This is a critical time of year for hen harriers. The breeding success(or otherwise) of this species in northern England has become something of a cause célèbre, and I don?t intend to rehearse well-worn arguments. But now there is a new twist: allegations that the current nest-monitoring system actually hinders the hen harrier. And what makes this latest spat so interesting is that the protectionist establishment is under fire from elements of its very own storm troopers ? the dedicated voluntary ?raptor workers?, who have long been the most vocal opponents of grouse moor management.

For many years, members of the self-appointed North West Raptor Protection Group (NWRPG) have made the protection of raptors in and around the Forest of Bowland, in Lancashire, their personal mission in life. The headline species is the hen harrier, of course, but peregrines and merlins also feature prominently. For decades, until 2010, certain NWRPG members were awarded licences to monitor raptor nests. This arrangement came to an abrupt end, the raptorphiles claim, after they reported allegedly overzealous fieldwork carried out by other licencees.

Allegations of excessive zeal emanating from members of a body such as the NWRPG might seem like the kettle calling the pot black, but the fact remains that there have been a number of nest desertions and relocations over recent years in the Forest of Bowland. Have at least some of these been caused by clumsy or intrusive monitoring? Natural England says not.

Yet critics cite a variety of incidents they claim to have witnessed, including people visiting raptor nests unnecessarily, too frequently, or for too long. In one case, it is alleged, a peregrine was kept off its eggs for an hour and 20 minutes. In another, a licensed individual is said to have taken

a child to visit a nest, and then proceeded to have a picnic nearby.

Furthermore, it is alleged that the team of licensed monitors has sometimes breached the rules relating to the legal right to roam over access land. It is claimed that a vehicle known to be supplied to the team has been seen driving along tracks on land belonging to United Utilities, and then parking near the boundary with a privately owned grouse moor. From that point, it is said, people have proceeded over the private land on foot.

Now, there is nothing necessarily wrong with that ? unless, that is, the people concerned were carrying out nest-monitoring over the boundary. This is because such official activity, carried out under a funded programme, requires permission from the landowner. Are licences being issued for monitoring on land not owned by United Utilities?

No, according to the RSPB. Andrew Gouldstone, the charity?s area conservation manager for the North-West, said: ?RSPB staff and volunteers working for the hen harrier monitoring team only undertake licensed work on the United Utilities estate.? This is just as well, because there are claims that, in the past, before the current system was in place, licensed monitors placed a remote camera next to a hen harrier nest on a private moor without the landowner even being informed.

Mr Gouldstone also denies any suggestion that monitoring has caused problems for the birds. ?All RSPB staff operating under a relevant Schedule 1 Licence work to long-established species-monitoring protocols, and every effort is made to ensure that disturbance is kept to a minimum. There is no evidence to suggest that licensed raptor monitoring workers cause any nest failures, and the stringent protocols prevent this.?

Given that their own licences have effectively been withdrawn in favour of a rival group, it might seem possible that some NWRPG members have an axe to grind. So, is this merely a turf war between raptor enthusiasts? Or are raptors being put at risk by what some critics characterise as a bumbling operation carried out under an unjustifi able licence monopoly?

One thing is certain: if this year?s hen harrier breeding performance is poor, feathers really will fly.

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