In a paper published in 2010, ecologists (including myself) from various organisations such as the RSPB, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and the Game & Widlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) found that there were only five pairs of successful Hen Harriers on driven grouse moors in the UK, whereas our data estimated that in the absence of illegal persecution these areas should have supported 500 successful pairs (Redpath et al. 2010). Since then the situation for this species has worsened still, and in 2013, for the first time in over 60 years, there were no successful breeding Hen Harriers in England. Like most ornithologists, and I suspect most people, I find the near annihilation of the Hen Harrier in England and on grouse moors elsewhere in the UK deeply depressing.

I have been lucky enough to have spent several years studying a non-persecuted population of this species on the Orkney Islands (Amar & Redpath 2005, Amar et al. 2008, Amar et al. 2012), and I really feel for the birders, ramblers, climbers, artists, children, teachers and others who have never had the opportunity to experience the joys that come from having these magnificent creatures in their local upland areas.

Hen Harriers are not the only raptor species that suffer on grouse moors – my own research on Peregrine Falcon breeding success in the uplands of England showed that because of persecution, Peregrine Falcon pairs nesting on grouse moors fledge only half the number of chicks of those which nest away from this kind of habitat (Amar et al. 2012). This work suggested that persecution was widespread on grouse moors in almost all areas of England, findings that run counter to the claim that raptor persecution is only occurring on few ‘rogue’ estates. Other research has highlighted similar problems for Golden Eagles on the grouse moors of Scotland (Whitfield et al. 2004).

Moorland managed for grouse © Ailith Stewart

Moorland managed for grouse showing patches (pale areas) where heather has been burnt and the patches are in early stages of regeneration © Ailith Stewart

So, why are birds of prey persecuted on grouse moors, despite the fact that they are legally protected? The simple reason is because they eat Red Grouse and much of our upland moorland is managed for the recreational shooting of Red Grouse.

There are two forms of grouse shooting practised in the UK:

  1. Walked-up grouse shooting in which people shoot grouse that are flushed up by dogs. This form requires lower densities of grouse and raptors tend to fare much better.
  2. Driven grouse shooting, involving people flushing grouse over a line of static shooters. This form requires higher densities of grouse (c. >200 per km2) and is associated with heavy raptor persecution.

Many are now questioning the legitimacy of an industry that relies so heavily on illegal activities.

Research has now shown that the concern expressed by grouse moor managers and gamekeepers was not without basis as in certain circumstances Hen Harriers can make driven grouse shooting economically unviable (Thirgood et al. 2000; Park et al. 2008). These circumstances relate to when you have high density of harriers that settle on a moor, which is influenced by the number of Meadow Pipits (Redpath & Thirgood 1999) and the number of voles (Redpath et al. 2002 ); and also on the state of the grouse cycle, with low to medium densities particularly vulnerable, due to variation in predation rates by Hen Harriers on grouse chicks (Redpath & Thirgood 1999).

Landowners and grouse moor managers argue that Hen Harriers cannot be allowed to reach high densities otherwise their grouse shoots will become economically unviable (Potts 1998). They will then have to make their gamekeepers redundant and as a result the benefits to some other (non-predatory) biodiversity that accrues from grouse moor predator control will be lost (Baines et al. 2008). Furthermore, the argument is made that if management of Red Grouse ends, these heather moorlands will become degraded, lost to forestry or intensive sheep grazing and therefore their overall conservation value will be reduced.

Within the framework of human-wildlife conflicts, one could argue that we are currently in a lose-lose situation (Redpath et al. 2013). Conservationists are the biggest losers; because there are currently almost no Hen Harriers in England and very few elsewhere in areas managed for driven Red Grouse. Conservationists are also wasting a huge amount of valuable conservation resources on trying to protect the few pairs that do settle, or on satellite tracking the few juveniles that fledge, only for these to mysteriously disappear over winter in the English uplands (Natural England 2008).

male Hen Harrier © Isle of Man Government

male Hen Harrier
© Isle of Man Government

Many would argue that landowners and grouse moor managers, whilst not winning completely are losing less. However, they are still facing some costs. For example, grouse moor managers currently have bad publicity for their sport, with the threat that public opinion could turn against them and ultimately their sport could be more regulated or even banned completely. Furthermore, estates are apparently reluctant to let any harriers settle, because they have no safety net that will enable them to legally manage harriers so that they do not reach levels that would threaten their ability to have driven grouse shooting (Potts 1998). Thus, with the current status quo, they are being forced to break the law to maintain their interests.

