The management of predators across the globe raises challenging conservation issues. In particular, those predators that either present a direct threat to humans or compete with them for shared resources can inspire strong passions in different sectors of society. There is often great disparity between the views of conservation organizations focused on protecting rare predators and the views of game and wildlife managers focused on minimizing the impact of predators on populations of shared prey. Conflicts such as these are not easy to resolve. Very different world views and objectives can lead to polarized opinion, mistrust and lack of communication between the main players. Individuals and organizations can become entrenched in their views and unable to consider different perspectives. To remove these barriers to progress, processes are required that start to break down that lack of trust, improve lines of communication and provide the support and space for individuals and organizations to explore alternative viewpoints and ways forward.
In our earlier forum paper (Thirgood & Redpath 2008), we focussed on the conflict between conservation organizations and game managers over the management of hen harriers and red grouse in the UK, and explored why so little progress had been made towards reaching a solution. We are delighted that two organizations, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (Thompson et al. 2009) and the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (Sotherton, Tapper & Smith 2009), representing views from either side of the harrier–grouse debate, responded to the challenges raised in our slightly provocative paper. Whilst differences in approach are clearly still apparent, we consider that these responses open up the space for progress and that there are very encouraging signs that previously entrenched views are shifting. Given the amount of shared interest in maintaining socially, economically and ecologically viable uplands in the UK, and the barriers that this conflict has raised, there are potentially large rewards available if a solution to this conflict can be found.
It is worth stressing the point that there is now broad consensus from the two sides of the debate on both the impact that harriers can have on grouse populations and the impact that gamekeepers are having on harrier populations. Thompson et al. (2009) acknowledge that ‘hen harrier predation can reduce grouse shooting bags, limit grouse populations and cause economic loss’. Sotherton et al. (2009) acknowledge that ‘gamekeepers prevent this species from colonizing many suitable upland areas keeping it a rare breeding bird in England’. Having agreement on these issues is fundamental to finding a way forward, and it stems from the involvement of the main stakeholder groups in the research which first quantified the impact of harrier predation on grouse populations (Redpath & Thirgood 1997), subsequent, on-going research on diversionary feeding (Redpath, Thirgood & Leckie 2001. http://www.langholmproject.com), and continued engagement in dialogue (see http://www.moorlandforum.org; http://www.the-environment-council.org.uk/hen-harrier-dialogue.html).
Nevertheless, both responses contain factual inaccuracies reflecting a surprising misunderstanding of some of the key research findings concerning harrier–grouse dynamics. In particular, both papers repeat the assertion that the research was conducted on only one grouse moor (Langholm), whereas in fact it involved detailed field research over 5 years on six different grouse moors (Redpath & Thirgood 1997). Sotherton et al. (2009) maintain that ‘the only attempt to sustain driven grouse shooting in the presence of an unregulated number of hen harriers failed because the local population of hen harriers increased from 2 to 20 pairs in less that 6 years cutting the autumn numbers of grouse by 50% and eventually causing breeding numbers to decline’. Whilst this was indeed documented at Langholm moor (Thirgood et al. 2000a,b), observations on one moor in the Eastern Highlands, Scotland, found that harriers at lower density were able to coexist with driven grouse shooting (Redpath & Thirgood 1997). Similarly, Thompson et al. (2009) imply that our findings on the impact of harrier predation on grouse came from just Langholm moor, but have been widely extrapolated. In fact, our understanding of the functional and numerical response of harriers was derived from research on eight different study sites and so has wider applicability (Redpath & Thirgood 1997, 1999; Redpath, Thirgood & Clarke 2002). Finally, Thompson et al. (2009) imply that the impact of raptors is restricted to harrier predation on grouse chicks whereas in fact our field research and modelling demonstrated that the observed reduction in post-breeding grouse density was caused by raptor predation (almost certainly both harriers and peregrines Falco peregrinus) on breeding adult grouse in spring and by harriers on grouse chicks in summer (Thirgood et al. 2000a). Whilst we have taken the opportunity here to correct these misunderstandings, we stress that these are relatively minor concerns in the context of the significance of the papers by Thompson et al. (2009) and Sotherton et al. (2009).
