Hen harrier ‘reintroduction’ to southern England: Project team visits France

Continuing on from recent blogs (herehere and here) about a series of updates on the proposed ‘reintroduction’ of hen harriers to southern England, here’s some more news gleaned from the latest FoI response from Natural England.

We know from previous FoI responses from Natural England that the Southern England Reintroduction Team has been scouting around looking for a donor population of hen harriers (see here). They’re not allowed to use any hen harrier eggs or chicks that might be ‘brood-meddled’ in northern England so they’ve been looking elsewhere in Europe. The Netherlands, Spain and Poland all said ‘no’ but France seemed to be a distinct possibility, which was a surprise given that the French hen harrier population is showing a long-term declining trend.

Earlier this year Adrian Jowitt (Natural England) wrote to researchers in France about a potential visit. This was to learn more about the captive rearing and release scheme (hen harrier & Montagu’s harrier) that the French have been undertaking for genuine conservation purposes, as the birds are threatened by industrial harvesting machinery before the young are able to fledge the nests in agricultural fields. The French team collects the birds, keeps them in captivity until the harvesting period is over, and then releases them back to the wild once the threat has ended.

Incidentally, the UK grouse-shooting industry often argues that this French conservation project is ‘proof’ that hen harrier brood meddling is a tried and tested conservation tool and they use it as justification for the UK brood meddling scheme. What they don’t seem to understand is that the two situations are incomparable. In France, the threat to the harriers is temporary (just during the crop harvest) and so the birds can be safely released back to the wild whereas in the UK, the threat to hen harriers is year-round, on the grouse moors and, increasingly, at winter roosts. There is no ‘safe’ time to release brood-meddled hen harriers in the UK.

Anyway, back to the France visit. Here’s a copy of Adrian’s email to the French researchers: Planning visit to France_May2017

It makes for quite an amusing read, as Adrian’s choice of words tries to minimise the scale of the problems the proposed project is facing in the UK – he mentions “small pockets of resistance” from some landowners (actually strong enough resistance that the Project Team is now suddenly keen to explore Dartmoor National Park as an alternative release site) but emphasises the ‘positives’ such as the Chair of Natural England declaring that he wants to see more hen harriers in England within the next three years. Yep, that’s what the grouse shooting industry claims too – talk is cheap.

In June this year some members of the Project Team did visit the French project and here’s Project Manager Simon Lee’s thank you email to the French researchers:

Simon says “Let’s not talk of the British politics again“. He probably didn’t mean this in a literal sense, rather it was likely just an acknowledgement that they’d spent a good deal of time talking about it during the visit. But talk of it he, and the rest of us, must, because whether the project is technically feasible or not isn’t the issue here; the ‘politics’ (i.e. legislation & ethics) is still the main issue to be addressed.

We’re not convinced that a reintroduction is legal. The IUCN guidelines are clear: ‘There should generally be strong evidence that the threat(s) that caused any previous extinction have been correctly identified and removed or sufficiently reduced‘. This criterion cannot possibly be met when the current hen harrier population is on its knees, showing no signs of recovery (see results from 2016 national survey), and the main cause of the decline (illegal persecution) has not been dealt with. We used the same argument against the planned re-stocking of golden eagles in southern Scotland, although in that scenario there is a counter argument that golden eagles in the Highlands (the proposed source birds) are just as likely to be killed in the north as they are in the south, whereas hen harriers in France would have much better survival prospects if they remained in France as opposed to being sent to persecution-rife England. (So, sorry, Simon, but your notion that this reintroduction could possibly “benefit European harrier conservation” is just ludicrous).

As for the ethics of reintroducing hen harriers to southern England, well we’ve talked about that over and over and over again. The proposed reintroduction is clearly a plan to move the focus away from the real problem (illegal persecution on grouse moors) – shove a load of hen harriers in the south, hope they survive, and then shout about how the species’ conservation status has improved, whilst ignoring the on-going illegal slaughter in the north. Job done.

And talking of ethics, here’s a rather confusing message from Jeff Knott (RSPB) to the new Southern Reintroduction Project Manager Simon Lees:

While we have said we don’t actively support the reintroduction project, nor are we opposed to it and of course we would want to see it be a success“. Eh?

Photo of hen harrier nestlings by Andrew Sandeman.


Hen harrier ‘reintroduction’ to southern England: revised costs

Continuing on from recent blogs (here, here) about a series of updates on the proposed ‘reintroduction’ of hen harriers to southern England, here’s some more news gleaned from the latest FoI response from Natural England.

The estimated cost of a ‘reintroduction’ of hen harriers to southern England has previously been estimated at £515k (see DEFRA’s Hen Harrier InAction Plan).

