A six-point plan to protect one of England's rarest birds of prey and reintroduce it in new areas has been unveiled by the Government.

More than 600 pairs of hen harriers nest in the UK, but in England they are teetering on the brink of extinction as a breeding bird as a result of historic persecution, with conservationists warning they are still targeted by gamekeepers because they prey on red grouse.

But in an increasingly bitter debate, the shooting industry says grouse estates spend millions of pounds a year on conservation to support wildlife and it wants to see a well-dispersed hen harrier population which co-exists with local businesses.

The long-awaited plan from the Environment Department (Defra) to protect the birds has been broadly welcomed by groups on either side of the debate.

Alongside monitoring hen harrier numbers in England and the UK with satellite tagging and protecting nests to prevent their destruction, the plan includes measures to provide other food for hen harriers and their young to stop them taking grouse chicks.

It also includes controversial plans to trial "brood management" which could see young birds in areas with larger numbers of harriers taken and reared in captivity before being released elsewhere.

And there are plans for a six-year scheme to reintroduce hen harriers to suitable areas in the south of England, where they have long been absent, as well as efforts to assess persecution and deliver more effective enforcement and deterrence.

RSPB conservation director Martin Harper said: "I welcome this plan - not because it is perfect, it isn't - but because it reflects real potential for progress on one of the most deep-rooted conflicts in conservation.

"We shall play our part in making it a success, of course focussing on tackling the primary reason for the hen harrier's adverse conservation status - illegal persecution.

"Our ultimate goal is to secure recovery for hen harriers, while recognising that this is only one aspect of a wider range of impacts of current land management practices in our uplands."

He warned there were still lots of hurdles to overcome, including on long term funding, the details of the proposed lowland reintroduction scheme and legal, ethical and practical questions around brood management.

Director of the Moorland Association, Amanda Anderson, said: "We are delighted that the recovery plan has been launched to help hen harriers breed sustainably across their former range in England.

"The plan contains exciting new actions that we are looking forward to working on with others to ensure they are successful."

It was also welcomed by the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC), with chairman Tim Russell saying the organisation would support the "difficult process of implementation".

BASC vice chairman Mike Sherman added: "For the last 12 years BASC has advocated a form of brood management and reintroduction as the key to resolving conflicts, building confidence and ensuring the future of hen harriers.

"We will continue to work to see this achieved."

But Tom Quinn, campaigns director for the League Against Cruel Sports said: "Action plans are all well and good, but ultimately the only way hen harriers and other birds of prey will be protected is for gamekeepers to stop illegally killing them.

"We call on the shooting industry to urgently get to grips with this problem and for the Government to introduce an independent inquiry into shooting."

He said the inquiry should cover persecution of wild animals to protect cage-bred birds raised for sport, the "inhumane" conditions game birds are kept in and environmental problems of grouse moor management.