Court of Appeal (alongside the RSPB’s related appeal) the three judges will not be deciding whether brood meddling is a good idea, nor whether it is working, but whether Natural England were behaving lawfully to licence it without considering alternatives back in January 2018 (stet). Boxing up broods of Hen Harrier and shipping them down the road to a cage, later to release them into dangerous territory is an illegal act unless licensed. Our case is that Natural England should have considered all alternatives to brood meddling before issuing this licence – alternatives such as increased guarding of nests, increased fines, vicarious liability, licensing of grouse shooting and many other ways forward before licensing brood meddling. Both the RSPB and I lost our original challenges because the judge said that brood meddling was a bit of science. My appeal hinges on the fact that this so-called experiment would be of no scientific interest at all except as a precursor of conservation action and so alternatives must be considered.

No chickens will be counted ahead of the court case. First, this appeal was launched straight after the initial judgment in March 2019 and we went to court in March 2020 but that hearing was abandoned at lunch on the first day (a few days before lockdown belatedly began) as one of the judges was taken ill. And second, the result is uncertain – we have a very good chance of winning (but probably a very good chance of losing too). There is everything to play for and I am grateful to all those who have donated to two crowdfunders which got us this far (here and here) and also to my legal team who have been simply brilliant throughout.

Saturday (16 January) will mark the third anniversay of Natural England issuing a brood-meddling licence – these things take quite a time to be resolved.

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12 Replies to “Hen Harriers and moorland management”

  1. I am afraid I find this Westminster Government, especially Defra and Natural England just appalling. They steadfastly fail, time and again, to take a single action to help our moorland wildlife and its environment and yet we have only been out of the EU for just about two weeks and they are now permitting farmers to use the toxic neonics pesticide on sugar beet.
    They also steadfastly propagate the falsehoods about Driven Grouse Shooting, put forward by those that kill our wildlife for fun, being good for moorland wildlife They become more and more like Trump every day.
    At least the Scottish Government are are now getting to grips with the terrible practices perpetrated by the shooters, albeit a bit slowly, putting this rotten Westminster Government to shams.
    Every bit of luck to Wild Justice in the coming weeks.

    Likes(33)Dislikes(18)
    1. Best of luck with the court case, should it go ahead.

      I'm still confused as to what "Brood meddling" actually achieves and how the cost can be justified. I'm looking forward to the summary from NE explaining how this ill conceived project has achieved its aims and what impact it has had in increasing the population of Hen Harriers!

      Likes(8)Dislikes(6)
      1. Brood meddling allows the supporters of driven grouse shooting to pretend something concrete is being done to restore hen harrier populations. As we have seen, the chicks reared in this way remain at very high risk of being shot once they are released back into the wild and wander back over the grouse moors so it is just a pretence and is really of no benefit to the hen harriers at all.

        On the other hand, each act of meddling removes a brood of hen harriers away from a grouse moor and the associated need for the adult harriers to feed it, most likely with a high proportion of grouse. It is therefore of clear benefit to the grouse moor manager.

        So in short it is a measure that makes it look as though the hen harrier action plan members are doing something and it rewards criminals on the understanding that they will stop committing their crimes (not an approach that is applied to any other problematic category of crime in this country) but the evidence is that is merely gets them to postpone their crimes until the birds have fledged.

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    2. When grouse moors are NOT managed and vermin control NOT undertaken Hen Harrier numbers will decline at an alarming rate and will eventually lead to the numbers becoming or near to zero

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      1. Derek - thank you for your first comment here. Would you like to provide a references for that view?

        My reference for the opposite view is https://data.jncc.gov.uk/data/0708d38a-099c-45e8-9e96-73647cab3a97/JNCC-Report-441-FINAL-WEB.pdf where the following is interesting 'Thus in the absence of illegal persecution, Anderson et al (2009) concluded that moorland management for red grouse was beneficial for hen harrier productivity. However, in 2008, there were records of only 5 successful hen harrier nests across the UK extent of driven grouse moors, yet estimates based on habitat area indicted that there should have been almost 500 pairs (Redpath et al. 2010).'

        Come back when you've read it all.

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      2. Ah Derek,
        That must be why in Orkney were there are no Grouse Moors Hen Harriers are doing well or where Grouse Shooting has been stopped at a Wharfedale Estate in Yorkshire breeding Hen Harriers have returned to breed?

        Which leads to the following questions. How did Hen Harriers survive before the Victorian activity of Driven Grouse Shooting? Why have numbers declined since that time? Why are there so few Hen harriers breeding on or near moors used for DGS? Why, when its been illegal to kill such birds of prey for over 50 years, are Hen Harriers still being shot, poisoned or trapped?

        By your logic, Hen harriers should be thriving on Moors managed for DGS, the fact that they are not suggests that you statement is to put it bluntly utter rubbish.

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  2. Licensing is the only way forward with driven grouse shooting. Please take this simple step. After all, there us nothing to worry about if the law is followed, is there.

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  3. The only solution to driven grouse shooting is to ban it. At present our statutory body NE is in thrall to those destroying hen harriers and the upland ecosystem, even taking money from BASC. Licensing will not work if it were overseen by such as NE whose heart and budget would not be in the job

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  4. “Boxing up broods of hen harrier and shipping them down the road to a cage, later to release them into dangerous territory”.

    Boxing up broods of White-tailed sea eagles and shipping them down the road to a cage, later to release them into dangerous territory????

    Likes(3)Dislikes(4)
    1. Thomas,

      One is a reintroduction project for a species that used to exist in an are and no longer does. Its undertaken after rigorous scientific analysis and based on the experience of other successful projects.

      The other is a project removing the brood of a species that is breeding in the area concerned but suffering proven illegal persecution, with little scientific basis and an clearly flawed aim. If the aim is to increase the number of the species being persecuted, one would think that the obvious course of action would be increase resources and focus on better enforcement of existing laws in order to stop the illegal persecution.

      One would also reasonably think that all those "conservation professionals" employed by Grouse Moor would be willing to cooperate in such a project in a wholly transparent manner in order to stop the illegal persecution which is slowly but surely permanently damaging the reputations of all those associated with Driven Grouse Shooting.

      Likes(2)Dislikes(0)

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