Q: Is there a conflict between driven grouse shooting and the conservation of birds of prey?
A: Yes. Our research shows that the predation on grouse by a large number of hen harriers and other raptors can prevent a grouse population recovering from a low density.
Q: Has this actually happened?
A: Yes. The Joint Raptor Study (1992-1996) and subsequent studies at Langholm Moor in Scotland described how a grouse moor could become uneconomic because of raptor predation and no longer support moorland management. Here the gamekeepers lost their jobs, there were knock-on effects in the local economy, and numbers of ground-nesting birds declined, including waders and hen harriers themselves. Without new kinds of management such as diversionary feeding and brood management, you cannot have viable grouse shooting alongside large numbers of hen harriers.
Q: How many hen harriers are there in the UK?
A: As hen harriers are a migratory species, it depends when in the year you count them. In terms of nesting birds, in 2010 there were 630 hen harrier nests in the UK. A national survey has been undertaken in 2016 and we await these results.
Q: How many hen harriers are there in England?
A: Hen harriers don’t stay within the borders of countries so again it depends when you count them. England has higher numbers of harriers during migration and in the winter, when harriers visit from Scotland and continental Europe. Counts are not made of how many stay all year in England.
Q: How many breed in England?
A: The most recent published scientific paper reporting breeding hen harriers across the UK was in 2010 and found 12 nests. Natural England also monitors the number of successful nests reported each year, and this number fluctuates – in 2013 there were no successful nests, and in 2015 there were six.
Q: How many hen harriers could settle in England and not affect land management?
A: The Environment Council harrier mediation process modelled how many harriers could settle and have only a minimal effect on land management. Based on an estimate of the area of suitable habitat, a sustainable number could be 82 pairs of hen harriers in England.
Q: You say ‘suitable habitat’ – how much of that is on grouse moors in England?
A: 50% of the suitable English habitat is found on grouse moors – so there could be up to 41 pairs on English grouse moors.
Q: Why are there so few hen harriers on the 50% of suitable habitat in England that has no driven grouse shooting?
A: It is likely to be a combination of harrier nests being predated, lack of food, disturbance, and possibly failing to have enough birds settled in an area to make it attractive to others. Two papers, published in 2013 and 2016 identified that hen harriers benefited from the control of predators, such as foxes and crows, performed by gamekeepers to protect red grouse. Another paper published in 2014 noted that over half the hen harrier breeding attempts on Skye failed due to predation. More research is needed.
Q: Why are there so few hen harriers on English driven grouse moors?
A: In addition to the reasons above, it has been shown that illegal culling by gamekeepers can restrict hen harrier numbers on some grouse moors. If there are too many harriers on a moor the shoot becomes uneconomic, the gamekeepers lose their jobs, and numbers of ground-nesting birds decline, including ones of conservation concern such as waders. The Joint Raptor Study and subsequent studies at Langholm demonstrated that this situation can really happen and is no exaggeration.
Diversionary feeding means providing alternative food to hen harriers
during the two to three months when they are breeding so that they kill
fewer red grouse chicks. (Photo credit: Laurie Campbell)
Q: So what can be done?
A: Now, after 15 years of talks, 20 reports, three governments and six years of mediated conflict resolution talks, the aim is to implement the Defra Hen Harrier Action Plan, published in January 2016. This plan recognises the source of the conflict, and brings together several approaches to mitigate it. The combination of diversionary feeding, brood management, winter and roost protection, reintroduction into previously occupied areas, population monitoring, and increased intelligence and prosecution efforts offers the best solution to resolve this divisive issue.
Photo credit: Laurie Campbell