Protecting Britain's uplands

Oblivious to the furore surrounding it, a hen harrier soars majestically through a blue sky

Oblivious to the furore surrounding it, a hen harrier soars majestically through a blue sky - Credit: Paul Hobson

Tim Weston offers an update on the ongoing debates surrounding grouse shooting, and shares some findings of a recent report that will be extremely useful in the years ahead

The hen harrier seems to be the one thing that many campaign groups like to use as a device to kick the driven grouse shooting ‘industry’ as they call it. They use this one bird as a kind of barometer for how bad driven grouse shooting is in their view, and don’t tend to look at many of the facts. Probably because they wouldn’t fit the narrative they are trying to present.
Firstly, there are huge conservation benefits to a wide range of species. For example, wading birds do really well on moors managed for driven grouse shooting. In many places, these very same birds are incredibly rare such as the curlew and redshank, but both are thriving on our moors.

A really good comparison is the uplands of England and those of Wales. In England, the uplands sing with the sound of small and large birds as well as raptors like the merlin and, yes, the hen harrier, as well as a whole plethora of others. In the spring time, the English uplands are a wonderous place and this is mainly concentrated around the areas that are managed for driven grouse shooting. Wales, in contrast, has virtually no grouse shooting at all, and apart from one very small area where grouse are shot, the Welsh uplands are a pretty desolate place in terms of wildlife. I wonder if that is what these characters want for the rest of the UK, too? That surely can’t be the goal of getting driven grouse shooting banned, could it?

Is the hen harrier being persecuted?
The fact is that the hen harrier isn’t doing all that badly. Yes, things could improve, but you don’t get nature to work like that. It takes time, and the grouse keepers of England are doing a great job of helping the hen harrier thrive on the moors once again. The figures speak for themselves, and so do the facts from Natural England. In 2021 we had one of the best hen harrier breeding seasons on record. This was mainly due to a combination of good weather and an abundance of voles and other prey. We often forget that the hen harrier is reliant on these species as well as the unique habitat that grouse keepers create for the birds.

Natural England have been tagging hen harriers for many years now, and this has shown some really interesting results. For example, one bird that was tagged in 2019 called Colin stopped transmitting in April 2021. However, he was photographed this breeding season and positively identified at the nest. The trouble is, he would have been listed as “missing in suspicious circumstances” by the RSBP bird crime report, and others will have put out a press release saying that a hen harrier has gone missing over a grouse moor. They never let the public know when these birds turn up. 

The other thing worth knowing is that birds of prey struggle to get through the first year of life due to natural causes. Several tags stopped transmitting in 2021. Natural England acknowledge that illegal persecution could be a factor in this, so as soon as a tag stops transmitting they, together with the police, conduct an extensive search of the area for the body of the missing bird. On this occasion, the bodies of two of the tagged birds were recovered and sent for a post-mortem examination. The findings did not suggest that the birds were illegally killed at all, and instead died of natural causes.

An important factor in sustaining upland communities
It’s not just about the flora and fauna of the uplands. A recent report by the University of Nottingham looked at many aspects of driven grouse shooting on the uplands. The document has now been published, and looks at over 350 pieces of evidence from both sides of the debate to draw some extremely pertinent conclusions. The idea of the report is to have a live document that will be updated regularly when new evidence comes to light making it an important resource now and in the future.

The report examines subjects such as why driven grouse shooting stimulates such passion and opposition, when so many other things like the industrial fishing of our seas don’t. It also looks at economics, various social aspects, and the effects on biodiversity, as well as looking at it in relation to renewable energy, tourism, predator control and land management.

In conclusion, the report states that driven grouse shooting is an important part of a mosaic of income-generating activities that sustain upland communities. It notes that management for grouse results in an increasingly rare assemblage of plants, animals and invertebrates being supported and enhanced to the benefit of the UK and Europe. The report also states that stopping driven grouse shooting would have a detrimental social impact as the individuals involved come from a wider range of social backgrounds than other forms of shooting.

Plenty of food for thought. And though it’s early days, overall it’s looking quite positive.