Like many I am following the Hen Harrier debate closely. The latest intervention by The Hawk and Owl Trust has been an interesting development that appears to have broken the stalemate over brood management (or at least re-ignited the debate) and may well now see DEFRA's Hen Harrier recovery Plan implemented irrespective of RSPB and other conservation opposition to that part of the their proposals.
The two 'immoveable conditions' in the Hawk and Owl Trust's argument for becoming involved in a brood management scheme are as follows:
1) All Hen Harriers fledged within a brood management scheme trial
would be satellite tagged so that their movements could be tracked. And
the knowledge that they were tagged (and the fear that other HHs might
be) would prevent any gamekeepers from shooting them in the sky.
2) Should any Moorland Association, Game & Wildlife Trust, or
National Gamekeepers Organisation member be proved to have illegally
interfered with a Hen Harrier nest or to have persecuted a Hen Harrier
on their grouse moors, the Hawk & Owl Trust would pull out its
expertise from the brood management scheme trial. (source)
Reading Phillip Merrick's (Chairman of HOT) comments about this it is apparent that he has the best of intentions and sees their involvement as a way to break the impasse in what he believes is a human/human conflict. Do the above conditions stand up to scrutiny though?
Does satellite tagging prevent persecution? There is no evidence to suggest that this is true or false. However if a 'bad' gamekeeper is set on removing a Hen Harrier and ensuring that no evidence is left behind who is better equipped to do so both in terms of time, equipment and experience? Guns, dogs trained to recover shot birds and hours in the field. Add in remote locations with few witnesses it is perhaps reasonable to assume that some would not be put off by a satellite tag from pulling the trigger if the shot presented itself?
I don't have any statistics on membership of the three organisations listed in point 2 but it left me wondering what might happen if illegal interference of persecution came from outside the membership. Would this result in the HOT staying involved? However the key point here in my view is the definition of persecution. My belief is that most people assume that this means killing or as stated 'interfering with a nest' but I was reminded of Amanda Anderson, Director of the Moorland Association's comments in Patrick Barkham's recent long article on Hen Harriers in The Guardian in which she said “A landowner is not going to encourage them to settle,” added Anderson.
She suggested that hen harriers could be easily scared off. “They are
very flighty birds.”
One of the Moorland Association's members Stephen Mawle had this to say “It’s one thing to let the lion prowl around your stock pen, it’s
another to open the gate and let him in. You’ve got a huge
financial incentive for hen harriers not to nest on your land.”
It is clear that a large part of the problem in England and Wales is the lack of nesting attempts, few successes but a startling lack of any number of failures too. If interference by preventing Hen Harriers from settling, moving them on in any number of ways, is widespread then the actual killing of Hen Harriers may well be taking place on a more limited basis than was once the case. Why take the risk of killing a bird that you can simply disturb daily. Unless you happen to be in one of a few well-watched recent breeding sites in Spring the chances of such disturbance ever coming to light or even being recognised as deliberate rather than just 'going about the daily business' are probably extremely remote.
Will the Hawk and Owl Trust move open the door to a recovery in those areas where the harriers might be tolerated or will it prove to be the thin end of a wedge driven into bird of prey protection by grouse moor owners? Only time will tell but I hope that all the good achieved in Kent by Phillip Merricks isn't overshadowed with a toxic legacy on raptors.