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Hen Harriers (Circus cyaneus) are amongst the rarest raptors in England, with only four pairs breeding successfully in 2011, all in the Forest of Bowland, Lancashire.  Once widespread in the UK, habitat loss and persecution led to eradication of the species on mainland Britain by the start of the 20th Century, and it survived only on the Scottish Western Isles and Orkney.  It slowly recolonised the mainland from these outposts during the second half of the 20th Century, returning to northern England by the 1960s.

With such a tenuous foothold in England, every individual bird matters – so recent news that a Hen Harrier was shot in North Yorkshire is disturbing.  The female bird, known as “Bowland Betty”, had become something of a figurehead for the conservation of the species in northern England.  Her untimely (and illegal) death by shotgun is symbolic of the intense pressure that such conservation efforts are under.  There is estimated to be suitable habitat to support 320 breeding pairs in northern England, so the species would be expected to be much more successful – but for severe persecution.

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Hen Harriers breed on grass and heather moors, where their prey consists mostly of rodents (especially voles), small birds (especially pipits), and nestlings.  This can include the young of Red Grouse (Lagopus lagopus scoticus), a subspecies of Grouse endemic to the British Isles.  Red Grouse are a popular gamebird, and much moorland in northern England and southern Scotland is managed exclusively for the “sport” of shooting them.  Gamekeepers who manage these moors have therefore long regarded the Hen Harrier as an enemy, and you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce what’s driving the persecution of the beleaguered raptor; a 2008 study by Natural England found that persecution pressures were much higher in moors managed for grouse shooting.

Grouse moors are managed to provide an expanse of Common Heather (Calluna vulgaris), the main food source for Red Grouse.  Although regimes vary, the main components of such management tend to be burning to encourage regeneration of heather, eradication of predators (which legally includes corvids, foxes and mustelids), and drainage of wet ground.  It is certainly true that management for grouse has maintained areas of heather moorland habitat that might otherwise have been lost to agriculture or intensive forestry, and that such management can benefit certain other bird species such as Curlew (Numenius arquata) and Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus).  It’s also true that Red Grouse is itself a declining species which is, to some extent, being maintained by management for shooting. These facts, along with the general impetus to conserve heather moorland, sometimes lead to grouse shooting being cited as an example of good management for biodiversity.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA I don’t subscribe to this opinion. The picture is admittedly complex, with both costs and benefits to wildlife from management for grouse, but the overall balance sheet for biodiversity is negative. It’s hard to see management for grouse as much more than a specialised form of livestock farming; the fact that the “livestock” is a wild endemic does not alter that basic impression.  All management operations are geared towards maximising the density of Red Grouse, and effects on all other components of the ecosystem are subsidiary or incidental to that objective.  Heather burning and drainage of moors tend to create a less diverse botanical community, with concomitant effects on other species, and burning can also exacerbate soil erosion if not very carefully controlled.  The grouse themselves are encouraged to reach artificially high local densities so as to produce a “shootable surplus”, which tends to encourage the strongylosis parasite, and requiring grouse to be fed medicated meal to treat outbreaks.  And of course there is the energetic elimination of predators – which the early demise of Bowland Betty reminds us, may not just include those which it is legal to kill.

There is a large amount of evidence of persecution of raptors across the UK, often with strong implications that shooting estates are implicated.  Prosecutions for killing a protected bird of prey are rare, however, and there is a general impression that the law is failing to protect raptors from persecution by gamekeepers.  It is becoming widelhttp://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/georgemonbiot/2012/apr/20/richard-benyons-inclosure-quarryy accepted by ecologists that the health of an ecosystem depends on the survival of its top predators, and so raptor persecution has significance well beyond the effects on the persecuted species itself – it is, in general, an attack on the biodiversity of the upland ecosystem.

Shooting on upland estates is a lucrative business, with participants typically paying £3,000 for a day’s shooting.  This high value, and the cultural significance of grouse shooting to the British landed classes, justify the £52.5million which the estates say they spend per year on moorland management in England and Wales.  With financial stakes such as these, Hen Harriers and other rare predators will never be welcome.

The shooting estates also have friends in high places; UK Prime Minister David Cameron is a shooter himself, but the key player in government here is Richard Benyon, the UK minister with responsibility for biodiversity and wildlife.  Benyon, who is MP for Newbury (readers with long memories may recall his enthusiastic support for the Newbury Bypass) is rolling in inherited wealth, including a 20,000 acre estate in Berkshire, complete with Pheasant shoot, and an 8,000 acre grouse moor in the Scottish highlands.  He embodies the traditional landed gentry, with attitudes towards wildlife to match….

benyon2Benyon’s tenure as wildlife minister has been peppered with controversial decisions that blatantly bespeak his shooting heritage.  Recent broadsides from Benyon’s department include dropping a prosecution against the owner of Walshaw Moor shooting estate for draining and burning ecologically-rich blanket bog; proposing a plan to capture buzzards and blast their nests with shotguns in order to protect pheasant shooting (fortunately abandoned after a public outcry); and refusing a request from a parliamentary committee to extend a ban on possession of the outlawed pesticide Carbofuran, even though it is one of the main agents of illegal poisoning of raptors.  It really does look as if – to use a metaphor Benyon would appreciate – the fox has been put in charge of the henhouse.

Shooting estates claim to be wise stewards of the countryside.  In a sense this is true – they are very adept at manipulating an ecosystem to produce good numbers of their desired quarry species, at the expense of competitors and predators.  While this blinkered and skewed attitude to ecology holds sway in large parts of the UK uplands, the outlook for the likes of “Bowland Betty” will remain bleak.