Diverting attention from the illegal killing of peregrines on grouse moors

One of the many criticisms about the proposed reintroduction of hen harriers to southern England is that if a population does manage to become established, the grouse-shooting industry will use it to divert attention from the on-going eradication of this species on intensively managed driven grouse moors. ‘Look, hen harriers are doing just fine in the lowlands, the species’ conservation status has improved, everything’s fine, there’s nothing to worry about anymore’.

If you don’t think that that’s what will happen, just take a look at this letter from the Countryside Alliance, published in The Times yesterday:


Sir, your report that the peregrine falcon is “now seeking sanctuary in cities as it comes under threat” fails to provide vital context (“Prized peregrine falcons falling prey to greed“, News, Jan 9). The peregrine falcon population reached a low of about 150 pairs in the 1960s as a result of the impact of toxic agricultural chemicals such as DDT in the food chain as well as illegal persecution. However, improved legislation and protection has helped the peregrine falcon to expand its range and numbers. The latest estimates place the number of peregrines at a historic high of 1,500 pairs, and has led to the peregrine having its conservation status declared “secure”. The species, like other raptors such as the buzzard and red kite, is an undoubted conservation success.


No mention then, of how illegal persecution on the north of England grouse moors is suppressing local peregrine populations (see here).

No mention then, of how the preliminary results of the 2014 national peregrine survey show a sharp decrease in peregrine occupation in the UK’s uplands, especially in areas intensively managed for driven grouse shooting (see here).

No mention then, of how illegal persecution has led to the continuing decline of peregrines in the grouse moor areas of north east Scotland, particularly on the eastern side of the Cairngorms National Park (see here).

No mention then, of how illegal persecution has led to the continuing decline of the peregrine’s breeding population on the grouse moors of Bowland.

No mention then, of how illegal persecution has led to the continuing decline of the peregrine’s breeding population on the grouse moors of the Dark Peak in the Peak District National Park (see here).

Funny, that.

Photo of a dead peregrine that was found shot next to a grouse moor in the Peak District National Park in 2016 (RSPB photo)


25 Responses to “Diverting attention from the illegal killing of peregrines on grouse moors”

  1. 1 Iain Gibson
    January 13, 2018 at 10:27 am

    I once argued with a well-known (internationally renowned!) professional ‘expert’ in grouse moor management that he should stop instructing his ‘keepers to remove chicks and shoot adult Peregrines at a nest on his patch. After a year or two of not so gentle persuasion, he eventually agreed with me that he would opt for ‘brood reduction’ of the Peregrines, i.e. not shoot the adults but remove all but one of the nestlings. How very generous! Interestingly he also added that he would “never tolerate a harrier on my moor.” Grouse shooting has since ceased on that moor, the Peregrines are usually successful, and the harrier population has reached up to 14 pairs in their best year.

  2. 2 Mike Whitehouse
    January 13, 2018 at 10:31 am

    Very good and clear analysis. I think you are absolutely right to draw out the differences between the rest of the UK and the illegal practices currently being carried out on our grouse moors. Spot om – well done.

  3. 3 Chris Batchelor
    January 13, 2018 at 10:58 am

    ‘Historic high’? What nonsense! Who are the CA to decide 1500 is the optimum number. I’d like to think the Times has been deluged with letters challenging this.

    • 4 J .Coogan
      January 13, 2018 at 2:05 pm

      Exactly,”historic high ” and “status secure” How can we possibly estimate these numbers? Daniel Pauly and later George Monbiot describe this way of perceiving the condition of the ecosystems as “Shifting Baseline Syndrome” accepting numbers encountered as a child as normal . If each generation does this then we end up with some very skewed thinking. We don’t know ,perhaps accepted historical numbers and observations record an ecosystem already in a state of depletion.
      If we look at historical descriptions of the fecundity of the countryside or glance at highland game returns of the early to mid 19th C we can see the eye watering numbers of raptors killed .This at a time remember before dedicated “vermin” control – foxes, weasels etc living perfectly normally with ground nesting raptors( take note RSPB and raptor workers.)
      We are still ignorant of how ecosystems functions normally because it so long ago that they functioned normally . It is us who have buggered it up , we are the killers for fun, it is us who stink of death, we are the exploiters for monetary profit . And now we have a situation where morons in charge of large tracts of our countryside, without a clue about the natural world try to restore everything to THEIR “Baseline” with a bottle of poison, a shotgun and a handful of traps.