So, despite the fact that we know more about the biology and ecology of this species than almost any other bird of prey in the UK , and despite the fact that scientists, conservations, government representatives and grouse moor managers have spent decades trying to find a workable solution (Redpath et al. 2004, Thirgood & Redpath 2008, Thompson et al. 2009, Sotherton et al. 2009), we currently have fewer Hen Harriers on driven grouse moors than at any point in my lifetime. Redpath et al. (2013) recognised that ecological science can only take you so far in human-wildlife conflicts and within this conflict we have perhaps devoted too much time and resources to understanding the birds rather than addressing the underlying conflict between those defending raptor conservation objectives and grouse moor managers.

However, for the first time I now sense that there is something of a seed change in the arena of this human-wildlife conflict. I always hoped for change in momentum and now it really seems to be happening. I have been involved in trying to find a resolution to this conflict for the last 15 years – working for organisations on both sides of the conflict (GWCT and RSPB), and I can honestly say I have never seen so much activity and impetus to resolve this issue , one way or another, as there has been in recent months. These include:

    1. Over 10,000 people signed a petition that called on the UK government to consider licensing driven grouse moors. This activated a response from government. However, many people were upset by what they viewed as wholly inadequate, shallow and dismissive response from the UK government. View
    2. Mark Avery (former RSPB Conservation Director) launched a new petition calling on a total ban on driven grouse shooting which has currently garnered over 10,000 signatures in just 10 weeks. View petition

Amar Hen Harrier Day image

  1. A new organisation – Birders Against Wildlife Crime – have launched National Hen Harrier Day for the 10 August (the Sunday before the glorious/inglorious 12th, the start of the grouse shooting season), to draw attention to the on-going persecution of this species on English grouse moors. View
  2. The Ethical Consumer magazine launched a campaign encouraging consumers to boycott companies associated with driven grouse shooting, until persecution of birds of prey on grouse moors ends. View Linked to this, other campaigning saw UK retailer Marks & Spencer abandoned plans to stock Red Grouse as they were unable to secure enough “responsibly sourced” birds. View
  3. The RSPB released a statement arguing that the time has come for driven grouse moors to be licensed to protect British birds of prey. View
  4. Defra’s Hen Harrier recovery programme was outlined by GWCT (whom also launched a petition to government to have the programme released), this wide ranging scheme would include a brood management scheme, which would involve actively moving harrier nestlings away from grouse moors once they attained densities at which they could threaten driven grouse shooting (see Amar et al. 2000 for details of a similar scheme used in France on Montagu’s Harriers), alongside other measures designed to improve the conservation of harriers and minimise the impact on grouse shooting, such as diversionary feeding (Redpath et al. 2003, Amar et al. 2004). However, as yet this scheme is still to be ratified by all consenting parties and is yet to be released by government – despite some pressure. View GWCT petition

These approaches therefore span the full spectrum of solutions from 1) an outright ban of driven grouse shooting to 2) a licensing scheme with conditions in place that allow for the sporting rights to be removed where illegal persecution continues, to 3) a brood management scheme. Personally, I think any one of these three approaches could well work to provide a conservation success (i.e. more harriers) at least in the short term. However, the implications for land management from these different options are less clear, and will be the focus of much intense debate going forward. Either way, hopefully over the next few years at least, one or even a couple of these proposals will be implemented. Something has to change and I sense, finally, that something is about to.

References and further reading

Amar, A., Arroyo, B. & Bretagnolle. 2000. Post-fledging dependency and dispersal in hacked and wild Montagu’s Harriers Circus pygargus. Ibis 142: 21-28 View

Amar, A. & Redpath, S. 2005. Habitat use by Hen Harriers Circus cyaneus on Orkney: implications of land use change on this declining population. Ibis 147: 37-47. View

Amar, A., Arroyo, B., Redpath, S. & Thirgood, S. 2004. Habitat predicts losses of red grouse to individual hen harriers. Journal of Applied Ecology 41: 305-314. View

Amar, A., Arroyo, B., Meek, E., Redpath, S. & Riley, H. 2008. Influence of habitat on breeding performance of Hen Harriers Circus cyaneus in Orkney. Ibis 150: 400-404. View

Amar, A., Court, I.R., Davidson, M., Downing, S., Grimshaw, T., Pickford, T. & Raw, D. 2012. Linking nest histories, remotely sensed land use data and wildlife crime records to explore the impact of grouse moor management on peregrine falcon populations. Biological Conservation 145: 86-95. View

