by Tim Bonner

In 2016 the RSPB walked away from the Hen Harrier Action Plan (HHAP) just seven months after it was launched claiming that there was no “immediate progress”. This week Natural England announced the highest numbers of breeding Hen Harriers in England in modern times with 31 breeding attempts, of which 24 were successful, fledging 84 chicks. It is a good thing for Hen Harriers that Natural England and the other partners stuck with the plan, which has been such an obvious success, but that success should not hide the RSPB’s regrettable behaviour.

I have written for years that resolving the Hen Harrier conflict would require us to tackle the causes of persecution, as well as persecution itself. The HHAP does both those things by supporting action to identify and prosecute those involved in persecution, but also by removing the primary driver of that persecution – the concern that semi-colonial nesting of Hen Harriers could make grouse moors unviable and put keepers out of a job and a home. The brood management element of the HHAP allows chicks from nests within 10km of an existing nest to be temporarily removed and reared of site to reduce pressure on the grouse population, and then released back to suitable habitat once fledged. It has been used sparingly in the last three breeding seasons, but its existence has helped change fundamentally change the discussion, which is reflected in this year’s very positive breeding statistics.

The conflict is certainly not over and the upward trend in Hen Harrier breeding needs to be maintained, despite another very poor grouse breeding season. Objectively, however, it is very clear that the course that was set in 2016 when the HHAP was launched was the right one and that the RSPB’s decision to withdraw from it, and even actively oppose elements of it such as the Southern re-introduction of Hen Harriers, was entirely wrong. Worse still is the clear implication that decision was much more about politics than it was about conservation. Noisy elements including the RSPB’s ex-Director of Conservation Mark Avery, who would sacrifice all the Hen Harriers in England to weaponise an argument against grouse shooting, lobbied the RSPB’s trustees to withdraw from the the HHAP and they did so with barely a whimper.

You could argue that it does not matter and that Hen Harriers are better off without the RSPB as this year’s breeding success shows. That would miss the main point, however, which is that the RSPB should be working with moorland managers and those with an interest in shooting and conservation to generate the best outcomes for Hen Harriers and every other species across the uplands and lowlands alike. Allowing prejudice against shooting, from wherever it derives, to drive its policy is a very bad look for the RSPB in exactly the same way as being blind to the issue of persecution would have been for the shooting community. Hopefully 2021 will prove to be a turning point both for the Hen Harrier and for the relationship between shooting and the RSPB.

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