Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Hen Harriers in Bowland.........a lament!

Recent days have brought the news that there has been virtually no Hen Harriers seen in the Forest of Bowland, Lancashire this Spring and no evidence, as yet, of any pairs taking up territory. Given the breeding population of the area had reduced in 2011 to only four pairs, rearing eleven young,, the fear of imminent extinction in this final English stronghold of the species clearly moves closer.

Doubtless the reduced numbers of  birds is a stark consequence of the unabated persecution elsewhere of the species by game management interests, which is so regularly reported on, but upon which no sustained action is currently evident from interested organizations. Sadly, current RSPB PR outpourings about Bowland are very "cosy" and avoid the issue of a regional and NATIONAL population being reduced even further or possibly reaching local extinction. Doubtless there will be those who will celebrate these circumstances whilst others, like me, feel the situation to be potentially disastrous and demanding of the strongest retaliatory stance possible from both conservation organisations and Government alike.

Over the past few years the English breeding population of the Hen Harrier has been eroded away until only the Bowland nucleus remained in 2011. Much has been said in the past about contributing circumstances, e.g. low Spring food availability for adults or poor weather, with such statements being given equal prominence to those dealing with raptor persecution that is the real culprit associated with the declining fortunes of this species.

With over thirty years now having elapsed since that fateful day when I was given the responsibility to oversee the RSPB's regional association with the Forest of Bowland I look back today and feel even more despairing than I did then !!  Up to 1999, when I took early retirement, the species had done reasonably well and continued to do so until recently when it became apparent that deliberately focussed persecution away from the Bowland area was beginning to seriously undermine the numbers of birds involved.

Immediately previous to the RSPB's involvement in 1981, the wilful destruction of young at six Hen Harrier nests was widely reported in the Press. The incident sparked off an outcry and was the instigation of an RSPB seasonal  presence in Bowland for several years, assisted by the North West Water Authority, which eventually extended into the year round presence, now assisted by United Utilities, which continues to this day. As many will know, the Forest of Bowland comprises several private estates plus over 25,000 acres of land previously held by the North West Water Authority, which is now administered by the private water utility company, United Utilities. In 1981 the NWWA had a series of tenanted shooting leases associated with its land so, in essence, there was little difference in terms of the management approach compared to the remaining private estates in Bowland in that all areas were keepered.

It's essential to mention these details as , at that time, the work involved was much more extensive and intensive compared to the more restricted area upon which the operation rests today. Shooting tenants and their keepers, five major private estates, agents and their keepers, the Nature Conservancy Council, Forestry Commission, Police, the County Council and the Water Authority itself, voluntary surveyors and endless others , provided a rich panoply of vested interests and opinions to address as well as trying to move the RSPB's own objectives forward. Primarily the latter was to better establish the populations of the various  bird of prey species and to effect as much protection as possible. In 1981 there were 17 nests of Hen Harriers and, thankfully, a buoyant presence also of Peregrine, Merlin, Short-eared Owl and Goshawk, besides other conservation challenges associated with species like Black Grouse. An examination of the figures provided below will show the annual successful breeding attempts by Hen Harrier to fluctuate significantly. It must be emphasised that these attempts were also accompanied by others , the birds from which either failed under strange circumstances or disappeared!! Such figures are available, make for depressing reading and will be reported on separately in due course.  

Those years were hard, particularly for the contract workers and voluntary surveyors, whose hours on the hill far exceeded what would now be recommended by EU legislation!  Wildlife activity is a dawn to dusk reality, as are activities adopted to constrain it and, therefore, vigilance and the presence needed to match these demanding parameters was excessive, most of which fell outside of "office hours". Things weren't always smooth with owners and tenants either: fall-outs occurred, accusations were made, incidents were referred to the police and formal action pursued. However, despite all this, there was a strange mutual respect between parties with differing views, grudging at times, but gradually some improvement occurred. The relentless hours on the hill, the polite referral of matters about which we had concerns, eventually showed that our passion and commitment stemmed, not from some "popular belief", but was seminal and pursued what we felt ought to be a better situation. I'm sure we were deemed a nuisance, or worse, but I believe that owners , agents and keepers eventually began to respect the sheer commitment and determination that was displayed and that this led to a wider understanding of what we stood for. Habits died hard, but  some improvement did occur and more effective liaision took place, which helped things move forward.

