Hen Harriers, and some unfortunate truths

This article is by the Campaign 4 the Protection of Moorland Communities and first appeared on their website

Statement of fact Number One (1):
Hen Harriers are in serious decline. They have declined precipitously over the last seven years and that follows a decade of steady decline. They have declined faster in some of the Special Protected Areas (SPA) than outside them. If something doesn’t change they will be extinct as a breeding bird in a couple of decades or perhaps even sooner.

Statement of fact Number Two (2):
Hen Harrier numbers are increasing rapidly, and they are increasing in range as well as numbers. At least one Hen Harrier SPA exceeded its target for breeding pairs and fledging rates were high, resulting in a total population higher than at any time since records began –and probably higher than at any time in the last 200 hundred years.

Both of these statements are factually correct. One has resulted in RSPB, (a) attacking the owners of the land on which the situation reported exists, and (b) hardly raised a word of criticism. Obviously, (a) must relate to (1), and (b) to (2), must they not?

Well, of course not, dear reader. As you will have grown to expect in the ‘World according to RSPB’ it is precisely the opposite. Let us delve deeper.

The Irish Question
In fact, the first statement relates to the situation on the island of Ireland, both north and south. In Eire the National Parks and Wildlife Service reported a 33% decline in breeding pairs over the last 7 years. In 5 of the 6 SPAs declines were up to 80%, with an average decline of 54%. In Northern Ireland the decline was serious, but not quite as bad – at 26% over the same period.

The causes of the problem are understood. What is needed is that ‘All national breeding and wintering sites must be protected from afforestation, forest management activities and wind energy development’. They are also clear that forestry is a problem, not just because it permanently destroys harrier habitat, but because it provides cover for predators that take eggs and chicks.

What is not a problem is evil grouse moor keepers, because there aren’t any. Actually there is one grouse moor in Northern Ireland, but its managed in partnership with RSPB which enables them to take credit for the fledging curlew chicks, and even they realise that it would look a bit silly blaming something they are helping to manage.

According to the ecologists on site, the causes of the problem are the spread of woodland and forest into open upland landscapes, the abandonment of traditional grazing and upland management, and too many predators. This is a direct consequence of the upland management policies of the Irish government.

Worryingly you may notice that this is precisely the fate intended for the Scottish uplands. More trees, more forests, no predator control, no vegetation management. Rewilded and covered in trees for the first time in several thousand years, the plan will do to Scottish harriers exactly what the same policy is doing in Ireland.

The English Answer
Hen harriers were virtually extinct as a breeding bird in England a few years years ago. After over a decade of discussion and debate, all involving RSPB, a plan was drafted with Government and stakeholders that was designed to find a way to get more hen harriers in England. It had the catchy title of the ‘Hen Harrier Action Plan’: the HHAP.

Like any plan designed to resolve a complex problem, no one was happy with every part. Everyone had reservations about this or that, but almost all the participants were prepared to give it a go. One of the elements that RSPB didn’t like was ‘brood management’ where, if a moor had a pair of harriers breeding naturally, if another pair turned up the chicks could be reared in captivity and realised back into the wild in the autumn.

In the event the brood management trial has worked beyond the most optimistic participants’ expectations. Taking the 4 pairs present in England in 2016 as a base line, the breeding population last year (54) showed an increase of 1250%. Over a hundred chicks fledged, making Hen Harriers the fastest growing raptor population in England.

Remember that no one was entirely happy with every part of the plan, and it cost moor owners a lot of money to brood manage, but everyone was prepared to get on with it and see if it worked: except of course the RSPB.

The RSPB needed to do nothing. It could simply sit there and watch. The HHAP required them to neither spend money, nor take any action. If it failed they would share no blame; if it succeeded they could share the credit.

Our plan or no plan. More harriers is not the point

They were not prepared to watch. RSPB had an opportunity to resolve a chronic wildlife conflict and simultaneously increase the population and range of a rare and iconic bird, by simply doing nothing. Instead they chose to do whatever they could to wreck it.

Their fear that brood management might work was so great that when Rory Stewart, the then Environment Minister, agreed to trial brood management, they took his decision to a judicial review. So what is this awful thing, which was intended to significantly increase the hen harrier population, and which the RSPB claimed was the work of the devil?

