Countryside Alliance Executive Chairman Barney White-Spunner writes: There are hundreds of thousands of hen harriers in the world. Hundreds of pairs breed in Scotland, dozens in Wales, but very few in England. There is nothing new about the lack of breeding hen harriers in England, they have been very rare for a hundred years or more. Nor is there any doubt about the original reason for their absence as they have never been popular either with gamekeepers or poultry farmers and, as a ground nesting species, are particularly vulnerable to persecution and predation.
In modern, enlightened times the rarity of the hen harrier in England has become an obvious issue and given their preference for nesting in heather moorland (in the UK at least) the conflict between hen harriers and grouse moor management has become a flashpoint. This conflict was emphasised by research carried out at Langholm in the 1990s where two hen harrier nests grew to a colony of 20 and driven grouse shooting ceased. The economic impact saw a drop in income in the local community and gamekeepers lose their jobs, which in turn led to populations of ground nesting birds including the hen harriers dropping as predator control and habitat management ceased.
Any solution to the current impasse therefore requires a plan which addresses not just persecution, but also the causes of persecution and for that reason Defra brought moor owners, gamekeepers and conservation groups together to produce a Hen Harrier Joint Recovery Plan. The plan has been completed and proposes action on persecution, monitoring and satellite tracking, diversionary feeding of hen harriers, possible reintroductions across suitable habitat in England and temporary relocation of chicks to aviaries where nests are in close proximity. The logic of chick relocation, or brood management, is that it removes the threat of colonies of hen harriers making grouse moor management uneconomic and gamekeepers redundant.
There are many other challenges facing hen harrier reintroduction in England, but the recovery plan has the potential to kick start a growth in the hen harrier population which, if it might never match that of raptor species such as the buzzard and red kite, would make the hen harrier a more common sight in English skies.
As yet Defra has been reluctant to publish the full plan, which is why we are backing an online petition calling for its publication. Releasing the report will enable everyone to properly understand the best way forward for hen harriers, and for grouse and those whose livelihoods depend on them.
Sign the e-petition here: http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/67527