Since DEFRA’s Inaction Plan was published in January 2016, we haven’t seen any other paperwork relating to these costs, or an explanation of how they were calculated. There was some comment last year from Natural England’s external funding bid, who were asked to provide advice to the Southern Reintroduction Project Team about a potential funding application to the Heritage Lottery Fund, that the final cost was more likely to be in excess of £2 million (see here).

However, in Natural England’s most recent FoI response, the details of a 2013 cost estimate (at the lower end of the scale) has now been released: HH southern reintro estimated project costs 2013

This estimate was described by the author (Ian Carter, who has since left NE) as “back of the proverbial fag packet stuff“. That’s fair enough. With so many project unknowns, it would have been difficult to provide anything more robust at that stage.

Fast forward four years and Natural England is now working to a revised cost estimate. It appears to have jumped from half a million quid to 1.15 million quid, and the only rationale, that we can see, is that this is how much the South Scotland Golden Eagle Project has just secured from the Heritage Lottery Fund:


Hen harrier ‘reintroduction’ to southern England: Dartmoor as potential new release site

Continuing from yesterday’s blog about a series of updates on the proposed ‘reintroduction’ of hen harriers to southern England, here’s some more news gleaned from the latest FoI response from Natural England.

We knew from previous FoIs that Natural England was looking at Wiltshire and Exmoor National Park as the two preferred release sites for translocated hen harriers. These two areas had been identified by an unpublished feasibility study (which in our opinion is a flawed study – see here). The study had initially examined four potential release areas: Dorset, Dartmoor, Exmoor and Wiltshire. Based on multiple assessment criteria, Exmoor National Park was identified as the #1 preferred choice, Wiltshire as #2, Dartmoor as #3, and Dorset was considered unsuitable.

We blogged about Exmoor National Park here and Wiltshire here and there were early signs of some local resistance to the project. The latest FoI response from Natural England reveals that there is still trouble at t’mill in both areas and so now Dartmoor National Park in Devon is being considered as a potential release site.

Local resistance in parts of Wiltshire and Exmoor National Park seems to be coming from those with shooting interests. Some of those involved with pheasant and partridge shooting in Exmoor NP appear to object to the project because it might lead to “undue scrutiny of legitimate activities“. Eh? If the shooting activities are legitimate why would they have any concerns about “undue scrutiny“?

It’ll be interesting to see whether the same concerns are raised by shooting interests in Dartmoor National Park (another popular shooting area). It’s clear that Natural England is hoping that new Project Manager Simon Lee’s contacts in the area will help things along.

Here are the notes from the Southern Reintroduction Team’s last meeting in May 2017 when these issues were discussed:


Hen harrier ‘reintroduction’ to southern England: new project manager appointed

As many of you will know, DEFRA’s Hen Harrier (In)Action Plan was launched in January 2016. We’ve been particularly interested in two of the six ‘action points’: Brood meddling, and a ‘reintroduction’ of hen harriers to southern England.

We blogged recently about how this year Natural England has been refusing to release any more information about the brood meddling plan (see here). Today’s blog (and several to follow) is an update on the southern ‘reintroduction’ project, following the release of various documents under FoI that has taken us seven months to prise from NE.

As a quick recap for the benefit of new readers, here’s what we were able to find out about the southern reintroduction plan last year:

  • That the feasibility/scoping report being used as the scientific justification for a hen harrier reintroduction is flawed (here)
  • Which individuals and organisations are involved with the project group and what the group’s planned work timetable looks like (here)
  • The potential funding options for this project (here)
  • Exmoor National Park as a proposed reintroduction release site (here)
  • Wiltshire as a proposed reintroduction release site (here)
  • From which potential donor countries is NE planning to source hen harriers (here)

So, the first update for this year is that Natural England has appointed a Hen Harrier Southern Reintroduction Project Manager. His name is Simon Lee and he has been an NE employee since 2000, so is probably regarded as a safe, reliable option. Here’s a bit about his career history that we found on an old website:

Simon’s experience working on Dartmoor may well have been a key consideration for this new appointment (that will become clearer in a later blog).

Simon has been busy getting up to speed with the project, having interesting chats (more on this later), visiting a potential donor site in France (more on this later) and, according to this short update he wrote for a recent Natural England Board Meeting, he’ll be helping to establish a technical group to produce a technical project plan. He might be doing other things too but NE redacted the second paragraph:

It’ll be interesting to see who is invited to serve on the technical group. As Mark Avery pointed out at the beginning of the year (here), the composition of the southern reintroduction project group “hardly looks like a list of independent experts“.

More blogs to follow shortly…..


Super computer needed to count this year’s English hen harrier nests

Here’s the tried and tested method that Natural England has deployed in recent years to count the number of hen harrier nests in England. In fact they’ve only needed one hand to complete the task.

This year, there are so many hen harrier nests, they’ve had to deploy a super computer to cope with the figures.

