Natural England’s absurd ‘Witness Protection Scheme’ for Hen Harrier Chicks

It must have been an interesting conversation in the offices of Natural England, the government body tasked with looking after the country’s nature and landscapes. The hen harrier is an iconic bird of prey which is currently under huge threat, primarily because of persecution by game-keepers on shooting estates. What could possibly be the answer to reverse this decline?

Maybe this was how the conversation panned out:

Senior Natural England executive: Okay team, we need to stop the decline of hen harriers. So this is what we’re going to do…

Naïve Employee: Yes, let’s stop gamekeepers from killing them!

SNE: Um, no, we’re not going to do that.

NE: Oh. Why not?

SNE: Because…there’s a better way. We’re going to take the hen harrier chicks away from their parents and move them somewhere else!

NE: Why don’t we stop the gamekeepers from killing them?

SNE: Because… Shut up. We’re going to take the chicks away to areas where they won’t be killed to see if they will survive somewhere else.

NE: Shouldn’t we just stop them from being killed?

SNE: (Sigh). The gamekeepers are there to stop the hen harriers from killing the grouse.

NE: The grouse which will then be shot?

SNE: (Pause). Yes. But it’s important the grouse are protected.

NE: So they can then be shot?

SNE: (Pause). Yes.

NE: Is that why gamekeepers also poison, trap, snare and shoot thousands of other animals on shooting estates?

SNE: To stop the grouse from being killed. Yes.

NE: So they can then be shot?

SNE: Shut up. You need to understand that shooting has strong conservation benefits.

NE: Not for the grouse.

SNE: No…

NE: Or the hen harriers, foxes, badgers, magpies…

SNE: No…

NE: …hares. Don’t forget the hares.

SNE: Okay…

NE: Doesn’t intensive burning of heather to encourage grouse to breed lead to major environmental problems and urban flooding?

SNE: Yes, but…some curlews are doing quite well.

NE: So we’re going to turn our moorlands into a wasteland, cause flooding and climate change, and encourage the killing of potentially hundreds of thousands of birds and mammals, just so grouse can be shot for sport?

SNE: Okay now stop it. Shooting brings financial benefits to rural communities.

NE: So does wildlife tourism. Or it would, if we didn’t let the shooting industry kill all the wildlife.

SNE: (Pause). Shut up.

So yes, Natural England, who are meant to protect our environment and nature, have chosen to move hen harriers away from ‘danger’ areas – shooting estates – rather than tackling the actual cause of the danger. If the danger to hen harriers was insurmountable, then this would make sense. But it isn’t.

The danger is man-made – or perhaps industry-made – because the ‘game’ bird shooting industry is so powerful that the government would rather tug a forelock to them and bend the knee to their wishes rather than take the action which needs to be taken – stop gamekeepers from killing these precious birds.

Moorlands in England should be home to around 300 pairs of hen harriers, but instead there are only three. This is appalling. Can this situation be blamed completely on the shooting industry? No. Is the shooting industry the biggest cause of the problem? Most likely.

There has been some good news this week – Ilkley Moor, the last piece of council-owned moorland in the UK used for grouse shooting has just stopped it. Campaigners Ban Bloodsports on Ilkely Moor are celebrating and will now focus their efforts to turning the moor back into the land it should be – a “first-class asset for the region, which promotes wildlife biodiversity, education, leisure and the local economy”.

Locally, this is an important step. Nationally, the organisation tasked with protecting our environment have put out a press release, backed by pro-shooting groups, about a plan which is effectively witness protection for hen harriers.

But at least with witness protection for humans, the police try to punish the wrongdoers – not collude with them. 

The conversation above may not have taken place, but I’m guessing there’s a lot of honest employees at Natural England who are wondering, like the rest of us, just what’s going on?

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