Why are the RSPB trying to veto the Hen Harrier plan?

Hen -Harrier -wwwdavidmasonimagescom 600

By Ian Coghill, GWCT Chairman

The RSPB trustees are so opposed to the plans to increase Hen Harrier numbers in the English uplands by a variety of means, including brood management and re-introduction, that since Defra and Natural England have not backed down and adopted the position demanded by the RSPB, they will use a fraction of their enormous resources to try to force them to do so by way of judicial review.

GWCT position on plans to increase Hen Harrier numbers

First, it must again be made clear that I and the trustees and staff of the GWCT are utterly opposed to the illegal killing of Hen Harriers. In my opinion, anyone who thinks about lifting a finger against a Hen Harrier would not only be engaged in serious criminality and compromising a rare species but committing the gravest disservice to grouse shooting and the manifest conservation and economic benefits that grouse moor management brings to the English uplands.

That said, it should also be made clear that the GWCT wholeheartedly supports:

1) the use of brood management to increase the numbers of Hen Harriers in England and
2) also supports the re-introduction of birds sourced from Europe into suitable sites in the south of England.

The RSPB is opposed to both these courses of action but, as yet, appears to be limiting the recourse to judicial review to the brood management element of Defra’s Joint Action Plan. Let us deal with that first.

Brood Management - some important points are misunderstood

1) Brood management kills nothing.
2) The eggs are not destroyed and the chicks are not killed.
3) They are reared to maturity and released into the wild.
4) The chances of reaching maturity will be greater for a brood-managed egg than one left in a natural nest.

Like all ground-nesting birds, Hen Harriers are subject to predation by the full suite of mammalian and avian predators. The nature of the nest site, and the long time the chicks stay in it, makes them particularly vulnerable to predators like foxes and stoats that hunt by scent, but they may also be killed by a wide range of avian predators ranging from corvids such as carrion crows and ravens to eagles and peregrines.

So what is brood management?

  • It is the removal of eggs or chicks from a nest site and looking after them until they are either ready to be returned to the nest as eggs at point of hatch, or released into the wild as parented chicks or mature, independent birds.
  • Harriers are already successfully and repeatedly brood managed elsewhere in Europe. In France, this is done simply to enable farmers to harvest their corn.
  • It is not a novel concept invented in England. We simply don’t know if it will work here for Hen Harriers, but a trial makes sense to the GWCT.

Brood management will not harm a single bird and, based on the best available evidence, will result in the managed broods having a substantially greater chance of reaching maturity than if they had been left in the nest.

Is this not what the RSPB do to help the spoon-billed sandpiper?

Yes. The spoon-billed sandpiper faces many challenges, including being trapped and shot for food and having its habitat polluted and destroyed. The eggs of this appallingly rare bird are taken from their nests in Asia and flown to a secure location in England, where they are hatched and reared. The survivors are then flown back around the world and released in the hope that they won’t be eaten or starve in degraded and polluted habitats.

Obviously, if you are taking the government to judicial review for licensing people to rear and release harriers a few miles from their natal site, doing brood management on a global scale yourself might be seen as hypocritical. Whilst the RSPB call this process “head starting”, it is very hard to see a difference to the proposed brood management – which also gives Hen Harriers a head start.

When I first looked at the project website, the gravest risk to these charming birds was “illegal killing”. Since then this reference seems to have disappeared. It is unclear whether this is because the RSPB has solved the problem on the other side of the planet, or whether such frankness might inhibit the plan to re-designate what seems to a lot of observers to be a clear manifestation of brood management.

Lack of clarity about RSPB’s position on brood management

  • For years its position was that brood management would be acceptable once the English Hen Harrier population reaches a certain level. The level varied depending on who you were speaking to, but there was no indication that brood management was completely unacceptable.
  • Conversely, there are statements a good deal more combative. One, for example, stated that: “The idea that brood management is about hen harriers is nonsense. It is about facilitating unsustainably intensive land management, which is destroying the uplands. To be clear, RSPB is implacably opposed to this.”

It is worth considering this important statement in some detail.

1) Brood management is part of a much larger Hen Harrier recovery plan, and it is intended to increase the numbers of Hen Harriers in England in a well-dispersed sustainable manner. To say that it is not about Hen Harriers is simply silly.

