The RSPB ignored news that merlin numbers have increased on grouse moors,
says Charles Nodder. Will it support an initiative to assist the hen harrier?

The merlin, Britain’s smallest raptor, is doing well on managed grouse moors. The respected British Trust for Orni-thology maps the bird’s distribution in England regularly, while the Moorland Association (MA) assiduously keeps records of where gamekeepers work in the uplands. A neat, comparative study commissioned by the MA and conducted by an independent company now shows that there are four times as many merlins on grouse moors as on unkeepered upland ground. Breeding records on grouse moors have doubled in the past 20 years, whereas elsewhere they have halved.

This excellent news was greeted with predictable scorn by the anonymous critics of shoot management who hide behind the website Raptor Politics. They commented, “Read the story and you might begin to believe society has misjudged the gamekeeper and the hard work he undertakes to save and conserve protected raptors on the grouse moors,” before, equally predictably, carping on about the state of the hen harrier in England. Echoing this negative tone, a responding birder wrote, “The use of ‘fractions’ and ‘percentages’ are a brilliant masquerade of portraying abysmal figures in a somewhat positive light.” He had not even bothered to establish that there was a published, independent report behind the headline figures just a couple of clicks away.

How did the RSPB respond to the good news on merlins? With deafening silence. You would have thought, would you not, that the country’s leading bird conservation charity might have made some comment on the fact that an amber-listed raptor was doing well in a particular set of circumstances. Perhaps it was just too busy working on its recently widened remit of “Giving Nature a Home”, or with cele-brating the fact that the non-native grey squirrel had just topped the list of non-avian sightings in the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch.

Despite these distractions, however, the RSPB has managed to say quite a lot about English grouse moors recently, in particular on the matter of heather burning. Mike Clarke, its chief executive, has called on Natural England to bring burning to an end. Doing so, says the RSPB, will reduce carbon loss and put a stop to peat-stained water.

But the simple truth is that the RSPB finds it institutionally hard to accept that any good can come from gamekeeping. It hates driven shooting and the fact that it is associated with money. Thus it denigrates heather burning as being carried out purely, “to yield optimum conditions for producing the maximum number of red grouse for commercial shooting”. The recently established fact that it also yields optimum heather cover for merlins to nest in goes unrecognised because it doesn’t fit with the society’s ideology.

To give credit where it is due, however, Martin Harper, the RSPB’s conservation director, recently attended the AGM of the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation (NGO), thus boldly going where his predecessors have not cared to tread. His talk focused on predator control and he told the gamekeepers that while the RSPB will, as a last resort, kill foxes, corvids and other common predators on its own reserves, “We will never kill as many as you do because we are not after a harvestable surplus. We just want a full diversity of wildlife, including the predators.”

But here’s the rub. If you are the country’s wealthiest wildlife charity you can afford to have that vision. In the real countryside, wildlife conservation has to be paid for with earned income not by subscriptions and donations. It is the sneered at “commercial shooting” that keeps our moorlands viable. The presence of a healthy merlin population proves that the resultant benefits extend beyond the red grouse.

The RSPB failed the “more merlins” PR test. Will it do any better later this summer with the Hen Harrier Joint Action Plan? This is a Defra-led initiative, backed by the MA, the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust and the NGO, to bring more hen harriers back to the English uplands – something that the RSPB has been calling for stridently for a long time. There are six elements to the plan, all interdependent, one being a brood management scheme whereby moor owners would be allowed, under licence, to arrange to remove chicks from additional harrier nests so they could be reintroduced to suitable habitats elsewhere. In essence, this could mean everyone having some harriers but with the safeguard that no one had to contend with a colonial cloud of them, right on top of a grouse moor.

Harper told the NGO gathering that the RSPB was still considering its position on the Hen Harrier Joint Action Plan. “One sticking point is the brood management scheme,” he said. “We would want to see progress towards an increased hen harrier population before brood management cuts in.” But brood management is key to the overall goal of having more hen harriers. Without it, the scheme will simply not get off the ground. Defra may or may not crack on with the plan irrespective of the RSPB’s decision but it would be so much better for the hen harrier if the RSPB could see its way to lending support. Time will tell.