Hen Harrier Brood-meddling 101

The opening paragraph of a post on the hugely-important Raptor Persecution UK blog yesterday began with the words:

Following the news that two of this year’s five brood meddled hen harriers had ‘vanished’ on grouse moors in the north of England in September 2019 (one in County Durham here and one in the Yorkshire Dales National Park here), we now learn that a third harrier has disappeared, also in the Yorkshire Dales National Park.

Raptor Persecution UK 15 Oct 2019

Raptor Persecution? Brood meddled Hen Harriers?

An explanation may be helpful.

What are Hen Harriers

Raptors are birds of prey, and in the UK and EU every species of bird of prey is protected by law. They were given legal protection following huge declines in their populations. Along with habitat loss, the DDT scandal, and egg-collecting, birds of prey have traditionally been heavily persecuted by gamekeepers, a job that has essentially required the large-scale killing of wildlife (like foxes, stoats, and crows) so that other people can pay to come and shoot other wildlife (like Red Grouse, a chicken-sized bird found on moorlands).

Hen Harriers are medium-sized raptors (about the same size as the much more familiar Common Buzzard and Red-tailed Hawk). They were once widespread but – because of shooting, trapping, poisoning etc (ie persecution, which is now illegal) – in the UK they are restricted to breeding on moorlands, many of which are privately-owned shooting estates or ‘protected’ in our National Parks.

Hen Harriers feed on a very wide range of prey – everything from voles to small birds. And Red Grouse chicks. Therefore a section of gamekeepers who ‘farm’ Red Grouse for the gun and the estate owners who sell Red Grouse to the gun do not like/will not tolerate Hen Harriers (protected by law) on ‘their’ land where ‘their’ rules apparently allow them some ‘flexibility’ when it comes to the law.

We’re missing our Hen Harriers

There is habitat available for thousands of pairs of Hen Harriers across the whole of the UK. There is enough room for over 300 breeding pairs in England alone, but it’s almost extinct as a breeding species here. In 2017 there were just three successful pairs in England, none on a grouse moor. Studies show that 72% of young satellite-tagged Hen Harriers (birds fitted with lightweight satellite tags used to track their movements) will disappear in ‘suspicious circumstances’ (essentially legalese code for ‘killed’) on grouse moors in northern England (especially during the first few months of the “Inglorious” grouse shooting season in August, September and October). Video and images of illegally killed adults are widespread on the internet.

Rather than confront the grouse shooting industry and its lobbyists about the persecution severely restricting the population, Defra and Natural England floated a proposal some years ago to ‘brood manage’ Hen Harriers (more widely known amongst sceptical conservationists as ‘brood meddling’) as part of a Hen Harrier Recovery Plan.

The brood-meddling ‘plan’

Under the plan grouse moor owners would graciously allow Hen Harrier chicks to be removed (translocated) from their moorland, raised elsewhere, then put back on the moors later in the year when Red Grouse chicks will have grown into adults so won’t be as vulnerable to predation. So, the same owners who have – at best – shown ‘wilful blindness’ about the illegal persecution of raptors by some of their employees, have been given government permission to remove a legally protected species (one that has a minor commercial impact on their hugely profitable businesses) from the one habitat those birds breed on.

This goes against IUCN guidelines on translocation (‘Guidelines for Reintroductions and Other Conservation Translocations‘) which explicity state: “Any proposed conservation translocation should be justified by first considering past causes of severe population decline or extinction. There should be confidence that these past causes would not again be threats to any prospective translocated populations.” Brood meddling makes no attempt at all whatsoever to remove the past causes of the near extirpation of the Hen Harrier in England as a breeding species – shooting estates and gamekeepers. It simply removes highly-protected birds from one part of the country to another, leavimg the cause in place.

The ‘trial’ began this year (after legal challenges by eg the RSPB). Five chicks were removed and raised in captivity. The shooting industry praised the move (it protects their profits) and was condemned by conservationists (it does nothing to protect Hen Harriers). What, we wondered knowing the answer already, would happen to the young Harriers (all of which were satellite-tagged so scientists could monitor where they went to and where they didn’t leave from) once they were released back into the tender care of the shooting industry?

Raptor Persecution sums up the inevitable, distressing result with their headline: 3rd brood meddled hen harrier ‘disappears’ in suspicious circumstances.

They go on to say that:

This brood meddling ‘trial’, sanctioned by DEFRA and carried out by Natural England, in cahoots with the very industry responsible for the species’ catastrophic decline in England, is supposed to test whether those people responsible for killing hen harriers illegally would stop if the chicks were brood meddled…We all knew this wouldn’t work because we know that young Hen Harriers are killed routinely during the grouse shooting season, and especially in September and October and yet still DEFRA, Natural England and their grouse shooting mates pressed ahead.

Raptor Persecution UK 15 October 2019

Want to stop raptor persecution? Encourage what we are told are younger, more conservation-oriented gamekeepers to speak out against the criminality that infests their ranks. And enforce the law and ban driven grouse shooting. Decades of dialogue and decades of appeasement has done nothing to stop routine criminality on driven grouse moors. This two-fingered salute from the industry and some of its employees proves it.