Brood Management: A Conservation Must or a Bow of Submission?

A rather large and rather rusty spanner has been thrown into an already struggling works. It joins several other spanners, so that our ‘works’ have now come to a grinding halt, with hundreds of spanners sticking out of every available orifice. Once again we find ourselves throwing around arguments and insults that centre around the hen harrier. But not just the harrier himself, more his management. The gauntlet has been well and truly thrown down with the announcement that The Hawk and Owl Trust are supporting something called ‘Brood Management.’ Sounds fairly harmless. Sounds like a plan even! Or does it?

Well no, not really.  But before we get into that, let’s remind ourselves. The hen harrier is a priority species and is fully protected under UK law. In 2014 we had 4 nesting pairs, when we should have over 300. Persecution is the problem and simply because hen harriers feed and nest on moorland, which we like to use to rear grouse for the sport (yes sport) of shooting. As I said in a previous article, I am aware of how important grouse shooting is to the rural community and the UK economy. It’s big business. And business is a booming. Unfortunately, the hen harrier is not. Illegal persecution is rife and we all know it. It’s illegal to kill or interfere with the nest of a hen harrier and yet these laws have done nothing to help the struggling species. Drastic action is needed! Indeed it is. In the form of harsher punishments for those who are violating the law and are intent upon the eradication of this protected species. The laws in Europe are speeding ahead of us, with some countries such as Spain investing in more specialist dog units to sniff out poisons and hidden raptor carcasses that have been illegally killed. As well as handing out  prison sentences of up to 2 years. Sounds brilliant! That sounds like a real deterrent and the way forward! We’re getting involved in that right??

Wrong. No, we are considering taking another approach. And that approach is called brood management. So what is brood management? Not exactly a self-explanatory term (there may be a reason for that). Brood management involves the removal of hen harrier chicks or eggs from their nests on grouse moorlands where they have been allowed to breed (how generous!), leading the parents to believe that the brood has failed. Consequently, there are less mouths to feed and less grouse are taken from the moorland. The harrier chicks are then raised in another location and released when they are adults. The thinking is that if harriers are taken away and not predating on red grouse chicks, there is no need to kill them.

But wait a minute! Isn’t the disturbance of a harrier nest illegal? Well, yes. But we’ll ignore that, avert our gaze and block our ears in order to please the land owners and keepers. Although this suggestion is technically a way of allowing the hen harrier to breed, it is also allowing those who break the law and kill hen harriers to get away with it. Laughing all the way to the bank (literally). Essentially we’re putting down our banners, getting down on the floor, rolling over and submitting to the criminals.


Instead of tightening laws and punishments we are abandoning our morals and trying to please a minority who enjoy shooting the red grouse. And who is to say that this method would help? There will always be those who want nothing to do with the harrier at all. They don’t want him on their land, they don’t want him near their land, in fact they don’t want him in the country full stop. And that last point has nearly been achieved. We cannot seriously expect all gamekeepers to abide by this new plan. If so many have no regard for the law they certainly won’t pay attention to a plan that has essentially been dreamt up to please the grouse shooter. Let’s look at this for what it is. It’s a surrender to the criminals. Funny that wildlife crime is the only crime that would allow such a submission.

But it does not stop there. Does this open the door for more lenience concerning the protection of other species? Already not enough is done to protect all kinds of species in this world and here we are, ready to loosen those laws even more. If our protection laws were the belt holding up our raptor conservation trousers, our trousers would be well and truly round our ankles by now and tripping us up whenever we try to walk. Now I understand that we are at a stalemate here. Hen harriers are failing and shooters are still shooting. Not a lot is being achieved. So there are two options, follow in the footsteps of other European countries to protect our raptors or keep trying to appease the trouble makers. Choosing brood management is the wrong option.

There are other management techniques available. Supplementary feeding is one, which has in fact been shown to reduce the amount of grouse chicks taken. There is no disturbance of nests and it allows the hen harrier to live an fairly undisturbed existence. But this hasn’t taken off. Why? It’s too expensive and too time consuming for those poor grouse shooters. In the case of saving the hen harrier we were already smashing our heads against a brick wall, with this scheme we would essentially be allowing the land owners, keepers and shooters the privilege of smashing our heads against the brick wall for us. In other words? They are well and truly ruling this very deserted roost.

But there are other questions. Where do the chicks get released? Who is going to take responsibility? What safeguards (a what? safeguard? I’ll have to look that one up) will be exercised? And what is the final goal of this scheme? How many harriers do we expect to get from this? And what about those that nest on moorlands before any conservation organisations can track them? What if the gamekeepers find them first? I think we can make a wild stab in the dark of a guess.

If we want to be serious in our conservation efforts, we need to do better than ‘brood management.’It’s time to wake up and smell the gunpowder!









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Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard
I have been a bird enthusiast since I was a child and have just completed my MSc at Newcastle University on 'Biodiversity Conservation and Ecosystem Management.'
Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard

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