  4. 6 Simon Tucker
    January 13, 2018 at 11:29 am

    Once again your clarity of analysis puts the mainstream media journalists to shame. It is a sad indictment of the mass media that this campaign to save our top predators is being carried out at a grassroots and conservation scientist level, but the only time it gets a mention in the press is when a few well-known celebrity conservationists promoting it either say something or are attacked by the criminal classes and their apologists for saying something.

    When was the last time there was a serious mainstream media campaign to expose these criminals because of their criminality and the threat to our wildlife, rather than because of the involvement of a “celebrity”? Great that the celebs are involved but the story is much bigger than that. There is a whole range of stories of criminality, corruption and the complete failure of the judicial system to uphold the law. Surely that is worthy of proper journalistic investigation, or are there no journalists left, just Google / Bing hacks?

  5. 7 Harry Bickerstaff
    January 13, 2018 at 12:23 pm

    Where is this ‘historic record’ of how high the Peregrine population previously was? That figure has clearly simply been pulled out of the air and compared with – nothing!.
    I don’t really care if the figure is now even more than that figure, as it could easily be, naturally, much higher, if these people would stop killing them.

  6. 8 Ian Carter
    January 13, 2018 at 12:47 pm

    I agree with pretty much all you say here apart from the implication that this means the hen harrier reintroduction is flawed. We can’t deliberately avoid undertaking high quality conservation interventions just because we are worried about how they will be portrayed by others. Would you criticise all those who have helped get Peregrines established in our cities by providing and maintaining nest boxes? After all, this has given grouse moor owners the opportunity to distract attention away from persecution of Peregrines in the uplands – as evidenced by the letter you refer to. If you apply your logic to Hen Harriers you surely have to apply the same arguments to all other species that are subject to reintroductions or other forms of conservation assistance.

    • 9 Paul V Irving
      January 13, 2018 at 1:31 pm

      The Hen Harrier “reintroduction” appears to be entirely a deflection exercise and there seems to be almost an abandonment of any real and concerted effort in the uplands by DEFRA and NE. other than the flawed and largely unsupported plan involving brood management.
      Unfortunately that is unlikely to change until we have a change of government in Westminster. Harriers don’t need to be reintroduced to the south west they need to be allowed to reach natural population levels in our uplands and they will then be there soon enough. All effort should be being put into solving the problem of illegal persecution and not with a plan of appeasement to the criminals.

    • 10 Iain Gibson
      January 13, 2018 at 6:29 pm

      Ian, I think you’re somewhat missing the point. The Hen Harrier “reintroduction ” proposal involves attempting to encourage the birds to adopt a habitat (essentially farmland) which has changed dramatically since bygone eras when the bird’s distribution was more ubiquitous. Further south on mainland Europe the species breeds on farmland, which due to climate and other factors holds an adequate prey supply. The UK plan is attempting to force a change in the species’ ecology, and it seems likely the released birds will not get the message, and seek out their preferred breeding habitat in the UK, essentially heather moorland, most of which in England is managed (or mismanaged) for grouse shooting. By its nature, the Hen Harrier will roam over a wide extent within the UK to find the best breeding habitat in terms of nesting vegetation and prey availability, unlike Red Kites which are more sedentary. To make a parallel analogy as an example, would you take young Crossbills from the nest and attempt to relocate them to purely deciduous woodland, or mountain tops?

    • January 13, 2018 at 10:11 pm

      Ian (Carter),

      You’re not seriously arguing that the proposed reintroduction of hen harriers to southern England is a “high quality conservation intervention”, are you?

