The Natural England hen harrier satellite tag cover up

Last week we blogged about how Natural England has been withholding 15 years worth of hen harrier tagging data, most of it paid for with public funds, and we encouraged blog readers to email them and ask for the data to be released without further delay (see here).

Specifically, we wanted to find out how many satellite-tagged hen harriers have ‘disappeared’ on grouse moors in England and whether those disappearances occured in non-random clusters on specific grouse moors, much like the suspicious clustering of ‘missing’ satellite-tagged golden eagles in certain grouse moor areas of Scotland.

We know that many of you did email Natural England (thank you) and yesterday (Mon 18 Sept 2017) they caved in and released some more data. Unfortunately, they’ve only released part of the data they hold. And of the information they did release, their interpretation of it is, frankly, scandalous. Natural England are either grossly incompetent or are being deliberately obstructive in an attempt to shield the criminal grouse moor managers from the spotlight. Actually, looking at the evidence, we think they’re being both incompetent and deliberately obstructive. See what you think.

Here’s what they released yesterday:

A spreadsheet showing the number of hen harriers they tagged between 2002 and 2017. This is an updated version of the spreadsheet they published in 2014. It shows a total of 158 harriers were tagged: 99 with radio tags and 59 with satellite tags. Download the spreadsheet here: hen-harrier-tracking-data-2002-onwards

Accompanying this spreadsheet is some inaccurate explanatory text and three maps. We know that both the text and the maps are inaccurate because the explanatory text says that “Fig 2 shows the movement of birds obtained from the satellite tracking data covering 158 birds” when actually only 59 birds have been satellite-tagged. Figure 2 is also supposed to show the movement of satellite-tagged hen harriers but it doesn’t include any tag data from the continent, and we know from the spreadsheet that at least one sat tagged hen harrier was defintely recorded in Spain (McPedro) and two other birds were recorded in France. However, these international locations ARE shown in Fig 3, which is supposed to be a combination of the data from Figs 1 & 2. That’s just sheer incompetence.

We can largely ignore these maps because (a) we know they’re inaccurate but, more importantly, (b) they’ve been produced at such a low scale as to render them virtually useless. They do show that some tagged hen harriers wander widely across political boundaries but that’s not new information.

What we’re more interested in is the updated spreadsheet.

The updated spreadsheet shows how many of these tagged hen harriers are ‘missing, fate unknown’. 86 of the 99 radio tagged harriers are in this category (that’s 86.8%). Radio tags were used during the early years of the study, prior to the availability of satellite tags. Natural England quite rightly points out that, due to the limitation of this technology, not much can be surmised about the birds’ fates. If the bird moves out of range of the hand-held tracking receiver (which has a limited line-of-sight range of a few kms), then there’s no way of knowing whether the radio tagged bird is alive or dead. That’s fair comment, and it’s why many research studies switched over to using geographically unconstrained satellite tags in the late 2000s.

So let’s ignore the radio tagged hen harriers and instead concentrate on the ones that were satellite-tagged between 2007 and 2017. There were 59 satellite-tagged hen harriers during this period, and of these, 43 are listed as ‘missing, fate unknown’. That’s a very high 72.8%. Natural England provides some explanatory notes about what might have happened to these harriers:

Natural England, are you for real? This is the sort of half-arsed spin we’d expect from Dr Charlotte Tan, Professor of Grouse Moor Managementology at the GWCT. Are we seriously expected to believe that the 43 missing sat tagged hen harriers have all died of natural causes, lying on their backs, thus rendering their tags incapable of charging and transmitting further data? Sure, that might have happened in a handful of cases, but in 43 out of 43 cases? Come on!

It’s scandalous that Natural England excludes ANY explanation for these missing harriers that might just involve illegal persecution, especially when they’ve previously admitted that their own tagging research found “Compelling evidence that persecution continues, both during and after the breeding season” and “Persecution continues to limit Hen Harrier recovery in England” (Natural England, 2008, A Future for the Hen Harrier in England?).

Now, had Natural England published a map showing the locations of where these 43 ‘missing, fate unknown’ hen harriers went off the radar, we might be able to detect some patterns to see whether they disappeared at random locations across the landscape (which you’d expect if the birds had died on their backs of natural causes) or, rather like satellite-tagged golden eagles, they disappeared in suspicious clusters in certain grouse moor areas.

