Challenging the claims made at Hen Harrier Day

By Andrew Gilruth, GWCT Communications Director

As Chris Packham climbed up on the Ifor Williams flatbed trailer the sky dramatically darkened. The stage, at the RSPB’s Rainham Marsh reserve in Essex, was set for another fire and brimstone Hen Harrier Day ‘address’.


This year the speech was more measured and pragmatic (the event is now in its fourth year). Perhaps the BBC has persuaded him to tone it down a bit? Either way, the sun slowly came back out.

2017 hen harrier numbers - in England

Chris, an RSPB Vice President, clarified that there are five pairs of breeding hen harriers in England this year. There should be more, but this is a remarkable achievement for a species that, a few years ago, was not breeding in England.

The speeches at these events are fascinating to me because many of those seeking to highlight the plight of hen harriers are those actively campaigning to prevent (and so now reverse) the government’s plan to recover harrier numbers.

The use of science and evidence?

Chris Packham stressed that his views are based on science and evidence. Few would disagree with some of the points made but the following stood out as a bit silly to me – they only serve to antagonise rather than find solutions:

Claim Our moorlands are drained for grouse.
Fact The government paid farmers in the 1960s and 70s to drain moors to improve the grazing for sheep and cattle. Natural England estimates that this has now been reversed on 18,000 hectares of grouse moorland. 

Claim There is no ambiguity in the scientific evidence that heather burning is damaging.
Fact Across Europe scientists are promoting the reintroduction of burning – to protect and restore globally rare heathland and moorland. Best practice on burning is informed by this growing body of scientific literature, much of it emerging from the UK. The range of scientific views has been reported before here and here.

Claim The protection of ground-nesting birds, like curlew, from predators can’t be justified because it requires the removal of all predators.
Fact During our ten-year predation study, which achieved dramatic results, fox numbers were reduced by 43% and crows by 78%. Neither were completely removed.

Claim All mountain hares are removed on grouse moors.
Fact Mountain hares thrive on grouse moors. They do, however, decline locally where favourable habitat such as former grouse moors have been turned into forestry or the heather has been removed by excessive grazing.

Claim Grouse moors cause flooding.
Fact A recent Natural England report could not find any evidence for burning increasing flood risk.

Claim There is no ambiguity in the scientific evidence of burning on water quality.
Fact Results differ depending on the length of time since burning, and the scale at which studies are performed. The possible effect of burning on water quality and amount of run-off is also complicated by interactions with other upland management, such as woodland expansion and grazing. These interactions have been little studied. More studies are required

Claim Reintroducing hen harriers to the lowlands will not solve the problem.
Fact No one has suggested it will solve everything, but reintroductions are a recognised conservation technique to expand the range of threatened species (as successfully used by the RSPB on red kites). This is why reintroductions are an important element of the government’s six-point plan to recover harriers across England.

As I walked back to Purfleet station I reflect on the misinformation and wonder why so many, including the RSPB, let it go unchallenged? Perhaps the organisers might consider letting me speak one year? I asked BAWC. No response.

I tweeted a picture of the event. Someone responded with a picture from BBC Countryfile Live at Blenheim Palace – the gamekeeping stand had more visitors. The wider public appear more interested in engaging with keepers than some suggest.

If you would like to read more about the current science (and what is simply not yet known) on grouse shooting and moorland management, do follow this link to our new publication.

TWThe Moorland Balance - Cover

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Grouse moors

at 12:29 on 07/11/2017 by David Stewart

With reference to Alec's comments saying Chris Packham and The RSPB are causing damage to wildlife is in fact is just another ill informed biased point of view, Wherever a grouse moor exists there is an imbalance in nature. I for one can never understand why people take pleasure in killing e.g. a grouse, but one thing's for sure, that one day ( and that day will eventually come) driven grouse shooting will certainly be banned and the sooner the better.

Hen Harrier Day

at 11:17 on 28/08/2017 by Simon Rogers

It is regrettable you villify the person as well as the message. Whatever Mr Packham's personal views and means of presentation, presenters should be valued for raising issues as they do. You quite fairly challenge some of the factual content and rightly call for further study. I refrain from commenting on the justification for supporting an activity unaffordable to most people, although the argument for employment could equally be applied to alternative leisure activities.

Diverse and Wealthy state of wildlife

at 15:07 on 09/08/2017 by Anthony Burnand

I am not sure how you think Chris is damaging wildlife, what I can say is that those of us who have been around a while, have noticed the horrific decline in wildlife, particularly insects and wild flowers. The set-aside scheme spelt disaster for wildlife where it was left for three years, waiting for wildlife to move in before being plowed up. Grasses and wildflowers are mowed in August, which is totally mad. Red Kites are everywhere now, there were never any in southern England 15 years ago, But what every body forgets or ignores is developments for housing and roads, that is why we now need to protect many species of game that were once plentiful. The GWCT & RSPB should join forces, and fight the urban spread.

