Lights! Camera!……Hen Harrier Action?

It was a day that many birders, conservationists and raptor enthusiasts had been waiting for and on the 14th of January, it finally arrived. So what did we see on this much awaited day? Rounds of enthusiastic applause and great joyful cheers? Conservationists linking arms, dancing through the streets and kicking their legs out from the sheer joy of this news? As much as we would all like to see that, the reality was a little different. In fact, the reaction of many resembled something more of a few unimpressed coughs and the odd tumbleweed. That’s right, the Hen Harrier Action Plan is here! But to some, it’s something of a disappointment.

What’s the problem then? Is this just another case of those pesky conservationists never ever being happy? Are we all just a load of Eeyores in a world of Piglets and Pooh bears? Maybe, or maybe Piglet and Pooh bear have been far too concerned with finding their honey and acorns rather than anything else. But I’m getting carried away again (I have to stop that), so let’s get down to the facts. The plan has outlined six actions that it feels will contribute to the recovery of the hen harrier:

Monitoring hen harrier populations in England and the UK

Encouraging Diversionary Feeding of hen harriers on grouse shooting moorland

Analysing data and building an intelligence picture of hen harrier distribution

Protection of nest and winter roost sites

Reintroduction of hen harriers to southern England

Trialling brood management

On the surface, it all sounds fair enough, but delve a little deeper and it leaves a little to be desired. The first action of monitoring is more of an observation than an ‘action’ and correct me if i’m wrong (I’m sure you will), but are we not already doing that? Just as we are already protecting nest sites? These are two actions that have been going on for quite some time and as important as they are, should be considered as continuations of previous work rather than ‘new actions’. However, there is nothing wrong with monitoring. It is a valuable tool that we need in order to see how our hen harriers are fairing across our country, but again, this is not a new idea. The plan states that data from this monitoring will be used to make a larger database, but there is no mention of exactly how such data will be used to increase harrier populations.

Diversionary feeding is another familiar suggestion and simply involves providing the birds with an alternative source of meat so that they do not take too many grouse. However, all it says on this plan is that gamekeepers and landowners should be ‘encouraged’ to take part in diversionary feeding. Although much needed and as well meaning as it is, the plan of involving gamekeepers and landowners by ‘encouraging’ them to take part in divisionary feeding falls a little flat as it does nothing to really involve this group in the recover of the hen harrier. After all, encouragement can be and often is, totally ignored. There has also been the suggestion of reintroducing the hen harrier to the south of England where it is currently absent. This again is a fair point, but surely such an action needs much more investigation. When it comes to reintroducing species, one of the main points that has to be addressed is the original reason why they disappeared. In the case of the hen harrier, this is predominantly persecution, so how can we be sure that this problem has been addressed? Well, we can’t, because most likely, it hasn’t. Therefore, such an action sounds simple enough, but is likely to run into difficulties.

Finally, the mention of brood management is a controversial one to say the least. To many people brood management is a fancy term and all it really means is brood interference. Interference because it involves the removal of hen harrier chicks, or eggs, from their nests when there are a certain number of harriers  in an area. However, do not read removed as exterminated, it just means that the chicks are reared elsewhere, so that, once again, as fewer grouse as possible are predated on. These harriers are then released to other moorlands when they are fully grown. It may not sound so bad, but it is the underlying principle of this management that poses a problem. The main issue being that it is not centred around the well being of the harrier population, but arguably, the happiness of the driven grouse shooting industry. The suggestion of brood management is all based on a paper published in August 2015, which modelled the effects of hen harrier numbers on red grouse populations. In fact, brood management plans are to be based entirely on this one paper. The plan states that densities of hen harriers in the English uplands should reach 70 breeding pairs, after which, brood management will be considered. Wait a minute, 70 pairs? What’s the worry then? After all, if we need to reach 70 pairs from 6 (2015 pairs), we may have to wait a while! Especially when we consider the immediate persecution threat. Therefore, for one of the new actions to take place, we have to wait until harrier populations have markedly improved anyway!

Overall, the plan is a little brief, which in itself is a worry. Often management plans can be brief, granted. However, I have read plans of the same length as the Hen Harrier Action Plan, which contain considerably more information, condensed into reasonable courses of immediate and hopefully effective action. One statement in the plan, although a small comment, unfortunately paved the path for the rest. The plan stated that in 2010, there were only 12 hen harrier pairs in England. It followed up this statement with:

‘It is reasonable to conclude that there should be more pairs in England than currently exist.’

Reasonable is a little bit of an understatement I think. After all, there are 860,000 acres or 1344 square miles of moorland in England, and it is only ‘reasonable’ to conclude that there should be more than 12 pairs? That’s 112 miles of moorland for each harrier pair! How big are these birds?!

However, you could argue that at least we have an action plan! Better that than ignoring the problem altogether right? Of course! But the hen harrier really is in dire straights in the UK. Action plans need to be bigger and better and show a bit more grit and determination. Remember this is a species which we lost as a breeder in the early 1900s, and unfortunately it was not alone. Red kites, sea eagles, golden eagles, kestrels, peregrines, merlins, goshawks, buzzards (and the list goes on) have all suffered huge population crashes with many going extinct in England or the UK at some point in their history. However, since then they have all displayed good or great recoveries. Their illegal persecution has not ceased altogether, but it has been reduced dramatically. So why not for the hen harrier? It has nothing to do with the bird itself, other than the fact that they breed in a habitat that many humans like to shoot on. This is not an acceptable excuse. Now, I am not laying blame at the door of every gamekeeper, shooter or land manager in the country, that would be totally unfair as many are entirely innocent of any wrong doing. However, whilst we accept that we must also admit that many are not.

Criticism of the plan may seem harsh and if it is successful then there is no problem, everyone’s happy! However, we should not blindly follow anything or anyone without any consideration of the risks or potential problems attached to it, especially when it comes to conservation. On the other hand, nothing and no-one is perfect and we can never predict the outcomes of everything we do. Very true, but when it comes to the possible loss of a species that many have spent time and money trying to save, we should not sell ourselves short or settle for a plan that could be bettered.  A little more attention needs to be focused on the birds themselves and a little less on the needs of the grouse shooting industry.


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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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