Brood management-an old idea
In essence, the technique of brood management is simply moving eggs or fledglings to a secure location, where they can be hatched and reared until they are able to look after themselves. They are then released back into their natural habitat. Far from being controversial, it is a well-tried technique, found in many countries and used for a variety of species by a wide range of organisations.

The RSPB itself is involved in several programmes of this kind. One involves RSPB taking the eggs of black-tailed godwits on the Nene Washes and rearing the chicks to fledging to avoid them being exterminated by kites and marsh harriers. This has been successful. The last year the chicks were left in situ 66 out of 69 chicks were killed, mainly by kites. Brood managed, they almost all fledge.

Hen Harriers themselves are already brood managed elsewhere in Europe, under the same legislative framework that applies in England, to allow farmers to harvest their corn.

As the system works with harriers in Europe, and with other species in the UK; and as the methodology is used by the RSPB, who had been involved in the discussions from the start, you would have thought that they would like the idea.

As the plan was to prevent raptor crime by removing the main incentive and as it was designed to increase the number of Hen Harriers, you might have thought that the RSPB would have been enthusiastic advocates of the plan. You would of course be wrong.

Just to be clear, leaving a Hen Harrier’s nest in place, rather than taking it for brood management, can be lethal to the chicks. They are small birds which are killed by eagles, peregrines, buzzards, and goshawks, and the chicks are also vulnerable to foxes, stoats, owls, gulls and corvids, who will also take their eggs. In places where there are no game keepers, they often fail to breed successfully.

A courageous minister and a double humiliation
So, when Rory Stewart decided that the RSPB’s objections were largely without merit and approved the plan, the RSPB reacted badly. They said the plan was illegal, and they challenged it by way of Judicial Review. When they lost, their loathing of a plan to reduce conflict and increase the numbers of harriers was so visceral that they immediately appealed and lost again.

Some of the Judge’s remarks give an indication of what the court thought of the RSPB and its evidence.

“There is simply no evidence to support the Claimant’s (RSPB) submission that NE is seeking to circumvent the overall statutory purpose of conservation of an endangered species”.

“I accept NE’s submission that the RSPB has not fairly characterised the content of the application or NE’s assessment of it”.

“The RSPB has not been able to identify any material information that was not available to the assessors, and appears to have misread the conclusions reached in the report”.

Once they had recovered from the toe curling embarrassment of being told twice that they were completely wrong and the brood management trial was entirely legal, they had an opportunity to recover the situation. They had refused to take part because it was, they claimed, illegal. Now it was manifestly legal, they could.

What do you think happened? Did they? Not a chance. Too sensible, too reasonable, too productive. They remained, and remain, implacably opposed and do whatever they can to see it fail. That is why there is not a word in the RSPB press releases about the extraordinary success of the brood management trial.

That is why there is not a word of praise for those whose hard work has made this amazing recovery happen. Not a positive word for the keepers, moor owners, the open minded conservationists who ignored RSPB and helped, and not a word about the skill of the Hawk and Owl Trust who have reared and released young harriers so skilfully.

So where are we?
The grouse moors of England are seeing an unprecedented increase in harrier numbers and fledged chicks, thanks in large part to the amazing success of the brood management process. This is only possible because of the energy and commitment of the moor owners and gamekeepers who are under remorseless attack by the RSPB.

Meanwhile in Ireland, Hen Harriers are getting rarer as a result of governmental land management decisions. This gathering storm should act as an early warning for Scotland, where the RSPB is well aware that the SNP/Green government is pushing an upland policy that mimics that of Eire. Planting trees on the open moorlands that the harriers need to hunt and breed, putting wind turbines on and near breeding and hunting grounds and on migration routes.

The RSPB must surely know that the same policy will inevitably have the same outcome on hen harrier populations in Scotland as it is having in Eire. What do we hear? Not a word.

Success is about outcomes. Judged by any reasonable measure brood management has worked, and it is surely unreasonable of RSPB to continue to vilify the people who have overseen a 1250% increase in Hen Harrier breeding pairs and the largest population in England for hundreds of years.

It is also reasonable to expect the circumstances that are having a disastrous impact on harriers in Ireland will have the same effect if they are applied in Scotland. It is shameful that RSPB have no intention of annoying the Scottish government by pointing out that if you do the same thing you will get the same result: fewer and fewer hen harriers.

But the ‘R’ in RSPB does not stand for reasonable.

Read the article in its original location

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