The Hen Harrier Recovery Project is not just focused on the uplands. Natural England have been working with local stakeholders in Wiltshire and in Spain to source and release hen harriers onto a reserve on Salisbury plain. The plain is surrounded by game shooting and Simon Lester who is working on this project for Natural England has been visiting farmers and gamekeepers around the area to canvas their thoughts. He has the full support of the gamekeepers who have committed to help this project succeed. We caught up with Simon Lester who answers some of our questions about this conservation project.
Briefly what is the background to the project?
Although common throughout some parts of Europe and classified as an IUCN Red List of Threatened Species of Least Concern, here in the UK and particularly in England this is not the case. In the UK the hen harrier is specially protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act so that it is an offence to intentionally or recklessly disturb the birds at, on or near an ‘active’ nest. There has long been a conflict between those that wish to shoot red grouse and the conservation of raptors, in particular the hen harrier. The reason is that harriers can predate heavily on grouse chicks and poults during the breeding season. The situation can be compounded by the fact that they will return to their natal site and can nest semi-colonially as has been well illustrated at Langholm Moor during the Joint Raptor Study and latterly the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project.
At the end of the Joint Raptor Study, there was disagreement over the causes of the end of shooting at Langholm and the re-deployment of keepers. Because of the lack of initiative by all parties to embrace the problems that arose, the fate of the hen harrier was made worse and illegality prevailed. This conflict has rumbled on for years with several expensive failed initiatives for example the Environment Council and the police Operation Artemis. The shooting organisations have also failed to solve this conflict of interests that is now damaging the reputation of shooting in general. More recently with the advent of social media, groups such as Raptor Persecution UK and Wild Justice have raised the profile of this ongoing issue to a point where DEFRA have stepped in with a six point plan to increase the number of hen harriers in England.
DEFRA have looked at all the issues, listened, and taken on initiatives that should make for a workable solution to getting more harriers in the air and allow grouse shooting to continue. A plan that has the blessings of all the relevant shooting organisations has been conceived. The Southern Reintroduction is one of those six points. At one time hen harriers were distributed across lowland Britain. In France and Spain they are a common sight nesting in corn crops as opposed to our population that is focused on the uplands. The trend appears to be for this crop nesting to increase. Our objective is to source chicks from parent birds living in this arable environment and introduce them back by a soft release site [Parsonage Down NNR] next to Salisbury Plain.
Why choose Salisbury Plain?
Salisbury plain was chosen against other potential sites because it ticked all the boxes. Exmoor and Dartmoor were looked at and although both had good numbers of small mammals and passerines, the birds may remain attached to an upland (heather) environment, with less ability to spread. Salisbury Plain offered a central and secure location next to the largest area of natural grassland in southern England, which holds a rich food supply and importantly hosts good numbers of over wintering harriers. The greater area beyond the Plain is the desired open arable landscape of southern England that also attracts the very rare Montagu’s harrier.
Natural England recognised that the immediate area around the release site and in fact the south of England host many game shooting enterprises both large and small. An essential role is to liaise with local keepers and farmers, inform them about the project and discuss any concerns heading off any perceived conflict. We wanted to make sure we consulted with all parties in an open and honest way long before any birds arrive. To help us to achieve this a local working group has been established that includes farmers, shoot managers, raptor workers and a group of keepers headed by the Wiltshire NGO chair Nick Stiff, so that relevant information can be passed on to and from their peer groups.
What support do you have from local gamekeepers?
I can only say that the response and support for the project has been great. The majority of the keepers are so used to working with a more than healthy population of buzzards and kites that the odd hen harrier should not present any real problems. Young harriers have not honed hunting skills to kill larger prey by the time most birds should be out and about. They may be attracted to red leg partridge release sites but soon move on, as poults are now released as more mature birds. I have watched young harriers around partridge release pens in Scotland, as long as there is good cover, which most shoots have, then the partridges don’t go far, and any harrier presence did not affect the season. I have only heard of one local shoot manager that objects strongly to the project and one part time keeper. There have been lots of good questions and conversation, with some commenting “do we really need another predator”, which I fully understand. I also know that the majority of keepers and shoot managers understand that we need to have the full suite of raptors before we can have the important conversations of how we manage the countryside in a sustainable manner.
What are your thoughts on the long term future of the project and game shooting in the area?
My only concern for the future are for the estates that have made the effort to conserve wild grey partridge as they have invested by entering into expensive HLS schemes. These estates are creating good quality habitats that not only vastly improve the biodiversity and reverse declines of many red listed species, but in turn creating food that may attract hen harriers. This may lead to some impacts on the driver for all the good work, the grey partridge. We must make sure we can have constructive conversations and build in ways to mitigate any problems that may arise in the future.
Is this a multi-agency project?
On a national level the reintroduction has the support of the NGO, BASC, GWCT, and NFU. They have all have visited the release site. Unfortunately the project has not got the support from some leading conservation organisations and high profile conservationists, which is a poor reflection on conservation in general, but the overriding fact it is sad for the hen harrier. The RSPB appear to think that all harriers released will be persecuted. It would be naive to think that something illegal could not happen to a harrier at some time in the future, but that is no reason to dismiss the reintroduction out of hand. I am sure we and the shooting community will prove them wrong. All the young harriers will be tagged with the most up to date devices that will reveal their day-to-day life. My main concern for the welfare of the birds is not persecution but predation, as ground roosters and nesters they are going to extremely vulnerable to the high numbers of foxes and badgers in the south of England.
When will this all happen?
We were hoping to release birds last year but our efforts to secure birds from the Castilla y León area of Spain did not succeed. Not to be frustrated by this, the project staff went out to Spain to help the local raptor workers in the region. As ever the people on the ground were pragmatists and are supportive of the project. We spent several sweltering days out in the field with these dedicated volunteers, locating nests, putting in protection, catching and tagging adult birds. We then moved on to France, where we continued the same operations but using different techniques. We all learnt an awful lot about all types of harriers; one outstanding thing is how robust the birds are. Most of the work out there is nest location to provide protection from predators, but firstly from harvesting. To this end some nests are rebuilt in a metre square wire cage and physically moved to a safe location. Rescued birds are taken to rehabilitation centres and reared in very basic conditions then released back into the wild from pens made from bales. They are not treated with kid gloves. After our trip last year we were in a good position and this spring we were ready to go, but clearly it is not going to happen this year because of COVID 19.
Thank you for your support, I am sure that we can send a powerful message to our critics.