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



© 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; 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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5 Responses to Is This a Glorious Solution? HOT Chairman Philip Merricks on the Hen Harrier Recovery Plan

  1. Dear Mr. Merricks

    I love the countryside and all things in it. I live in the city but have a long-held respect for those who have to make a living from the land. Some are wealthy as a result, and some are struggling, but without their efforts we would all be immeasurably poorer. We armchair conservationists have it easy. We drive out at weekends and have an antidote to urban life within a short drive, often free at the point of use for those who choose to take their own lunch with them.

    I believe passionately in the freedom of people to enjoy the countryside as they see fit. I don’t go shooting but am not so self-righteous as to demand that others stop. I don’t go mountain biking but don’t take the moral high ground when I walk on a rutted path. In short I don’t claim a right to tell others to enjoy the countryside as I might wish them to.

    How refreshing to read about the hen harrier plan and of intervention of an imaginative minister, Rory Stewart. It strikes me as blindingly obvious that there is room for all of us. The starting point is respect for traditions of others. The countryside is not a Disney park and there will be some things some people do not like, but isn’t making room for those we don’t like the mark of civilisation. Acceptance only of those of whom we approve is the very stuff of bigotry.

    I have been lucky enough to enjoy the countryside, and all its traditions, for forty years. Your approach to the survival of both the hen harrier and grouse shooting is a breath of fresh air.

  2. Given that there have been few, if any, prosections for hen harriers killed on moorland in England then I can’t see the motivation for any game shoot to suddenly turn into ‘conservationists’ by handing in egg/chicks.

    I’d also suggest if one or more estates start turning over a new leaf by handing in eggs etc., then it would beg the obvious fact that prior to this they must have been killing them!

    I hope I’m proved wrong.

  3. What a refreshing viewpoint and ultimately beneficial to all unfortunately seems to be being overlooked by as you called them the eco activists who have their own agenda and that is to ban any kind of shooting regardless of the impact on habitat,the rural economy and a great source of wild food

  4. As an ‘eco-zealot’, my hopes are not to ban any kind of shooting, but to remove driven grouse shooting and its debilitating effects on the moorland habitats and the wildlife these could support, of which there is much documentary evidence.
    As for the description a ‘great source of wild food’ ….. red grouse are reared in astronomical numbers (283/km2 in England) to provide ridiculous bags of game to be bragged over. Grouse are treated with carcinogenic compounds and vermicides to attempt to guard against diseases associated with the close rearing techniques employed. Battery farmed Red Grouse would be a more accurate term for their ‘cultivation’.
    I would suggest you read your Chairman’s Not-So-Glorious incoherent ramblings at the recent Raptors, Uplands and Peatlands conference held in Sheffield last weekend. A transcript may be found here for your convenience…..

  5. I am increasingly fed up with the eco-activist/ultra left wing tone and emphasis of some people in the conservation movement. It used to be the case that the movement could get more traction from government as it was not seen as extreme. Sadly some elements seem more intent on being part of the ‘green’ pressure group movement, with associated political baggage; alienating the wider public and mainstream opinion in the process. I am very pleased the Hawk & Owl Trust has branched out with a different approach. I will not re-join the RSPB given the way that once much admired charity has gone.