The RSPB just pulled out of a government plan to save England’s rarest bird of prey

The RSPB has pulled out of the UK government’s plan to save the country’s most endangered bird of prey, the hen harrier, declaring the controversial campaign a failure, and the charity is now calling for grouse shooting estates to be licensed, saying that is the only way to save the harrier from disappearing from England.

The Hen Harrier Action Plan was launched last January by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (defra), after four years of intense negotiation between shooters and conservation groups. It was finally brought in after five male hen harriers went missing in suspicious circumstances in 2015, which led to the collapse of nests.

The plan is supposedly designed to help the birds, which are on the brink of extinction in England. Hen harriers (and other birds of prey) have suffered sustained persecution because they naturally hunt grouse on moors used commercially for shooting, a lucrative business in Britain.

There are around 600 pairs of hen harriers in Scotland and 50 in Wales, but the number of nesting couples in England can be counted on a single conservationist’s fingers. In 2014, no hen harriers nested in England at all, while last year there were six successful nests from 12 breeding attempts. This year The Guardian reports that there are no known nests on grouse moors or privately owned shooting estates in England.

Elements of the plan have been contentious from the start, including ‘brood management’, where hen harrier chicks are removed from nests on grouse moorland and released into lowland areas, where they won’t grow up to threaten lucrative game birds such as red grouse. While the benefits for the hunters and rich private estates are clear, the effectiveness of the plan to actually save the hen harrier has been called into question, and several incidents of violence towards birds have been recorded and reported since the scheme came into action.

A video emerged in April that seemingly showed an armed man in the Derbyshire Peak District using a decoy bird to attract a hen harrier, which ultimately led to the National Trust terminating a grouse shooting lease on its land for the first time ever. A month later, a man was caught on camera setting illegal traps on the Mossdale estate in North Yorkshire. According to The Independent, the man was doing gamekeeping work on the 4,500-acre estate, owned by the Van Cutsems, close friends of the royal family. To the RSPB’s disgust, he was let off with a caution by police.

Barbaric pole traps left out to kill hen harriers, England's rarest bird of prey. Image RSPB.
Barbaric pole traps left out to kill hen harriers, England’s rarest bird of prey

In recent months, two satellite-tagged hen harriers have also vanished in mysterious circumstances, and in Yorkshire alone, eight red kites have been found shot or poisoned. These incidents, combined with data revealing that just three pairs of hen harriers are currently attempting to nest on English uplands (which ecologists calculate can support more than 300 pairs), have led the RSPB to condemn the plan as a failure.

As it withdrew support from the scheme this week, the RSPB said the only way persecution of harriers and other species could be stopped was through the licensing of grouse hunts, which would allow authorities to ban hunts if birds of prey were deliberately killed on the estates in question.

‘The conclusion of a wealth of scientific evidence is that the single biggest reason why hen harriers are on the brink of extinction as a breeding bird in England is illegal persecution–illegal killing–associated with land intensively managed for grouse shooting,’ said Jeff Knott, head of nature policy for the RSPB

‘The action plan has failed to deliver. Some people will say we should give it more time but the hen harrier doesn’t have a lot of time,’ continued Knott. ‘It’s a dire situation and we need to see progress much more rapidly.’

Martin Harper, the RSPB’s conservation director, also realised a statement, asking: ‘Licensing systems appear to work well in most other European countries, so why not here as well?’

'Driven' shoots of red grouse are big business in Britain, but they are contributing to the decline of numerous native species.
Driven‘ shoots of red grouse are big business in Britain, but they are contributing to the decline of numerous native species.

Some conservationists would like to go further. Dr Mark Avery, a wildlife campaigner and former RSPB conservation director, has led a campaign to ban grouse shooting altogether, saying that the ‘sport’ depends on ‘intensive habitat management which increases flood risk and greenhouse gas emissions, relies on killing foxes, stoats, mountain hares etc in large numbers and often leads to the deliberate illegal killing of protected birds of prey including hen harriers’. So far more than 65,000 people have signed Avery’s petition to the UK government to force a debate on the issue.

‘Well done to the RSPB but what is Defra going to do now?’ Avery said this week. ‘In her first speech as prime minister, Theresa May said her government was going to act for everybody and not just for powerful interest groups. This is a good test. Defra have been cuddling up to grouse shooters instead of finding a good way to conserve the hen harrier in England.’

The RSPB’s decision was criticised by the British Association for Shooting and Conservation and the pro-shooting Moorland Association who, as Knot predicted, both claimed the plan hadn’t been given enough time.

But Charlie Moores from Birders Against Wildlife Crime, believes the action plan has no credibility without the RSPB’s participation. ‘Driven grouse shooting, with its dependency on having artificially high numbers of red grouse presented to the guns, seemingly cannot exist without high levels of wildlife crime,’ Moores told The Guardian. ‘If they can’t run the industry without crime at the heart of it, they shouldn’t be allowed to continue.’

The RSPB remain committed to the cross-border Hen Harrier LIFE Project and the awareness campaign around the bird, called Skydancer.

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