The Last of the Skydancers?

Posted: June 28, 2017 in Comment
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While I was away on Holiday I had the chance to watch one of our most majestic birds of prey, the Hen Harrier, also known as Skydancers due to their spectacular breeding flying displays. On Mull there is a reasonable population and they are fairly easy to locate given a little knowledge and the ability to sit and observe quietly.


A stunning male Hen Harrier – photo: Robin Newlin

However as you may have heard these birds are now making the main stream news (BBC , SkyIndependent) due to their desperately low numbers in the UK and England especially. The  population survey revealed that in England (2016) there are now only 4, yes 4 breeding pairs. Hen Harriers are upland birds, they like open moorland and hunt a variety of birds and small mammals and this is why they are at risk of extinction in England. While there is suitable habitat for over 300 breeding pairs the vast majority of that habitat is managed for Grouse shooting.

hh-territorial-pairs-2010_2016Grouse shooting is big business, very big. On an exclusive, driven shoot that cost can run up to and over £1000 a gun. The shoots owners want the biggest number of birds for their clients to shoot and so intensively manage the moors to provide the optimum habitat and minimum threat to their game bird numbers. Heather is burnt to provide fresh new shoots for the birds to eat, medicated grit is put down to help against disease and predators are exterminated. This creates a completely artificial habitat where Grouse numbers are excessively high and biodiversity low.

“The reasons for the population changes are likely to be a combination of factors that vary from region to region. From previous research, it is known that the main factor limiting the UK hen harrier population is illegal killing of these birds associated with driven grouse moor management in northern England and parts of mainland Scotland” – Martin Harper, RSPB Conservation Director

The extermination of predators takes the form of trapping with fen traps for Stoats & Weasels, the snaring of Foxes (and probably Badgers), (Mountain Hares are shot in huge numbers in Scotland because its believed they carry a virus which can effect Grouse) the use of Larsen traps for Corvids and also the shooting, poisoning and trapping of birds of prey. While some predator control is perfectly legal (but morally abhorrent) any persecution of raptors is illegal. The Hen Harrier is a schedule 1 protected species, this is the highest afforded protection offered by law however this doesn’t stop them from being illegally killed by Gamekeepers (along with many other birds of prey), no doubt under instruction from their employers.


The female Hen Harrier – photo: Alamy

Due to the remote nature of Grouse moors and the solitary existence of the sociopaths that are gamekeepers, catching and prosecuting these criminals is extremely hard. Even when solid evidence is produced it seems once again that money and social standing become a get of jail free card. The Countryside Alliance, the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (an oxymoron if ever I heard one) and the Game & Wildlife Trust will make lots of noises about how intensive management is good for wildlife and some ground nesting bird species in particular and how raptor crime is committed by just a few bag eggs but this is nothing more than smoke and mirrors are far from the truth. Sure some species may benefit from what they do but any thriving ecosystem needs a top to bottom balance of predator and prey species and managed Grouse moors are nothing like this. And the “few bad eggs” claim is complete nonsense. The science simply does not back up these claims and the illegal persecution of raptors is endemic in the gamekeeping community.

I have met quite a few keepers in my time and I’ve yet to meet one who I’d consider a ‘normal’ person. They are nearly all loner types with a pathological hatred for all predators and a love for killing things. They seem to show a complete lack of compassion and empathy – these are the type of traits exhibited by murders and there is a direct scientifically proven link between those who kill animals going on to kill people.

The most galling aspect of this is we, the tax payer are supporting this. Grouse moor owners get huge Government subsidies to the tune of millions each year and yet they provide virtually nothing in the form of food for the human population. Whether this will continue after we leave the EU remains to be seen however it shouldn’t be the case in the first place. Why should these land owners take money from the general population so a very rich minority can blast an intensively reared game bird from the sky in large numbers while our native predators and Hen Harriers in particular become extinct due to their actions. The situation needs to change before we lose this iconic species.

If you want to get involved Hen Harrier days are being arranged across the country with more to be finalised soon, see below.

harrier days


The Game & Wildlife Trust has responds to the survey results. You can read it over on the excellent Raptor Persecution UK site along with their comment. When you read this you’ll understand what our wildlife is up against and I’m as blown away as the people at RPUK.

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