We know there must be loads and loads of nests, judging by the response we received from Natural England to a recent FoI request. In early July we asked NE the following simple questions:

  1. How many hen harrier breeding attempts in England are Natural England aware of in 2017, to date?
  2. How many of those were successful, to date?
  3. In which counties were the successful/unsuccessful nests?
  4. How many of those breeding attempts were on a driven grouse moor?

Today they responded and told us the information was being withheld for the time being. One of the reasons was a Public Interest Test, as follows:

Gosh! Soooooo many nests the data are having to be “quality assured and analysed” so as not to be misleading or inaccurate! We can hardly wait to see the results of such a challenging and complicated analysis.

Interesting to note that NE says the results “will be made available within the next month“. Will that be before or after Hen Harrier Day, which takes place in two and a half weeks?


SGA Chairman wonders why gamekeepers aren’t respected

We always look forward to the publication of Scottish Gamekeeper, the quarterly rag for members of the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association. As you can imagine, it’s often stuffed full of bright intellectual commentary and an appreciation of birds with hooked beaks and sharp talons.

The latest edition landed on our doormat last week and as ever, its content didn’t disappoint. Looking at the cover, we were particularly keen to read Chairman Alex Hogg’s thoughts on ‘working people’ (he means gamekeepers) being fed up about being wrongly ‘tarred’.

As an aside, we were also intrigued to see the Partnership for Action against Wildlife Crime (PAW) logo displayed on the banner. As some of you will recall, the SGA recently spat the dummy and announced they’d no longer attend PAW Raptor Group meetings. So apparently you can be a member of PAW, and pick and choose your own terms of engagement. Marvellous.

Anyway, back to Chairman Hogg’s musings on life. Here’s his column:

Apart from having to point out to Chairman Hogg (not known for his grasp of factual accuracy) that, contrary to his claim, the hen harrier is red-listed precisely because of ‘poor management actions by gamekeepers’ in Scotland (and of course in England), what really intrigued us was his confusion about why gamekeepers are so maligned.

It’s a tricky one alright. Maybe, perhaps, we’re not entirely sure, but might it have something to do with the fact that of all those convicted for offences related to raptor persecution in Scotland between 1994-2014, 86% of them were gamekeepers? (Source: RSPB 2014 annual review)

Or that of all poison abuse incidents reported in Scotland between 2005-2014, 81% of them took place on land managed for grouse and pheasant shooting? (Source: RSPB 2014 annual review)

Chairman Hogg also uses his column to whip up a spot of scaremongering (as was regurgitated by a gamekeeper’s wife in the Mail on Sunday last weekend) about the introduction of game shoot licensing claiming that “law abiding people will be at the mercy of the extreme fringe that want nothing other than grouse shooting stopped. For them, the removal of a few licences (and a few gamekeepers and their families) is a means to an end; a stepping stone“.

Why is licensing such a difficult concept to understand? If you break the terms of the licence, you get penalised. If you abide by the terms of the licence, you won’t get penalised. It’s really pretty simple. Perhaps by using the term ‘extreme fringe‘ Chairman Hogg is suggesting that gamekeepers will be ‘set up’ or framed. Has there ever been a case of this happening, where a gamekeeper has been wrongly convicted by the action of somebody else? We can’t think of one. Members of the ‘extreme fringe’, whoever they might be, have no need to ‘set up’ gamekeepers because gamekeepers keep on breaking the law all by themselves, time and time and time again.

To be fair, Chairman Hogg does have a point about all gamekeepers being tarred by the same brush. The reason this happens is because it’s virtually impossible for observers to distinguish between the law-abiding gamekeepers and the criminal gamekeepers. Even industry leaders don’t differentiate, so why should we? The criminals within the ranks are repeatedly shielded and protected by the game-shooting industry, until the point of conviction. Once they’re convicted, the leading organisations within the industry are put under strong public pressure to react, (e.g. a membership expulsion), but this is a fairly recent phenomenon and it doesn’t always happen (e.g. see here) and actually we’re still waiting for the SGA (and Scottish Land & Estates and Wildlife Estates Scotland) to comment on the membership status of convicted gamekeeper William (Billy) Dick who committed offences on the Newlands Estate in Dumfriesshire. We’ll come back to this case soon.

However, as everybody knows, convictions for raptor persecution are as rare as hens teeth (especially when the Crown Office refuses to accept what appears to be clear cut evidence of alleged crimes) and so the SGA and others within the industry spend their time concocting the most fantastical explanations for what might have happened to the crime victims (e.g. see here, here, here, here) instead of focusing on the blindingly obvious suspects. That isn’t going to earn Chairman Hogg et al any respect, and will simply engender the commonly-held view that many (not all) gamekeepers are nothing more than irredeemably archaic luddites.

