What next for hen harrier conservation in England?

Written by Henrietta Appleton, Policy Officer (England)

A recent article in the Guardian (8th April) about the Bermuda triangle for hen harriers typifies the debate surrounding hen harrier conservation and the nature of this ‘human-wildlife conflict’. 

Human-wildlife conflicts occur when wild animal species cause economic damage to legitimate human activities such as crop destruction by elephants in Africa. Such situations are a global phenomenon and have led to the IUCN producing some important guidelines on their resolution based on achieving coexistence i.e. “to share landscapes and natural resources with wildlife in sustainable ways”. The complexity of human-wildlife conflicts deepens when one or more of the species involved are in need of conservation. Differing attitudes between different members of society can lead to polarisation, resulting in a ‘human-human conflict over wildlife’. 

In the UK one manifestation of this is the conflict between the conservation of the hen harrier and the driven shooting of red grouse Lagopus lagopus scotica, a wild game bird that is a sub-species of the Willow Ptarmigan Lagopus lagopus and unique to our isles. Red grouse is at risk of decline if its habitat and predators are not actively managed. Management for driven grouse shooting seeks to maintain population levels such that a harvestable surplus can be shot for the plate.  The income from driven shooting finances the habitat and predation management that has been proven to not only benefit red grouse but also a range of other species (both animal and plant), including the hen harrier. Given that hen harriers prey on red grouse, this presents a challenge that needs to be overcome in the interests of both species.

Key to the resolution of the hen harrier-red grouse conflict is a consensus over what coexistence looks like and recognition that the English trial hen harrier brood management scheme has had early success. Since 2018 an innovative brood management licence has been available to land managers and a blog by Natural England in September 2023[1] reported that hen harrier numbers are at record levels, underpinned by the success of the Brood Management Trial[2]. This is supported by the recent RSPB Hen Harrier Survey, which found that there has been a large increase in hen harriers in England, up from 4 pairs in 2016 to 50 pairs in 2023 (fledging 141 chicks). The Brood Management Trial is one of the actions within Defra’s Hen Harrier Action Plan and an example of collaboration between Natural England and grouse moor managers who participate by reporting and protecting nests, putting out extra food for adult birds and monitoring winter roost sites.

Wildlife crime and the illegal killing of birds of prey in particular is a subject of passion for many and by trying to further the debate we are taking a risk.  But risks need to be taken to try and move the narrative forward.  The IUCN Guidelines were written for this reason. The groundbreaking and so far successful ongoing work to resolve the hen harrier-red grouse wildlife conflict in England would be a perfect opportunity to adopt the IUCN’s guidelines.

It is frustrating to many land managers and landowners in game management that there are still those acting to undermine the beneficial work achieved in hen harrier conservation.  The 2022 RSPB Bird Crime Report released last November (Birdcrime 2022 (rspb.org.uk)) asks when will the killing stop?  Whilst all conservation organisations, including the GWCT which continually condemns such crimes, wishes the answer to that to be tomorrow; probability and statistics tell us that it is unlikely that any crime, from speeding motorists to murder, will ever be eradicated totally.  

So given the hen harrier population gains, it is disappointing that a total absence of bird crime remains the line in the sand for many in relation to raptor conservation.  As the 2022 Bird Crime Report stated “The chronic persecution of Hen Harriers in England will continue to hamper the recovery of the species unless significant regulation is introduced”. This statement belies any acceptance of the voluntary progress on population recovery that has been made to date, with or without chronic persecution and without any regulation change.  

This is not to excuse or detract from the fact that the illegal killing of hen harriers is associated with grouse moor management (but there is often no attempt made to explain that the habitats preferred by hen harriers overlap largely with grouse moors, as evidenced by the fact that the two Special Protection Areas in England that cite hen harriers as a special designated feature are dominated by moorland managed for grouse). That is why the Hen Harrier Action Plan was created and why the grouse moor management community has worked with Natural England and others to work out a solution to the conflict in the form of the Brood Management Trial.

With numbers at a 200-year high, the focus should now be on how the successes achieved demonstrate that it should be possible for a solution to be found to this human-wildlife conflict.  Given the rate of increase over the last five years, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that hen harriers could achieve favourable conservation status in England in the near future given suitable weather conditions at breeding time, sufficient prey resources and continued brood management under a Conservation Licence.  More Hen Harriers inevitably risks creating more conflict so what are we doing to think ahead and ensure that coexistence persists?

By outlining the differing perspectives on this issue – the crimes and the conservation successes – this blog hopes that progress can be made in reaching a solution to this complex, polarised and multi-layered conflict (which incidentally are features of almost all human-human conflicts over wildlife).  A stalemate created by the polarity of views risks the conservation of hen harriers, as well as of the rest of the moorland suite of wildlife that benefits from privately funded ‘consequential conservation’ management for red grouse.  

So surely the formulation of a sustainable conflict and coexistence framework for hen harrier conservation using the recent IUCN guidelines, that meets the needs of all stakeholders, is the way forward?  At the moment, with the uncompromising tone of certain protagonists’ voices, that seems a distant wish – but unlike the vain hope that all bird crime will stop, it is at least a positive action that should be pursued.