Given these responses to our Forum article, we again ask how we can best move forward towards a resolution of this conflict. There are two broad areas that arise from both responses – one relates to the wider ecosystem level considerations, which we did not reflect on in our article, and the other more specific issue of how we best deal with harrier predation on red grouse. Thompson et al. (2009) are correct to point out that we need to consider this conflict in the broader context of sustainable upland ecosystems. Whilst we have touched on these issues in the past (e.g. Thirgood et al. 2000c; Redpath et al. 2004) we welcome this focus on the ecosystem services provided by the uplands. There are different ways of managing the uplands, from intensive high input management for grouse, sheep or trees, towards a more extensive low input management of mixed systems. Sotherton et al. (2009) make a strong case for the benefits of driven grouse shooting in northern England. However, as they themselves point out there are still many unknowns related to the costs and benefits of intensive grouse management and we are not yet in a situation where we can objectively compare the ecological, social and economic benefits of alternative forms of land use. Indeed, it is perhaps surprising that there is still a great deal of uncertainty about the extent of grouse management in the UK uplands, and the value of grouse shooting to the UK economy, let alone the impact of alternative forms of land use on ecosystem goods and services. Further research and debate on this issue is urgently required.
Hen harriers are virtually absent as successful breeding birds on intensively managed grouse moors, despite the fact that these moors represent prime breeding and hunting habitat (Redpath et al. in press). Most stakeholders recognize that this is an unacceptable situation, but the question remains: what is the most effective way of increasing harrier numbers on these areas, without threatening the livelihoods of those currently involved in grouse shooting and the maintenance of heather moorlands? Whilst Thompson et al. (2009) suggest a number of big sticks with which to hit moor owners and gamekeepers, both they and Sotherton et al. (2009) also suggest a number of enticing carrots. Sticks have so far been ineffective at increasing hen harrier numbers, and in our view it is the carrots that may most effectively help us unlock this conflict. That is not to say that there is no place for strong legislation and effective law enforcement, rather that the efficacy of focussing solely on this aspect needs to be carefully considered when striving for a sustainable solution to this conflict. The articles discuss the two main management techniques of diversionary feeding and a form of harrier brood management.
All sides of this debate keenly await the outcome of the current ‘demonstration’ project at Langholm, in southern Scotland, which is exploring whether harriers and driven grouse shooting can coexist if harriers are provided with diversionary food (http://www.langholmproject.com). However, this project is not set to report until 2018. Thompson et al. (2009) and Sotherton et al. (2009) agree with us that important, outstanding questions remain about the utility of diversionary feeding that the current project at Langholm cannot address. It would seem sensible that these questions should be studied prior to 2018 rather than waiting for a further research project before we can really understand the potential of this technique.
A field trial of a harrier brood management scheme, as outlined by Thompson et al. (2009), with the explicit aim of improving the conservation status of hen harriers, represents a very substantial step forward for UK conservationists and a potential breakthrough that all sides may be able to sign up to. Such a scheme, however, is not without its challenges. Derogation from EU legislation would be required before a trial could be conducted, and the legality of such a trial needs to be fully considered. In addition, agreement would have to be reached on issues such as what the threshold number of harrier broods would be, what tests the trial would be measured by and what the exit strategies would be should the trial fail. Moreover, a large area of moorland would need to be found where such a trial could be performed and where illegal killing would stop. The hope is that through dialogue, discussion and debate, these issues can be resolved and a consensus can be reached as to how to move forward. A brood management scheme would be eminently testable in the field and if consensus is reached and the barriers overcome then we would be in a powerful position to explore these ideas effectively.
Continued dialogue between the main stakeholders is critical in agreeing how to proceed and find approaches that are likely to lead to sustainable solutions (Sidaway 2005). At the same time that harrier management has been debated in the forum pages of this journal, stakeholder dialogue has also been on-going, initiated by Natural England, the government agency responsible for conservation in England, and mediated by The Environment Council to explore solutions to this conflict (http://www.the-environment-council.org.uk/hen-harrier-dialogue.html). Beyond this, we also need to build on the work of Scotland’s Moorland Forum (http://www.moorlandforum.org) and bring together the scientific, policy and stakeholder communities from across the UK uplands to consider the broader questions related to sustainable upland management and decide how our uplands should be most effectively managed in the future.
If we can crack this particular conflict and get to a situation where we have more harriers successfully breeding on viable driven grouse moors, then this would not only be good for harrier conservation and grouse management, it would also remove a barrier that hinders collaboration on other issues in the UK uplands, and it would send a powerful signal to those involved in other such human–wildlife conflicts across the world. Influenced we hope by these forum papers, the continued stakeholder dialogue and the increasingly constructive approach taken by the main players, we seem to be getting closer to a solution now than at any time in the past decade. However, as is common in such conflicts, the process is delicate and may be easily derailed by those with more extreme views and an unwillingness to compromise. We can only hope that those involved are able to maintain the momentum and continue the open, constructive approach to resolving this challenging problem.