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Is This a Glorious Solution? HOT Chairman Philip Merricks on the Hen Harrier Recovery Plan

The long-awaited Hen Harrier Recovery Plan offers resolution – and no excuses – for both grouse-moor managers and environmental campaigners, says HOT Chairman Philip Merricks

Taken from Country Life Magazine – 2 March 2016

OPINION

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© Mark Hamblin/2020VISION

Few would doubt that the heather moors of northern England are one of the great glories of our countryside or that driven grouse shooting provides the most challenging, exhilarating – and economically beneficial – form of shooting. August is a busy month for me on my farm and nature reserve in Kent, but, as a committed conservationist, I appreciate the wildlife benefits that properly managed grouse moors bring.

I enjoy visiting the moors at the end of May, when I’m overwhelmed by the profusion of breeding curlews, golden plovers, skylarks, meadow pipits and other charismatic species that thrive in the habitat created by hardworking gamekeepers whose primary focus is the red grouse and her chicks. However, some of these moors – and I emphasise the some – are places of crime and conflict. This is because they’re home to the hen harrier, a magnificent bird of prey that finds red-grouse chicks easy pickings and, as a result, continues to be persecuted by some keepers despite it being a legally protected species.

Therein lies the crux of the matter. Hen harriers benefit hugely from, and are largely dependent upon, the habitats created by moorland management, but their presence can make grouse shooting and its accompanying beneficial habitat management unviable and, on some moors, they have been persecuted to the extent that they have virtually disappeared as a breeding bird in England.

The stalemate has led to bitter conflict between moorland interests and environmentalists, played out in social media by the likes of Mark Avery, the RSPB’s former Director of Conservation, whose petition to ban grouse shooting gained more than 30,000 supporters, and BBC presenter Chris Packham, who, in a text to me, described, with deep hostility, grouse-moor owners as ‘that evil community’.

The situation has seemed intractable, but, now, there is light on the horizon as Rory Stewart, an acutely intelligent Environment Minister with a deft political touch, recently launched the Defra Hen Harrier Recovery Plan (Town & Country, January 20), a conflict resolution plan that has been languishing in a dusty filing cabinet while the main players bickered. This is the plan that holds the key to unlocking the conflict; those who wish to see grouse shooting banned despise it, but others who wish to see the issue resolved welcome it.

Two elements of the plan – the reintroduction of hen harriers to southern England and the trialling of a brood-management scheme – are areas in which the Hawk and Owl Trust (HOT) has real, on-the-ground practical expertise. The trust has always taken the pragmatic position that, to achieve conservation benefits for hen harriers and other raptors, we have to work with and not against those who own and manage the habitats on which these birds depend.
The plan provides real reason for optimism in that, for the first time, the focus is on removing the motivation for killing hen harriers. The gamekeeper will now have the opportunity, when harriers become too numerous on his moor, to put down his weapon and call the HOT to collect the eggs for artificial rearing and dispersal to other sites. This is a procedure for which the charity has world- class experts.

It would be rank stupidity, if not political suicide, for any moorland manager to continue to persecute problem birds when a way out is being provided. Such irresponsibility would demonstrate a wilful refusal to move on from an entrenched position. The onus will now rest with gamekeepers, and especially with moorland owners, to ensure that their colleagues and neighbours obey the law and to make it crystal clear that anyone who continues with illegal killing is letting down their profession and the very ethos of private land ownership by putting the future of grouse shooting and land management in jeopardy.

Responsibility must also reach the ultimate funders of grouse-moor management, the shooting clients—some will be unaware of the issue, but others may be tacitly condoning illegal persecution—because, unless attitudes and actions change ahead of what will undoubtedly one day be a change in Government policy, the Glorious Twelfth and one of this country’s great landscape and wildlife spectacles will be consigned to history.

merricks_smlPhilip Merricks is chairman of the Hawk and Owl Trust (01328 850590; hawkandowl.org). He is a former CLA Vice President and is the only UK farmer accredited to manage National Nature Reserves. He was awarded an MBE in 1999 for services to conservation.

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