Why I’m opposed to the idea of Hen Harrier ‘brood management’

I am late to the party on this one I am afraid, and there are already many excellent articles out there regarding the rollout of the Natural England sanctioned Hen Harrier Brood Management (or Meddling) scheme. Of these, recent articles by Patrick BarkhamMark AveryRPS are all worthy of a read and cover the realities of the plan in much more detail than I will here.

What is brood management/meddling? I suspect those reading this blog will know by now, but for those who don’t, the idea is quite simple. The government and by default, Natural England, are going to allow the short-term removal of harriers from English grouse moors, with eggs and young birds being collected and reared in captivity before being released back onto the moors later in the year. The overall aim of the approach (according to its backers) being to limit the numbers of red grouse killed by harriers, achieved (in theory) by removing the need for breeding pairs to feed chicks. Thus reducing the likelihood of conflict between sporting interests and said harriers and, it is hoped, lowering the likelihood of the birds being illegally killed. Hunkydory, right?

Now, many people, mostly from sporting backgrounds, have come out in support of the plan. Little wonder really, given that it appears that the entire strategy was devised solely to placate the landowners, gamekeepers and shooting enthusiasts peeved at the loss of a relatively low number of grouse to hen harrier predation. Conservationists, however, have not been so accepting, and I find myself agreeing with the majority, despite my tendency to at least attempt to find the middle ground in such situations. And my general acceptance of intervention, in one form or another, when it comes to managing human/wildlife conflicts. Indeed, it is quite difficult to extract even a shred of positivity from what is, by all accounts, a poorly thought out and shameful attempt to accommodate sporting interests which, despite the hype, gives little thought to our harriers.  Among my reservations about the plan, a number of issues stand out:

1. Hen harriers are all but extinct in England and, during 2017, only ten young fledged from a total of three successful nests. All in Northumberland. This should, at least you would think, make the species an urgent conservation priority for the government, requiring stringent protection as opposed to management. The term management is often reserved for problem species which do serious damage to the UK economy, threaten public safety, food crops or biodiversity  – deer, hogweed, grey squirrels  – and it is simply not right that it be applied to a species only just clinging to life in the countryside. This focus on management paints the harrier as a problem, not a priority. How much damage can the paltry number of harriers currently residing in England really do?

2. On a similar note, it should be observed that none of the harriers which bred in the UK last year nested on land designated for intensive grouse shooting. If the species is able to spread and repopulate over the coming years it is, however, likely that they will. Maybe a single pair, or a few, at first. Is it really reasonable to tamper with the nests of these first pioneering birds and potentially subject them to the unknowns associated with captivity and release? Additionally, such a low number of pairs scattered across the moors of England would likely have no significant impact on the economics of grouse shooting, yet the brood management plan would allow disgruntled landowners to have them removed regardless, based solely on speculation.

3. How many harriers would it take to have a significant impact on grouse shooting in England? I do not know. It is, however, thought that suitable habitat across the country could support 300 pairs or more. At this number, harriers may have a much more significant impact than at present, and brood management may then be required to mitigate conflict. Though shouldn’t Defra at least allow for a viable population to form before engaging in management? Surely a threshold should be set to ensure a core population – safe from harm – before brood management is even contemplated. Heck, even a meagre 50 pairs of harriers would be an improvement on present trends. There needs to be a non-negotiable, concrete baseline – something covered in the governments own Hen Harrier Action Plan. It beggars belief that the plan should be rolled out, or even trialled when this cannot possibly have been reached.

4. What guarantees are there that harriers will not simply be killed upon release from incarceration? Others have already pointed out the potential for disruption of grouse drives by harriers during the shooting season and this in itself could lead to yet more persecution. Additionally, the likelihood is that harriers – resident pairs and released juveniles alike – will still be perceived to impact upon grouse numbers. Despite that, in reality, grouse form a comparatively small part of their diet. This plan relies far too much on the integrity and honesty of sportsmen, some (not all) of whom have shown themselves to be severely lacking in both. There is no guarantee that this plan will do anything whatsoever to combat the root cause of harrier declines – some are simply too entrenched to change, despite what they may say.

5. Defra appears to have missed the point entirely and ignored their own evidence which points to hen harriers declining as a direct result of illegal persecution. They, and MPs have made no significant moves to tackle the issue and, in doing so, have shown a complete disregard for the continued survival of the species. Before any management can take place, and before ridiculous amounts of money are spent ferrying birds around the country, there needs to be a commitment to seeing them flourish. Meaning that steps must be taken to tackle illegalities. What point is there bothering to hand-rear a bird that may, in all likelihood, be shot upon release? I suspect I would greet the prospect of brood management more warmly if stricter protocol was put in place to give them the best chances of survival post-release. Defra appears to have skipped straight to the end of their own action plan.

So, yes, I am not too taken with the idea of hen harrier brood management. It seems to me like a cheap way out; one which skirts around the very problems which have brought the species to its knees, relies entirely on the good graces of those who deliberately brought about the need for an action plan in the first place and, ultimately, ignores the precarious state of the species in the wider countryside. There are aspects of the Hen Harrier Action Plan which I do like and agree with. Mostly notable monitoring, nest protection, reintroductions and even diversionary feeding; though, for me, brood management seems like an easy way out. I may be surprised: the approach may be a resounding success and may, against all odds, help restore England’s harrier population. In this sense, I hope I am proved wrong – I am not optimistic. And I sincerely hope that Natural England reconsiders their position on this matter as soon as possible.

Header image by Jos Zwarts – Jos Zwarts, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45477403

For more from the author, you can follow his personal blog at commonbynature.co.uk or join him on Twitter at @CommonByNature

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James Common
James is a nature writer, conservationist, blogger and birder; holding an MSc in Wildlife Management and working previously in the fields of ecology and practical conservation. He maintains a popular natural history blog at commonbynature.co.uk, writes regularly for Northumberland Wildlife Trust and, as its managing director, runs New Nature - the youth nature magazine.
James Common

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