Sir Ian Botham goes into bat against bird charity over saving the hen harrier
May 25, 2015
It is all happening a long way from the Westcountry, but the row over hen harriers has relevance for conservation everywhere. Philip Bowern reports
The hen harrier is one of the most treasured and threatened birds in Britain. And after adult birds abandoned two nests in the Forest of Bowland in Lancashire, on moorland used for grouse shooting, there was outrage from conservationists, some of whom pointed the finger at shooting interests.
Sir Ian Botham, the former Somerset and England cricketer – a country lover and passionate defender of shooting sports – has joined the debate, and claimed that gamekeepers, rather than posing a threat to the iconic birds of prey, offer the best hope of their long-term survival.
“The RSPB are deckchair conservationists with binoculars who sit and watch failing nests,” he said. “They campaign, they complain, they blame – but they are rubbish at conservation. Year after year the RSPB fails to live up to its name and protect birds. If you want to protect birds from predators you need gamekeepers not the RSPB.”
The argument, answered equally robustly by the RSPB’s director of conservation Martin Harper, goes to the heart of the debate around the best ways to conserve threatened birds of prey.
Sir Ian is offering a £10,000 reward to anyone prepared to rescue abandoned hen harrier eggs, hatch them out, rear the chicks and release them back into the wild. Such an option can’t help the two nests recently abandoned – their eggs will have gone cold and any chicks will be dead. But, the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) argues, it could help other threatened hen harriers.
The pro-shooting GWCT says that between 1973-77 in North America, conservationists managed to produce more than 300 peregrines from eggs in this way. By 1979 more than 30 species of raptor, from falcons to large vultures, had been raised in captivity.
It goes on report that in 1994 French conservationists started collecting Montagu’s harrier eggs from nests located in arable fields just before harvest, hatching out the chicks and reintroducing them into the wild. The GWCT says, in a recent blog: “The details, which were published in 2000, strongly suggest there are no grounds for concern over behavioural issues after the fledged chicks were released back into the wild.”
Any such action would have to be authorised by Natural England because it is an offence to interfere with the nest of a hen harrier and a licence would have to be granted. Those removing the eggs would also have to move fast, taking the eggs from a nest that had been clearly abandoned before they cooled and getting them to an incubator.
The GWCT says: “Remote cameras continually monitor each nest so it should be possible to asses when a male is late retuning to the nest. As soon as the female leaves the nest observers could move quickly, with portable incubator boxes and switch the eggs with ‘dummies’. If the adults were to return the real eggs could be replaced. Either way the eggs are not lost.”
The Trust, which supports shooting interests, believes such a plan to save the remaining hen harriers of the northern moors should be put in place urgently.
It goes on “One report suggests 70% of hen harrier nesting attempts failed on grouse moors due to adults going missing. Having a contingency plan in place would ensure the eggs hatch and the progeny are returned to the wild. With the hen harrier population so low, it appears odd to repeatedly allow clutches of 5-8 eggs to fail.”
Sir Ian Botham wants to put in place measures to save further hen harrier losses. The RSPB, however, wants to know what happened to the adult birds which have abandoned the latest two nests. The implication is that gamekeepers are to blame because hen harriers predate on grouse chicks and grouse shooting is what sustains the moorland as a commercial prospect.
Martin Harper, RSPB director of conservation recently acknowledged the value of lowland pheasant shoots for providing good habitat for other species, including song birds. In this instance, however, he is less sympathetic to the shooting interests.
“While the RSPB is intent on bringing hen harriers back from the brink of extinction, we’re not yet able to bring them back from the dead – which is what Ian Botham and the British grouse shooting industry, which is funding this campaign, appear to be suggesting by proposing the transfer of already-dead, abandoned eggs into incubators,” he writes.
“While we do not know what has happened to these birds, the circumstances in which they disappeared is highly suspicious and history tells us that the most likely reason is illegal persecution, following a pattern of bird of prey disappearances on intensively managed grouse moors. This is why the police are investigating.
“The cause of hen harriers’ continued rarity and the solution to tackle this is obvious. The RSPB will continue to focus on ending illegal persecution, rather than Ian Botham’s dubiously legal nest-interference scheme based on half-truths and prejudices.”
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