The spectacle of a peregrine falcon swooping down a valley, or a hen harrier quartering above marshland against the backdrop of a low winter sun are among the most uplifting and gripping sights the natural world has to offer. Yet, birds of prey have become an improbable entry into the UK’s large pantheon of polarising issues.
Every year the RSPB publishes a Bird Crime report and, every year, despite the outrage it triggers, the story is always the same. In 2018 there were 87 confirmed incidents of birds of prey being illegally persecuted, including 31 buzzards, 27 red kites, six peregrine falcons, eight owls (tawny and barn) and four hen harriers. The incidents included 41 shootings, 28 poisonings and 16 trappings. These resulted in just two prosecutions: one was ruled inadmissible; the other case saw the conviction of a gamekeeper.
The figures for hen harriers in particular are stark. In 2018, there were just nine breeding pairs of hen harrier in England. Conservationists say that the moors of England are large enough to host 300 breeding pairs. Scotland has around 460 pairs of hen harriers but even there, the bird has declined on grouse moors by 57 per cent since 2010, says the RSPB.
In Scotland, a third of satellite-tagged golden eagles have disappeared, most of them over moors managed for grouse shooting. ‘Only a tiny number of birds are tagged, so they’re the ones we know about,’ says Ian Thomson, head of investigations at RSPB Scotland. ‘They are the proverbial tip of the iceberg. In reality we are looking at up to 50 golden eagles being illegally killed each year.’
The RSPB report identified illegal persecution blackspots in the Peak District, North Yorkshire and southern Scotland. Incidents were predominantly recorded in upland areas where the land is managed for driven grouse shooting. A recently published ten-year scientific study using Natural England data revealed that 72 per cent of satellite-tagged hen harriers were confirmed or considered very likely to have been illegally killed. It also found that hen harriers are ten times more likely to die or disappear over grouse moors.
This is no coincidence: hen harriers nest on moors and hunt for prey such as meadow pipits and voles. Where those moors are managed for grouse shooting, they also feed on red grouse chicks, which puts them in direct conflict with gamekeepers. This is not a new issue. An RSPB study in the Peak District has demonstrated strong associations between intensive grouse-moor management in the Dark Peak and raptor persecution: goshawks and peregrines declined significantly in the Dark Peak between 1995-2015 but increased five-fold and 20-fold respectively elsewhere in the national park.
When I call Thomson, he has just received a report of a hen harrier missing in suspicious circumstances in the north of England. ‘That’s the fourth report in the last couple of weeks, it shows the level of attrition they are under,’ he says.
The shooting industry, unsurprisingly, has a very different take on the issue. Landowners say that by managing heather and controlling predators such as foxes and crows, they actually encourage wildlife. The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) argues that the demise of grouse moors would adversely affect hen harriers. ‘The irony is that gamekeepers actually protect hen harriers,’ says Dr Adam Smith the GWCT’s director for Scotland.
The Moorland Association agrees. ‘Without this work, the precious land would revert to scrub and forest and the heather moors,’ says its director, Amanda Anderson. According to the Moorland Association, shooting also provides essential income and is responsible for more than 1,500 jobs in the heart of the countryside.
The GWCT also has a different interpretation of the data available on hen harriers, saying that 2019 was ‘a hugely encouraging year’ with a total of 47 chicks fledged, ‘a record-breaking total’ and the large majority on grouse moors.
It’s an observation that exasperates Professor Jeremy Wilson, head of conservation science at the RSPB Scotland. ‘Every year we have the profoundly depressing reports about whether three or six extra chicks fledging is a success, a sign of turning the corner,’ he sighs. ‘We should be having hundreds of chicks fledging, not just a handful.’
Conservationists also feel the shooting industry has the ear of government. At the suggestion of the grouse shooting industry, Natural England has, for the past two years, allowed the removal of hen harrier eggs from their nests and for the chicks to be reared in an aviary and then released near where they were taken. The process is known as brood management (or as critics, say, ‘brood meddling’). The rationale is that the avian parents will need to hunt less as they won’t have young mouths to fill. The Moorland Association believes the programme is a success, saying that it ‘signals a turning point’ in efforts to restore harrier numbers and ‘should deliver a sustainable and well-dispersed hen harrier population’.
‘It is unpopular with some but it means that at the adult raptors are not taking grouse chicks to feed their own chicks,’ says Smith.
The RSPB points out that three of five chicks released through the scheme have themselves disappeared in what it calls ‘mysterious circumstances’ and has launched a judicial appeal against the policy, arguing, says Thomson, that ‘it just appeases illegality’.
Thomson’s colleague, Wilson, believes the UK government is approaching the issue from the wrong angle. ‘There is a different cultural approach in England from Scotland. DEFRA has long taken the view that where there is a conflict, it is the nature element that must be changed or adapted, not the land management practices.’ The time has come, Wilson feels, for that to change.
