Thank you for contacting me about the protection of birds of prey and particularly the hen harrier. I share your concern about the decline in their numbers.
All wild birds are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and there are strong penalties in place for offences committed against birds of prey and other wildlife, with most wildlife crimes carrying up to an unlimited fine and/or a six-month custodial sentence. I would like to assure you that raptor persecution, including the hen harrier, is a national wildlife crime priority. The National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU) monitors and gathers intelligence on wildlife crime, including raptor persecution, and aids police forces in their investigations when required. Operation Owl is an ongoing NWCU operation which focuses on preventing the shooting, trapping and poisoning of the UK’s precious birds of prey, including peregrines, hen harriers and kites. Consideration of their habitat is also important, as raptor species are considered a key indicator of environmental health, and the Government is working with landowners to adopt sustainable and constructive land management strategies to protect the habitats these birds depend on.
Ministers have always been clear of the need to phase out rotational burning of protected blanket bog to conserve these vulnerable habitats. Real progress is being made in promoting sustainable alternatives and I am pleased to hear that legislation is being looked at which could help achieve this. Ministers have also been encouraging landowners to adopt sustainable options and continue to work with them constructively. The England Peat Strategy will be published later this year which will detail further how we can protect, restore, and reduce damage to our peatlands.
Please be assured that the Government is very concerned about hen harrier populations, which is why it took the lead on the Hen Harrier Action Plan. This sets out what will be done to increase hen harrier populations in England and includes measures to stop illegal persecution. While there are no current plans to carry out a review of the management of grouse moors, I recognise it is vital that wildlife and habitats are respected and protected, and that the law is observed. I do appreciate that many people feel strongly on the issue of shooting but it is important to recognise the conservation benefits that properly managed shooting brings. A study in 2010 by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust showed that predator control resulted in significant increases in the breeding success of ground nesting birds such as curlew, golden plover and lapwing. I am pleased that the Government will continue to work to ensure a sustainable, mutually beneficial relationship between shooting and conservation.
I do understand that many people worry about issues such as vegetation burning and the impact this can have. I will of course mention the concerns which have been raised by constituents to the Minister when Parliament returns.