Amar, A., Davies, J., Meek, E., Williams, J., Knight, A. & Redpath, S. 2011. Long term impact of changes in sheep Ovis aries densities on the breeding output of the hen harrier Circus cyaneus. Journal of Applied Ecology 48: 220-227. View

Baines, D., Redpath, S., Rochardson, M. & Thirgood, S. 2008. The direct and indirect effects of predation by Hen Harriers Circus cyaneus on trends in breeding birds on a Scottish grouse moor. Ibis 150: 27-36. View

Elston, D. A,. Spezia, L., Baines, D. & Redpath, S. M.. 2014. Working with stakeholders to reduce conflict – modelling the impact of varying hen harrier Circus cyaneus densities on red grouse Lagopus lagopus populations. Journal of Applied Ecology 51: 1236-1245. View

Natural England. 2008. A Future for the Hen Harrier in England. Natural England. View

Park, K. J., Graham, K. E., Calladine, J. & Wernham, C. W. 2008. Impacts of birds of prey on gamebirds in the UK: a review. Ibis 150: 9-26. View

Potts, G. R. 1998. Global dispersion of nesting Hen Harriers Circus cyaneus; implications for grouse moors in the UK. Ibis 140: 76-88. View

Redpath, S. M. & Thirgood, S. J. 1999. Numerical and functional responses in generalist predators: hen harriers and peregrines on Scottish grouse moors. Journal of Animal Ecology 68: 879-892. View

Redpath, S. M., Thirgood, S. J. & Leckie, F. M. 2001. Does supplementary feeding reduce predation of red grouse by hen harriers? Journal of Applied Ecology 38: 1157-1168. View

Redpath, S. M., Thirgood, S. J. & Clarke, R. 2002. Field Vole Microtus agrestis abundance and Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus diet and breeding in Scotland. Ibis 144: E33-E38. View

Redpath, S. M., Arroyo, B. E., Leckie, F. M., Bacon, P., Bayfield, N., Gutierrez, R. J. & Thirgood, S. J. 2004. Using Decision Modeling with Stakeholders to Reduce Human-Wildlife Conflict: a Raptor-Grouse Case Study. Conservation Biology 18: 350-359. View

Redpath, S., Amar, A., Smith, A., Thompson, D. & Thirgood, S. 2010. People and nature in conflict: can we reconcile raptor conservation and game management? In: Species Management: Challenges and Solution for the 21st Century. (Eds J. Baxter & C. A. Galbraith). The Stationary Office, Edinburgh. View

Redpath, S.M., Young, J., Evely, A., Adams, W.M., Sutherland, W.J., Whitehouse, A., Amar. A., Linnell, J., Lambert, R.A., Watt, A. & Gutierrez, R.J. 2013. Understanding and managing conservation conflicts. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 28: 100-109. View

RSPB Skydancer project. A four-year project aimed at raising awareness and promoting the conservation of hen harriers in the north of England. View

Sotherton, N., Tapper, S. & Smith, A. 2009. Hen harriers and red grouse: economic aspects of red grouse shooting and the implications for moorland conservation. Journal of Applied Ecology 46: 955-960. View

Thirgood, S.J., Redpath, S.M., Haydon, D.T., Rothery, P., Newton, I. & Hudson, P.J. 2000a. Habitat loss and raptor predation: disentangling long- and short-term causes of red grouse declines. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B. 267: 651-656. View

Thirgood, S.J. & Redpath, S.M. 2008. Hen harriers and red grouse: science, politics and human-wildlife conflict. Journal of Applied Ecology 45: 1550-1554. View

Thompson, P. S., Amar, A., Hoccom, D. G., Knott, J. & Wilson, J. D. 2009. Resolving the conflict between driven-grouse shooting and conservation of hen harriers. Journal of Applied Ecology 46: 950-954. View

Whitfield, D.P., Fielding, A.H., McLeod, D.R.A., & Howarth, P.F. 2004. Modelling the effects of persecution on the population dynamics of golden eagles in Scotland. Biological Conservation 119: 319-333. View

Wilson, M. W., O’Donoghue, B., O’Mahony, B., Cullen, C., O’Donoghue, T., Oliver, G., Ryan, B., Troake, P., Irwin, S., Kelly, T. C., Rotella, J. J. & O’Halloran, J. 2012. Mismatches between breeding success and habitat preferences in Hen Harriers Circus cyaneus breeding in forested landscapes. Ibis 154: 578-589. View

Photo images

All taken from Wikimedia Commons:
TOP: female Hen Harrier © Andreas Trepte
MIDDLE: moorland managed for grouse © Ailith Stewart
BOTTOM: male Hen Harrier © Isle of Man Government