Hen Harrier

Hen Harriers and greenwashing

Hen Harriers and greenwashing – the shooting industry avoids clamping down on persecution


Thousands of pages have been written about Natural England’s ‘fix’ for the ongoing illegal persecution of Hen Harriers on grouse shooting moors, but as not everybody has read them it’s perhaps worth a quick recap in light of yet another attempt by shooting lobbyists like the Moorland Association and BASC to claim how much they love the UK’s most persecuted bird of prey and how delighted they are that fledged chicks have skyrocketed from almost none to – well, a few…

Some years ago ‘brood meddling’ (as most of us took to calling it) was proposed to solve the blatant killing of Hen Harriers, which shooting estates accuse of ruining their ‘business’ selling grouse to ‘sportsmen’ by doing what harriers do – eating whatever they can find to survive. While a large part of a Hen Harrier’s diet is typically made up of voles and small passerines like Meadow Pipits, on moors where grouse are bred at up to ten times the natural density, that quite naturally meant finding and taking grouse chicks too.

‘Brood meddling’, it was proposed, would not involve clamping down on persecution (forty years after the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 came into force the government seemed to have accepted that trying to enforce the law on shooting estates was a lost cause), but removing clutches of eggs from grouse moors, rearing them somewhere in the south of England, then letting the raised chicks go once the grouse killing season had ended – thus avoiding so-called ‘conflict’ between the birds and shooting estates (not so much a conflict as an argument over profits with the usual result being that because harriers take chicks, shooting estates take harriers).


Delaying the inevitable

As many of us pointed out at the time, this would simply delay the inevitable while not addressing the real problem. Once those young harriers had started moving around the country looking for new sites to occupy, they would be killed. Which is what happened…

We knew that Hen Harriers were being killed on grouse moors because an innovative scheme had been set up where harrier chicks were being fitted (under strict licence conditions) with satellite tags that tracked their movements. The government’s own research had then conclusively shown that 72% of tagged Hen Harriers were confirmed or considered likely to have been illegally killed, and that this was ten times more likely to occur over areas of land managed for grouse shooting relative to other land uses.

This illegal killing had already led to increasingly loud calls for the licencing of grouse moors, something the industry – who are used to running shooting and shooting estates like personal fiefdoms – wouldn’t countenance. I’m opposed to licencing for many reasons, but even shooting industry insiders were beginning to realise that shooting’s appalling record of raptor persecution was (thanks largely to the tireless efforts of Raptor Persecution UK (RPUK) and the RSPB Investigations Team) in the spotlight.

What could shooting do? It wouldn’t clean up its act and finger the criminals in its own midst, so it decided to go on a greenwashing PR campaign of embracing ‘brood meddling’ and trying to convince a largely ill-informed public that they were the good guys and loved nothing more than seeing Hen Harrier chicks rightfully returned to the uplands. Which has led to heartfelt stories all over the media about Hen Harriers and their chicks, the loveable little scamps etc etc…timed of course to also greenwash the terrible slaughter of grouse, this time by the shooting industry itself of course, in mid-August.


Carefully spun press-releases

Reading the carefully spun press releases you might indeed get the idea that the shooting industry has embraced Hen Harriers, grasping this season’s ‘record number of chicks’ with their gunpowder-residue-stained fingers like they were pedigree HPR puppies or the latest high-tech firearm. In fact, brood meddling saw 13 chicks reared and released this year, which is the same number raised on just the newly-established Tarras Valley Nature Reserve (TVNR) alone. (TVNR, incidentally, includes Langholm Moor where an experiment was set up some years ago that was apparently designed to fail, by ‘proving’ that grouse shooting couldn’t be economic when Hen Harriers were on the moor also.)

No, the truth about these chicks is more prosaic.

As TVNR demonstrates, these are only ‘record’ numbers of chicks if they’re compared against the criminally low numbers of chicks that have been reared since the intensification of driven grouse shooting and the obsessive killing of harriers. Historically – when the birds were far more widespread and not subject to daily persecution – there were would have been many hundreds of chicks reared, not a dozen. Besides, these ‘brood meddled’ chicks were reared in ideal conditions: the eggs weren’t stamped on by gamekeepers, and their parents weren’t shot while away gathering food leaving them to starve in the nest.

And counting chicks doesn’t take into account of what will happen to those birds when they start ranging more widely. Natural England suggests that persecution of their chicks is low and that many are surviving their first winter (as if surviving one winter is a miracle to be celebrated, rather than what should be expected if illegal persecution is removed), but what happens when their numbers start to recover to the point that estates say ‘No more’?

Gamekeepers are being more careful at the moment perhaps (after all with binoculars it’s actually not too hard to work out whether the harrier on your moor is tagged or not), but changing conditions on grouse moors because of the climate crisis means estates are already finding it difficult to raise enough grouse to satiate demands of wealthy shooters. What will happen when the prodigal harrier youngsters from the south return to the moors as generations before them have done?

Anyone who thinks shooting’s recent passion for harriers will last that test needs their head looked at. As the ongoing tally of ‘dead or missing’ Hen Harriers by RPUK notes, persecution is rampant even while there are relatively few Hen Harriers around. It’s not difficult to guess what will happen if they dare to approach ‘common’.

Natural England (understandably, they have precious little else to brag about) wants the cynical amongst us to embrace ‘brood meddling and welcome the chicks’. Of course, I welcome the chicks – every single one of them. They are incredibly precious.

But unless the laws protecting harriers are enforced, fines and sentencing become meaningful, and the rest of the nation sits up and understands that birds of prey are routinely being killed just so that a handful of wealthy consumers can spend a few days out on a moorland killing huge numbers of grouse, in the long run nothing will change. Estates will whine about there being ‘too many’ harriers, keepers will be charged to find ever more creative ways to dissuade harriers from their moors, and the desperately sad saga will go on and on and on…

In reality, there is only one way to stop harrier persecution and recover their numbers – shut down the shooting industry, help the moors to rewild, and allow harriers and grouse to co-exist as they have done for millennia.