DEFRA has today published its long awaited Hen Harrier Action Plan.
As expected, the six ‘actions’ that apparently will contribute to the recovery of the hen harrier are as follows:
- Monitoring of hen harrier populations in England and the UK
- Diversionary feeding of hen harriers on grouse moors
- Analyse monitoring data and build intelligence picture
- Nest and winter roost site protection
- Reintroduce hen harriers to southern England
- Trial a brood management scheme
In its current format, the Action Plan provides a general overview and outline of all six actions. There’s very little detail available, which makes it a difficult plan to critique in full, but a few things did jump out.
Diversionary feeding has proven to be successful at deterring hen harriers from eating loads of red grouse at the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project. However, in this action plan grouse moor owners are only being ‘encouraged’ to use diversionary feeding as a course of ‘best practice’. That means that they are not obliged to implement diversionary feeding as a first course of action to reduce the conflict, which seems a bit odd.
Monitoring of hen harrier populations and the subsequent analysis of those data will continue, to ‘build the intelligence picture’. Nothing new there, and monitoring would continue with or without this action plan anyway. How those data will be used isn’t all that clear. The action plan states that a direct benefit will be ‘increased awareness of any hotspots of illegal activity and may allow better preventative measures to be taken at specific sites‘. That’s hardly inspiring. The hotspots are already well known (just look for the nearest driven grouse moor) and there’s not much that can be done if adult males are being killed away from the nest whilst they forage on neighbouring ground. We saw that last May with the ‘disappearance’ (killing) of five adult males.
Nest and winter roost site protection. Again, the nest sites (when the birds have been allowed to settle) are already well monitored and that would continue without this action plan. Protection of roost sites is much more problematic, especially when the harrier killers are armed with night vision and thermal imaging kit, and there isn’t any information about how this protection might be delivered.
The plan to reintroduce hen harriers to the lowlands of southern England needs much further scrutiny. At the moment the proposal is based on an unpublished feasibility report so it’s hard to comment on that. Nevertheless, the general principle of reintroducing the hen harrier is open to question. One of several IUCN criteria that have to be met before a reintroduction of any species can go ahead is that the cause of the species’ (local) extinction needs to have been both identified and rectified. If persecution of the hen harrier is the main reason for its absence in these areas, where’s the evidence that persecution has been addressed?
The final action point is undoubtedly the most controversial – a trial brood management (meddling) scheme. Brood management, in this context, means removing hen harrier eggs/chicks from driven grouse moors when hen harriers have reached a certain density on that moor (or on nearby moors) and rearing them in captivity and then releasing them at fledging age. We’ve blogged about this a lot, ever since the Hawk & Owl Trust announced almost a year ago that it was the way forward. It’s not an action we would support under any circumstances, no matter what the hen harrier population size is. In our view, it amounts to legalised persecution. If driven grouse shooting can’t exist without the need to remove hen harriers then it either needs to lower its expectations (bag size) or cease to exist.
Nevertheless, it’s interesting to read what this action plan says about the proposed brood meddling trial. It refers to a paper that was published last August (Elston, Spezia, Baines & Redpath: Working with stakeholders to reduce conflict – modelling the impact of varying hen harrier densities on red grouse populations). The action plan says brood meddling will be guided by hen harrier densities as determined in this paper. The generally accepted consensus is that once there are 70 breeding pairs of hen harriers in the English uplands, then brood meddling can be considered (depending on the density of hen harriers at a local scale). However, this calculation was made based on the cyclical boom and bust of red grouse populations. Not only have those natural grouse cycles now been eradicated (by the use of medicated grit – see here), but post-breeding densities of red grouse are currently higher than in previous years (an incredible mean density of 382 red grouse per km2, according to the GWCT – see here), which means that those moors can support a higher density of hen harriers. In real terms, this means the target density for hen harriers should be increased accordingly (i.e. there should be more than 70 breeding pairs before brood meddling is implemented).
Having said that, we’re not too concerned about the immediate onset of a brood meddling trial in England because we simply can’t see the driven grouse shooting industry tolerating 70 (+) pairs of breeding hen harriers. Last year there were six successful pairs in the whole of England – an area capable of supporting 300+ pairs. And that pathetic figure was a result of the driven grouse shooting industry supposedly ‘being on side’ and ‘fully supporting hen harrier conservation’!
Interestingly, Martin Harper (RSPB Conservation Director) has blogged about the launch of the action plan (here) and although he acknowledges it isn’t perfect, he says he welcomes it. Eh? The last we heard, the RSPB was still challenging the brood meddling aspect of the plan – what’s changed?
No doubt we’ll be blogging more about the action plan as the 2016 hen harrier breeding season pans out.
Download DEFRA’s Hen Harrier Action Plan here: DEFRA hen-harrier-action-plan-england-2016