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Hen Harriers enjoy best year in decades, no thanks to the RSPB

There has been a lot of good news about hen harriers this year. First and foremost must be the incontrovertible fact that 2021, in spite of awful weather, has been the most successful year in England for fledged hen harrier chicks in decades and this success is part of a sustained trend that commenced about the start of the brood management trial (BM), a key part of the Hen Harrier Recovery Plan.

Whilst this excellent news is, indeed, incontrovertible, it is not universally welcome or spoken about. The RSPB hates the very idea of brood management with a vengeance and will go to any lengths to avoid having to say that it is working, that there are a lot more English hen harriers, and that most of them were reared on driven grouse moors.

If you are unwise enough to waste your time reading the RSPB's latest Bird Crime report you will notice a few interesting features. One is the paucity of data compared to previous versions. This may be designed to prevent third party analysis of their assertions, something which has so often in the past resulted in their claims looking more speculative than they would like. You can't analyse what isn't there.

Another is the extraordinary fact that bird crime now apparently only happens to raptors.

Other birds who were – in the good old days, when RSPB published proper data – statistically more likely to suffer from unlawful persecution than raptors, seem to have disappeared completely. It is unclear whether this is because these crimes have miraculously disappeared, or whether RSPB just don't care enough about non-raptors (who have become the avian equivalent of untermenschen) for them to be bothered reporting the crimes perpetrated against them.

But by far the most striking thing is that there is not a word about the changed context of hen harriers on grouse moors, or the many owners and keepers who are doing the heavy lifting to see them prosper. Nothing is allowed to stand in the way of their narrative that has resulted, as it can only have been intended to, in the demonisation of a profession and a way of life that is essential to the continued existence of our heather moors, their unique biodiversity and their precious carbon stores.

The second piece of good news is that the appeal against the court decision that had rejected the case (brought jointly by RSPB,and their ex-Director, Mark Avery), claiming that brood management was illegal, was itself dismissed as without merit. No one knows what this cost the charity, but they will have to sell a lot of bird seed to pay for it. It must also be asked how – in the face of the clarity and force of the original judgement, the obvious risk, the potential costs, and the fact that the thing they were trying to destroy was actually resulting in an exponential increase in fledged hen harriers – they thought this was a remotely acceptable way to use their members' money.

The original judgement left very little room for uncertainty about what the judge thought of RSPB's case and makes for very interesting, and embarrassing reading. Just a few random quotes will suffice to show how the judge felt about the standard of the RSPB's claims and conduct.

“There is simply no evidence to support the claimant's (RSPB) submission that Natural England (NE) is seeking to circumvent the overriding statutory purpose of conservation of an endangered species”.

“I accept NE submission that RSPB has not fairly characterised the intent of the application or NE;s assessment of it”.

“The RSPB has not been able to identify any material information that was not available to the assessors and appears to have misread the conclusions reached in the report.”

You have to wonder, when faced with such comments (and there are more!), why they didn't just apologise and go and spend their money on saving birds. Instead they decided that the learned judge's views – that they had misread, been unfair, and could produce no evidence or material information – were simply wrong, and instead of walking away, they doubled down, obviously using members or public money and not their own.

There is some good news for RSPB. There is at least one place where the landscape is precisely as they wish it to be in England and Scotland. Where the grouse moor keepers have long gone. Where there is no driven grouse shooting. Where heather moorland has been left unmanaged and unburnt for years. Where trees are being planted or self setting at a rate that would gladden the heart of the maddest Green MP.

This place is Eire. Surely here the hen harriers can prosper and the curlew nest in comfort and with success. It is precisely the post grouse shooting world promoted by RSPB, and their all-knowing Vice-President, Mr Packham. Here, surely, they can point to burgeoning populations of ground nesting waders and hen harriers. They will be able to show the longed for abundance in this post-grouse paradise.

Well, tragically, they cannot. Unlike English grouse moors where curlew may outnumber hen

harriers by hundreds to one, the population of hen harriers is indeed bigger than the curlew

population; but that is only because curlew are effectively extinct as an upland breeding bird.

Far from prospering, the Irish hen harrier population is declining at an alarming rate. The bird is subject to the highest levels of protection and vast sums are being spent on trying to save it. And, as ever, the rural community is being pushed about to make the sacrifices that it is imagined, by the state and the conservation industry, will save the bird. But it is not working and for once it can't be the fault of the bullied and traduced grouse moor keepers because there are NONE.

In 2005 there were a minimum of 132 pairs. In 2010 that had only dropped to128, virtually no

change; but by 2015 it had dropped to 108, a nearly 20% fall. This year the number was reported to be 62 pairs, but even worse only 18 of them fledged young, amounting to a pitiful total of 34 young harriers. This a serious species crisis and deserves sympathy and respectful attention to the views of those currently involved in trying to save this wonderful bird.

Here is their view of what the problems are. “Poor breeding productivity can be linked to habitat availability, habitat quality, predation pressure and the weather”. Elsewhere when discussing the failure of 10 pairs of hen harriers on Slieve Mountain to produce a single fledged chick, they identify the problem as, “ground predators in forests”.

So there you have it, the post grouse shooting paradise produced less fledged hen harriers –far less, almost 50% less – than the hen harriers in England managed, despite the same bad weather, and despite most of them nesting on driven grouse moors managed by the game keepers who are the perpetual recipients of the RSPB's vitriol and invective. You could not make it up. Nor can they say that they were not told. When the RSPB was a respected and respectable organisation that listened as much to those who own and manage the landscape as it now does to the LACS, Revive and the darker elements such as Moorland Monitors, it had Chairmen who could command respect from all elements within any debate, by virtue of their scientific credentials and their willingness to engage with all sides.

One such, was Ian Newton, whose book Uplands and Birds provides, within its nearly 600 pages, a remarkably balanced and authoritative insight into all issues facing upland species. Here is what he has to say on the topic we have discussing today:

“It has been suggested that banning driven grouse shooting would particularly improve the fortunes of hen harriers and other raptors. Although this would remove the major current restraint on the numbers in some regions, it might not translate into larger populations overall in the long term. In areas currently dominated by grouse moor, a shift to alternative land uses could diminish the value of the land for hen harriers and other large raptors by destroying the habitat and reducing prey populations. If the shooting of driven grouse was banned, so that heather moors were no longer of use to their owners, they would most likely be converted to sheep-walk or conifer plantation, and in conservation terms have much less value.”

We suspect that the current Chairman – the millionaire magazine publisher Kevin Cox – and indeed the senior staff at RSPB, may not have been sufficiently motivated by a willingness to understand the detail, to read this interesting and authoritative book. Or if they have, they have decided to ignore it completely. There can be hardly be any other explanation for the difference between the measured tone and science based pragmatism of Uplands and Birds, and the self promoting and misleading hyperbole of Kevin and his acolytes.

It it is fair to ask what is going on. Why does the richest and most powerful conservation

organisation in the country behave in this way? Is it hubris, arrogance, greed; a skin so thin that the merest hint of disagreement has to be crushed? Looking at their willingness to put their own interests and prejudices way ahead of those of the bird it purports to value above all others, you might think it was all of them: and you might be right.


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