This year has been the best for hen harrier breeding success in England since the 1960s, with 84 chicks fledged from 24 successful nests spread across uplands in County Durham, Cumbria, Lancashire, Northumberland and Yorkshire. Of those 24 nests, 19 (79%) were on moorland managed for grouse shooting. This is the fifth successive year of increases, following a low in 2016 when only 8 chicks fledged, and the previous two years were also record years for hen harrier breeding, as can be seen from our chart which covers the 36 year period from 1986. In the case of the numbers of chicks fledged, the increases have been dramatic.
Defra’s Hen Harrier Action Plan, published in January 2016, provides us with the best opportunity to understand the decline of the hen harrier in England, and all component parts of that plan, which includes a trial brood management scheme, have a vital role to play in reversing that decline. Although initially supportive of the Action Plan, the RSPB withdrew their support just six months after it was launched, citing their opposition both to the trial brood management scheme, and southern re-introduction of hen harriers, as their reasons for doing so. This was despite these both being internationally recognised conservation tools that the RSPB themselves use for other species, and before either of those two components could even be put in place.
It remains to be seen whether the southern re-introduction of hen harriers will be successful, as we know from correspondence obtained by the Alliance, under the Freedom of Information Act, that the RSPB took it upon themselves to prevent this from happening in 2019. The RSPB’s intervention with conservation groups in France and Spain successfully prevented Natural England from sourcing any chicks for the re-introduction that year, despite Natural England having all the necessary infrastructure and personnel in place, and some £300,000 of public money having been allocated to the project in 2017/18 and 2018/19. The covid pandemic has so far prevented subsequent reintroduction attempts.
What is abundantly clear, however, is the undoubted success of the trial brood management scheme, despite the RSPB having also initially tried to prevent this from taking place. The numbers of chicks fledged since Natural England issued its first licence for the scheme in 2018 speak for themselves.
It is extraordinary that the RSPB should have chosen not to be party to this enormous success story; one that is doing so much to help the conservation status of the hen harrier in England. This, along with its sabotaging of Natural England’s southern re-introduction programme two years ago, raises some serious questions regarding the organisation’s agenda.