      It’s nothing of the sort. It’s an idiotic venture, at the tax payers’ expense, designed to detract from the real issue. As you well know, If the criminals within the grouse shooting industry stopped persecuting this species at every given opportunity, the population would recover by itself. It’s not rocket science, and dumping a load of French hen harriers in southern England is not conservation, it’s a distraction. The proposal doesn’t even meet IUCN reintroduction guidelines.

      Your analogy with the establishment of peregrines in cities is just weird – that wasn’t a formal reintroduction in any sense of the word, so why try to make a comparison?

      • 12 Ian Carter
        January 14, 2018 at 9:49 am

        ‘Idiotic’ seems a bit strong. It’s always possible there are differing views of a complex subject and both of us are reasonably sane and sensible. I wont set out why I think the reintroduction has a lot going for it as I’ve done that elsewhere but it is far from an idiotic proposal (in my view).

        As for ‘dumping a load of French harriers in southern England’. If you don’t mind me saying that’s just a daft thing to say in a serious and well argued blog and it comes across as rather desperate – a nice, catchy turn of phrase as a substitute for a proper argument. They would not be dumped anymore than Spanish kites were dumped in the Chilterns or Norwegian Sea Eagles were dumped in Scotland. The proposal most certainly does meet the IUCN guidelines. It would indeed be at taxpayers expense but the taxes might finally buy some hen harriers which the £millions of taxpayers and RSPB members’ money spent so far has, unfortunately, failed to do. Stopping persecution may not be rocket science but it has proved impossible for conservationists to achieve and that doesn’t seem likely to change anytime soon.

        You introduced the analogy with Peregrines by writing the piece so it’s a bit rich to complain that I have extended it a little. You have drawn clear parallels between the two species by arguing that the Peregrines in the lowlands are allowing the CA to distract attention away from problems in the uplands. The inference (correct me if I’m wrong) is that they would do the same if there were Hen Harriers in the lowlands and so that is one of the reasons why we must not allow that to happen. I understand where you are coming from but I’m glad there are Peregrines in the lowlands and I wish there were Hen Harriers there too. If they had already been established by a reintroduction and we currently had 100 pairs doing well in southern England, how would you feel about that – would you see them as unwanted French birds dumped there solely to help the CA and friends in the uplands and therefore of no conservation value? If a new population gradually becomes established in a part of the country where they once existed but were lost to persecution, at what point would you start to welcome them back?

        • 13 James Bray
          January 14, 2018 at 6:59 pm

          A major point to make is that this is all about more than just hen harriers. DEFRA could sort out the hen harrier issue if it tackled intensive driven grouse shooting. By doing so it would also sort out all the other ills that driven grouse shooting bestows upon us: the illegal persecution of peregrines, buzzards, red kites, goshawks, short- and long-eared owls, sparrowhawks etc; the damage to our peatlands, wetlands and rivers; the increased risk of flooding in the lowlands; and the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

          However, the only action that DEFRA seems prepared to do is to dump hen harriers in southern England (and brood meddle any harriers that nest on grouse shooting estates in northern England – fat chance of that happening).

          All the other damage that intensive driven grouse shooting causes is completely ignored, so we have no harriers in northern England and the southern reintroduction will fail as persecution will continue.

          And on the IUCN guidelines: one of the key guidelines is that before a reintroduction is carried out the reason(s) for decline or extinct should be removed or sufficiently reduced.

          Ian – do you honestly think that this has been met?!

        • 14 Mick
          January 14, 2018 at 10:10 pm


          Bringing hen harriers over here from France is doing nothing to help OUR hen harriers and it will be nothing more than a propaganda story for the criminals and those who side with them. OUR hen harriers will become less important with their dilution and I’m sure you know that.

          We absolutely must sort out the criminals and anything that is done to water down their criminality and remove it from the headlines IS wrong.

          The shooters have won if we bring in hen harriers from France because even the government departments that are supposed to protect our wildlife seem more interested in protecting the criminals. Natural England and DEFRA will be only too happy to tell everybody that things are getting better.

