By 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 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.
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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