Adverse publicity

at 14:23 on 09/08/2017 by John Preston

I have lived on the edge of the North York Moors all my life and I have spent a great deal of time walking, cycling, camping and touring this beautiful part of the English Countryside. The fact that grouse shooting was going on has always been abundantly clear to me but until I retired from full time employment in 2015 I had no idea of the massive scale of, and the numbers of people working in support of the industry. My first taste of grouse shooting came on the 12th August 2015 when via a friend, I went beating on one of the local estates. I had no real idea what to expect and I was subsequently astounded by the number of people employed in support of the eight or nine individuals who had paid handsomely for the privilege of taking part in the shoot that day. I would not argue that the actual sport of shooting game birds is predominantly for the rich, who, as I have said pay highly for the privilege. But those individuals (who incidentally come from all over the world and I have personally met people from America, Australia and Russia) would not come if the necessary support provided by a huge network of ‘ordinary people’ was not in place. What level of support am I talking about? I can only guess at the actual numbers involved but again from personal experience I can provide a general oversight in respect of the estate where I have worked in support during the last two grouse shooting seasons. I know very little about the general running of the estate in question, which goes on in the background but to give you an idea there are six gamekeepers in full time employment and on a shoot day they can be joined by as many as sixty beaters, perhaps ten individuals who work their dogs to retrieve birds which have been shot as well as drivers, caterers and loaders. The employment issue is hugely important, on the estate where I have worked, shooting does not take place every day during the season but a large proportion of the beaters do work on a number of different estates and so individuals can be in paid employment six days per week. Once the grouse shooting season has come to an end many of those who have been involved go on to work in support of pheasant and partridge shooting and hence can be in full time tax paying employment for six months of the year. Their only source of employment! The League Against Cruel Sports previously sought to ban the shooting birds for sport as they believed the number of birds being shot and environmental damage being caused did not justify the existence of what they stated was basically a hobby. The actual act of shooting birds for sport may well be a hobby for the person pulling the trigger but a huge number of people are in gainful employment supporting the hobbyist and vast amounts of money are ploughed into the rural economy as a direct consequence. The League jointly launched a government petition in 2016 with Dr Mark Avery and Chris Packham calling for a ban on driven grouse shooting. I understand this is a highly emotive topic and draws out a lot of feeling and as a consequence the petition received a great deal of support, which triggered a debate in Parliament. I was pleased the debate highlighted how much support there is for shooting among MPs, who took in to account the bigger picture. The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust have taken a much more pragmatic and less emotive approach to the debate about shooting of birds for sport and their conclusions are based on years of research and not on emotions. They wholeheartedly support grouse moor management stating: “After spending 46 years researching and advising in the uplands, we support grouse moor management for three primary reasons: 1. The habitat management undertaken on grouse moors preserves and enhances heather-dominated habitats. 2. The package of management, notably habitat enhancement along with predator control, contributes to the conservation of a suite of upland bird species including upland waders. This preservation of habitat and its wildlife thus stems national declines which have been driven by land-use change, predation pressure and climate change. 3. This is a land use which delivers high nature conservation value but is funded primarily by private investment and supports local communities economically, socially and culturally.” I will concede, because there is irrefutable evidence, that some ‘old school’ gamekeepers have taken unlawful steps to eradicate predators by poisoning and trapping them in efforts to protect the stock of grouse on the moorland they manage. I do firmly believe however again from my own observations that the modern keepers are in much better harmony with nature in general and are prepared to tolerate natural hunting especially by the rarer species of raptor. I have walked the North Yorkshire moors all my life and in relation to birds of prey not until the last two years, when I’ve been working on the grouse moor have I seen Harriers, Merlin and Peregrine falcons (as well as the more common species). The birds of prey are there because the moorland is efficiently and properly managed. Yes, to protect grouse stocks the gamekeepers do trap and kill stoats, foxes, crows and seagulls for example but in targeting these predators the ‘keepers are also protecting all the other moorland ground nesting birds, for example the Curlew, which is in decline in certain areas. Are the benefits of grouse shooting widely recognised? Possibly not as widely as they could be but thankfully in response to the last petition to ban driven grouse shooting, the UK government released a statement recognising that: “When carried out in accordance with the law, grouse shooting for sport is a legitimate activity and in addition to its significant economic contribution, providing jobs and investment in some of our most remote areas, it can offer important benefits for wildlife and habitat conservation”. The grouse shooting industry is vitally important and of benefit to the moorland environment and the rural economy.


at 10:13 on 09/08/2017 by Peter Summers

Here at Sherborne we had Chris for two weeks doing Spring Watch. His attitude changed during this time. He was surprised how much conservation farmers were doing with the resulting increase in bird,insect,and mammal numbers. He ended up urging the public to support farmers by buying British produce. Single interest groups get far too much publicity and Farming Groups and organisations need to do more to have their voice heard.

Chris Packham

at 16:05 on 08/08/2017 by alec

Whether Packham is well intentioned, I'm not sure. I remain quite certain that he and the rspb between them have the capacity to cause more damage to wildlife in the UK than did DDT in the 1950s. I've yet to hear one person who's opposed to fieldsports explain to me how our wildlife reached it's diverse and wealthy state today, and without the influence of Hunting and Shooting.

HH Day

at 15:34 on 08/08/2017 by Tim

Andrew, as ever a well written and measured blog. I think you know why the "fake news" on grouse shooting and upland management is left uncorrected by organisations such as the RSPB because it helps to further their aims and potentially raise funds. It would be wonderful if they would let you speak at one of these events but I doubt that would happen. It wasn't that long ago that the National Gamekeepers' Organisation had Martin Harper speaking at their AGM, at least one side are open to hear what the other has to say.

Media coverage

at 15:32 on 08/08/2017 by Paul Timson

This is an excellent counter to Packham's spin on grouse shooting and management. How then do we get such knowledge out to the wider media and public?

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