Hen Harriers and grouse shooting can co-exist – thats the message from the latest harrier breeding figures, which undermines antis’ claims that moors are a hotbed of illegal killing.

Two years after the RSPB pulled out of supporting the six-point hen harrier action plan new breeding figures clearly show that the plan is working. This year has been the most successful hen harrier breeding season for a decade in England, with nine successful nesting attempts producing 34 chicks.

Five of these nests, responsible for 21 of the chicks, were on or adjacent to land managed for grouse shooting. By contrast, just eight chicks fledged from two nests in 2015, six from two nests in 2016, and 10 from three nests in 2017. This year’s results have been hailed as proof that grouse shooting and hen harriers can exist together. Previously, few or none of the successful nests had been located on land managed for grouse shooting.

Now, according to the Moorland Association, “Defra’s initiative to unlock the complex conflict between hen harriers and grouse shooting, and allow both to thrive, is beginning to work.” Brood management The Moorland Association puts the newfound breeding success down to trials of brood management – one of the six points of the government’s Hen Harrier Action Plan – for which the first licence was issued in January.

“The licence permits the removal of hen harrier eggs and/or chicks to a dedicated hatching and rearing facility, where they will be hand-reared in captivity, before being transferred to specially- constructed pens in hen harrier breeding habitat, from which they are then re-introduced into the wild in the uplands of northern England.

“When the RSPB withdrew from the Action Plan in 2016, it expressed its disapproval of brood management and said that “the primary reason for the hen harrier’s continuing scarcity remains illegal killing.”

Even as recently as this April, the RSPB’s Martin Harper revealed that the society was still trying to stop trials taking place, and had applied to the High Court for permission to judicially review Natural England’s grant of consent.

Amanda Anderson, director of the Moorland Association, said: “Grouse moor managers and their gamekeepers are to be congratulated for their involvement in eight of the breeding attempts resulting in five successful nests on moorland managed for red grouse across Lancashire, Derbyshire and North Yorkshire. Yet, certain organisations and individuals are intent on doing whatever it takes, including wasting court time and taxpayers’ money, to prevent a successful outcome.”

Andrew Gilruth, Director of Communications at the GWCT, said: “The RSPB must be congratulated for insisting that Defra produced a hen harrier recovery plan that had the full support of the grouse moors. For decades nest protection was never enough; now we are seeing the success of working with landowners to resolve wildlife conflicts. Activists objecting to these government plans should focus on what is best for the harrier.”

Hen harriers have been at the centre of a battle between shooting and animal rights groups for years, with activists and organisations – including the RSPB – levelling accusations of illegal killing at gamekeepers and shooting estates. The birds have a low survival rate, with natural mortality of around 70 per cent of birds in their first year. However, many ‘unexplained’ raptor deaths are laid at the feet of the shooting community. In some cases, birds have been proven to be shot, such as in the scientific paper Hopkins et al 2015, which detected fragments of lead in a bird found dead in 2012. All shooting and moorland groups – BASC, the Countryside Alliance, the Moorland Association and more – have repeatedly condemned all forms of illegal persecution.

Even as the latest evidence on hen harrier breeding success is published, the RSPB has been stoking up another controversial case relating to the death of a hen harrier in Wales. The bird was found severely decomposed, and a post-mortem could not determine the cause of death but did detect a fractured tail feather, which the RSPB labelled “suspicious”.

Countryside Alliance chief executive Tim Bonner said: “Tail feather damage that could have been sustained in any number of ways is being used to link the Welsh hen harrier death to shooting, with no other supporting evidence. It has even been used to attack grouse shooting, despite there being no grouse shooting within 100 miles. The RSPB and their fellow travellers are determined to peddle the narrative that illegal killing is the only reason any hen harrier ever dies, like feathery Achilles who are immortal but suffer one fatal weakness. This is rubbish.

“The first weapon in conserving the hen harrier, and every other species of conservation value, is the truth. As long as those tasked with species recovery see PR opportunities in every bird death, progress will be unnecessarily sluggish.”

And the Moorland Association called for the RSPB to back off from investigations, saying it did more harm than good in relation to an instance of peregrine persecution it filmed and posted on its blog: “In this instance, the CPS was left with no choice but to abandon the case after the judge discredited the evidence and said that investigating officers had acted in a ‘clandestine and irregular way’ and ‘outwith their remit.’

“It is clear from the judge’s remarks that she felt RSPB cannot ride roughshod over the correct way to gather evidence. In this case, the RSPB let everyone down by acting as a law unto themselves. “This is not the first time a case has been dropped due to RSPB mishandling an investigation. Undermined investigations are not only a waste of time for police and prosecution authorities and of public money, but do nothing to eradicate wildlife crime.”


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