A Northern Harrier nest in Western Europe. Photo: R Courseaux & J Baudrillard/Minden

Conservation

Six Ways the U.K. is Trying to Bring Back Its Harriers

The country just launched an action plan for its most threatened raptor—but will it work?

For a bird that likes its secrecy, the Hen Harrier just can’t seem to stay away from the spotlight. The disappearing birds are always in the news in the United Kingdom, where, following a long and violent history with gamekeepers, they've been marked as pests for hunting game grouse (which the British like to hunt themselves). Since the '90s, the local harrier population has declined to less than 700 breeding pairs, making it the most threatened raptor species in the country.

But at long last, the harrier is in the spotlight for a good reason. The U.K. government has finally agreed on a new $2.2 million conservation plan that’s designed to keep the country’s population from going extinct. The six-pronged protection strategy is a hard-won victory: It took government agencies, conservation organizations, and gamebird interest groups three years to agree on it. Some of the approved tactics have already been tested by groups like the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds; others will be tried out for the very first time.

Though the agreement is largely welcome across the region, it doesn’t have unanimous support. “If you were a Hen Harrier, you wouldn’t vote for this plan,” says Mark Avery, former conservation director for the RSPB, now an advocate for raptor protection and author. One major sticking point is that it fails to set population goals, which would help monitor the birds’ progress. Avery also points out that the plan “doesn’t tackle what everybody agrees is the real problem: the illegal killing on grouse moors.”

For most people, however, boosting local harrier numbers is the primary focus, says Andre Farrar, spokesperson for the RSPB. He thinks that the plan will at least promote conservation action around the harrier, and maybe draw some funding to the cause. “There’s going to be a lot more attention on Hen Harriers this year than in recent years,” he says. Ultimately, the birds’ 2016 breeding season will be the truest test of the proposal’s success.

Here’s a rundown of each part of the plan.

1. Monitoring the current population

Who: RSPB and Natural England, an environmental adviser for the U.K. government

How: The two groups will team up to put more satellite tags on Hen Harriers to gather evidence on population numbers and the birds’ range. In the future, they can use that location data to figure out where to focus conservation efforts.

2. Feeding the birds meat to deter them from hunting grouse

Who: Gamebird interest organizations like the Moorland Association and the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust

How: Estates will be encouraged to put out meat for Hen Harriers to distract them from preying on breeding and fledging grouse. Trials showed that when the raptors had other meal options, grouse numbers rose.

3. Gathering and sharing intelligence on harrier deaths

Who: The U.K.’s Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group (not MI6, unfortunately)

How: Law enforcement agencies will share data on illegal activities like raptor poisoning to map out where crimes against harriers are taking place. Local officials can further use this resource to better defend the birds.

4. Protecting nests and roosts with technology

Who: Natural England, volunteers, and wildlife-crime officers

How: Installing camera traps and time-lapse cameras at nesting sites could discourage illegal activity by gamekeepers and poachers. Satellite-tagged harriers will also reveal the locations of major roosting sites, so those can be guarded closely, too.

5. Reintroducing captive-bred birds

Who: Natural England

How: Over the course of the next four years, captive-bred birds will be reintroduced to parts of England where they’re now absent. The hope is that they’ll settle down, breed, and eventually expand their range.

6. Moving chicks to new frontiers

Who: Natural England, Moorland Association, and the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust

How: This controversial tactic would see the relocation of baby harriers from grouse-filled moors to new moorland areas where gamebirds aren't an issue. But a large amount of research is still needed before this idea can be put to the test. 

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