The shadow of raptor persecution still hangs over the Dark Peak

Earlier this year NERF published this statement in response to two reports of raptor persecution.

“Another dark day in the Dark Peak

On the 25th February we learnt that the RSPB Investigations Team were concerned about the fate of a satellite tagged Hen Harrier that had joined the ‘disappeared’ in the Peak District near to Stocksbridge. The matter has been reported to South Yorkshire Police for investigation and we will have more to say about that case when further details are made public.

Today [5th March] we learnt that in March 2021 a member of the Peak District Raptor Monitoring Group [PDRMG], a NERF partner, found a dead Buzzard in woodland close to the Flouch near Langsett. Coincidentally, perhaps, as you can see from the Google earth image the Flouch is less than 5 miles from Stocksbridge where the latest Hen harrier went missing. The finder reported the incident to the Police and we now know that the bird was shot to death by someone using a shotgun.”

Anyone thinking, hoping, that this would be the end of persecution in the Dark Peak will have been saddened; but not surprised, to read that two adult, breeding males have joined the ranks of the ‘disappeared’ in the Upper Derwent Valley. Without the support of their male partner females are unable to incubate their eggs and hunt; and inevitably they have to abandon their eggs. That is exactly what happened in these latest cases. Each female abandoned 5 eggs.

It should not be underestimated how hard it is for a fledgling Hen Harrier to reach adulthood and go on to find a female in what remains a tiny population and breed. You don’t have to be a geneticist to recognise that adult breeding males are a valuable asset to the Hen Harrier population and had they continued to survive they could have each fathered a further two dozen chicks. The ‘disappearance’ of these two males needs to be seen in that context. It is not just the loss of two of these iconic birds it is the potential loss of 50 plus chicks. Many of those chicks would have gone on to breed and produce young of their own and that is what we should focus on. Calling the disappearance of these two adult males a tragic loss doesn’t really do it justice.

How ironic that on the same day that the Peak District Raptor Monitoring Group reported the ‘disappearance’ of the two male Hen Harriers the Moorland Association published an article extolling the virtue of the Hen Harrier brood management scheme.

The press release contains nothing new; it is simply a rehash of the number of chicks that fledge each year and how the numbers have increased in recent years. It is correct that the numbers have increased; however to claim that the number of chicks fledging, 84 from 24 nests, represents an increase of over 800% is disingenuous to say the least without also pointing out that if 84 represents an 800% plus increase it had to have increased from 0.

The number of chicks fledging is not the matrix that should be used to judge the success of the brood management scheme. What we need to see is a massive increase in the geographical spread of breeding Harriers away from the core areas of Northumberland and the Forest of Bowland; not just the occasional satellite tagged bird breeding on a grouse moor. We also need to witness an increase in survivability of fledglings that we know have a 72% risk of being killed on, or adjacent to a grouse moor. We know that because Natural England used its own data to come to that conclusion.

Perhaps the Moorland Association’s press release could also have pointed out that:

  • 24 nests represents c7% of the 330 nests that academics calculate is the actual number of nests we should have in England
  • 84 chicks from 24 nest gives an average of 3.5 chicks per nest
  • 330 nests would produce 1155 chicks per year

That may be an ambiguous target, non-the-less it should remain at the forefront of everyone’s mind when deciding what success looks like. The interim stage needs to be consistently achieving the number of breeding pairs designated for the North Pennines SPA, 11 pairs, and the Forest of Bowland, 12 pairs. We are a long way from that situation and that is the inconvenient truth.

Three Hen Harriers have joined the ‘disappeared’ in the Dark Peak since the 25th February this year; one every 3 weeks and the breeding season has only just got underway. The press release also reminded readers that 5 nests have been subjected to brood management and 7 chicks, 1.4 per nest, have also joined the ‘disappeared’. That’s another inconvenient truth.

In the Moorland Association’s press release John Holmes, Chair of the Brood Management Project Board, Natural England is quoted:

‘…………………..monitoring [Hen Harriers] and improving intelligence to detect and prevent persecution……..’

How is the prevention of Hen Harrier persecution part of the plan going Mr Holmes?

No matter how the 2021 breeding figures are presented by The Moorland Association et al, or how much they want us to believe that that everything is working perfectly and Hen Harriers are prospering on grouse moors, the reality is that the future of Hen Harriers in England remains in a perilous position. The primary cause, identified by Natural England, is persecution on land connected with the grouse shooting industry.

NERF

11 May 2022