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Driven grouse shooting and hen harriers

Hen harrier. Copyright Amy LewisHen harrier. Copyright Amy Lewis

Many of our members have contacted us asking about our position on the continued persecution of raptors in the uplands. Here Neil Harnott, our Senior Conservation Officer, sets out our position.

Upland management

The uplands of England, although on the face of it ‘wild’, are actually a much changed and managed landscape. There is no place in the uplands that has not felt the hand of humans in some way with farming, hunting and shooting all exerting their influence over the wildlife that exists in these remote places.

Whilst there are many examples of sustainable upland management bringing positive outcomes for both wildlife and people, we cannot escape the fact that much management undertaken damages these fragile ecosystems.

For instance, the vast majority of our blanket bogs have been heavily degraded. In Cumbria, over 90% of wetlands surveyed within the Lake District National Park in 2010-11 were in poor management condition. In the UK as a whole at least 80% of our peatlands are damaged.

Driven grouse shooting and hen harriers

An issue which has received a lot of press recently is that of driven grouse shooting. Whilst we recognise that moorland management can bring benefits for some species of conservation interest (in particular waders), there is increasing evidence that intensive management of grouse moors can cause serious environmental harm. For instance there is an increasing body of evidence that says that burning moorland on peatland soils causes a great deal of environmental damage. Burning can dry out the peat making it release carbon into the atmosphere. It increases flood risk downstream during high rainfall events and the release of carbon into our rivers and streams pollutes the water for humans and invertebrate alike. Despite this, the intensity of burning on grouse moors appears to be increasing.

In addition to these environmental impacts there is increasing concern about the continued illegal persecution of birds of prey on grouse moors. The hen harrier hovers on the edge of extinction in England, and there seems little disagreement or doubt that the failure of this amazing species to thrive is the result of illegal persecution. We completely condemn this illegal activity.

It is not only hen harriers that are struggling. Birds of prey should be common in our uplands, a natural part of the upland ecosystem, yet they are rare and absent from much of the English uplands. A particularly damming fact is that there are now more peregrines nesting in London than there is nesting within the whole of the Peak District National Park.

Current situation

These are not new issues. Conservationists have been talking to the grouse shooting industry and their representatives about this for decades. Defra recently published a Joint Hen Harrier Action Plan involving moorland owners, the RSPB and others. Although The Wildlife Trusts were not included in this, at the time, we welcomed some aspects of the plan, whilst remaining concerned about others – particularly the proposal for removing hen harrier chicks off of grouse moors.

Despite this plan the persecution of hen harriers appears to have continued. This summer has seen a gamekeeper in northern England receiving a police caution for setting illegal pole traps, designed to kill hen harriers. In another instance the National Trust has terminated a grouse shooting lease on its land for the first time following a ‘suspicious’ incident involving an armed man setting up a decoy designed to attract hen harriers.

This year only three pairs of hen harriers nested in England – and none of these are on grouse moors. This is down on the 2015 breeding season and despite the fact that studies by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust have shown that England could provide enough habitat for several hundred pairs of hen harriers. In the face of this continued persecution the RSPB has withdrawn its support from the Joint Hen Harrier Action Plan and has called for grouse moors to be licensed.

Against the backdrop of this plan, the continuing persecution of raptors and the increasing evidence of the negative impacts of moorland management, a petition to ban driven grouse shooting from the uplands was launched on the government website. Despite the fact that this petition was not supported or promoted by any major conservation NGO, it has still managed to gather more than 123,000 signatures (123,075 to be precise). This means it will now be debated in parliament. Given the lack of resources and support, it is an amazing achievement for this grassroots campaign to have gathered this many signatures. We would all be foolish to ignore the underlying message that this sends; that of the need for change in the way our uplands are being managed.

The way forward

Whilst Cumbria Wildlife Trust does not support the calls for the banning of driven grouse shooting, we do recognise that something needs to change. We are therefore supporting the RSPB’s call for the licensing of grouse moors. It is our opinion that law abiding estates have nothing to fear from a licensing system and everything to gain. A well targeted and regulated licensing system could stamp out the illegal persecution that tarnishes the reputation of the whole industry. It could help alleviate worries about burning on blanket peat and address some of the concerns residents have about the impact moorland management has on downstream flooding. Like the RSPB, we hope that the shooting industry will embrace this compromise position.

How you can help

We would encourage our membership to contact their MPs about this issue, ask their MP to attend the debate and speak positively about our shared vision for sustainably managed uplands full of hen harriers.