Hen Harrier

The grouse shooting industry’s ‘illusion of truth’

“141 hen harrier chicks fledge as encouraging population growth recorded” (Natural England). “Record high for Hen harrier population in England” (Moorland Association). “Another record year for hen harriers as 141 chicks fledge in England” (BASC). “Population of Hen Harrier in England experiences boom” (Hexham Courant). “Hen harrier chick numbers grow for seventh year in a row” (Evening Standard, The Independent, South Wales Argus et al).


Psychological studies have shown that we humans seem to be hard-wired to rate items of information that we’ve seen before as more likely to be true, regardless of whether they are true or not. The sole reason appears to be that they are familiar.

Far from familiarity breeding contempt, it seems familiarity breeds acceptance.  This quirk of ours is why propagandists have long known that to create the ‘illusion of truth’ they just need to repeat something over and over again until it becomes embedded. Accepted wisdom. Hear something often enough, and we stop questioning it.

It helps industry lobbyists pushing a ‘fact’ – for example, stating that the grouse shooting industry is actually really great because lots of Hen Harrier chicks are being born and that’s all down to them – to have figures of authority repeat it, put their own spin on it perhaps, but keep reinforcing it. Politicians, maybe, government, probably, mainstream media, definitely. Few people have the knowledge to question what they’re being told, so the original ‘fact’, like a ripple in a pond, just keeps spreading.

But studies in a lab are one thing. Out in the real world there are alternative sources and alternative voices. So let’s have a look at what the lobbyists aren’t telling the public about those ‘booming’ (and, yes, we’re using the word deliberately) Hen Harriers.


The Grouse industry loathes Hen Harriers

Hen Harriers (see our species page here) are birds of prey. Once widespread here, they have been so widely persecuted (shot, trapped, poisoned) that they are now all but confined to a handful of breeding sites in the uplands. Fully protected by law since the Protection of Birds Act was passed in 1954. Hen Harriers are still being persecuted by the grouse shooting industry because while they mainly feed on voles and small birds like Meadow Pipits they also take grouse chicks.

Studies suggest there is enough habitat for around 300 pairs of Hen Harriers in England alone (and nearly ten times that in the UK as a whole). In 2017 there were just three successful nests, from a total of seven attempts, which produced ten fledged young. In 2021, a year hailed as ‘a record breeding year’ by the shooting industry, there were just 31 breeding attempts with 24 successful, fledging 84 chicks.

This year we are told that a ‘record’ 141 chicks were born. Chapeau the shooting industry? No, because what the industry and its lobbyist partners fail to mention is that this ‘record’ is set against a very low baseline or that the number of Hen Harrier chicks does not in any way correspond with breeding adults. That’s vital to understand, because once those chicks leave the relative safety of well-monitored nests their chances of survival out on the grouse moors are slim: providing of course they get to leave the nest at all and aren’t stamped to death in the nest like the four chicks highlighted in a press-release which emerged six months after the event took place (see Hen Harrier nest attacked and chicks stamped to death).

Are we exaggerating? The hugely-respected Raptor Persecution UK (RPUK) blog keeps a rolling tally of the number of Hen Harriers ‘confirmed ‘missing’ or illegally killed in UK since 2018, most of them on or close to grouse moors’. The tally always leads with the same paragraph:

For anyone who still wants to pretend that the grouse shooting industry isn’t responsible for the systematic extermination of hen harriers on grouse moors across the UK, here’s the latest catalogue of crime that suggests otherwise.

The tally has now reached a staggering 110. That is one hundred and ten Hen Harriers confirmed to have gone missing or killed by gamekeepers on or near grouse moors in just five years.

Most of these birds, fitted with lightweight satellite-tags so their precise locations could be tracked, were young so will never breed and boost the population – except temporarily. Add in the facts that harrier chicks also die of natural causes, that we have no idea what happens to chicks that haven’t been tagged, that there should be far, far more Hen Harriers nesting anyway, and the ‘booming population’ looks to be nothing of the sort. A half-truth at best. An illusion that all is well when it most certainly is not.

You might say that the only ‘booming’ taking place involves a gun and an exploding bird of prey…


Natural England

Natural England (NE), ostensibly the government’s adviser for the natural environment in England, are desperate for good news on Hen Harriers. Since 2018 (and this is the reason RPUK’s rolling tally begins this year) they have been paying (using taxpayer funds of course) for a disastrous ‘brood meddling’ scheme where they remove Hen Harrier chicks from grouse moors, rear them safely far away from the criminals that run the moors, then release them again. As everyone and their dog predicted, the birds wander around the country for a bit then get killed by the same criminals they were taken away from in the first place.

The trial ‘meddle’ has recently been extended. Tony Juniper, NE’s director and a former conservation hero to many, has regularly taken to social media to defend the scheme and denigrate anyone who doesn’t think it’s the conservation equivalent of sliced bread. Especially anyone like us and RPUK who repeatedly point out that the far better thing to have done would be to have removed the threat from the shooting industry BEFORE interfering with the natural breeding patterns of the country’s most persecuted bird of prey.

Yes, it is of course ‘encouraging’ (as the NE quote at the top of the post suggests) that there are more Hen Harrier chicks being born, but that’s all it is.  If they’re not surviving there is little to celebrate. The shooting industry is still killing Hen Harriers whenever they get the chance.

Even Natural England must see that if they can’t persuade the government to enforce the law, right now they’re providing living targets for gamekeepers to practice their shooting on and not much else.


But why is the grouse shooting industry trying to gaslight us all though?

The grouse shooting industry loathes Hen Harriers, so why is it pushing this ‘good news’?

Two things: firstly, it doesn’t matter (as already discussed) that there are more chicks being born, because their ‘blunt instruments’ will just increase how many they kill; and secondly, even the industry knows that the public is better informed and more against them now than ever before (even the normally ‘neutral’ RSPB bared its teeth recently when THREE harriers went ‘missing’ in the same week!).

The fact is that the industry is looking for anything it can use to fight back against the barrage of constant criticism and setbacks. This industry (never forget) exists solely to profit from selling Red Grouse to shooters. Huge areas of its ‘managed moorland’ have less biodiversity than city centre parks. It eradicates not just Hen Harriers but countless foxes, stoats and weasels, mountain hares, and corvids. The over-inflated claims about its value to local economies have been derided (most money flows into already-wealthy shooting estates rather than local villages).  The vast areas of moorland they control are widely recognised as too important for carbon storage to be set fire to every year.

There is no positive news in any of the above, but it has no intention of sorting any of this out. It is deeply entrenched, denying everything and trying to convince us all that shooting enormous numbers of wild animals is ‘conservation’, that it won’t tolerate wildlife crime despite being underpinned by it, that gamekeepers are the true guardians of the countryside, and that any division is being stoked up by ‘antis’ and ‘woke extremists’.

To convince us of its value and worth it needs to create and maintain an ‘illusion’ that all is well. One way to do that is to suggest that there are so many Hen Harriers on the moors there is one perched on every gun butt. That records are tumbling faster than Antarctic sea-ice cover.

But – as I wrote above – it’s a half-truth. Smoke and mirrors. They’re hoping if they say it over and over it will distract us from all the mayhem and the crime and the blood. The terrible toll of dead Hen Harriers. The cruelty of gamekeepers. But it won’t. The ‘propaganda’ tactics are too well understood, the industry’s lies are too easily disproved. The illusion has been broken and no amount of spin can ever fix it again.


  • Featured image female Hen Harrier in flight



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