by Adrian Blackmore

The news that hen harriers are to be bred in captivity for the first time in England, and released on Salisbury Plain in order to improve the range and conservation status of the species, has been welcomed by the Countryside Alliance. 

Although hen harriers were once found across upland and lowland Britain, and still visit southern England in the winter months, they have never re-established themselves as a breeding species in southwest Britain, or switched to the lowland habitats they once occupied prior to their original decline in the 1800s. With the exception of just a handful of birds, their southerly range expansion has stalled at the uplands of northern England.

In a project that is being run by Natural England, in partnership with the International Centre for Birds of Prey, six male and six female hen harriers have now been brought from France and Spain to form breeding pairs. The young birds will begin breeding next spring, with the aim being to release at least 100 birds over the next five years. We will be monitoring their progress with keen interest.

The reintroduction of hen harriers to southern England is one of the six component parts of Defra’s Hen Harrier Action Plan which was published in 2016, the purpose of which is to understand and reverse the decline of hen harriers in England. It is central to the plan to increase the English hen harrier population, and it is underpinned by the approach to species reintroduction published by Defra in its 25-year Environment Plan. However, whilst the reintroduction of a species is an internationally recognised conservation tool, the RSPB does not support its use when it comes to the hen harrier. Indeed, despite being flatly denied by the RSPB, there is clear evidence that they were responsible for preventing Natural England’s southern reintroduction of hen harriers using chicks from Spain in 2019.

Correspondence from Defra and Natural England that was obtained by the Countryside Alliance under the Freedom of Information Act clearly showed that someone within the RSPB prevented that reintroduction from happening. This was despite Natural England having all the necessary infrastructure and personnel in place at Parsonage Farm on Salisbury Plain to receive the first hen harriers from Spain in 2019, some £300,000 of public money having been allocated to the project in 2017/18 and 2018/19, and the support of local landowners.

The RSPB has likewise attempted to stop the trial brood management of hen harriers, another key part of the Hen Harrier Action Plan, and one that has done more than anything else to increase the population of the species. This year saw 119 hen harrier chicks fledged successfully from 34 nests across the uplands of Northern England, with a total of 344 chicks now fledged since Natural England issued its first licence for the brood management trial in 2018. That is three more than the total of 331 chicks fledged during the previous 18 years. Given the considerable success of brood management, we were extremely pleased that in November 2021, the Court of Appeal upheld the decision of the High Court to dismiss legal challenges that had been bought against the trial by the RSPB, the High Court dismissing their application on all the seven grounds they argued.

With their sabotaging of Natural England’s southern introduction of hen harriers in 2019, and last year’s legal challenge of the trial brood management, the RSPB is clearly trying to disrupt the efforts of those that are working in partnership to improve the hen harrier’s range and conservation status. It is unfortunate that whilst they should be one of the main players in this, they have become little more than an unhelpful hindrance.

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