HAMPSHIRE naturalist Chris Packham is leading a protest against the illegal killing of hen harriers ahead of the start of the grouse shooting season.

The presenter of TV's Springwatch said the event to mark the first national ''Hen Harrier Day'' would send out ''a peaceful but clear message'' that people were no longer prepared to tolerate the killing of the birds of prey, which are targeted because they prey on red grouse.

Conservationists say that there could be up to 380 pairs of hen harriers on UK uplands, but as a result of persecution, just three pairs of the protected bird of prey nested in English uplands this year.

Packham is supporting an e-petition by leading conservationist Mark Avery, who will also be at the protest in the Peak District tomorrow, calling for an outright ban on driven grouse shooting.

Chris, who grew up in Southampton and lives in the New Forest, said the move was an ''audacious'' one, but had come about because efforts to work with shooting organisations had failed and conservationists no longer trusted them to tackle illegal persecution.

''We need a total ban on this type of shooting until they can prove they behave themselves, there's a lot of responsible shooters out there getting dragged down by a minority set, why don't they sort their own dirty linen out?'' he said.

Organisations which back grouse shooting say research shows managing the land for grouse shooting is good for wildlife, boosting the breeding of birds including curlew, lapwing, golden plover and redshank.

They also say it boosts jobs, services and businesses in often remote rural areas.

But Packham said the measures needed to ensure large numbers of red grouse for shooting amounted to intensively farming the grouse, and involved draining and burning the upland moorland.

''Having to make sure that habitat is right for that species and nothing else hasn't only led to removal of hen harriers on these areas.

Daily Echo: THE HEN HARRIER: The RSPB has expressed concern about the persecution of birds of prey

A hen harrier

''There are no predators at all, no crows, raptors, foxes, no stoats, no weasels, they've even started killing mountain hares because they believe that the hares will spread a parasite and these affect the grouse.

''To say you're looking at a much modified ecosystem is a massive understatement,'' he said.

He acknowledged the need for ''an economically sustainable rural landscape'', but questioned how much of the money from a day's shooting remained in the local community, and how many people were employed compared to other rural activities such as farming or tourism.

He said a solution had to be found to hen harrier persecution, and pointed to diversionary feeding, where other food is provided for the hen harriers to prevent them preying on the red grouse, which has been shown to be effective but involves costs.

''We pay lots of subsidies to other farming methods to help wildlife, maybe we need to start thinking about paying subsidies to these sorts of people - but we need an assurance they will behave properly,'' he said, adding that gamekeepers could be licensed.

But he warned: ''I'm not going to offer any concession at all to anyone who pulls a trigger on hen harriers, it's illegal and an act of vandalism.''

The RSPB is supporting national hen harrier day but does not back an outright ban on driven grouse shooting.