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How the RSPB sabotaged plans to reintroduce the hen harrier to southern England

What a very strange world we live in. As we all know, the hen harrier is the one bird of prey most revered by Chris Packham fans and the folk at Wild Justice. Indeed, 8 August has been made a designated ‘hen harrier day’, where celebrity speakers will no doubt discuss how much better the British uplands and the UK’s birds of prey would fare if grouse moors didn’t exist.

The fact that managed moorland is where so many raptors choose to make their homes – rather than unmanaged RSPB sites – probably won’t be mentioned.

Defra, Natural England, moorland landowners and keepers and other interested parties are working together to increase hen harrier numbers. This includes the hen harrier brood management trial which involves relocating chicks.

Another proposal was to reintroduce hen harriers to the south of England, where they used to flourish in a lowland habitat. You would think that the RSPB and other bird lovers would be jumping for joy at this proposal. After all, reintroduction schemes for the osprey, red kite and white-tailed eagle have been highly successful in other parts of the country, and even supported and actively helped by the RSPB.

But today, documents obtained from Defra through an FOI by the Countryside Alliance show that far from supporting reintroduction of the hen harrier to southern England, the RSPB have been actively trying to undermine the project. Natural England had proposed obtaining hen harrier chicks from mainland Europe.

The French equivalent of the RSPB – Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux – resisted this. The newly obtained document reveal that an email to Defra states: “Although the French volunteer groups are keen to support the Southern re-introduction they will not release chicks to the UK on principle because of the Brood Management Scheme in the Action Plan”.

However, the email went on: “Volunteer groups in Spain are still prepared to supply hen harrier chicks if NE are prepared to support their satellite tagging work (by donating some tags) and because in the future they may have to ask the UK to supply them with Red Kite chicks”

But at 10.45pm on the night before a Natural England envoy was due to meet with their Spanish counterparts, he was “emailed by a senior official in the SEO [Spanish Birdlife partner] to say they were not supportive of the project.” In a telephone conversation the Spanish SEO “stated they were acting on behalf of their friends the RSPB. 

Summing the situation up, a Defra note states: “Due to contact by RSPB with conservation groups in France and Spain Natural England has been unable to source chicks. Without chicks the reintroduction cannot go ahead and we cannot stop the RSPB.”

This is despite Natural England having the infrastructure and people in place, as well as £300,000 of public money to fund the reintroduction. The RSPB pushed their European friends, and no hen harrier chicks could be obtained.

So what is going on here? It has long been suspected that, like the RSPCA, the RSPB are politicising their decision making; doing what’s best for their own political agenda, rather than what’s best for the birds. It’s simply petty, spiteful – and stupid.

One RSPB member from near Salisbury we spoke to told us: "This really is beggars belief. For the first time ever, we have got all the stakeholders involved and in agreement for the reintroduction of hen harriers to southern England, and just because some idiots within the RSPB management want to play politics, the whole scheme is in jeopardy. I am increasingly worried that the RSPB is being hijacked by somewhat extreme elements that have lost track of what we’re meant to be about as an organisation.”

Martin Harper of the RSPB is quoted as saying that “It would be wrong for us to support the reintroduction scheme until the main reason for harrier declines — illegal killing — stops.”

Here, he neatly sums up exactly what the RSPB’s agenda is about. As an organisation, they are consumed by their hatred of shooting and, specifically, driven grouse shooting. A success story for the hen harrier isn’t what they want to see, as it would upset their narrative. Even Natural England recognised this. The “most likely provenance of active opposition [to hen harrier reintroduction in southern England] will be from those who have a broader agenda to change the management of driven grouse shoots, not specifically the reintroduction itself”, they wrote. Mystic Meg herself couldn’t have done a better job.


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