Hen harriers are being illegally killed in significant numbers in the UK, a new analysis suggests.
These birds of prey are struggling to survive in England and many conservationists believe illegal killings are a factor. The prime suspects are the managers of grouse moors, where grouse – which hen harriers eat – are reared for recreational shooting. Reports that harriers have vanished are common, but nobody has been convicted of illegally killing one.
Stephen Redpath at the University of Aberdeen, UK, and his colleagues fitted 58 hen harriers with tags and tracked them between 2007 and 2017. Four died in suspicious circumstances, and 38 simply disappeared: their transmitters stopped working without warning, and no body could be found.
The birds were statistically more likely to vanish while on a grouse moor. “It strongly suggests there’s illegal killing going on,” says Redpath. It isn’t hard proof, he says, but illegal killing is the simplest explanation.
Hen harriers are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, but Redpath says it is clear that the system isn’t currently working.
There are several possible solutions. “Everyone disagrees,” he says. “Some people say we need to ban driven grouse shooting. Others say we need to license grouse shooting.”
In 2016, the UK government’s Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs set out an action plan to boost the hen harrier population. One element is to use “brood management” to limit the number of hen harriers on any given grouse moor, because it is only when the population reaches a certain density that they start to affect the grouse population.
To do this, some nests would be removed and the chicks reared in captivity before being re-released. In the long run, the population would grow so much that this becomes impractical, but that is a long way off.
Natural England wants to trial the scheme, but was taken to court over it by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. The case was dismissed last week, so the trial may now go ahead.
There are also plans to reintroduce hen harriers in southern England, away from grouse moors. “That might take place this year,” says Redpath. If successful, it would boost the overall population, but wouldn’t stop any illegal killing.
Journal reference: Nature Communications, DOI: 10.1038/s41467-019-09044-w
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