First English hen harrier chicks in two years prompt shooters to call for co-operation with RSPB on Joint Action Plan

Renewed calls to step up hen harrier conservation efforts have been made by key figures from both sides of the raptor/grouse debate, but agreement on strategy is still a long way off.

The latest rallying cries have sounded as the first English hen harrier chicks to hatch in two years emerged from their eggs in a nest on the United Utilities estate in the former hen harrier stronghold of the Forest of Bowland, Lancashire, where the grouse shooting tenants have been working with the RSPB to raise numbers, using tactics including diversionary feeding. Another pair of hen harriers has nested on the estate, but no eggs from this second nest had hatched as Shooting Times went to press. The RSPB is also monitoring a third nest at another site in England.

These nests offer a better prospect of breeding success than in 2013, when there were no hen harrier chicks hatched anywhere in England. However, even if they are successful, this year’s number of breeding pairs still falls a long way short of the 300-plus that the Government’s conservation advisors estimated could be supported by England’s uplands in a 2011 report.

On the game management side of the debate, the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) and the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation (NGO) have highlighted the important positive contribution that moorland managed for shooting can play in the survival of the birds, and have called for co-operation on the Hen Harrier Joint Action Plan. The organisations hope that the initiative, which has been driven by DEFRA and is backed by the Moorland Association (MA), the NGO and the GWCT, will be confirmed and rolled out later this year. DEFRA is expected to make an announcement on the matter in the near future.

The Joint Action Plan has been developed over the past 15 years with landowners, gamekeepers and conservation groups. It hinges on six key themes: prevention of illegal persecution; monitoring of breeding and roosting sites; satellite tracking of movements; diversionary feeding to reduce predation on grouse chicks; researching areas for possible reintroductions; and brood management, which would allow the licensed removal and translocation of hen harrier eggs to prevent unmanageable localised population booms.

On the purely conservationist side, the RSPB has significant reservations about the Joint Action Plan and is still considering its position. Speaking at the NGO’s AGM in April, RSPB director of conservation Martin Harper singled out brood management as a particular “sticking point” for the charity, saying “we would want to see progress towards an increased hen harrier population before brood management cuts in.”

Such an uncompromising attitude risks undermining the plan in the view of the NGO’s Charles Nodder, writing in this month’s edition of The Field, that: “Brood management is key to the overall goal of having more hen harriers. Without it, the scheme will simply not get off the ground.”

Andrew Gilruth of the GWCT commented that, while not perfect from anyone’s point of view, the Joint Action Plan represents the best chance of sustainable recovery for hen harriers in England, urging all sides to get behind it and make 2014 the year that the bird’s outlook begins to improve: “Most, and this means all sides, are not thrilled with every element… Clearly we could all find problems with this package. We could drag this out. We could all press home our personal views. Alternatively we could urge those involved to push on. Keep going and deliver more breeding harriers in England this year.”

Other conservationists, notably former RSPB director of conservation Mark Avery, have taken a less moderate stance and are calling for a ban on driven grouse shooting in England as the only way to save the hen harrier.