RSPB reserves and grouse moors

at 16:34 on 23/05/2024 by C.Dent

WBW - you mention RSPB wilderness. Here is a true story for you to look into. Historically the hills around Slaggyford which include RSPB Geltsdale had about eight regular harrier nests and some big winter roost sites. Also had a decent viable grouse moor, albeit never a record breaker. The area also had a few foxes. In the mid 1990s new managers took over the biggest grouse moor and renamed it. Since then there is no foxes and predators in valley but there are huge numbers of grouse. But the winter roost of harriers is more or less obsolete and the only harrier nests throughout those hills are one or sometimes two on RSPB ground which volunteers guard 24/7. Harriers go missing and are found dead on the neighbouring grouse moors. Please don't patronise any of us who have lived through these years of grouse moor intensification as to what the problem is. The GWCT may wring their hands but they have done nothing to challenge these people and their greed and their wrongdoing.

hen harrier conservation

at 22:00 on 21/05/2024 by nicolas jewers

its clear from claudia watts response that her chief interest is to attack game shooting over and above the welfare of the hen harrier or red grouse

GWCT is spinning us around in circles again

at 17:48 on 21/05/2024 by C.Dent

Cut to the chase there is only one solution and we all know it. You cannot have big grouse numbers if you leave the harriers alone - harriers are protected and the public want them protected, so that leaves the only other variable - to NOT have big bags of grouse. People need to accept smaller bags of grouse but pay just as much for their days shooting so that theres still an income to offset the management of the moors. GWCT should grasp the nettle and advocate that paying guns move to smaller expectations and more appreciation of their day as a whole. Face down the greedy elements and stop weaving the 'its complicated narrative' to delay facing up to hard facts. Clock is ticking now to avoid a ban.


at 11:55 on 21/05/2024 by WBW

A well written piece that obviously uses tested scientific research . Walked up shooting is fine , it also generates an income to estates. However , in bumper years of grouse ,walked up shooting will not achieve the numbers necessary to avoid a potential crash due to disease . The moorland managed for driven grouse shooting has a plethora of wildlife ,plants and insects . Perhaps Claudia Watts should take some time to visit a well managed moor to experience the wealth of waders and other ground nesters. Something she will certainly not see at any RSPB wilderness. She should also try seeing the bigger picture , shooting driven grouse is the end game . The management of the moors and the wildlife we seek to conserve is why we do this job. Gamekeepers love Wildlife .....FACT .


at 20:08 on 16/05/2024 by Keith Cowieson

What next for HH conservation should be the rapid roll-out of the other neglected pillar in NE's HHAP, the Southern England Reintroduction of 'head-started' HHs from continental Europe, where they nest in arable fields and are consequently at risk from agricultural operations.. This would complement the successful brood management scheme, hopefully keep 'head-started' birds hefted to southern agricultural areas away from the grouse moors, and may help increase the UK gene pool. Where are we with the Southern Reintroduction programme?

Follow the science

at 12:53 on 16/05/2024 by Matthew Hay

How much time have you spent on former grouse moors in Scotland? Parts of the Cairngorms now have really strong populations of hen harriers and plenty of red grouse. Not enough for a DGS shootable surplus, but healthy, robust populations at closer to natural levels and probably enough for a few walked up days! BG populations also increasing in these same places, in part due to natural regeneration of woodland and scrub in places. In fact, I sometimes come across coveys of red grouse having a fine old time in the branches of old Scots pine. That's the key distinction here. Does red grouse need DGS to thrive? No. Does DGS seek to create an excessive shootable surplus? Probably, yes. I'm all for moorland management, esp. predator control where it's required, but walked up grouse has to be the model we seek to emulate so we can strike a better balance between moorland management and the wider environment (i.e. some predators, some native trees / scrub in the uplands). How we finance that is the key question and will vary from place to place. There is also a roll for public money here. If you really want to move the narrative on, ignore the RSPB and focus on how we can finance a lighter touch moorland management that allows more space for other upland species and habitats, while maintaining some predator control for GNBs, and (in most years) a surplus fit for some walked up grouse days.

Hen Harriers.

at 15:56 on 15/05/2024 by MICHAEL BAINES

I think Claudia above misses the point. It is well managed grouse moors that let the Harriers increase along with a great many other plants, insects, birds and animals. I suggest that she visits a well managed moor with one of the owners and then an unmanaged moor such as those owned by such as the RSPB and compare the difference.

Hen Harriers

at 11:39 on 15/05/2024 by Claudia Watts

As I very much doubt that any grouse moor landowner is relying on that land for the survival of his family, as subsistence farmers may be in Africa, I think this is a ridiculous analogy to choose. Your argument, basically, is that you want to be able to charge people to kill the surplus birds that would otherwise be feeding Hen Harriers, No-one is going to starve for want of grouse on their plate. If Hen Harriers are not taking the birds that you want to eat (as a luxury), then they will be eating something else - unless some law-breaker takes it upon themselves to kill them, that is. You therefore think you should be shooting other things in order to stop that - and the vicious circle continues. The best solution is to stop driven grouse shooting altogether and not to take an unsustainable number of grouse from the moors. Leave them to their natural predators.

Hen Harriers

at 10:46 on 15/05/2024 by Jules Whicker

I found this an impressively well-articulated piece. It explains and contextualises the situation and proposes practical routes to resolution. Exasperation at those whose agenda promotes "human-human conflict over wildlife" is conveyed, but is kept within the bounds of reasoned argument and a scientific approach that aims to achieve positive outcomes for both wildlife and humans and is an example to everyone who would be involved.

Hen Harriers

at 9:14 on 15/05/2024 by Paul White

An excellent piece, based on pure science, expertise and common sense! When will the likes of RSPB and Wild Justice do their own research (which will give the same results as GWCT), instead of being so anti driven grouse shooting based on nothing more than perceived class differences. Politics has no place in Conservation.

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