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Can stakeholder debates shed light on conservation conflicts?

Filippo Marino, a PhD student at the University of Exeter supervised by Prof Dave Hodgson, Prof Robbie McDonald and in collaboration with Dr Sarah Crowley, writes about his research work published in People and Nature.


Conservation conflicts and hen harrier conservation in the UK

As conservationists, we know well how the conservation of certain species can cause conflict because of disagreements between stakeholders (even within the conservation community) on conservation strategies. Those following news and social media might also know how easily these conflicts are continued in these media “arenas”.


For my PhD, I have been studying conservation translocations (e.g. the reintroduction of wildlife species to restore or reinforce extinct and endangered populations). I am particularly interested in understanding how socio-political and ecological factors shape the outcomes of translocations of birds of prey. My focus has been the proposed reintroduction of hen harriers (Circus cyaneus) to southern England. This reintroduction was announced a few years ago, in 2016, by a group of diverse stakeholders led by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) as part of an action plan for the recovery of the species in England, where it is currently endangered.


Similar to other birds of prey, the population of hen harriers in the UK was driven almost to extinction by habitat loss and persecution in the past. Over time, the species has only recolonised Scotland and only partially England. Recent research found only four territorial pairs in England, whereas in Scotland there are approximately 460 territorial pairs, 80% of the British population. Nevertheless, in 2022, more than 100 hen harriers fledged in England for the first time in over 100 years.

A female hen harrier in England (© John Wright)


The conservation of this species in the UK is a well-known example of an entrenched conservation conflict which is actively debated in the media. The conflict originates from depredation by hen harriers of game birds, primarily red grouse Lagopus l. scoticus, which in certain conditions can affect the economic viability of game estates. As a result, some of the people involved in sport shooting retaliates through illegal killing of harriers and this has led to conflict between shooting organisations and birds-of-prey conservation groups, including accusatory statements in the media. Decades of conservation measures have not brought the hoped outcomes and the hen harrier conflict appears to have worsened and become more polarised, also in the media, both in England and in Scotland. This seems the case especially in regard to a brood management scheme, one of the measures of the action plan, which relocates hen harriers away from grouse moors.

The idea behind the project

In exploring the socio-political context around the proposed reintroduction, I realised the importance of the debate in the media and decided to investigate this further. In many other policy debates on topics of national interest (e.g. taxes on sugar and alcohol, new laws, climate change etc.), stakeholders and their discourse play an important role in decision-making. For example, through shared agreement, stakeholders can form coalitions that influence policy measures, and lead to stalemate or conflict escalation. Therefore, with my co-authors, I decided to investigate the dynamics of the debate over the management of hen harriers in the news media. Inspired by recent political research, we did this by using a mixed methodology called Discourse Network Analysis.

We used a mixed methodology based on content and network analysis (Discourse Network Analysis, Leifeld et al. 2017) to study the stakeholder debate over the conservation and management of hen harriers in the UK (© Filippo Marino, Marino et al. 2023)


Characteristics and dynamics of an entrenched debate

Key points:

  • Only a few stakeholders have been regularly active

  • Stakeholders shared similar reactions but disagreed on specific conservation solutions (especially, the brood management scheme)

  • The debate appears to have become more antagonistic over time

We explored almost three decades of UK newspaper articles. We found and examined 737 statements in 131 newspaper articles on hen harriers published from August 1993 to December 2019. The content of the debate was related mainly to three themes: problems, solutions and reactions. Several people and organisations contributed to the debate in the newspaper media, however, only a few of them were regularly active.


The overall debate was quite unstructured and we did not find clear stakeholder coalitions. This was because stakeholders shared discourses associated with positive or negative reactions to events and issues of hen harrier conservation such as the condemnation of episodes of illegal persecution and hope for the recovery of the species. Instead, stakeholders formed divergent coalitions when defining the conservation problem and its solutions. In particular, we found that a key point of division is the implementation of the brood management scheme. This action, which is also part of the recovery action plan, was particularly debated among the most vocal and active people in the debate. Interestingly, the reintroduction of hen harriers to southern England was discussed to a lesser degree and has been less polarising. Over time, the debate has likely become more polarised. We found a peak of “polarisation”, a measure of disagreement between actors, after the launch of the action plan in 2016.

The network of stakeholders that discussed potential and implemented solutions for the conservation of hen harriers in the UK from 1993 to 2019. Node colours represent the types of actors and edges show overall agreement between pairs of actors. For example, we can see on the right, several professional associations with interests related to game shooting and countryside (blue circles) sharing agreement in regard to solutions.


The level of polarisation of the debate has increased over time.


What does this mean for the conservation of hen harriers in the UK and other conservation conflicts?

Allowing new voices to enter the debate could be beneficial for the conservation of hen harriers. This might reduce the occurrence of recursive and antagonistic statements between the few most active stakeholders. Still, it is important to highlight that the high level of involvement of certain stakeholders could be both strategic to influence public and policy-makers but also simply due to journalists reaching out to interested organisations. To this end, it is worth highlighting that further research is needed to investigate specifically the causes of polarisation.


Overall, our study highlights the value of analysing conservation debates and stakeholder networks. This is relevant for other conservation conflicts as similar analyses highlight the roles of stakeholders in the debate and key areas of broad agreement and disagreement. Ultimately, this can inform conservation decision-making as well as conflict mitigation and resolution processes.


The relevance of our study also lies in introducing this methodology into the conservation field. Our approach could be replicated for the same debate in different media to have a more complete understanding of the conflicts. Further, it can also be used across different debates to understand better the discourse dynamics driving conservation conflicts, or to investigate the political context for future conservation measures (including translocations!).

Male hen harrier tagged with a GPS tracker in Spain - Javier de la Puente


This research has been published in People and Nature and you can read more on this at the link below:


I would like to thank all the co-authors and the funders of this project, the University of Exeter and Natural England.

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