Adrian Blackmore, Director of Shooting for the Countryside Alliance writes: The recently published results of the 2016 hen harrier breeding survey show a decline of 13% in territorial pairs since the previous survey was undertaken in 2010, and the RSPB claims that illegal killing is the simple reason for the hen harrier’s low numbers. It is not denied that illegal persecution is one of the factors that has contributed to the decline in hen harrier numbers, and the Countryside Alliance wants to see improved enforcement to stamp out this criminality. However, new data on the cyclical nature of breeding success in England and the decline in breeding numbers across areas with no shooting interests show that the situation is not so easily explained, so tackling wildlife crime is only one, albeit vital, part of the solution. No one benefits from the RSPB blaming the whole problem on shooting, especially not the hen harrier.

When a population of a species goes down it becomes even more vulnerable to those factors that can impact on its numbers, whether it is illegal killing, the availability of prey, predation, or weather. Using figures provided by Natural England, the Countryside Alliance has produced the following table which shows a clear cyclical nature for hen harrier breeding success in England over the last 30 years. The number of breeding attempts, successful nests, and number of chicks fledged during each of those years, and the peaks and lows, show a distinct pattern. As illegal persecution does not tend to be cyclical, other factors simply must be contributing to this.


There is no driven grouse shooting on the Isle of Man, so the RSPB state in their findings that the hen harrier population on the Isle of Man has remained stable over the past six years. Yet for reasons that remain unexplained they fail to highlight the 47% (27) decline in hen harrier numbers on the island over the last twelve years.

There is also no driven grouse shooting on Skye or Orkney. On Skye, where their breeding success was studied from 2000 – 2012, there were 88 breeding attempts, 47 of which resulted in nest failures. Further evidence and post-mortem examinations showed that between 2009 and 2012, 65% of nest failures had been due to predation by foxes. And on Orkney, only 34% of territorial females reared chicks between 2011 and 2012, with 66% failing to breed successfully.

Defra’s Hen Harrier Action Plan provides us with the best opportunity to understand and reverse the decline of the hen harrier in England, with all the component parts of that plan having a vital role to play. And the approach needs to be one that is both collective and collaborative. It is therefore ironic that the one organisation to have walked away from that plan just seven months after it was published, and before it could possibly have had a chance of producing any tangible results, is the organisation that is dividing opinion by pointing fingers. The RSPB is at its best when it is proactive, optimistic and collaborative. It is working with all other stakeholders to try and help the recovery of our breeding curlew, the latest species to join the red list, and one that has declined by 46% across the UK in just 25 years. Yet its attitude to the hen harrier is inexplicably different, and this negativity is preventing it from joining the cooperative efforts to reverse the fortune of our hen harriers.

Adrian Blackmore
Director of Shooting
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