A £900,000 government scheme to “meddle” with nests of hen harriers is a waste of money and rewards those who kill them, a wildlife campaign group has said.

The claims are contained in a report produced by Wild Justice and released to coincide with the Glorious Twelfth, the official start of the grouse shooting season, on Saturday.

Grouse moor gamekeepers have historically killed hen harriers illegally because they eat smaller birds, including grouse.

Since the start of a government brood management scheme in 2018, 98 hen harriers have been confirmed as missingin suspicious circumstances or are known to have been illegally killed in the UK, many of them on or close to English grouse moors.

In order to combat the problem of the birds, which are endangered in the UK, continually going missing over moors, Natural England began a scheme which involves taking the eggs or chicks of some hen harriers nesting on grouse moors into captivity, rearing them to fledging age and releasing them back into the wild in the uplands of northern England.

They say th practice reduces the density of active hen harrier nests on grouse moors and is thought to reduce predation pressure on red grouse during the breeding season, so there is less incentive for harriers to be persecuted.

Nests containing young have in the past been stamped on, and mothers killed – leaving the chicks to starve. The government is working with grouse moor owners to discourage this behaviour.

A male hen harrier
A male hen harrier. Photograph: Alamy

The Wild Justice report, however, states that after a five-year trial of hen harrier brood management, Natural England has not released data on whether overall survival rates have changed.

It says: “The key question … is not whether the very low survival rates of hen harriers have increased but whether they have increased sufficiently to secure a sustainable and lasting increase in the hen harrier breeding population.

“This requires some sort of a population model to exist, and be populated with data. NE is far from that position and it is unclear to us that a further five years of brood meddling will provide those answers.”

Wild Justice, which is led by the former RSPB chief Mark Avery, the raptor expert Dr Ruth Tingay and the TV presenter Chris Packham, said: “It’s a waste of money that could be better spent on other aspects of hen harrier conservation or elsewhere in nature conservation – the initial estimate for the five-year trial was £875,000.

“It’s a delaying tactic to put off more effective and stringent measures against criminality – all hen harriers need is the illegal killing to stop.” It described the scheme as “a reward for past crimes against hen harriers”.

The campaigners argue instead that more stringent measures should be put in place to prosecute those who illegally kill birds of prey.

Natural England argues that its work has been useful. Hen harrier numbers have increased in England in the last couple of years, and more than 100 fledged in 2022, the first time in over a century that numbers had reached such a level.

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“We stand by our work to protect hen harriers and remain committed to pushing forward the recovery of this iconic species,” it said. “We will continue to direct resources towards monitoring and conservation management, while also working with partners including the police to tackle persecution.

“We are encouraged by the possibilities demonstrated by the recent increase in nesting hen harrier numbers and the brood management trial has been extended to further understand the impact this has had on their conservation.”

The RSPB, however, disagrees with Natural England’s scheme. It withdrew its support in 2016, and later launched a failed legal challenge against Natural England to try to stop it.

It said at the time of the case: “We’ve made our objections on scientific and ethical grounds to brood management clear for many years. We believe the first step in hen harrier recovery should be the end of illegal persecution, as the evidence is clear that this is the main reason driving the decline of this bird of prey.

“A recently published study of satellite-tagged hen harriers by Natural England revealed that 72% of these birds were either confirmed or considered very likely to have been illegally killed. Furthermore, it found that hen harriers were 10 times more likely to be illegally killed on a grouse moor than anywhere else.”

Wild Justice said in its report: “Whilst a few grouse shooting estates get what they want, the removal of hen harriers through a state-licensed brood meddling project, others stick to the traditional method of criminality. Hen harrier persecution is still rife on grouse moors and no amount of brood meddling rhetoric can cover that up.”

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