Why did the RSPB walk away from the Hen Harrier Recovery Plan?

Male -hen -harrier -wwwlauriecampbellcomBy Ian Coghill, GWCT Chairman

Martin Harper's recent statement that the RSPB is walking away from Defra’s Hen Harrier Recovery Plan is interesting and sad.

Any sensible person will share his frustration. I certainly do. It is very, very, frustrating that there are few hen harriers breeding in England this year than last. All those I know in the shooting community will be as maddened as he is by the actions of frankly stupid individuals caught apparently trying to kill hen harriers.

We can all agree about the frustration and the anger but what about the action?

The plan

The Hen Harrier Recovery Plan contained several elements. Law enforcement, monitoring breeding and roost sites, satellite tracking, diversionary feeding, re-introduction and so-called brood management, is a shorthand version of the list. Martin Harper says that because of his frustrations the RSPB has decided to walk away from the Plan and push for the licensing of grouse shooting, but what does this mean or more importantly what does it change?

Looking at the various elements in the plan, RSPB is hardly going to walk away from law enforcement, monitoring and satellite tracking. Not only is that what it does for a living, but it is being paid large sums of EU money to do it. It is therefore inconceivable that it will stop engaging with these elements of the Recovery Plan.

Diversionary feeding developed out of the joint work at Langholm and is something the RSPB has promoted widely. Was it mistaken? Is Martin really saying that they will fight any proposal to diversionary feed a nest of hen harriers? It is possible.

Faced with the repeated failure of the nests that were being monitored in Bowland last year, primarily because of lack of food provision due to the absence of males, the RSPB decided not to supplement the hens’ food supplies, so may have changed its mind.  As yet we don't know if it is so angry that it will seek to stop the good doing good in an effort to punish the bad for being bad.

Many will be as surprised as I was to learn from senior RSPB staff that they are generally unsupportive of reintroductions, although this may mainly be reintroductions conducted by organisations other than the RSPB.

Reintroducing hen harriers into suitable sites in the south of England seems morally, practically and scientifically indistinguishable from the RSPB's own introduction of Spanish red kites into England and Scotland, but in spite of this it may be that it will now more vigorously oppose any such re-introductions than would previously have been the case.

The final element, so-called brood management, where, if there is already a nesting pair of harriers on a moor, further broods could be reared in captivity for subsequent release, was always a bridge too far for RSPB.  It reserved the right to object to this taking place until the national population reached an unspecified threshold to be set at its own discretion. 

Walking away

The RSPB walking away from the Recovery Plan therefore probably changes very little in practical terms. It will still do the bits it likes doing and will still be against the bits it didn't. 

The other change, the pursuit of licensing of grouse moors is also simply another re-statement of the status quo. It was already pushing for licensing and has been for years, both in public and behind closed doors.

So what has happened? There is certainly frustration and anger but we all feel that. There are less breeding attempts than last year and far less than we wanted or hoped for, but levels have been even lower, including during the time that the RSPB were negotiating the Recovery Plan. It is odd to create a plan when numbers are at rock bottom,  and bail out when they are even marginally better.

The people who run the RSPB are clever enough to know that punishing the good to hurt the bad is not a wise route to achieve constructive and inclusive change. It may make you feel better, but the baby goes through the same window as the bath water, with predictably disastrous effects.

The answer is almost certainly political, albeit with a small p. The truth is that the RSPB never really bought into the Hen Harrier Recovery Plan. It was eventually faced with a take it or leave it moment, thanks to a Minister who was not prepared to put up with ever more equivocation, so did not want to be seen wrecking it.

The plan may well have been to carry on doing the bits it liked and try to veto the bits it didn't, if they ever arose, through the courts or Brussels. It presumably hoped that the more extreme elements in the conservation twittersphere would quietly spot the trick and not get too mad.

Sadly it was mistaken. Faced with hostility without and within and in the absence of an immediate boom in the number of breeding hen harriers, the decision has been made to cut its losses by finding a convenient reason to wash its hands of the whole business before it has to face its potential critics on Hen Harrier Day.

Does it matter? As always, yes and no. The RSPB is, as conservation organisations go, immensely rich. It has the resources and the clout to make almost anything work if it sets its mind to it. So at that level it matters a lot.

Had it really committed to the Hen Harrier Recovery Plan we could have had hundreds of pairs all over England in the next decade, in the same way that we now have hundreds of pairs of Spanish red kites. In that sense it is a disaster.