2) Brood management will not harm a single bird and, based on the best available evidence, will result in the managed broods having a substantially greater chance of reaching maturity than if they had been left in the nest. It is a trial, for goodness’ sake. Why not give it a chance?

Grouse moor sustainability?

The RSPB has, for years, been working in partnership with; the GWCT, Scottish Natural Heritage, the Buccleuch Estate, Natural England and others, managing 30,000 upland acres outside Langholm in the Scottish Borders, as a driven grouse moor, using all the techniques legally available to other moors including burning, gritting and predator control.

If these management techniques are “unsustainable” - why did the RSPB not say so when they were helping to run the grouse moor at Langholm?

It’s hard to see partnership at work when the biggest and most powerful partner threatens to go to court when others don’t follow its shifting policy position.

Reintroduction of hen harriers to southern England?

The RSPB’s opposition  to re-introducing hen harriers, sourced from the continent, into southern Britain is bewildering. I am aware that many people will be as surprised as I was when I was informed by the RSPB that it is generally opposed to re-introducing missing native species. They have, so far, been involved in many successful reintroductions:

  • 225 sea eagles - from Norway to Scotland (1959-2010)
  • 93 red kites - from Spain & Sweden to England & Scotland (1989-1994)
  • 80 red kites - from Wales to Ireland (2008-2010)
  • 93 cranes - from Germany to Somerset (2010-2015)
  • 100 cirl buntings – from Paignton Zoo to Devon & Cornwall (2004-2011)
  • 100 corncrakes – stock from Germany and Scotland, reared at Whipsnade Zoo and released in Cambridgeshire & Norfolk (2003-2017)
  • 200 great bustards – from Russia & Spain to Wiltshire (2004-2014 - 200 was the target)
  • 75 golden eagles - from Scotland for re-introduction into Ireland (2001-2011)

Surely everything that can be done to produce more Hen Harriers should be done?

We are left with a curious situation where the main opposition to two key elements of a plan designed to revolutionise the fortunes of the Hen Harrier in England is coming from the RSPB. Surely something is wrong here.

All this anger is about a trial. Even if it works, there is no guarantee that it will continue into perpetuity. Whilst it is obvious that, if brood management results in a rapid increase in the breeding range and abundance of hen harriers there may be pressure to continue it, this is not in any way prejudged.

I can understand and share the frustration at the slow pace of progress in relation to English Hen Harriers, but surely that understandable and very human feeling should not get in the way of rational thought and action.

There exists an opportunity to create a step change in the fortunes of England’s Hen Harriers. Why not try to make it work?

Sign up to our FREE weekly newsletter

E 5253f 4b -c 128-4a 61-a 212-f 16c 094d 76f3

Join over 30,000 subscribers and keep updated on our latest research, events, news and fundraising work.

Free Weekly Newsletter

*You may change your mind any time. For more information, see our Privacy Policy.


Re: 'RSPB objection to brood meddling and southern introduction of Hen harriers' posted 15/05/2018 by Paul V Irving

at 12:45 on 18/05/2018 by Andrew Gilruth - GWCT

Paul, you are absolutely right. These common conservation techniques may not work for hen harriers in England - but it’s daft to use this as a reason not test them.

Hen Harriers

at 12:25 on 18/05/2018 by Martin Beaumont

Support GWCT position

Re: 'Brood management' posted 15/05/2018 by Jonathan Wallace

at 12:14 on 18/05/2018 by Andrew Gilruth - GWCT

Jonathan – welcome back. You are absolutely right. Brood management has been successfully used on a range of species for years. Clearly the situations in each case vary but it’s the outcome we are after – in this case more hen harriers. Those trying to halt the trial of this common conservation technique are being disingenuous.

Hen harrier

at 10:49 on 16/05/2018 by Graham Whyte

Persecution is the main problem. Land owners must know who the culprits are ? As a member of the RSPB I have some sympathy with the GWCT position. I agree with brood management. It is worth a try. I am thinking of cancelling my RSPB membership.