That Natural England haven’t provided this level of detail is very telling indeed. They’ve got the information and it would only take a matter of minutes to upload those data on to a map that would have sufficient resolution to identify suspicious geographical clustering but that wouldn’t compromise sensitive site details.

It is quite clear to us that Natural England are involved in a cover-up job, designed to protect those hen harrier-killing grouse moor managers from any hint of suspicion. Sorry, Natural England, but we won’t allow you to continue to mislead like this.

We’d urge blog readers to write again to Natural England and ask for the release of this information. This time we recommend sending the email as a formal FoI request as opposed to a more informal general enquiry (which Natural England can easily swerve, as above). Emails please to: foi@naturalengland.org.uk

In the words of Chris Packham:


National golden eagle survey 2015: low occupancy on Eastern Highland grouse moors remains a concern

Every year a proportion of the Scottsh golden eagle population is surveyed by licensed experts from the Scottish Raptor Study Group. This phenomenal voluntary effort (currently 373 home ranges [approx 53% of known ranges] monitored by 150 eagle experts) provides invaluable data that are submitted to the Scottish Raptor Monitoring Scheme and are used to inform conservation policy at local, regional and national level.

In addition to this annual monitoring, a national survey is periodically undertaken with both paid and voluntary experts in an effort to visit every known home range throughout Scotland.

Photo by Mark Hamblin

The latest national golden eagle survey took place in 2015 and the interim results were announced in November 2016. The main headline was that overall, the national population had increased by 15%, rising from 442 pairs recorded during the last national survey in 2003, to 508 territorial pairs in 2015, and the species was now considered to be in favourable conservation status.

This was excellent and welcome news, but as we pointed out at the time, the headline masked a more sinister situation. Although the national population had surpassed 500 territorial pairs, the magic number needed to upgrade the species’ national conservation status from ‘unfavourable’ to ‘favouable’, it was still well below the estimated capacity of 700 pairs. This meant that approx 200 pairs of golden eagles were still ‘missing’.

Unsurprisingly, the national survey revealed that golden eagle populations in the driven grouse moor areas of eastern and southern Scotland were still being suppressed and had not shown any significant sign of recovery since the previous national survey in 2003. Illegal persecution has been identified time and time again as the main constraint on population growth in these regions.

The formal scientific peer-reviewed results of the 2015 national survey were published last week in the journal Bird Study [Hayhow, D., Benn, S., Stevenson, A., Stirling-Aird, P. and Eaton, M. (2017). Status of golden eagle Aquila chrysaetos in Britain in 2015. Bird Study].

Unfortunately publishing restrictions do not permit us to upload the full paper (you’ll have to subscribe to Bird Study for full access) but here is the abstract:

In additon to details about the continued low occupancy on grouse moors in the eastern Highlands, the paper also provides information that dispels a couple of myths that are frequently claimed as ‘facts’ by the SGA and co.

You might remember the SGA giving evidence to a parliamentary committee earlier this year where they claimed that “the Cairngorms National Park held the highest density of eagles in the world“. They might want to have a look at this map. This is the distribution of pairs of golden eagles in 2015 and shows the densities of occupied home ranges by 10 x 10 km squares. As you can see, the highest densities of golden eagles were recorded in the Outer Hebrides and on Mull (no grouse moors in these areas):

Another commonly-heard myth, usually trotted out to support calls for the ‘control’ of white-tailed eagles, is that re-introduced white-tailed eagles are displacing golden eagles and taking over their territories/nest sites, even though recent research has demonstrated that these two species partition their habitat and prey preferences in western Scotland. In this latest paper, the authors comment:

Although we have not assessed this in the current study, we report increases in golden eagles numbers in regions such as the Hebridean Islands in which there has been a rapid increase in white-tailed eagles (Holling 2016), which suggests that, at least at current population levels, there has been no major impact“.

The authors do acknowledge that the white-tailed eagle population is predicted to continue its expansion and this may, potentially, create competition between the two species in the future but right now, based on the currently available data, there is no evidence to suggest this is a population-level concern.

The main current threat to Scottish golden eagles is the same as it was following the previous national survey, fourteen years ago. And that is illegal persecution on some driven grouse moors in the eastern Highlands and south Scotland. The grouse-shooting representatives can continue to deny it, but this latest paper is yet another nail in the coffin of this filthy industry.


