The success of the human species inevitably brings us into conflict with wildlife, from hunter gatherers, to the first farmers growing their own crops and domesticating animals, to the endlessly growing population of our modern world taking up ever more space and resources. Increasingly we manage those conflicts through legislation designed to protect wildlife, but whilst passing legislation is one thing enforcing laws that are perceived to create a threat to a way of life is another. Whether it is elephants destroying crops in Africa, tigers killing villagers in India or wolves taking livestock in Scandinavia there are some conflicts which cannot be resolved just by the law.
One of the most intractable conflicts in the UK has been that involving the hen harrier. This fabulous bird of prey was persecuted relentlessly because of its penchant for raiding domestic poultry flocks (the clue is in the name) as well as taking game birds, especially the red grouse. As a ground nesting bird the hen harrier was especially vulnerable and as grouse moor management developed in the second half of the 19th century the hen harrier was wiped out as a breeding species on mainland Britain with just the odd pair nesting in the outer Hebrides. After the Second World War the population started to grow with many hundreds of pairs now breeding in Scotland, dozens in Wales, but with still just a few in England. However, the limited success of the species in areas where moorland is managed for grouse suggests that despite legal protection hen harriers are still being killed.
A joint RSPB/ Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust research project at Langholm in the Scottish Borders sought to find a way through the conflict, but unfortunately highlighted one of the key reasons why that conflict exists. Hen harriers breed in colonies and as a colony developed at Langholm driven grouse shooting became unsustainable and the gamekeepers who managed the moor were laid off. The stark illustration of the impact of hen harriers on the community and economy of Langholm created another challenge.
As with other wildlife conflicts this one was never going to be resolved through legislation alone. Of course, the law should be enforced and those who break it should be punished, but lasting resolution also requires the causes of conflict to be addressed. To that end the Department for Environment (Defra) published a joint hen harrier action plan at the beginning of 2016 to address monitoring, prosecution, protection and also trialling ‘brood management’, which would allow the removal and rearing of hen harrier chicks, and subsequent release in other areas if there was the threat of a colony developing. Unfortunately the RSPB, which had been a partner in the joint action plan, withdrew within months under pressure from anti-shooting activists ludicrously claiming that the plan had failed before it had started. But others including the Hawk and Owl Trust and our colleagues at the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust and the Moorland Association carried on the plan with Defra.
Last year was the most successful breeding season for hen harriers in England for a decade and reports are again positive this year. So much so that Natural England this week announced that brood management scheme will begin this summer with active hen harrier nests meeting the conditions, and landowners willing to be part of the trial. The RSPB’s claim that the action plan had “failed” a few months after it was launched looks increasingly ridiculous and, whilst all parts of the plan need to be delivered, there are real signs of hope for the future of the hen harrier in England.