The fight against the illegal killing

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

Forty-one years ago, the well-known British ornithology writer Ian Newton wrote:
“Persecution remains a threat to the British raptors and is clearly the main factor restricting the present range of at least the Buzzard, the Hen Harrier, and the Golden Eagle, none of which occupy more than about half their potential range in the British Isles, including Ireland”. By ‘persecution’ is meant the killing and disturbance of birds of prey, and interference with their nests and eggs, all of which have been illegal under UK law for many decades.

At the time Newton was lamenting that none of the species mentioned had reached anywhere near their UK potential. Decades later the situation in England today for Hen Harrier and Golden Eagle is even worse. While persecution in some habitats has reduced sufficiently to allow the Buzzard to have spread eastwards across much of England, Golden Eagles barely maintained a toe-hold in the Lake District until the last one disappeared in 2015, while Hen Harriers are extremely rare as a breeding species in England.

In 2019 there were only 15 Hen Harrier nests in England compared to an estimated potential (see Fielding A. et al) of more than 300 pairs.

This article will focus more closely on the case of the Hen Harrier, but first, some background to raptor persecution in the UK.

Regrettably the persecution referred to by Newton is still continuing, and although the recent Coronavirus pandemic and the consequent UK lock-down, limiting travel and access to the countryside, has been widely seen as giving nature some recovery-time from the intrusion of human beings into the wild and beautiful places of the UK, the reality for UK raptors is as described by Superintendent Nick Lyall, head of the police Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group:

“It is clear that lockdown has been seen as a green light by those involved in raptor persecution offences to continue committing crimes, presumably in the belief that there are fewer people around to catch them doing so.”

The events to which Superintendent Lyall referred were, as at mid-May 2020, a total of 56 persecution incidents since lock-down began in March.

The UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the largest wildlife wild-life conservation charity in Europe, and the largest member of Birdlife International, has been recording the number of confirmed (not suspected) raptor persecution incidents which means every incidence of killing by whatever means, and every deliberate disturbance. From 2007 up to and including 2018 these incidents totalled 1,215, and considering that this is likely to represent the tip of the iceberg, with many other incidents occurring in remote and unobserved corners of the countryside, it is a disturbing figure. The two favoured methods of killing appear to be shooting and poisoning.

The map below shows that the illegal persecution of raptors is widespread and not confined to Grouse-rearing areas. Each blue square represents the location of at least one confirmed illegal raptor persecution incident. The term ‘persecution incident’ is used simply because although many incidents involve the killing of raptors there are others that include nest and eggs destruction and disturbance. Note that there are an additional 17 incidents that have not been mapped for various reasons.

Most of these incidents took place on or near areas of land devoted to providing shooting of game birds, but it is important to stress that the customers who visit these estates during the shooting season have never been implicated in any persecution incidents. Nor is it suggested that all estates illegally persecute raptors, but those that do risk condemnation falling upon them all.

Let’s take a closer look at Hen Harriers. This species favours the habitat known as ‘moors’ in the UK,  a kind of upland habitat often dominated by large areas of plants called heather, which is also occupied by Red Grouse, a bird that can be shot during specified dates or ‘seasons’.

This activity contributes to local economies through employment, and the expenditure of individuals and companies that visit the shooting estates. Red Grouse have been declining for many, many, decades and where this is due to over-grazing of the heather (which provides cover and food for the Grouse) by excess numbers of sheep and deer, it is often replaced by swards of grass.

This is attractive to nesting Hen Harriers as grassland is favoured by the Harriers’ preferred prey, Short-tailed Voles and Meadow Pipits. As the heather reduces in area, so do the Grouse reduce, while at the same time, Hen Harriers increase. It is easy to jump to the conclusion that the Harriers are the primary cause of Grouse reductions when in reality they are a secondary consequence of the habitat change caused by over-grazing.  Nevertheless the impression is given that more Harriers equals fewer Grouse, and certainly Harriers will take young Grouse. This is exacerbated by the estates’ efforts to maximise the population of Grouse to levels above the natural capacity of the land, despite the problems of disease this brings among a too-dense population, and which requires medicated food to be placed for the Grouse to eat.

Although encouraging a monoculture of heather flies in the face of biodiversity as an over-arching UK conservation goal, large areas dominated by heathers have certainly been present for centuries in our semi-natural uplands and a balance could surely be struck between biodiversity and Grouse breeding success. The artificially high numbers of young Grouse inevitably leads to some being taken by Harriers.

It has been a traditional task of gamekeepers to control the numbers of predators on their land, and in the face of reducing Grouse numbers it is hardly surprising that the instinctive reaction from some shooting estates is that it is desirable to reduce the resident Hen Harriers, and indeed any raptors, that may affect the annual numbers of Red Grouse. This kind of reaction is not confined to Grouse-shooting estates, as can be seen from the map, above.

We have already noted that the numbers of Grouse are strongly influenced by the quality of the heather-dominated habitat, and the grazing regime is a very important part of the complex interaction of factors that influence the vitality and extent of the heather.

Until a few years ago, the UK agricultural subsidy to hill-farmers was based on the numbers of sheep they grazed on the moors. This encouraged farmers to have larger flocks than was optimum for the grazing available on their land, and the regeneration of both trees and heather suffered as a result, no doubt contributing significantly to reduced Grouse numbers. More recently this subsidy has been changed, and is now based on the area of land, and anyone who walks the hills of Scotland will have noticed the big reduction in sheep numbers. This should help the shooting estates because the underlying problem of poor Grouse productivity has been the reduced heather cover.

Increasing the heather cover and its quality will not only it make the area relatively less attractive to Hen Harriers than areas of mixed heather and grass, it will be optimum for the success of Grouse. But sheep have not been the only problem. In many places the numbers of deer have also grown, due to the lack of a top predator, and they have also contributed to poor tree and heather re-generation.

More Information

To look at the interactive RSPB map of these incidents go to: https://www.arcgis.com/apps/opsdashboard/index.html#/0f04dd3b78e544d9a6175b7435ba0f8c

Newton, I. (1979): Raptor Research 13(3):65-78, EFFECTS OF HUMAN PERSECUTION ON EUROPEAN RAPTORS

Fielding, A., Haworth, P., Whitfield, P., McLeod, D. & Riley, H. 2011. A Conservation Framework for Hen Harriers in the United Kingdom. JNCC Report 441. Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Peterborough

Controlling deer numbers by ‘stalkers’ paying for the privilege of shooting them during the legally defined stalking season, would not only bring income to the estates and sustain employment, but also relieve grazing pressure on the heather.

Although encouraging a monoculture of heather flies in the face of biodiversity as an over-arching UK conservation goal, large areas dominated by heathers have certainly been present for centuries in our semi-natural uplands and a balance could surely be struck between biodiversity and Grouse breeding success.

I am almost certainly making the solution sound easier than it is, but a solution must be found. One possible solution has been proposed in Scotland, and that is a recommendation made to Scottish government ministers to regulate grouse shooting estates by a system of licenses, as is already done in many European countries. This would allow the licence issued to a shooting estate to be withdrawn if it was proved the estate was conducting illegal persecution of raptors.

Lee Thickett

Nature observer and otter enthusiast.