On the other hand, as it was never prepared to wholeheartedly support every element of the plan and as it would probably have tried to veto re-introductions and brood management whatever happened, its departure simply clarifies matters sooner rather than later.

Whilst I think it is a great pity, we are fortunate that there are other people with the skills in captive rearing of birds of prey in this country and moor owners remain committed to the plan.

What next for the plan?

The other partners have to carry on. Solutions to genuine conflicts are usually complex and uncomfortable and are found in the middle ground. The Recovery Plan is a classic of its kind and can, if everyone pulls together, yield enormous benefits for Hen Harriers and Grouse Shooting.

That is of course the problem. There are people who will do anything to see an end to grouse shooting. The last thing they want is a win/win outcome. I am sure that does not include the RSPB but it has already been rattled by these people who will be trying to do the same to the rest of us.

What is at stake is too important and too precious for us to be confounded by extremists from either side. We must have more hen harriers in England and soon. The Hen Harrier Recovery Plan remains the best route for achieving that end.

We must focus on more harriers and work with those who have the stamina and determination to focus on a win-win solution – a solution that is not muddied by political game playing.

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Hen Harriers - RSPB

at 10:14 on 11/08/2016 by Charles Grisedale

Why are there no breeding Hen Harriers at RSPB Geltsdale ? I would also like to know the success %age of breeding Hen Harriers at Lake Vyrnwy ,which nobody will disclose .

Grouse moor management

at 23:38 on 10/08/2016 by David Stewart

As long as there is driven grouse shooting all raptors, especially Hen Harriers will be seen as a problem to a grouse moor manager. As long as driven grouse shooting exists all our birds of prey will never be safe. The RSPB are exactly right in what they are saying and not supporting the so called ''Hen Harrier recovery project''. Any sensible person can see that this will just not work, so where do you think the young Harriers will go once they're released ? you've guessed it back to the nearest grouse moor and get shot. I'd really like you to post my comments, but as its not in your interest to do so I doubt if you will.

Harrier Persecution

at 21:40 on 10/08/2016 by Iain Gibson

It seems inevitable that Ian Coghill will know far more people in the shooting community than I do, but I have to say that in my limited experience, grouse shooters are largely hostile towards Hen Harriers. I've known quite a few gamekeepers on the local grouse moors over the past 45 years or so, and only one of them claimed to have any sympathy for harriers. I believed him at the time, but sadly he was later charged with a poisoning offence and his confiscated diary revealed the truth; he had been shooting harriers and burning nest sites all the time I knew him. So you might imagine my faith in the idea that only a minority of gamekeepers obeyed the bird protection laws was rather daunted. I went on to pursue a career as an Ecologist and spent much of my life studying the ecology of Hen Harriers. I'm not a member of RSPB, and in fact have disagreed with their policies on a number of issues, but unlike Ian Coghill I can understand why they have abandoned the so-called Recovery Plan. It might be early days, but in my opinion it was never going anywhere, and is fundamentally flawed regarding the biology of the bird. RSPB scientists must have known that, but I suspect the organisation as a whole was determined to pursue what seemed like a real opportunity to reverse the bird's fortunes by changing attitudes. However events thereafter, including the vicious tone of the debate put forward by Trumpian supporters of grouse shooting, appears to have convinced them otherwise. Without going into great detail, my main reasons for scepticism are: a) the entrenched attitude of gamekeepers (and often their employers) towards the species seems unlikely to change; b) diversionary feeding does not work in all situations; c) the so-called 'brood management' proposal would result in a breeding density down to less than a quarter of natural carrying capacity on most grouse moors; and d) the reintroduction of Hen Harrier into the English lowlands would not be feasible, as climate and prey availability are very different from the nearby European continent or anywhere else within the species' world range. Modern agriculture has long ago wiped out the former suitable habitat used throughout lowland Britain by Hen Harriers historically. Another factor affecting reintroduction into unnatural habitat is that harriers are partial migrants, but more importantly highly nomadic in their search for suitable breeding territories in spring, similar to Short-eared Owls. For ecological reasons alone, the recovery plan is bound to fail.

