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Tim Bonner: RSPB not happy about more hen harriers

The RSPB’s latest hen harrier survey shows a 1,150% increase in breeding in England in the past eight years, but it is not happy. Sadly, politics have overtaken practical conservation in the RSPB’s approach to grouse shooting and so it cannot bring itself to celebrate this great conservation success story.

You do not have to go too far back in history to get to a place where the RSPB saw moorland management for grouse as a buffer against the environmental damage that could be caused in the uplands by monoculture forestry and the intensification of livestock farming, but the society sings a different tune now.

The past 40 years have seen a wonderful resurgence in most birds of prey species as a result of legal protections and the prohibition of pesticides like DDT to the extent that many which were extremely rare then have become commonplace. However, the hen harrier, which in the UK breeds almost exclusively in moorland settings and has a long history of conflict with grouse shooting interests has been slow to recover, especially in England. This conflict became even more challenging with the publication of research carried out jointly by the RSPB and the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust on Langholm Moor in Dumfriesshire in the 1990s which seemed to confirm the worst fears of the shooting community as a growing population of hen harriers made the moor unviable for shooting.

The Westminster government's reaction to the Langholm research was to propose a recovery plan. The plan covers law enforcement, the monitoring of breeding and roost sites, satellite tracking, diversionary feeding, re-introduction and brood management. Brood management involves a scheme which allows the removal of hen harrier chicks from nests close to existing pairs. Those chicks are reared in captivity and released, which removes the potential for colonial nesting of hen harriers and the destruction of grouse moors. The plan therefore addresses the causes of persecution, as well as persecution itself.

Bizarrely the RSPB opposed the brood management scheme, withdrew from the entire hen harrier recovery project in 2016 before it had any chance of showing results, and in 2020 even persuaded its French and Spanish partners to withdraw from the project to introduce hen harriers into lowland habitats in the UK. There is only one reason that the RSPB has behaved as it has and that is because it sees hen harriers not primarily as a species to be conserved, but as a stick with which to beat grouse shooting and moorland management. 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.

Interestingly, the survey actually suggests that the one area in the UK where the hen harrier population is not growing is one where grouse shooting is almost entirely absent. The RSPB puts a drop in hen harrier numbers in Northern Ireland down to “loss of habitat, increasingly poor habitat quality, and a range of disturbances”. This decline is mirrored in the Republic of Ireland where management for grouse is also extremely rare.

When our uplands face so many challenges and so many RSPB staff privately accept that landscape scale predator control and habitat management for grouse shooting provide exactly the conditions for so many upland species to prosper, it is time the society dropped its vendetta against grouse shooting.

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