OK, so it isn’t exactly breaking news but the recent Guardian article on hen harrier Circus cyaneus breeding success, or, rather, the lack thereof, is a timely reminder of the kind of state much of our most scarce and beleaguered wildlife find themselves in these days. Even more timely is the possible demise of the National Wildlife Crime Unit, due to funding cuts.

Male hen harrier

The NWCU finds itself in a difficult position, as the evidence necessary to prosecute is often extremely difficult to come by (not to mention the underpinning knowledge of wildlife crime that officers need but frequently don’t have), leading to a situation where enforcement of legislation breaches, in the main, are not pursued; primarily due to lack of funding and resources. So, more resources (read: money) at a time when most things are going to the wall? Likely, or, not? You decide!
Hen harrier persecution is a personal issue for me, as I started my paid conservation career with the RSPB on the North Pennines protecting a hen harrier nest back in 2003. Although the harriers were nesting on a RSPB reserve, we were next to a shooting estate where a previous game keeper reportedly informed the RSPB warden that he had killed over 1,000 birds of prey in one year over their estate! This included buzzards, hen harriers, merlin, peregrine falcons and even an Icelandic gyrfalcon! How true this is, I can’t say but even if it is only 10% true, that’s an awful lot of raptors done in for crossing the fence line. This doesn’t even count the corvids, foxes and mustelids (stoats and weasels)  that were also killed to ensure the grouse numbers were appropriately high (leading to more dopey grouse to shoot come the Inglorious 12th…).
That year, thanks to round the clock watches (in what was, for most of England, a lovely hot summer but in the North Pennines AONB was very wet indeed!), out on the moor all night watching for people who might ‘interfere’ with the nest (read: wander in during the wee hours with a  head torch, balaclava and a shotgun and blast the young on the nest), we managed to help the adults get four young off. Our local Wildlife Crime Officer was immensely knowledgeable and passionate about helping these magnificent birds (with a fine side in wildlife art to boot!) and it is a real shame that, on a shoestring it may be, the NWCU faces hamstringing further than it is. If wildlife protection is important to you, sign the petition here: http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/43978 and pester your MP on Early Day Motion 603! http://markavery.info/2013/01/08/early-day-motion-603-protect-national-wildlife-crime-unit/ 
During the months I and my colleagues spent on the moor, we took detailed notes on all aspects of hen harrier behaviour; marvelling at skydancing and food passes (here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9re7hBXHc7s, from about 02:30) and including  identification of food items, when we could. I don’t have a full tally from that year for our pair but much of the food items were voles and other small rodents, skylark and meadow pipit, some upland waders (snipe chicks etc.) and yes, some grouse chicks. The total impact of these on the 5,000ha RSPB estate though, you would have to say is negligible. However, shooting is a very profitable business and if there is ever a choice between money and wildlife, we all know that there has only ever been one winner in recent years.
If you do ever get the chance to see wild hen harriers, grasp that opportunity; they are truly spectacular birds and their near demise as a breeding bird in England shames us all.
LBS Biodiversity Officer

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