Two Tribes

The hen harrier is not a widely-known bird which is a shame.  The slate-grey-backed male is one of our most elegant birds and the ‘ring-tailed’ females and juveniles are easy to spot in the field. 

I write this in the Peak District, at the end of a mixed summer for birds of prey where breeding success has, overall, been pretty good.  On the moors, 20 pairs of short-eared owls raised over 40 young and 16 pairs of merlin achieved 63 fledglings. 

In the southern White Peak 21 pairs of peregrine and 10 goshawk nests (5 on one estate alone) were successful. These are numbers undreamt of when I was learning my birds and a modest conservation success story, albeit only a partial one so far. 

I’ve waited agitatedly and unsuccessfully for the harrier’s ‘sky-dancing’, a unique wonder of nature where males perform remarkable aerial acrobatics to impress passing females.   This year, with a perilously small population, chance meant that the most likely prospect for the one solitary mature female visitor was an immature male and, this spring, there was to be no Mrs Robinson moment for the young cock bird, a setback after such promise last year. 

I spent some wonderful summer evenings watching over the 2014 nest, secreted deep in a clump of thick heather. To see a male harrier pass food to his mate to feed her chicks is one of the most enchanting and loving acts I’ve witnessed in nature. 

Hen harriers were last common in Britain before the great wastes and heaths were enclosed at the turn of the 19th Century.  Donald Watson, in his 1977 classic The Hen Harrier, concludes that had extensive heaths and moors survived in lowland England, good populations of harriers would have prospered too.

In the north of England, Watson believed that harrier numbers probably held up until the middle of the 19th Century.  The fashion for grouse shooting as a sport was then at its zenith and harriers, and other birds of prey, were seen as incompatible with a well-run moor. 

In 1808, The Marquess of Bute required his keepers to take an oath to ‘use my best endeavour to destroy all birds of prey with their nests, so help me God’.  Attitudes are different today and today’s aristocrats, should they even own a moor, are as likely to be as interested in conservation as they are field sports.  

The history of bird of prey conservation in Britain has been one of a historic trend towards extinction followed by decades of remarkable success in the last and this century.  Habitat loss, persecution and, for a period after the war, pesticide pollution, meant most of our raptors went through most of the 20th Century as rare, extinct or threatened.  

The last 40 years has seen a remarkable renaissance with many species returning from extinction or near extinction (white tailed eagle, osprey, red kite, marsh harrier) and others significantly increasing their range and population (buzzard, sparrow hawk, peregrine and hobby).  Despite some threats, the overall picture for British birds of prey is a positive one.

The hen harrier stands out as not having made the progress in recovery that other species have.  Its return to suitable English breeding areas in the north of England has been fitful and limited.  Numbers of breeding attempts have been in the handfuls and sustained breeding success has been very limited.    The main cause of the limited return of the hen harrier is, however, widely acknowledged as deliberate disturbance. 

The hen harrier has the unfortunate habit of choosing to nest in remote heather-covered moors which are the mainstay of the sport and industry of grouse-shooting. Few would deny hen harriers eat grouse and few would deny many keepers destroy or shoo away most hen harriers, a legally-protected bird. 

As the 2015 grouse shooting season opens, the debate on the future of the hen harrier appears to be more polarised than ever.  On the one hand, conservation organisations like the RSPB express frustration over lack of progress, despite years of negotiation with moorland owners. 

Leading the attack on driven grouse shooting (where birds are flushed towards a row of guns) is independent blogger Mark Avery whose polemic ‘Inglorious’ has been published to coincide with the 12th August.  Avery spices a strong conservation story with a disappointingly partial analysis of grouse-shooting and upland land use which undermines his case. 

Avery’s pantomime villains are Tory politicians, rich people who ‘can afford’ to shoot grouse, aristocratic landowners with power and friends in high places and cruel people who harm the environment for their pleasure.  His solution is to ban the sport of driven grouse shooting because of the harm that it does to the environment, a course of action that would condemn most sports, pastimes and modern lifestyles to oblivion.   

On the other hand, a shadowy group of shooting interests behind the ‘You Forgot the Birds’ campaign has stumbled at each turn and lacks credibility. I don’t know its frontman Ian Botham personally, but I’m pretty sure history will remember him as our finest cricketing all-rounder and for his 14 Test centuries and 383 wickets more than for his contribution to ornithological science or moorland economics. 

Botham’s team seem as ill-focused on the solutions as Avery is.  Their chosen tactic of seeking to undermine the RSPB to deflect criticism of the environmental harm caused by grouse-shooting is an ill-judged PR tactic few other industries would adopt today.  

It is time for a new approach.

On England’s grouse moors a new mood is building.  Younger keepers and grouse moor owners from a more diverse background are searching for practical solutions and want to clean up their sport.  So clearly demonstrated by the rallying against the slaughter of an African lion, public tolerance of the more unsustainable features of field sports is wearing thin and a tangible response is needed.  

Raptor workers, the heroes of conservation who devote huge amounts of patience, skill and knowledge to finding and monitoring nests, are witnessing a thawing of keeper’s views towards moorland birds.  The established conservation and moorland bodies are talking of a more consensual and differentiated approach: celebrating good practice where it exists, working hard on getting habitat right and coming down hard on old-fashioned persecution only when they have to. 

The future of the hen harrier lies in the hands of these practical people and it is here that enthusiasts for this emblem of the moors should direct their support.


Posted on: August 11th, 2015