Conservation Groups are calling for ‘meaningful support’ for farmers in Hen Harrier areas and warn of dangers of lifting ban on planting of forestry within its protected areas.

According to Birdwatch Ireland, the Hen Harrier is once again at the centre of a media storm, with recent articles alleging significant negative sentiment towards this bird of prey from certain farming sectors.

“Despite the portrayal of the Hen Harrier as a threat to farming livelihoods, it is apparent that the interests and livelihoods of many such farming communities in rural areas are actually much more compatible with Hen Harrier conservation than recent media reports indicate, said John Lusby, Raptor Conservation Officer with BirdWatch Ireland.

“Ironically, Hen Harriers are largely dependent on traditional, non-intensive farming practices. Allowing landowners in upland habitats to continue to farm appropriately would deliver significant biodiversity benefits for a range of sensitive habitats and wildlife, including the Hen Harrier.”

The continuing vilification of this bird in recent years, particularly in reaction to the Special Protected Areas (SPAs) designated for its conservation, and the underlying issues have led to this situation and need to be discussed and addressed without delay, he said.

The Irish Raptor Study Group and BirdWatch Ireland believe that better alternatives exist both within and outside Hen Harrier SPAs.

Allan Mee, Chairman of the Irish Raptor Study Group said that within the next Rural Development Programme (2014-2020) which is currently being finalised, adequate support for farmers in Hen Harrier SPAs, which is typically marginal land where farm incomes are low, will be essential in balancing farming livelihoods and Hen Harrier conservation.

“The significant and wider environmental benefits which would be delivered through maintaining traditional, non-intensive farming practices in these upland areas need to be recognised through adequate support to landowners, or we will be facing a situation where farming is increasingly lost, which will diminish the value and suitability of these important areas for wildlife.”

Both conservation groups say they are deeply concerned over mounting pressures to lift a ban on planting of forestry within the SPA network for Hen Harriers.

Recent comments by the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and the Marine, Tom Hayes, indicated support for further afforestation in these protected areas, which would be an environmental disaster and which would have a devastating effect on our already-declining national Hen Harrier population, said Allan.

The Irish Raptor Study Group and BirdWatch Ireland consider that plans submitted to the EU Commission advocating further afforestation in Hen Harrier SPAs before the Threat Response Plan is published for consultation would not only be counterproductive but disingenuous and a severe blow to any effective conservation strategy for the Hen Harrier, as well as being contrary to the environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial and economically viable forest management expected by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) to achieve Forest Management Certification.