As the grouse shooting season opened on the moors of Northern England today, it was glorious for some.
For others it was the backdrop to a situation where a bird of prey teeters on the brink of extinction in England.
The last time hen harriers nested successfully in the North Pennines was in 2006. In Northumberland, it was 2008.
Last year, for the first time since records began, no hen harriers fledged in England.
This year just three nests, under 24-hour watch, were successful - two of them on a utility company’s land.
Yet it is estimated that there is suitable habitat for more than 300 pairs of the birds in this country.
As part of a range of prey, the hen harrier will take grouse.
Grouse moors are a significant rural business, so there is an obvious conflict.
The main reason for the decline, say conservationists, is illegal persecution and after years of talking, the patience of some has snapped.
A Government e-petition has been launched by former RSPB conservation director Mark Avery, calling for a ban on driven grouse shooting.
It says: “Intensive management of upland areas for the ‘sport’ of grouse shooting has led to the near extinction of the protected hen harrier in England.
“Grouse shooting interests have persecuted the hen harrier to such an extent that despite full legal protection for the last 60 years, it is almost extinct as a breeding species in England.
“The investigation of wildlife crimes against such a species is time consuming, difficult to prosecute and ties up valuable police resources.
“Grouse shooters have failed to put their own house in order, despite decades of discussion.
“The time has now come for the public to call ‘enough’ and require the next Government to ban driven grouse shooting in England.”
By yesterday, 13,400 people had signed the petition.
On Sunday, a series of Hen Harrier days, organised by Birders Against Wildlife Crimes (BAWC), were held, including one at Lambley in the South Tyne Valley in Northumberland.
Protesters carried posters saying “We are missing our hen harriers.”
The Hen Harrier Days were backed by Northumberland Wildlife Trust patron and broadcaster Chris Packham, the RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts, League Against Cruel Sports and various birding organisations.
BAWC says: “ Numbers of hen harriers have declined markedly in recent years as intensification of grouse moors has stepped up.
“For BAWC, Hen Harrier Day is primarily about raising awareness of wildlife crime - the persecution of a protected bird of prey.
“We feel that to move on from the current situation, there has to be a full and clear acknowledgement that illegal persecution has been widespread and is a limiting factor on hen harrier populations.
“Next there needs to be a commitment from the shooting industry to ensure that all legislation protecting our wildlife is rigorously enforced and that law breakers are reported immediately.”
Until last week, Newcastle-based Blanaid Denman was in charge of the RSPB’s Skydancer hen harrier project, which is backed by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
The project is named after the hen harrier’s aerial displays, known as sky dancing.
The project seeks to raise awareness of the plight of the hen harrier and works with communities, schools and game keeping students at agricultural colleges.
It has been nominated for a national lottery award for best educational project.
Blanaid has now taken over a new Scottish-English cross-border hen harrier project which involves nest protection, winter monitoring and satellite tracking of birds.
She says that, although the RSPB has not supported the call to ban driven grouse shooting, “we fully appreciate the feeling behind it. Hen harriers have been persecuted and people are losing patience.
“There is real intolerance among certain sections of the shooting community towards hen harriers and all the evidence shows that illegal persecution is a key driver behind the decline of these birds.
“These are issues we have been working to address with the shooting community for decades and we feel there is still potential to work with progressive sections of that community.
“Shooting is entirely unregulated in this country and we are calling for a licensing of grouse moors.”
This would include sanctions against moors if employees committed wildlife crime.
A second Government e-petition has also been posted which calls for the publication of a six-point recovery plan which seeks to boost hen harrier numbers in England without damaging the viability of grouse moors.
Amanda Anderson, director of the Moorland Association, says: “The MA membership has signed this petition demonstrating the grouse moor community’s commitment to seeing this plan published and implemented.”
Overseen by Defra, the draft Hen Harrier Joint Recovery Plan was drawn up involving moor owners, gamekeepers and conservation groups. Work started in August last year and the plan has been ready since January this year, but has not yet been launched.