Rspb/ henharriers

at 22:28 on 15/05/2018 by Graham denny

I feel that the RSPB is as usual pulling out of something that gives them no political or financial gain, they pulled out of Pensthorpes reintroduction scheme in the Waveny valley Norfolk when on the verge of success .returning birds in good numbers needed predator control to allow these ground nesters a chance to repopulate naturally but rather than support wildlife they pulled out ! Pensthorpe are still doing Stirling work , RSPB are running a big business profits come first how you get there doesn’t mean the best for a species ! As a company they have some stupid strategies but within them are some good people all be it a little blinkered ! There failed turtle dove satilite tagging something that has not been taken to account because it kicks them in the teeth ! 10 doves tagged although for press only 6 of all ten 6 were killed by sparrowhawks before leaving this country 60% something they will never come out with ! RSPB you need to wake up or you will become extinctions biggest help !! Time to prove them wrong GWCT save the hen Harrier, curlew by fantastic keepering and your great knowledge , then we may have greater respect from the public !

Harriers and Brood Management

at 21:19 on 15/05/2018 by Mike Groves

Common sense and compromise are surely the only way forward with this age long harrier/grouse conflict. The proposed brood management scheme will hopefully help alleviate the ''fear factor'' created by the findings of the original Langholm Project.


at 19:48 on 15/05/2018 by Charles Dawes

All the comments, except one, are from GWCT members, like myself, with predictable comments. I am sorry that there is no comment from the RSPB itself. What is sad, is that the tone of the article shows that relations between GWCT & RSPB have completely broken down. While I quite understand the frustration, I wonder where are the people like Anthony Milbank, a grouse moor owner and member of the RSPB? Confrontation has never solved anything.

hen H

at 17:31 on 15/05/2018 by john dumont

with NO HH from the Scots border to the Yorks dales on both sides of the Pennines, and with many Grouse moors ,I'm puzzled why? RSPB owning Geltsdale has no effect. Still birds reared there die. Somebody must be responsible for the loss, why can't GCWT find an answer? Brood management sounds fine to me but if the birds are still shot or poisoned will GCWT grasp the nettle and find the villains?

Brood management

at 16:21 on 15/05/2018 by Jonathan Wallace

The comparison with brood management in Spoon-billed Sandpipers and Montagu's Harriers is disingenuous. In the case of the sandpiper, the species is at risk of global extinction and brood management is part of a multi-faceted conservation programme. Some eggs have been reared in the UK to establish a captive population as a safety net in case the species goes extinct in the wild. Others are reared in incubators in the breeding area (not flown back and forth around the world as you suggest) and released back onto the breeding grounds after they fledge as a means of boosting the numbers of young fledged, with a 400% increase achieved. This is coupled with other measures aimed at addressing the problems faced by the species on its migration and wintering grounds. In the case of the Montagu's Harrier in France, brood management is undertaken where nests have been laid in arable crops that would be at risk of destruction during harvesting. In both these cases there is a clear need in the interests of the species concerned. This is not the case with respect to the Hen Harrier on grouse moors. Unlike the combine harvesters threatening the montagu's harriers there is no legal activity on the grouse moors that should put the nest at risk. The reason for seeking to remove clutches of Hen Harrier eggs from grouse moors is not to increase hen harrier breeding success but to reduce hen harrier predation of grouse on the moor. It is in other words a kind of quid pro quo to the shooting side in exchange for not illegally killing the harriers. Unfortunately there is no guarantee that the hen harriers reared through brood management will not be bumped off illegally once they are released and wander back over the moors. I am sure the GWCT is being truthful when it says it is opposed to the illegal killing of hen harriers but the trouble is that all the other organisations representing shooting on the moors have said the same and yet it still goes on. Even if you are all being truthful it seems that you do not have it in your gift to stop the persecution and the people actually killing the birds do not care whether you are opposed or not.

Brood Management

at 15:38 on 15/05/2018 by Anthony Burnand

I would be equally interested in an answer, I'm sure there is one, maybe the competition with the Hen Harrier is a problem. Conservationist used a similar argument with using butterflies breed in captivity, and reintroducing them to area's where they once thrived. Nature is very complex: I allowed Magpies two seasons of nesting, in an area close to songbirds, where in the past, there had been much predation. It appears that rather than draw attention to themselves they hunt further afield, adding to that, they chase off Squirrels, Rats and Mustellids when patrolling their own nest. Hence songbirds benefit from the protection.