          • 15 Iain Gibson
            January 15, 2018 at 4:24 am

            Quite right, Mick. This sham project is in effect an ill-informed attempt at backdoor mitigation for the criminality of gamekeepers and corrupt grouse shooting estates, in their persecution of the indigenous population of English breeding Hen Harriers. If implementation actually takes place, it would mean that the criminal element had won the debate and the fight. The key reason being, and I find it odd that this is rarely if ever highlighted, the proposed English brood meddling scheme would in reality reduce the potential breeding population of England by up to a whopping 80%! This is based on the previous estimate that there is sufficient habitat for approximately 330 pairs, and taking into account the average density of harriers in persecution-free zones (mostly in western Scotland and Orkney). The proposed allowable density of conserved nests in England reduces to a mere 60 pairs on all grouse grouse moors combined. In its current format, the idea that it is possible to force a change in the UK Hen Harrier’s ecology and behaviour is almost certainly bound to fail, and the best we might hope for is a handful of breeding pairs which hardly compensate for the 200 or more pairs still missing from their potential natural habitat. Not to mention a never-ending theft of young harriers from French nests in a futile attempt to boost the new population of birds ‘adapted’ to southern English lowlands. The very idea that lowland gamekeepers will welcome these new arrivals is not to understand their mindset. I honestly doubt if persecution on grouse moors will be significantly reduced, if at all. This ridiculous project should have been thrown out at the drawing board stage. The sad thing is there are scientists who should know better who cooperating this far. Are they really so politically naive, or just lining their pockets while advancing their careers? It appears to be taboo to even utter such a suggestion.

            • 16 Paul V Irving
              January 15, 2018 at 10:32 am

              The idea of introducing Hen harriers to the south west was originally mooted during the Hen Harrier Dialogue process moderated by the Environment Council way back I think in 2006 or 07. It was a suggestion from The game lobby supported by GWCT. The language used at the time certainly suggested this was a deflection exercise and those supporting it seemed quite put out when we on the conservation side did not support it and said it would make no difference to our attitudes on the lack of harriers due to persecution in the uplands. We thought it died a death then only to find it resurrected in the DEFRA plan ( a process raptor workers organisations were excluded from) In the fight because it is a fight to get hen harriers back in the uplands and stop persecution,( if necessary by stopping driven grouse shooting) it is a complete irrelevance and distraction.

        • January 15, 2018 at 6:10 pm

          ‘Stopping persecution may not be rocket science but it has proved impossible for conservationists to achieve and that doesn’t seem likely to change anytime soon.’

          That is proving RPUK’s point. If you think that, then it is a deflection and it has worked.

          ‘Dumping’ is perfectly justified wording. It is showing frustration at a sticking plaster solutions.

          IUCN guidelines are at the very least being severely stretched but to me are clearly being broken. It appears that you are taking the words ‘conservation benefit’ out of context without including the degree of benefit or balance of costs or alternative methods i.e. banning or licensing grouse moors to allow for natural recolonization and the nearby sink effect.
          The Black Isle Red Kites are sustaining themselves but at what levels. Is that seriously a conservation benefit.

          Comparing artificial ledges for Peregrines in urban areas with lowland HH introduction is absurd. I notice you did the same thing with Golden Eagles in southern Scotland. Comparisons surely should have more similarities than differences in order to be valid?

        • January 15, 2018 at 7:06 pm

          ‘The inference (correct me if I’m wrong) is that they would do the same if there were Hen Harriers in the lowlands and so that is one of the reasons why we must not allow that to happen’
          That is a straw man argument. No one is suggesting that Hen Harriers be ‘not allowed’ to colonise naturally as Peregrines have done. A ledge is not an introduction, without ledges Peregrines would still colonise towns.