My reason for setting all this out is that , in my opinion, with the current Hen Harrier breeding population in England being down to only FOUR successful pairs in 2011, there is a desperate need to reassess the policies being pursued by the various agencies in Bowland at the present time, as well as addressing anew the general matter of persecution of raptors in England as a whole.. Recognizing the amount of work required across a variety of fronts I feel strongly that the current emphasis adopted by the RSPB in Bowland is not fit for purpose, given its focus on a single geographical area with no apparent liaison in place with other Estates. As far as Natural England is concerned, as the agent of the Government in these matters, the question of raptor persecution appears to be a subject they prefer to ignore and, therefore, the issue largely gets swept under the carpet. The imminent reality of this situation is that, without urgent action across several fronts, and not just in Bowland, the species will become extinct as a breeding species in England.

This is not the first time that such a situation has been faced in Bowland.. In 1985, despite seven nesting attempts, only one youngster was raised, followed by five attempts in both 1986 and 1987 from which only five and four youngsters survived!  The table below shows the known nesting attempts in each of the years 1981-2005 and the corresponding number of young reared. Since that period the situation recently has deteriorated rapidly  resulting in the 2011 outcome.


     1981    17 nests,  42 young          1990    15 nests,  26 young          2000    7 nests,   6 young
         82    15           52                         91    18           22                        01     see below
         83      2             7                         92    15             9                        02    6           10
         84      9             4                         93    10           12                        03   13          12
         85      7             1                         94      7           12                        04   10          25        
         86      5             5                         95      9             9                        05   15          23
         87      5             4                         96      7           19
         88      5           15                         97    14           13  
         89    14           20                         98      8           22
                                                             99    11           24  

Note;  In 2001 the outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease restricted access arrangements.

It is no use deluding ourselves as far as the main controlling factor is concerned. Human persecution of the species occurs and deliberately attempts to exterminate or limit the numbers of the birds due to the conflicts arising from its presence and its  predation on Red Grouse stocks, which allegedly challenges the viability of shoots. Further details on such matters will be dealt with in due course.
The objective of this current plea is to highlight the need for an immediate, wider and more flexible approach by all agencies involved to avert the demise of the species but also to set those efforts on a better footing for the future

The table below shows the distribution , by Estate, of the successful breeding pairs of Hen Harriers in Bowland in the period 1981-2005. Recent assertions that birds have never bred on certain estates is arrant nonsense and little more than a PR ploy by those wishing to better assist their positioning.


                         NWWA/United Utilities          153
                         Bleasdale Estate                       37 
                         Abbeystead Estate                   34 
                         Clapham  Estate                       15

Wide coverage of Bowland in the past ensured estates could be advised of what was present on their land and what the "outcome expectation" might be.  A game of bluff or threat....call it what you will, but it resulted in a far wider distribution of harriers than at present and assisted greatly when the case for Special Protection Area  ( SPA ) status was being pursued under EU legislation. Whilst endless hectares of suitable breeding habitat still exists within the SPA boundary in Bowland , much of the area carries no harriers. Are questions ever asked why and the case brought into the public domain? Is evidence collected and utilised on the presence of strongly displaying birds in Spring which then disappear or worse?  Sadly, the position adopted by Natural England is to passively accept the situation and, until specific evidence of persecution is collected, to treat all such birds as transient!  Naive, convenient, or both? Who deliberately leaves evidence of their misdemeanour's?  And, in the meantime, the "grey suits" nod sagely over the results from the latest monitoring exercise and work collectively towards some trite justification to underpin the deterioration!

In parallel, the RSPB's operation , jointly funded by United Utilities, centre's on the latter's landholding. The company is obviously at one with being able to demonstrate its "green credentials" by declaiming they are playing host to this remnant population. However, I suspect they attract criticism too for such involvements, so praise for their overt support for such a priority conservation input is well deserved.  But what of Clapham Estate, Bleasdale Estate and other areas? Are they ever looked at,  as the past presence of breeding harriers contributed greatly to the overall success?  Unfortunately, the Duchy of Lancaster landholding, whilst attracting the presence of harriers over the years, has only seen a single successful breeding attempt ( in 2010 ). Sadly , I suspect a " conservation foot has rarely trodden the sod" of many of these areas in over ten years and, therefore, the potential for greater access and wider influence has been lost.

In recent times the Abbeystead Estate, owned by the Duke of Westminster, which now incorporates the former Mallowdale Estate, has been the main focus of the research studies of Natural England related to harriers as part of the Hen Harrier Recovery Programme, whose current status appears a little obscure at best. The results from this not inexpensive outlay by Government, for which they are to be congratulated, are eagerly awaited, but one suspects the intended emphasis on dispersal studies will perhaps act as a guiding star to what then happened to the unfortunate individuals providing the data returns!  Given the current situation one would have thought it behove the Government to hasten on the publication of such results given they will have an actual , or implied, link to the areas  from which many of our harriers appear not to return!!