Northern England Raptor Forum (NERF) annual conference 2017

Booking is now open for this year’s Northern England Raptor Forum (NERF) annual conference, which takes place at Northumbria University in Newcastle on Saturday 18th November 2017.

For further details and to book your place, please visit the NERF website here.


Two parliaments, two politicians, two questions, two very different attitudes to raptors

Dim-witted DUP dinosaur Jim Shannon MP (Strangford, Northern Ireland), a member of the Countryside Alliance and not known for having a sharp intellect, posed the following written parliamentary question on 5 September 2017:

Question 8483: To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs, if he will consider controls on the number of raptor birds in the countryside.

Answered by DEFRA Under Secretary of State Dr Therese Coffey, 13 September 2017:

Nature conservation is a devolved matter. In England all wild birds are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, making it an offence to kill, injure or take wild birds or to take or damage their eggs and nests. There are provisions under Section 16 of the 1981 Act that allow for the control of raptors for specific reasons, for example, to conserve other wild birds. Licence applications are dealt with on a case by case basis and priority must be given to non-lethal methods. The Government is not considering any further controls on the number of raptors.

Meanwhile, back in the 21st Century, yesterday in the Scottish Parliament Hen Harrier Species Champion Mairi Gougeon MSP (SNP, Angus North & Mearns) asked the following question:

Question # S50-01250: To ask the Scottish Government what role the police and the Crown Office have in dealing with wildlife crime.

Answered by Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham, 14 September 2017:

Wildlife crime is crime. Perpetrators will be investigated and, if there is sufficient evidence, prosecuted, as with any other crime. However, we are aware that there are characteristics of wildlife crime that mean that a specialised approach is required. For example, wildlife crime often takes place in remote areas where there are no witnesses, and of course there are usually no victims able to report what has happened to them. For those reasons, we are working with Police Scotland to expand the resources that are available to the police to tackle wildlife crime, with a pilot project to provide additional special constables in Cairngorms national park. The Crown Office also has a specialist wildlife and environmental crime unit to tackle such crime.

Mairi Gougeon followed up with a supplementary question:

The cabinet secretary will be aware of the recent shooting of a hen harrier on the Cabrach estate and the recent disappearance of Calluna, a satellite-tagged hen harrier, near Ballater. In the light of those incidents, what action is the Scottish Government taking to implement the recommendations of the satellite tagging review?

Roseanna Cunningham answered:

I am aware of those appalling incidents. In the light of the satellite tagging review, which was announced on 31 May, we will bring forward a number of measures, which include setting up an independently led group to look at grouse moor management practices and increasing Police Scotland resources, as I mentioned.

In accordance with that, good progress is being made on those areas; I will announce further details shortly. In the meantime, other work goes on—the police respond to and investigate reports that are received, and there are actions such as the further use of restrictions on general licences by Scottish Natural Heritage when wildlife crime is suspected to have taken place. We are determined to put an end to wildlife crime.


Three raptor workers short-listed for national conservation awards

Huge congratulations to Brian Etheridge, Andrea Hudspeth and Logan Steele, three Scottish Raptor Study Group members who have been shortlisted in this year’s Nature of Scotland Awards.

Brian Etheridge is on the shortlist for the RSPB Species Champion Award. To be shortlisted for this award ‘the entrant will have achieved something extraordinary to conserve a vulnerable or threatened species‘. Brian is indeed extraordinary, as are his achievements in the field of raptor monitoring and conservation. Through many decades of fieldwork he has accrued a vast knowledge on the ecology and conservation of a number of species, notably red kite and hen harrier but also merlin, common buzzard, honey buzzard, goshawk and golden eagle, but perhaps of greater significance is his ability and willingness to share that knowledge and experience with others. Brian’s expertise is always in high demand and he’s always, always generous with his time, encouragement and support. This has been beneficial not only to the species he studies, but also to an army of young, up-and-coming researchers, both amateur and professional, who’ve been fortunate to spend any time with him.

Andrea Hudspeth and Logan Steele have been shortlisted for the Political Advocate of the Year Award. This award is ‘to recognise a politician, campaigner or individual who has made a difference or significant impact on public policy for nature and wildlife‘. Andrea and Logan helped prepare the public petition, on behalf of the SRSG, calling for the licensing of gamebird shooting in Scotland. They gave measured, thoughtful and compelling evidence at two parliamentary committees last year, pushing the issue of raptor persecution higher up the political agenda. As a direct result of their efforts, the Scottish Government is undertaking a review of grouse moor management practices and, significantly, is considering the introduction of a licensing scheme. Also as a direct result of their efforts, they have both been subjected to a vile campaign of harrassment and intimidation from some disgraceful individuals within the game-shooting sector. Andrea and Logan have dealt with this appalling abuse with dignity and fortitude.

