Despite Recovery Plan, the U.K.’s Imperiled Hen Harrier Is Still in Serious Trouble

Continued killings by hunting estates and perceived government inaction have conservationists looking for tougher regulations to save the bird.

The United Kingdom’s threatened Hen Harrier can’t seem to catch a break. The ghostly birds of prey, which once reigned over the moorlands, are being poisoned, shot, and trapped for “stealing” gamebirds from high-end hunting estates. Numbers of U.K. breeding pairs have dwindled to about 700, and nesting pairs are scarce.   

So, in January 2016, after years of deliberation, the U.K. government instated a six-point, $2.2 million Joint Action Plan on Hen Harriers as a last-ditch effort to protect the species. But just months after signing on, the country’s largest avian conservation group, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), publicly withdrew from the plan. “To be honest, we felt we were in a pretty untenable position,” says Stuart Housden, director of RSPB Scotland. The society argues that the middle-of-the-ground strategy fails in one of its central goals: to change the culture around harriers and protect them from illegal actions.

The RSPB’s exit in July came after a flurry of alleged raptor killings and dubious disappearances. Already this year, three satellite-tracked harriers have gone dark under suspicious circumstances, illegal traps have been discovered on hunting estates, and several birds have been shot. (Hen Harriers are the typical targets, but Golden Eagles, Peregrine Falcons, and Red Kites are victimized as well.) Recently, the rising death toll inspired a petition to ban certain methods of grouse hunting; it crossed the 100,000 signature-mark this month, qualifying it for debate in Parliament, which could ultimately result in new policies being passed. The grassroots push is being led by Mark Avery, an author and prominent environmental campaigner, who’s expressed his doubts since the plan’s inception.

For the RSPB, the biggest measure of success will be when the birds can nest on the grouse moors unmolested. But so far, the opposite has happened under the government initiative. Although England’s uplands can accommodate 300 nesting harrier pairs, only three were found breeding there this year. It’s what the RSPB sees as a case of too little being done too slowly.

The group has already shifted its focus to what it thinks is a better alternative: licensing estates. A permit system would penalize estates that allow infractions, such as harrier murders, to happen on their property. “We’re not asking for the Earth here,” Housden says. “Just about every other country in the world with large sport shooting communities has regulations that cover the sorts of things we’re talking about.” Penalties could also encourage improvements in harrier habitat by discouraging destruction of wetlands and scrub, practices commonly used on intensively managed moorlands.

Avery, meanwhile, is looking to take things even further. His petition calls for a blanket ban on driven grouse shooting, which is controversial in its own right. Estates that host these massive hunts are more likely to be linked to raptor harassment due to a dependence on high gamebird stocks. Avery’s next step is to start a letter-writing campaign on the issue that's directed at Members of Parliament (MPs).

The RSPB also plans to work with MPs to spur some action on estate licensing. “Voluntary regulation isn’t working,” Housden says; the fight needs to go to the legal level. If the estates and grouse hunters can’t play nice, conservationists are more than happy to change the rules of the game entirely.