Creative solutions are allowing under-threat hen harriers to survive alongside grouse

It is a dank winter’s day in central Scotland and I am standing by the edge of a pinewood that opens out onto rolling pasture. The grey air smells of a heady cocktail of damp earth and decomposing leaf litter and in the middle of the field a flock of starlings excitedly jab their sharp bills into the ground in search of leatherjackets.

A large brown bird suddenly appears over the treetops, wobbles in the wind for a second or two and then swoops in low causing the starlings to scatter in a swirling cloud.

As the bird passes, I immediately know that this is no buzzard. It veers erratically from side to side studiously examining the ground, before pulling up over the trees at the far end of the field, its white rump a distinctive flash. It is a female hen harrier, a scarce bird of prey that is spending the winter away from her moorland breeding haunts.

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It is a special moment and perhaps one that will become even more unusual, given that the hen harrier is one of Scotland’s most persecuted birds, with the most recent report revealing that the Scottish population has plummeted by over 21 per cent in the last six years to only 489 breeding pairs. It is widely acknowledged that illegal persecution on grouse moors is the over-riding reason for this rapidly shrinking population.

Landowning and game organisations claim they are being unfairly vilified and the reasons for hen harrier decline are complex. It is true they have publicly condemned the illegal killing of protected birds of prey, but it is also patently obvious that persecution is still continuing on a widespread scale and this is a bird now fighting for its very survival. The killing of rare raptors for land management purposes is simply not an option for a country that should be setting an international conservation example.

But is there another way forward, a way where grouse moor owners feel they can operate profitably whilst hen harriers prosper? The answer it would seem is yes, if the initial results of a groundbreaking project in southern Scotland are anything to go by. The 10-year Langholm Moor Demonstration Project was launched in 2007 with the aim of establishing a commercially viable driven grouse moor whilst meeting the conservation needs of protected raptors. The project is a partnership of Scottish Natural Heritage, Buccleuch Estates, the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, the RSPB, and Natural England.

Graeme Dalby, project manager, says one of the techniques tested on the moor has been the diversionary feeding of harriers during the breeding season. The harriers are fed dead hen’s chicks and rats, and are quick to take advantage of the new food source during the crucial period when there are also young grouse about. The results have been astonishing, with the monitoring of seven harrier nests over a four-year period finding no evidence of any grouse taken.

“The sample size is small and it is still too early to determine whether these results are significant, but the initial findings are very encouraging and we are hoping to roll out the programme onto other grouse moors in the future for further assessment,” says Dalby.

“During the study, where the breeding sites were easily accessible, it cost about £100 per harrier nest for the diversionary feeding, which equates in commercial terms to the loss of income for an estate of only one brace of grouse over a season per nest, so the scheme would certainly seem viable from an economic standpoint. However, in areas where nests were less accessible or where someone had to be employed to do the work, then costs would quickly rise.”

It is apparent from this multi-faceted project that moorland ecology is complex and that grouse numbers fluctuate due to a variety of factors. But it is also clear that there is now at least some hope of a new way forward of developing a practicable scheme where grouse shooters feel they can co-exist more easily with a flourishing hen harrier population.