It’s fantastic to see these three people receive some well-earned recognition – well done, thank you, and good luck at the awards ceremony in November!


Natural England must release hen harrier satellite tag data

Natural England has been fitting tags to English hen harriers since 2002. First it was radio tags and then, since 2007, it’s been satellite tags.

So far, Natural England has refused to release detailed information about the fate of these tagged hen harriers because the data were being collected as part of a PhD study. Last month we learned that the PhD has been abandoned (see here).

NE did release some initial information in 2014 (see here), that showed 47 hen harrier sat tags had been fitted between 2007-2014 and of those, an astonishing 37 harriers (78.7%) had gone ‘missing’. However, NE did not provide details about the circumstances of these disappearances, and notably excluded the locations of the last transmitted signals; even a description of the associated land-use of those final locations was kept secret.

Since 2014, we know that NE has fitted more hen harrier satellite tags (5 x tags in 2015, all of which were ‘missing’ by July 2016, according to an FoI response; and at least 2 x tags in 2016 and perhaps 1 x tag in 2017 – the details are sketchy because NE has remained tight-lipped about how it has spent our money).

In sharp contrast, detailed information on the fate of satellite-tagged raptors in Scotland has been made available to the public, even though some of the tagging effort has been privately funded. The recent report on the fate of satellite-tagged golden eagles (see here), and the RSPB’s consistent public updates on the fate of satellite-tagged hen harriers (see here), has helped to progress the issue of illegal raptor persecution high up the Scottish political agenda and we are now on the cusp of seeing genuine attempts at progressive reform.

We want to see the same progress being made in England but we need access to scientific information to help frame the case. That scientific information is available (15 years worth of hen harrier tag data) and what’s more, it’s been paid for with public funding. Our money!

Last month we encouraged blog readers to contact Natural England and ask for the release of some of that publicly-funded information. So far, NE hasn’t responded but we are quite certain that NE doesn’t have a leg to stand on if it insists on withholding the information and if it tries to do so, we’ll be submitting a formal complaint to the Information Commissioner.

At the very least, the very, very least, NE should be producing a map to show where all those ‘missing’ sat-tagged hen harriers have vanished. This can be done at a scale that doesn’t compromise sensitive locational data and doesn’t compromise the value of the data for peer-reviewed scientific publication (see the golden eagle satellite tag review to see how it can be done).

We would encourage as many of you as possible to email Natural England and ask for the release of this information, even if you did this last month and are still waiting for a response. Email: enquiries@naturalengland.org.uk 

Thank you.


Driven grouse shooting & mountain hare culling under more political scrutiny this Thursday

More angst for the dark side this week as yet more political attention is given to driven grouse shooting and mountain hare culling.

The Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee will convene on Thursday 14 September to discuss a number of new petitions lodged by members of the public.

We’re interested in two of these petitions:

Petition # PE01663 – Driven Grouse Shooting Study, lodged by Les Wallace.

Petition summary: Calling on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to sponsor a comprehensive and independent study into the full economic impacts of driven grouse shooting.

Petition # PE01664 – Greater Protection for Mountain Hares, lodged by Harry Huyton (of OneKind).

Petition summary: Calling upon the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to introduce greater protection for mountain hares on both animal welfare and conservation grounds, which may include: introducing a three-year moratorium on all mountain hare killing, permitting culls and driven hunts only under licence, and ending all culling and driven hunting of mountain hares within Scotland’s National Parks using a Nature Conservation Order.

We have no idea how the Petitions Committee will choose to proceed with these two petitions as they are mostly superceded by Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham’s surprise announcement in May that she is setting up a review of grouse moor management (which will include mountain hare culling), as well as ‘commissioning research into the costs and benefits of large shooting estates to Scotland’s economy and biodiversity’.

Nevertheless, it is good too see these issues still firmly on the political agenda. Well done, Les & Harry.

We expect this session to be broadcast live on Scottish Parliament TV on Thursday morning and we’ll post the official transcripts as soon as they’re available.

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