There are six elements of the draft plan. Three deal with wildlife crime and three with measures to support the growth of a sustainable population of harriers while avoiding what is claimed to be a tendency for the birds to nest near each other.
The six points are:
Law enforcement, prevention and intelligence led by a senior police officer;
Ongoing monitoring of breeding sites and winter roosts;
Research of the movement of hen harriers using satellite tracking;
Diversionary feeding of hen harriers to reduce predation on grouse chicks;
A study on reintroducing them to other parts of England;
Nest management trial to avoid red grouse and hen harrier population swings.
This would include allowing one nest on grouse moors but if other nests appeared nearby the eggs would be hatched and chicks reared in captivity for release elsewhere.
Blanaid Denman said that the RSPB was opposed to this kind of nest management until hen harriers had reached a suitable population recovery figure.
“If there were only three nests in England and they were on the same moor, it would be illogical to remove two of them.”
Mrs Anderson said that the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, the Country Land and Business Association, Countryside Alliance, Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation, and the Moorland Association all want to see more hen harriers nesting in England and are calling for Defra to publish the recovery plan,
She says: “All of the organisations welcome the spotlight on harriers and condemn wildlife crime. We need to build on this year’s successful breeding to springboard a wider recovery.
“There is a Defra-led Joint Recovery Plan we wish to see published. If implemented it would see the growth of a sustainable population of hen harriers without jeopardising driven grouse shooting, along with the environmental, social and economic benefits it delivers.
“There is a well documented conflict as hen harriers eat grouse. But this conflict needs a pragmatic solution.
“After 20 years of talking we can do something about it.”
“The sooner the six-point plan is published and implemented, the sooner people will be able to see hen harriers skydancing in their nearest suitable habitat.”
She said England’s moorland owners were committed to a £52.5m annual spend on conservation and seriously threatened species.
It was a year-round battle to safeguard 860,000 acres of heather moorland for wild red grouse which also benefitted some of the most endangered birds.
Moorland Association chairman, Cumbria-based Robert Benson, said globally recognised heather moorland was rarer than rainforest and the UK had 75% of what was left of it in the world.
He said: “Its careful game management has seen significant gains in a number of at risk species. Endangered lapwing, curlew, golden plover, ring ouzel, merlin, black grouse and grey partridge all fare far better on moorland with gamekeepers.
“We have a vital part to play in stemming the decline of some of our most vulnerable birds.
“Without shooting income the consequences to wildlife - particularly the scarce red listed breeds - would be severe.”
James Scott-Harden, who manages moorland on the Durham and Northumberland border, predicts a reasonable season following spring’s good breeding conditions for grouse.
He said: “The £67m industry is responsible for over 1,500 jobs, as well as the remarkable gains for fauna and flora.
“Shooting creates 42,500 days of work a year. With the prospects of a strong season for many moors, associated spin-offs will be in excess of £15m, essential earnings in challenging economic times.
“So many people benefit, from the food industry to hoteliers, clothing manufacturers to dry stone wallers, the list is endless.”
Grouse shooting results in 700 full-time jobs, with a further 800 linked directly to the industry.
Shooting days can be held from August 12 until December 10 excluding Sundays, but only the surplus population is shot ensuring a healthy wild breeding stock is left for the following year.
“Shooting usually stops well before the official end of the season, but every day is a bonus for the local economy,” said Mr Scott-Harden.
“Despite the success of the breeding season, only a handful of those letting days on a commercial basis will break even due to the great costs involved in managing the moor.
“Working with Natural England, we are committed to restoring blanket bog habitats, damaged by wildfires, over-grazing and historic drainage, which is also mitigating the severe impact of climate change.
“Without grouse moor management, many moors would revert to scrub and forest. Moorland plants, animals and precious landscapes that attract millions of visitors a year would be lost.”