Today is Hen Harrier Day. All over England, Wales and Scotland groups of people will gather to celebrate the rarest raptor in England, or to be more precise the lack of them. Held on the eve of the ‘Glorious 12th’ the start of the Grouse shooting season, it points the finger firmly and squarely at the cause of the Hen Harriers scarcity.
The problem is simple. Those who own and manage the Grouse Moors that despoil and litter our uplands with their environmentally unsustainable ecosystems will not tolerate or allowed to be tolerated a raptor that they view as a threat to their precious red grouse.
This is not out of any benevolence towards the red grouse, no far from it. Red Grouse, though native to our uplands are effectively farmed so that from August to December a small minority of people can shoot them.
Anything that threatens the numbers of grouse, such as birds of prey, foxes, pine martens, hares, yes hares, are, as far as possible removed.
The plight of the Hen Harrier is the subject of much hand ringing. Landowners, Shooters, the RSPB have all been trying to find a solution to the problem. (The obvious one, stop killing them, seems to be……. well…….. too obvious.)
Despite an agreement last year, 2016 has been the worse year for Hen Harriers for some time. Perhaps three have nested.
The general consensus is that the uplands in England should be able to support around 320 breeding pairs.
And perhaps that is part of the problem.
We are obsessed with numbers. And numbers of birds as with most other things in nature are relative. Grouse moor owners and managers boast that they have increased the number of curlew and lapwing. But so what? What good is pick and mix approach to nature?
We should be obsessed with creating sustainable ecosystems. Let nature sort out the numbers. Create a sustainable, diverse environment, focus on this and nature will do the rest. Of course it may need a kick start, after all we have damaged the soil in many places either by the use of chemicals or by the industrial pollution that has affected the land. This also means reintroducing key stone species and top predators, and it may mean in some places speeding up the colonisation of the uplands by trees and other appropriate species.
But at some point, the objective must be to create or restore an ecosystem that can to a large extent manage itself.
We need to learn from nature, to look at the way predators shape their environment, in the context of the Peak District and its grouse moors, that means reintroducing the Golden Eagle. Eagles will control the number of Hen Harriers and Buzzards by predating them. Ecologists call this asymmetrical intra guild predation. We do not have the knowledge, the wit or the skills to manage this ourselves. And if the sole motive is profit then there will not be the inclination.
Hen Harrier day makes an important statement about the way that the uplands are managed. But the hen harrier should be the standard bearer that draws attention to the damage and destruction that takes place across the moors, and not an end in itself.