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Hen harriers: what’s happening next?

12th April 2024

We are now approaching year seven of the Hen Harrier Brood Management Scheme trial. It stands to reason that, unless Natural England decides to further extend the trial, it will have gathered sufficient information to issue a conservation licence in 2025 – if so, this will be the last year of the trial.

By their very nature trial licences are complicated documents with all sorts of complex conditions attached. These include details about where birds can be released back into the wild and how. So whilst it is relatively easy to move curlew eggs from a grouse moor and take them to the south of England here, you can’t do that with hen harriers yet – perhaps that day will come.

Complex rules

Since grouse moors are home to significant populations of upland birds most are designated as Special Protection Areas (SPA). This is important because the trial licence contains complex rules about where broods managed inside and outside an SPA can then be released back to the wild. Those within an SPA are required to be returned to the same one and in a place with similar habitat. There are also rules about the distances harriers can be moved.

When the project started all these rules appeared sensible enough but as the trial has progressed some of them have proved to be unnecessary. For example, we now know these birds can travel vast distances here but Natural England’s (NE) legal team still insist that harriers managed in the Yorkshire Dales still can’t be released 55 miles away on the North York Moors or moors in the Peak District. Admittedly taking them down to Natural England’s hen harrier release site in Wiltshire is a bit further but that might be easier than transporting harriers all the way from France – something its legal team have no problem with here.

Does any of this matter?

Yes. When the trial started surplus young birds were being released into places where their numbers were low. Despite there still being vast areas of suitable habitat with low harrier numbers, Natural England’s rules prevent them from being released across much of it.  As a result, the number of available release sites, that fit the licence criteria, has slowly been dropping.

At the beginning of the project there were about 35 receptor sites offered by estates. The conditions of the licence have reduced availability down to just one or two. Having said that, there may be other suitable sites, so if you would be interested in having an initial discussion about hosting a hen harrier release site, please do get in touch here. This will then enable you to discuss this with neighbouring estates before making a decision.

What does all this mean in practice?

When taken in conjunction with the other rules, such as matching habitat types, the number of hen harrier broods that can be managed this summer is likely to be heavily restricted. The option of estates releasing birds back onto other parts of their own moors, or reaching local agreements with others to do so, remains an option.

With hen harrier numbers in England back to where they were 200 years ago, the Defra recovery plan here has been astonishingly effective so far. But it was promoted as a way to manage the species as well as recover it.

The hen harrier brood management scheme was intended to unlock the conflict identified on Langholm Moor here. If the current, or future, licence rules become self-defeating that may in turn be a breach of recently published international guidelines on addressing wildlife conflicts here. We will be saying more on these new IUCN guidelines soon.

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Did You Know?

75% of Europe’s remaining upland heather moorland is found in the UK – but this area declined alarmingly over the latter part of the last century. The Moorland Association was set up in 1986 to coordinate the efforts of moorland owners and managers to halt this loss, particularly in England and Wales.

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