Pioneering work to protect the UK’s endangered hen harriers is going forward as part of Defra’s action plan, amid criticism from the RSPB.

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Natural England has issued a two-year licence approving brood management trials for hen harriers as part of Defra’s recovery plan.

The six-point Hen Harrier Action Plan was published in early 2016 — after two years of calls from conservation groups — and was created to help the recovery of the UK’s hen harrier population. Led by Natural England, it was developed by Defra in conjunction with the RSPB, Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), Moorland Association, National Gamekeepers’ Organisation (NG0) and the National Parks.

Hand-reared chicks

However, the RSPB withdrew from the plan in July 2016, stating its belief that reform to protect hen harriers would only come from the licensing of driven grouse shooting.

Brood management trials were one of the six initiatives proposed in the action plan and involves removing hen harrier eggs and chicks so that they can be hand-reared. They will then be transferred to special pens in a breeding habitat. From there, they will be reintroduced into the wild in the uplands of northern England.

Careful research to avoid conflict

Natural England chairman Andrew Sells said that he is “passionate” about improving the conservation of hen harriers and that the details of the trial have been “carefully researched by those best placed to understand the conflict that can occur between hen harriers and driven grouse moors”.

He continued: “Licensing this trial will allow important evidence to be gathered which, I sincerely hope, will lead to a self-sustaining and well-dispersed breeding population of these beautiful birds across England.”

The National Gamekeepers’ Organisation has given its “wholehearted” support to the project and said that Natural England had demonstrated “clear thinking in putting conservation ahead of the cant of the naysayers by doing what is best for the conservation status of this iconic upland bird species”.

A spokesman added: “This licensed brood management trial will help to secure a future for the hen harrier in England, partly by breaking the logjam whereby some conservation organisations have for far too long put their own agendas ahead of the conservation needs of this raptor species.”

hen harrier

Hen harrier recovery plan

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

Divided opinions

Other project members and rural organisations, including the GWCT, Moorland Association and BASC, also welcomed the trials. However, the RSPB is “implacably opposed” to brood management and posted on social media that: “The idea that brood management is about helping hen harriers is a nonsense. It’s about facilitating unsustainable intensive land management which is destroying our uplands.”

It is a stark contrast to 2016, when the charity said: “We’ve not said never to brood management.”