Heads up for Harriers: a good or bad initiative?

Hen harrier chicks at a nest

The bronze golden eagle awarded as the prize for best project in the category Understanding the Natural Heritage (my dogs in the background were not part of the award).

I listened at 0630 this (Saturday) morning to the first item on BBC Scotland radio Out of Doors in which Professor Des Thompson was interviewed by Euan McIlwraith on the Heads up for Harriers project. This project, initiated about four years ago by PAW Scotland and led by Des is two-pronged. Firstly, it encourages people to report sightings of hen harriers, by phone to 07767 671973, or email to: HenHarrier@snh.gov.uk Secondly, and somewhat controversially, it encourages estates to allow cameras to be placed near hen harrier nests to record the outcome, whether that be successful fledging, predation by fox or crow or by natural causes, such as by extreme weather. Human persecution is unlikely to feature as no-one is going to interfere with a nest if they are aware they are being filmed. Partners in the project include SNH, Scottish Land and Estates (SLE), RSPB, Scottish Raptor Study Groups (SRSG).

Despite some estates being difficult to persuade, in 2017 over 20 estates took part, resulting in the successful fledging of 37 young hen harriers from seven of these estates. No information was given in the interview of how many of these estates were driven grouse moors, though reading between the lines there are few or none. Des said that he was not being naïve and there were some estates the group would like to see becoming involved, though they have not yet come forward.

While I see considerable benefit in this project, it would be really helpful if the participating estates could be published. This would reward them in some way for their efforts. It may also shame others into taking part.

What am I saying? There is no way that some estates could be shamed into doing (or not doing) anything that does not suit them. Unless there has been a serious change in the policy of most driven grouse moors they simply do not want hen harriers. Neither do they want people walking over the estate looking for displaying or nesting harriers, or seeing anything else that the estate would rather was unseen.

I have twice before been involved with projects to raise awareness of the persecution of hen harriers. In 1997 Tayside Police developed a project whereby I, as the force wildlife crime officer and Constables Graham Jack and Bob Noble, two of the divisional wildlife crime officers, co-opted a couple of rural schools with smallish classes (Amulree and Kirkmichael) to undertake a hen harrier project in which they would study, draw and write about hen harriers. Graham and I also approached a number of estates with the potential for breeding hen harriers. Twelve estates agreed to take part and Graham and I spent several days, under licence from SNH and with assistance from RSPB Scotland, looking for nests, especially one to which – again under licence – we could take the school classes.

We found a suitable nest near to each school and when the chicks were well fledged, took the pupils for a quick and quiet visit. BBC Countryfile also became involved, as did Grampian Television, who later filmed the fledglings being ringed. The project raised the issue of hen harrier persecution considerably, the participating estates got some kudos and the SNH/Grampian TV/Shell UK award that the project won in the category of Understanding the Natural Heritage was an unexpected bonus.

In 2004 the UK police forces developed Operation Artemis, where upland estate owners were asked to sign a pledge that they would respect the law in relation to hen harriers. There was no legal obligation to do so but for law-abiding folks this was assumed to be fairly straightforward. Each was visited by a wildlife crime officer but the results were devastating. From memory I think most in Wales agreed to do so, about 30% in Scotland agreed but there was total rejection in the north of England.

Returning to the present project, Heads up for Harriers, while it has merit it should certainly not be seen to be letting driven grouse moors off the hook (and in no way did Des imply this in his interview), nor should it be seen as a lessening in criminality that kicks licensing into the long grass. That cannot be done until all estates agree to participate and harrier numbers are at a level that accords with a natural predator/prey relationship.

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