MISLEADING REPORT ON HEN HARRIERS SHOULD BE DISMISSED
Five organisations at the forefront of conservation of the Scottish countryside have branded a new report* on Hen Harriers as out of date and misleading. The British Association for Conservation and Shooting (Scotland), the Scottish Countryside Alliance, the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, the Scottish Estates Business Group and the Scottish Rural Property and Business Association have written to the Minister for Environment setting out their concerns about the report, due to be published this week.
The report, coordinated by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), looks into the conservation status of Hen Harriers, but only up to 2004. It concludes that persecution was the main factor limiting the growth of the Harrier population, but serious scientific flaws have been identified which undermine its conclusion and the five organisations recommended that it should not be published until those flaws had been corrected. Regrettably, although SNH has recognised discrepancies in the report they have not been corrected.
SNH has also acknowledged that the report will need to be revised almost as soon as it is published to address these flaws and limitations and to bring in new data.
Contrary to the impression given in this outdated report of a Hen Harrier population still being constrained by persecution, there has only been one confirmed incident of Hen Harrier persecution between 2004 and 2009** indicating that efforts to tackle that problem are now being effective. In parts of the country where Hen Harriers are not doing so well, there is evidence for a range of other reasons, such as predation by foxes and limitations on food supply, that have not been properly considered in the report. In other areas there is no likelihood of human persecution yet Harriers are still not thriving.
A spokesman for the five organisations said: "Publication of this report has been pushed through to allow its consideration under the Wildlife and Natural Environment Bill. It is essential that MSPs deal only with scientifically proven facts.
"Our organisations are all committed to tackling any issues of wildlife crime robustly, and for the Government and SNH to now promote the use of misleading science can only undermine the goodwill that has been generated by joint projects in recent years. However, we do welcome the firm recommendation from SNH that a proper dispute resolution process is set up in Scotland to address this difficult issue. We do regret that organisations we work in partnership with in the sector were unwilling to let SNH reflect our concerns publicly."
* A conservation framework for Hen Harriers in the UK (JNCC February 2011)
**The illegal killing of birds of prey in Scotland in 2009 (RSPB)
UPDATE 17 Feb: SNH press and PR manager Calum Macfarlane contacted me with a 'balancing' comment from SNH:
Professor Des Thompson, SNH principal adviser on biodiversity, said: "The hen harrier framework report is based on sound, recognised scientific principles and the most up-to-date data available. The report is based on information from the RSPB wildlife crime investigations database, in which incidents are recorded as either 'confirmed' or 'probable' persecution.
"There will be more detailed data available within the next two years, particularly from a hen harrier survey carried out in 2010 which is currently being collated. This will add detail to the picture, but it's clear from the reliable and recognised statistics available now that persecution of hen harriers is a serious problem."
UPDATE 17 Feb: ...and now the GWCT Scotland tries to put the issue in perspective, with a release that calls for 'conflict resolution', together with an acknowledgement that other factors besides 'persecution' (eagles, food, predation) might just be having an effect on harriers:
Scotland’s harriers in good conservation status
but more work needed to resolve conflicts
GAME & Wildlife Conservation Trust’s (GWCT) review of the newly released Hen Harrier Framework has highlighted that, while Scotland’s harriers were nationally in favourable conservation status in 2004, distribution in some areas is poor.
The Trust also identifies that the scientific approach taken in this species framework needs further revision and the conservation approach for this species should be one of conflict resolution.
GWCT welcomed SNH’s recent offer to review the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) Hen Harrier Conservation Framework and although the review secured helpful revisions to the framework, GWCT’s scientists remain concerned about a number of themes.
The Trust feels that the broader moorland conservation requirements have not been balanced with raptor conservation, as is required in European law. We welcome SNH’s proposal of a prompt review of the framework and want to work with all the organisations involved to achieve a better distributed and resilient hen harrier population in the UK alongside grouse moor management, a valuable economic and conservation land use.
Areas of concern:
1. We are pleased to see that on the basis of the criteria selected by SNH and the report’s authors, Scotland’s hen harrier population was nationally in favourable conservation status in 2004. However two of the three criteria used to assess conservation status, at the level of individual Natural Heritage Zones, are flawed. The result is that no matter how high or low the harrier population size surveyed in 2004, application of the criteria would always have found that half the sites failed and half passed each test. This not a robust approach to assessing long term conservation status. It also remains a matter of concern that the framework has been published in the year following a national survey of harriers but without using these data.
2. The study reveals harriers are not evenly distributed across Scottish regions in relation to suitable habitat. Persecution is the focus for possible explanations of this distribution. Although we acknowledge the effects of persecution in some regions, more could have been done to explain the relative contributions of the many other factors affecting harriers, in particular golden eagle-harrier interactions, food supply and predation by foxes on nesting harriers.
3. The accuracy of the population estimates could have been improved by not assuming a standard occupancy rate in suitable habitat and using a finer scale habitat map; an earlier report revealed that the extent of land suitable for harriers in Scotland (at the fine scale) may be 26% (rather than 42-50% in the model). At that scale the potential population size may be 931 harriers, well below the published 1467-1790.
4. The report acknowledges that the complex interactions affecting harriers are already being explored by the UK’s hen harrier grouse management conflict resolution processes. The GWCT feels that this framework should have drawn more on these. Central to sustainable harrier conservation is the balance between maintaining heather moors, healthy food supplies and low fox predation pressure for harriers while allowing red grouse shooting to thrive and deliver these harrier requirements. These issues are recognised in the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project and Environment Council attempts to resolve the real conflict between hen harrier conservation and red grouse management.