It is sometimes possible to reach a middle ground. In a rare example of co-operation, the shooting industry and the RSPB, with others, took part in what became known as the Langholm Moor project in southwest Scotland. This ten-year project monitored the relationship between birds of prey, red grouse, other predators such as foxes and corvids and the state of the heather moorland. The aim was to see whether any combination of these factors would find a way to allow birds of prey to flourish while at the same time running an economically-viable grouse shoot.
A report on the project was published last autumn (2019) and its findings contained an awkward inference for conservationists: that hen harriers do better on grouse moors that are well managed than they do on moors that are left untended. It suggested that legal control of foxes and corvids could benefit ground-nesting raptors. Apart from hen harrier, populations of curlew, golden plover and snipe all benefited at a time when they were declining nationally. There was a heavy caveat to this: such benefits were outweighed by more widespread illegal control (by gamekeepers killing birds of prey and other predators).
‘One of the reasons hen harriers have done well at Langholm is the absolute adherence to the law,’ says the RSPB’s Wilson. ‘There may be a sweet spot where the land is judiciously and legally managed to support a small number of driven grouse and is conducive to managing heather moorland and in a way that helps birds.’
Wilson believes that, were the grouse shooting industry to reduce the scale of shoots, a compromise might be found. ‘Thirty years ago, the number of grouse that were driven in any shoot was between 60 to 80. Nowadays, the shoots deem 1,000 to be an acceptable number. They need to reduce their expectations. We believe there is potential for a middle ground to be found, we are not asking for grouse shooting to be banned.’
Such optimism is swiftly dashed by the response of the GWCT to this point. ‘Setting a lower target [than 1,000 brace a season] would have been economically unsustainable,’ says spokesman Andrew Gilruth, who says his organisation’s approach is guided by environmental, social and economic principles laid down by the World Conservation Union. ‘Those that manage nature reserves are blessed that they don’t need to balance those three, but communities making a living from their land face these compromises every day.’
The grouse shooting industry has its own interpretation of the Langholm report. ‘Langholm shows that if raptor predation of grouse chicks is too high then management is withdrawn,’ says Smith, ‘sheep graze the land, the heather deteriorates, foxes and crows come in and predate on hen harrier chicks,’ says Smith. ‘This is not a simple story, so many people are not prepared to listen.’
On this point – that the picture is not simple – the RSPB agrees. The conflict arises because, says Wilson, grouse shooting is embedded in the way in which large parts of the UK countryside are managed. More than 60 per cent of England’s upland Sites of Special Scientific Interest comprise moors managed for grouse shooting.
The fate of hen harriers is at the centre of concerns over grouse shooting yet, a change to more ‘natural’, unmanaged, landscapes would see more woodlands growing, which would be home to more corvids and foxes – predators of ground-nesting birds.
‘Our open moorlands are a product of human management, whether that be by grouse shooting or grazing,’ says Wilson. ‘That throws into sharp relief the challenges faced by ground-nesting birds on our uplands. To what extent should the uplands remain open and supporting ground-nesting birds? A change to a more wooded landscape would have implications for hen harriers.’
The law of the land is also coming under scrutiny. Conservationists say that wildlife crime punishments are inadequate. Alleged bird crimes are treated as summary cases and are heard in magistrates courts where the maximum jail sentence is six months and the maximum fine is £1,000. The RSPB says cases often flounder because gamekeepers are represented by top QCs, paid for by their employers.
Conservationists are frustrated that film footage of gamekeepers allegedly killing birds has been deemed inadmissible by English courts (the defence can assert it is uncomfortable with the associated surveillance). In Scotland, such footage has a higher rate of supporting convictions.
In 2011, Scotland introduced the charge of vicarious liability, whereby a landowner can be prosecuted if a bird is killed on their property, even if they did not commit the act themselves. This has led to a steep decline in poisonings. ‘From 50 incidents a year, numbers are down to single figures,’ says Thomson. ‘Poisoning is now a high-risk tactic for gamekeepers, as a tagged bird that stops moving can be quickly gathered as evidence.’
Gamekeepers, though, may simply be changing tactics, for shooting and trapping of birds of prey have increased. ‘These are crimes that take place in the back of beyond, where it is fairly easy to dispose of a carcass, for it to decompose or be scavenged and the evidence to disappear,’ says Thomson.
A licensing system for grouse moors – fiercely oppose by the GWCT – may now, says Thomson, be the only option. ‘The right to shoot should be dependent on legal and sustainable management. If you are proven to be acting illegally, you lose the right to shoot,’ he says. ‘The status quo and tinkering around the edges are no longer an option. This is the 21st century, in a country that likes to think it treasures its wildlife, yet iconic birds of prey are being illegally killed. The grouse shooting industry has had decades to put its house in order. A lot of people in the industry are in denial. The time for simply tweaking the law is past. We need robust regulation.’