The RSPB was right

at 18:36 on 10/08/2016 by Jonathan Wallace

RSPB endorsement of the Hen Harrier Action plan provided the various bodies representing shooting interests in the uplands with a veneer of respectability: "Look we are all working hard together to save the Hen Harrier!". The problem is that, whether or not the shooting bodies have entered into the Plan in good faith, they are demonstrably failing to stop the persecution. Incidents continue to occur, the number of Hen Harrier nests does not increase and, somehow, the owners and management of the estates where incidents are detected are always completely in the dark about how on earth it could have happened. Under these circumstances the RSPB was right to remove its endorsement of the plan which, as Mr Coghill says does not in any case stop them from continuing to do the monitoring and law enforcement work that they have been doing since long before the plan was launched. As to reintroductions, the RSPB is right to not want to support introduction of Hen Harriers in some parts of the country if in other parts they continue to be bumped off surreptitiously, especially if the birds that were to provide the livestock for introductions were to be obtained from so called surplus broods in the north of England. If Hen Harriers are allowed to breed successfully in the North of England there is every chance they will spread on their own accord. Finally, Alan Scott's suggestion that the RSPB has done more harm to wildlife than farming is ignorant nonsense which does not stand up to even the most cursory scrutiny.

Hen Harriers - RSPB walks away

at 17:17 on 10/08/2016 by Trevor Macdonald

Im not surprised. Langholm years ago they pre leaked selective paragraphs of a report - basically throwing their toys out because they were proven wrong. I worked for the Game Conservancy many years ago, I was also a keeper. I was plagued by Goshawks reintroduced with the nod of the RSPB. The same with the Red Kites - I watched nearly 150 at a feeding site in Scotland three weeks ago - it is so so artificial and fueled by the RSPB. Many years ago I had a massive written fall out with the then Director of Conservation of the RSPB - basically RSPB stands for RAPTORS SHALL PREDOMINATE BRITAIN. Hopefully when we finally part from our European friends and the money stops dropping into the laps of the RSPB top brass, they will realise that the majority of their supporters (financial) really want to see skylarks, bullfinches, wheatears, linnets and the song thrush, wren and robin - no mileage in that for them. Trevor Macdonald (the other one)

Hen Harriers - RSPB

at 9:41 on 10/08/2016 by Charles Grisedale

A great shame that RSPB is walking away from a plan that will put more Hen Harriers on the planet . I suspect driven by politics and fund raising . I was a member but resigned this year , mainly because of the constant vilification of the shooting community , accompanied by begging letters . RSPB does a lot of good things , but is getting a little big for it's boots telling the rest of us what to do . I suggest that until there is an ethos of better compromise and co-operation with landowners , that we should cease all pleasantries , certainly by not allowing them use of our land .


at 20:08 on 09/08/2016 by Alan Scott

I have worked on the land all my working life I was born on a farm I will not support the [ RSPB] they have done more harm to wild life than farming has the RSPB is that political the top brass are there for control off nature they understand nature nor do they care the R should be removed the charity should known as spb

Why did the RSPB walk away

at 14:42 on 05/08/2016 by Ian Whittaker

As a member, I support the RSPB's decision to withdraw as I supported its decision to sign up. Arguments that include politics, whether with a small or large p are always diversionary, lazy and frankly suggest there is little substance to the case being made. The RSPB has always clearly explained its rationale for its caution about parts of the plan, basing it on the science and its experience of what works. To suggest that this is feet dragging is unfair. While it may seem reasonable to argue that this is a decision too early, this has to be balanced against another reasonable expectation that some immediate improvement in the Hen Harrier’s fortunes should have materialised. We are often told that grouse moors are havens for certain types of wildlife due to predator control. In Northern England, there is enough habitat for 300 pairs of hen harriers. Here, with grouse moor managers signed up to the action plan, delivering diversionary feeding, proactively managing moors so as not to disturb breeding attempts and giving clear instructions about codes of conduct to stop any form of persecution, surely we would see some success, even if only measured in handfuls. We have literally seen nothing of the sort. In fact, recorded incidents point to a continuation of persecution and little evidence of a proactive approach to supporting hen harrier recovery. How many English grouse moors have applied to Natural England for a license to start diversionary feeding? How many private grouse moors have invited the RSPB or other independent monitors onto their land to oversee Hen Harrier recovery? I’d be pleased to be proved wrong on this and might then change my mind that the RSPB has made a hasty decision. But it would seem that if anyone is dragging its feet and not taking the Hen Harrier Action Plan seriously, it is driven grouse shooting interests.

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