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RSPB must recognise the valuable contribution made by moorland managers

This article, written by Tim Bonner, Chief Executive of the Countryside Alliance, was first published in the Shooting Times.

I tend to develop a Zen-like focus when fishing lochs and llyns for wild trout that excludes everything that is not relevant to flies and fish. This can lead to heart-stopping moments when interruptions appear from outside my zone of concentration.

I can still feel the shock of the moment the water exploded in front of me as I fished the Gorm Loch under the vertical north face of Ben Armine in Sutherland on a stormy September day. Stunted black trout were coming regularly to my flies as I crept along the precipitous shore, but the huge eruption could only have been caused by a monster rising from the depths of that remote, haunted loch. It was just a fraction of a second before the leviathan revealed himself to be my two-year-old springer who had fallen from the cliff 6ft above my head, but that was quite long enough to repent of all my many sins and pray to multiple gods for forgiveness.

Similarly, I was fishing Loch Calder in Caithness a few years later on a much finer day when the sky seemed to tear apart and a dark shape hit the calm waters of the loch like a bomb. A huge bird skimmed over my head, banked over the spreading ripples and turned to reveal the white ring above its tail that identified it as a female hen harrier.

As it departed the head, then the body of a mallard duck appeared from the centre of the explosion. She surfaced and swam in circles just a few yards from me, quacking loudly for some minutes in a way that I have never seen a mallard behave before or since. I may be unjustifiably transposing human emotions, but I am quite certain that this was a reaction of shock and confusion at her narrow escape from her awesome huntress.

The hen harrier is an extraordinary bird and simply to watch one hunting is a privilege. That privilege is one more and more people in England are enjoying as the breeding population has grown in recent years. The RSPB recently published a survey that showed a 1,150% increase in breeding in England in the past eight years, but despite this growth it is not happy.

In fairness to the RSPB, there is a long history of conflict between the hen harrier and grouse shooting interests, originating in that Victorian attitude of eradicating everything with a hooked beak. This conflict became even more challenging with the publication of research carried out jointly by the RSPB and the GWCT on Langholm Moor in Dumfriesshire in the 1990s, which confirmed the worst fears of the shooting community as a growing population of hen harriers made the moor completely unviable for grouse shooting.

Essentially, that research put some keepers in a position where they perceived they had to choose between the future of their way of life and obeying the law. That was an inimical position and one the Hen Harrier Recovery Plan sought to remove. By introducing an option for hen harrier chicks from nests close to existing pairs to be removed and reared in captivity, alongside action on law enforcement, the monitoring of breeding and roost sites, satellite tracking and diversionary feeding, the plan addressed the causes of persecution, as well as persecution itself.

That plan has worked, despite the RSPB’s active attempts to derail it, which is why there are far more hen harriers breeding in England, and most of them are breeding on grouse moors. Sadly, however, as far as the RSPB is concerned the hen harrier has become primarily a stick with which to beat grouse shooting and moorland management with, rather than a species to be conserved. That is why its response to its own findings that hen harrier populations are growing is to focus, again, on allegations of persecution by grouse shooting interests.

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