Dear Natural England: Your aims are worthy, but hen harrier brood management gets it terribly wrong.

At first glance, the Hen Harrier Recovery Plan (DEFRA, 2016) looks positive: a protection scheme for hen harriers at risk of persecution to give one of England’s rarest birds of prey a renewed foothold in the uplands.

All, however, may not be as it seems. Whilst Natural England, the government’s habitats regulator, has been clear that it wants to end the illegal killing of hen harriers on grouse moors, the devil in the detail strongly indicates that its brood management project will do more harm than good (Natural England, 2020).

Grouse moors rely on attaining large numbers of naturally-occurring game birds to be operable (Thompson et al, 2016) and without eradication of natural predators to artificially create optimal breeding conditions shot moors would not be commercially viable. Some see numbers reach 200-500 grouse per square kilometre, which is approximately one-hundred times the natural density (Baines, 2014).

Research has shown that breeding hen harriers can threaten the viability of grouse moors because these airborne predators eat grouse chicks for survival (Langholm, 2014). The aim of brood management is to remove hen harrier chicks from grouse moors once breeding numbers have reached a density which would impact on grouse stocks (DEFRA, 2016).

Grouse moors are required by Natural England to maintain at least one hen harrier nest on their land if they are participating in the scheme and in doing so are expected to tolerate a degree of predation on grouse stocks by resisting persecution. This mirrors abatement schemes, more commonly agreed between regulators and polluters, which seek to lower ecologically harmful practices.

To reward grouse shoots for compliance the regulator will relieve participating moors of any hen harriers which form a second nest within 10km of the first. Chicks will be removed by licenced individuals, raised in captivity and then released onto donor moors once fledged (Natural England, 2017). This intervention will theoretically be repeated until such a point as every grouse moor which could support harriers has at least one occupied nest, although in practical terms that wouldn’t happen in our lifetimes, if at all.

Brood management operates on the principle of Becker’s Rational Choice Theory that those who seemingly govern with procedural justice are better suited to fostering compliance (Becker, 1968). In other words, if Natural England is seen by grouse moors to be acting favourably towards those cooperating with its approach then it will rely less on enforcement of the largely-ineffective Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981.

In many ways this encapsulates the problem of appeasing an industry which has demonstrated time and time again that it is incapable of self-regulation. Hen harriers will only recover in the absence of persecution (Etheridge, 1997), yet brood management normalises the removal of birds of prey to protect grouse shooting. This undermines the rule of law by rewarding offenders and intended beneficiaries of wrongdoing with the outcome they desire (Braithwaite, 1987). Moreover, it does little to foster cultural acceptance among grouse moors that the law protecting wildlife is right and there is a moral obligation to follow it (Tyler, 1990).

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that all five of the hen harriers brood managed during 2019 have disappeared under suspicious circumstances (Natural England, 2020b). This is by no means a new phenomenon. As far back as 2013, the National Wildlife Crime Unit briefed law-enforcement agencies that “intelligence continues to indicate a strong association between raptor persecution and grouse moor management” (NWCU, 2013). Subsequently, Natural England’s own research, which analysed a decade of hen harrier satellite-tagging data, demonstrated that hen harriers are 10 times more likely to die over English grouse moors than any other habitat (Murgatroyd, 2019).

Too many moorlands have become grouse shooting theme parks, run by self-serving operators who focus on large numbers of game birds and ignore their duty to nature. They believe their lucrative shooting behemoths must be protected at all costs. The only way Natural England can begin to tackle this problem is by converting the current incentive for wildlife crime into an incentive for conserving birds of prey. By removing the ability of grouse moors suspected of raptor persecution to operate, the regulator will ensure that there are no gains to be made from criminality.

Pressure is brewing for England and Wales to follow Scotland’s commitment to introduce mandatory licensing of grouse moors (Werrity, 2019). Now is the time to significantly reform the country’s ecologically-restrictive, outdated grouse moors to restore the full suite of wildlife to our uplands.

Published by the UK Centre for Animal Law (A-Law)



Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981


Baines, D., Newborn, D., and Richardson, M. (2014), Spread of Cryptosporidium baileyi in red grouse Lagopus lagopus scoticus. Veterinary Record 175:149.

Becker, G. S. (1968). Crime and punishment: An economic approach. Journal of Political Economy, 76, 169–217

Braithwaite, J. (1987). Private Policing: Self-regulation and the control of corporate crime. Criminal Justice System Overalls. Volume 23.

DEFRA. (2016). Joint action plan to increase the English hen harrier population. [Online]. Available at: [Accessed 29/07/2020]

Etheridge, RW. (1997). The Effects of Illegal Killing and Destruction of Nests by Humans on the Population Dynamics of Hen Harrier in Scotland. Journal of Applied Ecology. Vol. 34, No 4 (Aug., 1997), pp. 1081-1105.

Langholm Moor Demonstration Project. (2014). The Langholm Moor Demonstration Project – A Seven Year Review. [Online]. Available at: [Accessed 29/07/2020]

Murgatroyd, M. (2019). Patterns of satellite tagged hen harrier disappearances suggest widespread illegal killing on British grouse moors. Nature communications. 10, Article number: 1094 (2019).

National Wildlife Crime Unit. (2013). Strategic assessment. [Online]. Available at: wp-content/uploads/2014/04/NWCU-Strategic-Assessment-2013-final-v2.pdf [Accessed 29/07/2020]

Natural England. (2020). Hen harrier brood management licence renewed. [Online]. Available at: [Accessed 29/07/2020]

Natural England. (2020b). Freedom Of Information request published on 8 June 2020.

Natural England. (2017). Hen harrier brood management criteria. [Online]. Available at: [Accessed 29/07/2020].

Thompson, P.S., Douglas, D.J.T., Hoccom, D.G., Knott, J., Roos, S., and Wilson, J.D. (2016). Environmental impacts of high-output driven shooting of Red Grouse Lagopus lagopus scotica. Ibis (2016), 158, 446–452

Tyler, TR. (1990). Why People Obey The Law. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Werrity, A. (2019). Grouse Moor Management Review Group – Report to the Scottish Government. [Online]. Available at: [Accessed 29/07/2020]