RSPB moorland birds

at 14:48 on 15/05/2018 by C Mckibbin

Did NE not recently present findings from 14 upland sites with regards to bird life among others. Did this report not show that the RSPB reserve at Geltsdale (13000 acres) had not successfully fledged a HH since 2006, the status of may waders was bottom or near bottom compared to managed grouse moors, and the most common bird was the carrion crow. Do you not think that is really about time you started to call the RSPB out for what they are and start to put an end to their oxygen of publicity by referring to their own proven inability in these areas.

Hen Harriers.

at 14:43 on 15/05/2018 by Richard Gray

I'm sure the RSPB would love to use brood management to increase Hen Harrier numbers, but it is between a rock and a hard place, if brood management was a success and numbers increased it would lose its biggest weapon to attack grouse shooting. At present illegal raptor persecution keeps the collection tins rattling and grouse shooting is the whipping boy.

RSPB objection to brood meddling and southern introduction of Hen harriers

at 14:06 on 15/05/2018 by Paul V Irving

Frankly the GWCT arguments are false, it is quite clear that the problem for HH is persecution on grouse moors, not of nests but of the birds themselves . Witness the disappeared breeding males in Bowland and Cumbria a couple of years ago. Has this changed? there is no evidence to suggest so satellite tagged birds still routinely disappear on grouse moors in circumstances strongly suggesting they are illegally killed. Under such circumstances BM is pointless and the density which triggers BM is ridiculously low at 30 times lower than moors can sustain without damage to grouse stocks. If harriers were left alone as the law requires they do not need either of these sops to the grouse industry. But then have you considered if BM fails as it surely will without a cessation of the widespread illegal killing grouse shooting will be up s**t creek with no paddle! Southern introduction is just an irrelevance to the uplands where the harriers belong. Yes attitudes in and outside of RSPB have hardened to DGS we are now all aware of the high levels of persecution required to sustain it, Look at the peregrine survey results and what is happening to Short eared Owl populations. The fig leaf of respectability for DGS is surely wilting even if the politicians cannot yet see that. Good for conservation don't make me laugh!

Hen Harriet rspb

at 13:23 on 15/05/2018 by Derek Anderson

Correct me if I have got it wrong RSPB are pressure group funded by charity donations. They are not a government organisation They should be paying more attention to the killing cats do to song birds in inner cities and elsewhere. Could it be possible this concern if raised or addressed by RSPB could be detremental to their financial funding. Time country people united and make RSPB aware that country people have managed their environment and lands for past decades successfully. Now leglasationn being imposed by Europe and supported by organisations like RSPB is causing massive declines in wildlife numbers. RSPB and others should be made aware SOMEONE actually owns the lands. Supporting the country way of life.

English Hen Harrier Increased Population Plan

at 12:15 on 15/05/2018 by C.J.Staples

RSPB's objection is entirely politically motivated, it has nothing to do with improving numbers. They are acting as bigots and hypocrites as demonstrated by GWCT evidence.

Brood management

at 12:05 on 15/05/2018 by Al Woodcock

The idea that these harriers will be located away from grouse moors seems to me to be appeasing the Landowners. And what happens when these 'relocated' birds start travelling about and cross the boundaries into intensively managed moors? Is there a guarantee that they won't be persecuted? I very much doubt it. The whole industry needs to take a stand against persecution, instead of sniping and ridiculing the RSPB and individuals who are only trying to put a stop to the illegal killing of birds of prey by highlighting it. It's a start, but where's the CA, BASC, SGA, NGO etc? Their denial, lack of response or complete silence implicates them in my opinion.

RSPB and Hen Harrier brood management

at 12:01 on 15/05/2018 by Stephen Mulliner

I hope the forthcoming judicial review hearing, if it gets as far as an oral hearing, will be used to challenge the RSPB about its apparent inconsistency regarding brood management. As indicated in the GWCT article, the three key questions are: (1) does the RSPB oppose brood management in principle? Presumably not, given its use by the RSPB to benefit the spoon-billed sandpiper. (2) assuming the answer to (1) is "no", why does the RSPB oppose the use of brood management to support the hen harrier? (3) if the answer to (2) involves a belief that the motivation for the brood management of hen harriers to boost the southern England population is to support "unsustainably intensive land management, which is destroying the uplands", what credible evidence has the RSPB that supports this assertion?

Make a comment

Cookie Policy

Our website uses cookies to provide you with a better online experience. If you continue to use our site without changing your browser settings, we'll assume you are happy to receive cookies. Please read our cookie policy for more information.

Do not show this message again