Shooting unfairly blamed for low hen harrier numbers.
Natural England and the RSPB have announced the worst breeding figures for hen harriers in England since monitoring began, claiming its status as an English breeding bird is now at risk.

According to Natural England (NE), a harsh winter and a possible shortage of prey in spring meant some pairs failed to breed, while those that did had fewer chicks.

Additionally, a press release issued on behalf of NE, the RSPB and BASC, continued to berate shooting interests for past misdemeanours, stating: ?While there is no evidence of illegal killing or nest destruction associated with this year?s breeding failures, illegal persecution has led to today?s critically low breeding numbers and patchy distribution.?

Others involved in the uplands assert that there have been no cases of persecution against hen harriers in England for several years.

NE has also announced this year a pair of hen harriers was successful in rearing a chick in a cereal field in southern England.

The news was encouraging for those who argue the hen harrier is not exclusively a bird of the uplands and there is scope for reintroductions or relocations to other parts of the country.

Dr Tom Tew, chief scientist for NE, said: ?This isolated nesting site in southern England is a massive leap from the hen harrier?s recent restricted distribution. Single birds occasionally loiter around suitable habitat in the early spring but rarely attract a mate.?

?Though this was just one pair, their success hints at the potential for the hen harrier to be re-established in southern England, though this would not mean giving up on hen harriers in the uplands.?

Despite increasingly positive dialogue among various interest groups and no evidence of persecution in recent years, Dr Mark Avery, the RSPB?s director of conservation, stated: ?There can be no place for the illegal killing of birds of prey. Landowners and other shooting groups need to show real commitment and start working with NE, the RSPB and BASC to implement solutions such as diversionary feeding.?

BASC?s John Swift welcomed efforts to reach a resolution, saying: ?It is imperative we find a solution to the conflict between grouse shooting and birds of prey.?

Meanwhile, the Countryside Alliance?s moorlands officer Adrian Blackmore said: ?It is good to hear illegal persecution has played no part in the poor breeding success of hen harriers this year. This is the second year running this has been the case – the RSPB?s recently published Birdcrime report for 2008 also shows there were no confirmed incidents of persecution last year. News there was a successful crop-nesting pair in the south of England is likewise welcomed, especially if their breeding is going to be affected by colder winters in our upland areas, as was the case this year.?

PC DUNCAN THOMAS Wildlife crime officer for Lancashire Constabulary
?Since I have been the wildlife crime officer for Lancashire for the past four-and-a-half years, there has certainly not been a single hen harrier persecution incident. Since all statistics are now collated by the National Wildlife Crime Unit and having held annual meetings with all northern English forces, I am not aware of any other hen harrier persecution case in the north of England. This year has been a poor breeding attempt and we know this to be due to a very low vole population during the critical pre-breeding period. This has impacted not only on harrier numbers, but also on short-eared owls and other ground predating species. It is important to focus on the facts as opposed to supposition. We?d like to acknowledge the superb work of our gamekeepers and the shooting estate on which 90% of the English hen harrier population breeds year on year.?