          ‘If a new [Peregrine] population gradually becomes established in a part of the country where they once existed but were lost to persecution, at what point would you start to welcome them back?’
          They would always be ‘welcome’ (another straw man, who says they wouldn’t?) but re-introduction should only happen when the persecution threat is removed (e.g. by banning DGMs) as IUCN guidelines state, without caveat.

        • January 16, 2018 at 2:39 pm

          ‘You introduced the analogy with Peregrines by writing the piece so it’s a bit rich to complain that I have extended it a little’
          That is adding absurdity to the absurd.
          We are all commenting on Peregrines that isn’t the issue. It was the comparison of ledges with introductions which was obviously absurd.
          So more of a straw population than a straw man argument.

  7. 20 Paul V Irving
    January 13, 2018 at 1:12 pm

    Peregrines are fantastic birds to watch but seeing them in the uplands has become a decreasingly frequent experience here in North Yorkshire especially during the breeding season. Also most of the birds one does see are immatures, suggesting that either the areas visited are marginal for Peregrines or have a high turnover of population. About half of our “traditional” peregrine sites are on grouse moors yet the last time one of those reared young was in 1998, 20 years ago! With most of such sites these days vacant.
    With Peregrines doing apparently so well elsewhere it begs the question of quite how many Peregrines are being killed each late winter and spring to keep those sites vacant. That is one of the reasons when others talk of abandoned sites I don’t like the terminology, these sites are largely not abandoned they are kept free of Peregrines by a constant level of illegal killing, the numbers killed are unknown but I would suggest significant.
    The current excellent status of peregrines elsewhere in the UK is in huge contrast to their near absence from areas managed for Red Grouse shooting. My one question to the spin doctors, crime apologists and head in sand merchants from the Countryside Areliars would be please explain.

    • 21 Ian Carter
      January 13, 2018 at 1:38 pm

      Paul, I couldn’t agree more. The situation with Peregrines in the uplands is truly appalling and the picture in cities and parts of the lowlands helps to highlight the true scale of persecution that must be needed to keep them out of the uplands. There are some parallels with Red Kites in that they are doing ok in the lowlands but are subject to shocking levels of persecution as soon as they stray in the direction of grouse moors. The CA may seek to distract attention away from what is happening but we can use these examples to help highlight the true scale of ongoing illegal persecution.

      • 22 Mick
        January 14, 2018 at 10:12 pm


        We’ll get nowhere while Natural England withholds information that would bring grouse shooting the poor headlines they deserve.

  8. 23 Les Wallace
    January 13, 2018 at 1:24 pm

    I was gobsmacked when I first found out that the UK peregrine population was approx 1,500 pairs, that’s pathetically low, I would have thought that would have been the Scottish population on its own, and can only be encouraging when looking at the pesticide/persecution driven low point most certainly not what it should be – more peregrines are nesting in London than all northern England’s uplands apparently. Same with goshawk a few hundred pairs when there should be thousands and thousands – several dozen nest in Berlin now – and I don’t think anyone could say there’s a national shortage of the corvids, wood pigeon and grey squirrel they munch on. The goshawk parallels the hen harrier in so many ways.

    • 24 Dylanben
      January 13, 2018 at 10:27 pm

      Tell me if I’ve got it wrong. I use the term ‘conservation’ in relation to wildlife as a planned activity of a positive nature which has produced a tangible outcome. Peregrines have found their own way into our cities. They have not been introduced there. Whilst it’s a good story, the only actual ‘conservation’ element is the provision of nest boxes to which Ian refers. The reality is that the Peregrine story is a disaster, so far as the numbers in their natural upland habitat are concerned.
      We’ve predicted that it would be only a matter of time before the dark side trotted this story out to defend its disturbance and slaughter of these magnificent creatures. The only uncertainty was which of the parties involved would do it. Looks as though the CA won the draw on this occasion.

  9. 25 Sandra Padfield
    January 14, 2018 at 12:53 pm

    Another letter in the Saturday Times, drawing attention to the CA failing to mention the peregrine decline in the uplands due to illegal persecution. Hopefully the shooting establishment’s propaganda is becoming transparent.

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