Natural England recently released information about this year’s hen harrier breeding season. They reported an increase in breeding success, with 36 successful nests compared to 34 last year. This is positive news as there are now more hen harriers nesting in England than there have been in the last 200 years. However, this success needs to be viewed in context. England has enough suitable habitat for an estimated 330 breeding pairs of hen harriers, but the population currently stands at only 10.9% of what it could and should be. This decline is due to illegal killing on land managed for grouse shooting.
The press release acknowledges that hen harrier persecution remains a problem on driven grouse moors. However, it fails to mention a recent scientific paper by Ewing et al (2023) that shows appallingly low annual survival rates for hen harriers, particularly among young birds, with illegal killing accounting for a significant number of deaths.
Natural England has drawn criticism for its handling of hen harrier reporting. It is believed that the organization’s relationship with shooting organizations has compromised its objectivity. Natural England has received £75,000 over three years in return for not making any negative comments about a shooting organization in relation to hen harriers.
In addition to the breeding success, it is important to note that eight more satellite-tagged hen harriers have disappeared since the last update in May 2023. Out of the 20 missing or illegally killed birds this year, nine were brood meddled birds. This raises questions about why these recent disappearances were not included in the press release. The data are available in Natural England’s spreadsheet, but they have chosen not to highlight them.
Since the brood meddling trial began in 2018, at least 109 hen harriers have gone missing or been illegally killed, most of them on or near driven grouse moors. It is clear that the conservation efforts are being undermined by ongoing persecution.
It is essential that the issue of hen harrier persecution is addressed, alongside efforts to improve breeding success. Natural England’s selective reporting and failure to highlight the extent of the problem do a disservice to these special birds and the conservation work being done to protect them.