A row has broken out between conservation groups over the wellbeing of one of Britain’s most critically endangered birds of prey: the hen harrier. The dispute reveals a basic divide between experts on how to save the birds from eradication in Britain.
Natural England announces on Sunday that 2019 has been a record year for breeding success in England. A total of 15 nests had 12 successful breeding pairs and produced 47 chicks – improving on the previous high point of 46 set in 2006, news that was hailed “as a positive result” by the organisation.
“It is very welcome to see this improvement,” said Natural England’s chairman, Tony Juniper. But the announcement was immediately condemned by the RSPB.
“This success is tarnished by the clear evidence that illegal killing [of hen harriers] continues with no sign of it coming to an end,” said Chris Corrigan, the RSPB’s director for England.
“By the government’s own figures we should have over 300 pairs of hen harriers sky dancing above the English countryside, and yet the species remains on the brink of local extinction.”
Hen harriers have been targeted for decades because the raptors – which eat mainly small birds and mammals – are considered a threat to the profitability of grouse shooting estates. As a result, some gamekeepers trap or shoot them illegally.
In February, Natural England published a study paper that analysed the findings of satellite tagging data collected over 10 years. The study revealed that young hen harriers in England suffer abnormally high mortality, with the most likely cause being illegal killing. This point is acknowledged by Juniper.
“The hen harrier is still very far from where it should be as a breeding species in England, not least due to illegal persecution,” he admitted.
To maintain hen harrier numbers, Natural England – working in collaboration with other conservation groups such as the Moorland Association – has placed emphasis on encouraging brood management schemes that help chicks survive. In some cases, supplementary food is provided to help chicks’ survival and divert adult birds’ attention from taking grouse chicks.
Natural England said this “positive result” meant the past two years had produced 81 fledged chicks, surpassing the total for the previous five years put together.
“The chicks have also hatched in a wider variety of areas this year, including in Northumberland, Yorkshire Dales, Derbyshire and Lancashire – leading to hopes that a corner has been turned in the restoration of the hen harrier population,” it said.
Amanda Anderson, director of the Moorland Association, was also enthusiastic. She said: “It has been a fantastic year for hen harriers with a year-on-year increase in both the geographical range of the nests and the type of land on which they have successfully fledged.”
But this suggestion is flatly rejected by Corrigan. “Until something is done to stop illegal killing it is hard to see a bright future for this year’s chicks. We believe licensing of driven grouse moors is the best chance we have of ensuring these wonderful birds will be seen by future generations.”
The RSPB is one of many organisations who believe the best way to protect raptors, and to improve the management of peatlands, is to license grouse moors and give authorities the power to ban shooting estates where protected species are disappearing.
“The pervasiveness of illegal killing means many of this year’s young hen harriers will not get the chance to raise a family of their own and so the population continues to dwindle,” said Corrigan.
These views were recently backed by television wildlife presenter Chris Packham. Commenting after a hen harrier was found with an almost severed leg in an illegally set trap on a South Lanarkshire grouse moor, he said the incident – which meant the bird had to be destroyed – showed that the UK shooting industry “was out of control, obviously beyond any form of self-regulation, and tolerant of an utter contempt for the laws which are meant to protect our wildlife”.
Birds under threat
Britain’s smallest raptor preys on other birds such as the meadow pipit but suffered a serious decline in the 1960s due to pesticide poisoning. Habitat loss, primarily due to afforestation and overgrazing, has since hampered its recovery.
The montagu harrier
One of the most endangered of our birds of prey, this now rarely breeds in the UK. Its status is so precarious that every pair needs special protection, according to the RSPB.
The marsh harrier
The largest of the harriers, the marsh harrier’s numbers declined last century but have recovered in recent years, though it is still given special protection as a schedule 1 listed bird under the wildlife and countryside act.
This article was first published by The Guardian on 11 August 2019.