The GWCT's Andrew Gilruth looks at what the hen harrier recovery plan contains and its implications for the grouse moors

The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust has a long and honourable history of working with others to find practical and pragmatic solutions to conservation problems. In England, one problem that has proved more intractable than most is identifying how we can begin to rebuild sustainably hen harrier populations alongside driven grouse shooting. To this end, the GWCT has been working for more than two years with a range of partners under the direction of DEFRA to produce a Joint Recovery Plan for hen harriers.

The plan recognises that if we want viable grouse shooting alongside hen harriers, we will need new kinds of management. Conservation techniques such as diversionary feeding and brood management will be required to resolve the genuine conflict between red grouse and hen harriers.

That conflict was illustrated on a driven grouse moor at Langholm, Dumfriesshire between 1992 and 1997. Hen harrier numbers rose from two to 20 pairs in six years before shooting was then abandoned because the hen harriers ate more than a third of all grouse chicks that hatched.

With no grouse shooting, the local culture, economy and employment suffered and the control of generalist predators ceased. By 2003, the 20 harrier nests were back down to two and numbers of breeding grouse and waders had more than halved. Predation was identified as the most likely cause of the declines for grouse, waders and harriers. Grouse moor managers felt their worst fears had just been proven — this was a real lose/ lose situation.

More recent evidence from the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project (a partnership between the GWCT, Scottish Natural Heritage, Buccleuch Estates, the RSPB and Natural England) has shown that diversionary feeding can reduce predation when harrier numbers are low (for some reason it does not work when numbers are high). Trials showed that the number of grouse chicks taken back to harrier nests could be reduced by up to 86 per cent. However, there was no measurable increase in grouse stock during these years, so more research is needed.

To overcome the root causes of the harrier-grouse onflict, any new recovery plan would need to ensure both hen harriers and grouse populations can thrive. Now, after 15 years of talks, 20 reports, three governments and six years of mediated conflict resolution talks, a plan to increase the hen harrier population has finally been drafted.

Brood management: the facts
Nesting hen harriers can take significant numbers of grouse to feed their own chicks. Should a harrier build a nest within 10km of another, the harrier chicks in the second nest would be temporarily removed. Any harrier chicks temporarily removed to aviaries would be released back to suitable habitat once fledged. This has not yet been trialled in the UK, but it has been successfully demonstrated in France, where lowland hen harriers nest in cereal crops.

Brood management is an approach that can both boost the hen harrier population and give keepers the confidence to allow hen harriers to settle on driven grouse moors. RSPB conservation director Martin Harper has now questioned when, not if, brood management should begin.

It is hoped, as this is an internationally recognised conservation tool, that this can be resolved quickly. It is a shame that the DEFRA-led recovery plan was not launched before this year’s breeding season; will it be launched before the next one? This plan has been drafted, and the GWCT believes that DEFRA should act to see it put it into the public domain as swiftly as possible so that it can be properly debated and hopefully implemented at the earliest opportunity.

What’s in the new hen harrier joint recovery plan?

  • Law enforcement and intelligence to prevent the unlawful killing of hen harriers, led by a senior police officer.
  • Ongoing monitoring of breeding sites and winter roost sites.
  • Further research into the movement of hen harriers using satellite tracking.
  • Diversionary feeding of hen harriers to reduce predation on grouse chicks.
  • Engagement study about reintroducing them across suitable habitat in England (using the French lowland harrier plan on our lowlands).
  • Trial the temporary movement of hen harrier young to aviaries (known as “brood management”).

Reasons to support the hen harrier joint recover plan:

  1. The key lesson from LangholmMoor — that there is a genuine wildlife conflict between hen harriers and red grouse — has been incorporated within the plan.
  2. The National Gamekeepers’ Organisation (NGO) and the moor owners’ representative body, the Moorland Association (MA), stood up at the CLA Game Fair and told the sporting press that they fully support the plan.
  3. BASC, the Countryside Alliance, the CLA and Scottish Land & Estates are all in agreement that this plan is the best way to achieve more hen harriers alongside sustainable driven grouse shooting.
  4. All six partners that have contributed to the DEFRA- led hen harrier Joint Recovery Plan (Natural England, RSPB, GWCT, NGO, MA and National Parks) have also publicly committed themselves to supporting sustainable driven grouse shooting.
  5. The plan includes abrood management trial, which has beenshown to remove wildlife conflict with hen harriers in France and Spain.
  6. You are tired ofthe talk of too few harriers and would like to see a sustainable solution that involves seeing these birds return to suitable habitat across England, along with seeing an abundance of waders on driven grouse moors.