Is it surprising that circumstances have deteriorated? Is it surprising that data is skewed at best, inadequate in its worst extreme? And is it surprising that hitherto stalwart supporters start to question the motives and efficacy of organisations about whom they had the greatest confidence previously.  Has the situation gone a step too far this time in that hard fought for successes of the past have now been allowed to lapse? Can it be recovered?  Probably, but only if sufficient resources and firm management emerges.

One questions why, when the SPA designation case noted the numbers of harriers breeding throughout the area why, in subsequent years, those responsible didn't vigorously pursue the obvious reduction in numbers and range and the reasons involved.  I suspect it's the difference between really being on top of the job or not!!  Confrontation is not an enjoyable process , but a willingness to pursue a justified case that eventually secures credibility and respect can generate small successes that then gain momentum. Such efforts often fall outside the 9am-5pm mentality and the reliance on "management manual solutions"  seemingly so favoured nowadays. In today's culture  I sometimes weaken and have very little confidence that this conservation battle will be won. As to the war, the battle lines seem not even formed, nor the force expressed apart from periodic statements of condemnation, although the focus of the case seems to be at an all time low ebb at present.

So what is required?  Education schemes, public viewing projects, talks, walks and the more enjoyable elements of a campaign are all essential contributory features to success. But they are long term "deliverers" when the current situation demands something more immediate and robust. Much has been tried before, but an immediate, renewed, hard and sustained assault on persecution by RSPB, via a national campaign, with a particular critical emphasis on Government's lack of recognition of the problem, should be constructed on the back of the current situation. In Bowland, a greater and wider visible presence on the ground, including liaison  work by senior staff, an unceasing and hard hitting exposure of all incidents coupled with a never ending reportage on the overall problem should commence immediately. Most importantly the deployment of a "resident" investigation team in the area of Northern England that is known to be at the forefront of where dispersing birds are persecuted is required. The imminent appointment of an Investigations Officer based in Newcastle is a good start , but not enough.  It's time to up the game now that the odds are high and to indicate that enough really is enough!! Yes, there'll be protests at financial reallocations, but what has been a failed priority of the past must now be "the" priority until success is secured regardless of management tensions.

The years of 1985-87 were a nightmare I prefer to forget, but eventually success was earned.  Let's hope that 2012 will still prove to be much better than those past occasions and will be viewed as a turning point in what will continue to be a battle for some time until the culture of greed, criminality and harm by some turns into more civilized behaviour. However, that does mean increased commitment and resolve from conservation organizations and a much better display of action against persecution by the Government to better reflect what currently is little more than a vacuous claim of being the "Greenest Government" ever. Since the acknowledgement by RSPB some months ago of the English harrier population being under serious threat I've seen no "Thin Red Line" declarations or actions.  Hopefully some collective and immediate plan of action will arise that will ensure a more secure future faces our raptor species, particularly Hen Harriers, than at present.

John S. Armitage.


  1. This is an excellent overview and a howl of rage. It needs to be sent to all the grey suits and 9-5 merchants. They will probably ignore it but then the activists kick in and the suits cannot complain they did not know!
    What turned things around in the mid-eighties from such a low number?

  2. Hi Stuart. Thanks for the comments. I suppose I'm duty bound to say the "change" came about as a result of pure persistence, but also approaching the problem on a wide variety of fronts. In reality fewer nests were interfered with, leading to better productivity, and, at the very end of the decade,the situation was gathering further momentum. The current situation results,not from wide persecution in Bowland, but the deliberate targetting of birds in winter at sites elsewhere.

  3. Hi John. I've been monitoring Hen Harriers as a volunteer for Natural England since 2003 in the Colsterdale, North Yorkshire area which produced 5 male young in 2002. There were several more success stories up until three years ago since when there has been no more breeding attempts. We lost at least three males who failed to return from hunting trips during my time on the moors plus the odd female. It has been common knowledge that birds have been got at whilst at their winter roosts, has to your knowledge any concerted effort been made to monitor these roosting sites?


    Mick Baron

  4. Hi Mike. I'm not aware that any of the roosts/areas involved have been monitored formally other than by amateur ornithologists like yourself. This is the sort of monitoring and presence that I feel could be instigated by RSPB. Given the non-existent population in Bowland this year it could all be a bit too late but I'm sure birds from other areas use those locations as well!! Don't give up though, I'm sure we can turn the situation around. Thanks for your comment. John.