Here are some top tips for earning back some respect:

  1. Stop killing raptors
  2. Er
  3. That’s it

There’s nothing ‘draconian’ about licensing game shooting estates

There were a couple of articles published in the Scottish Mail on Sunday yesterday about the possibility (probability) of the introduction of game shoot licensing in Scotland.

The first article didn’t bring anything new to the story; it was just a re-hashed version of who’s said what since Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham announced a package of new measures to address the on-going problem of raptor persecution and unsustainable grouse moor management. Lord David Johnstone of Scottish Land & Estates talked about maintaining the status quo (i.e. no licensing scheme required), James Reynolds of RSPB Scotland talked about the necessity of introducing a licensing scheme because self-regulation by the grouse-shooting industry has failed, and an unnamed spokesman from the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association talked about how licensing could have serious consequences for gamekeepers and their families. The two journalists who wrote the article described the Government’s proposed review as ‘the latest blow to landowners following draconian land reforms and the abolition of tax breaks’.

What ‘draconian land reforms’ are those, then? And why should multi-millionaire landowners, whose grouse moors are already subsidised by the public purse, be entitled to tax breaks?

Here’s a copy of the article, and for those who struggle to read it, here’s a PDF version so you can zoom in and increase the font size: MailonSunday1_July162017

The second article was a commentary column written by Carrieanne Conaghan, a gamekeeper’s wife who coordinates the ‘Speyside Moorland Group’ – one of several regional moorland groups closely affiliated with the Gift of Grouse propaganda campaign.

The headline begins: ‘As Draconian new land laws loom…’ These words probably weren’t Carrieanne’s but nevertheless, it’s clear from her commentary that estate licensing isn’t welcomed by gamekeepers because, she says, “For the vast majority of estates who have done nothing wrong and are resolute in their fight against wildlife crime, they would be penalised by strict new controls“.

Unfortunately she doesn’t explain why or how she things law-abiding estates would be “penalised by strict new controls“. The fact of the matter is, they wouldn’t be penalised at all, as the penalities would only be felt by those who continue to illegally kill protected raptors. And quite rightly so. Law-abiding gamekeepers, and their employers, have absolutely nothing to fear from the introduction of a licensing scheme, and you’d think they’d be welcoming it with open arms because if anything, it’ll protect them from being lumped in with the criminals.

Here’s the article and here it is as a PDF: MailOnSunday2_July162017

Carrieanne also claims that, “More worryingly, it [licensing] also brings the potential of gamekeepers losing their homes and livelihoods if a licence to operate was withdrawn“. This is just emotional scaremongering, probably encouraged by the same tosh spouted by SGA Chairman Alex Hogg earlier this year (see here). The only reason gamekeepers would potentially lose their homes and livelihoods would be if they’d broken the conditions of the licence and the subsequent withdrawal of that licence. That principle applies to everybody else in society whose activities are licensed. It’s the risk you run if, for example, you’re a professional driver and you commit road traffic offences leading to the loss of your driving licence. Why should gamekeepers be exempt from regulation when everyone else’s lives are governed by such rules?

Carrieanne claims that the licensing proposal has been brought about by “activists who object to the very existence of grouse moors, whether their opposition is based on a dislike of shooting or the ‘toffs’ who they believe are the only ones who participate“. Actually, the proposal was brought about by ordinary members of the public who are sick to the back teeth of criminal gamekeepers and their employers getting away with the illegal slaughter of protected wildlife, particularly on driven grouse moors.

Carrieanne claims that raptor persecution is “in decline” and that “tough new legislation has had a positive effect“. She also thinks, because her gamekeeper husband told her, that gamekeepers “desire to manage moorland for the interests of all species, whether it be grouse, ground-nesting birds, mountain hares or birds of prey“. Good grief.

She must have missed the Golden Eagle Satellite Tag Review, the findings of which were the final straw for Roseanna Cunningham and which led directly to the current proposition of a licensing scheme. She must also have missed the news that the hen harrier population continues to spiral downwards, thanks in large part to illegal persecution, and the news that peregrine populations continue to decline in areas dominated by driven grouse moors, and the news that the northern red kite population continues to suffer from the impact of illegal persecution on driven grouse moors, and the news that five prosecutions for alleged wildlife crime (all involving gamekeepers or their employers) have all been dropped in recent months, and the news that raptors continue to be illegally shot, even in recent weeks (see here, here) or illegally trapped (see here) on grouse moors up and down the country.

Did anyone see any gamekeepers or any moorland groups condemning these incidents? Where was their uproar? Where was their outrage? How many gamekeepers or members of moorland groups have provided information/intelligence to the police about any of these recent crimes? We’ll take an educated guess – none of them.

Carrieanne is right to be concerned about her family’s livelihood, but it’s not at risk from a licensing scheme, which is neither draconian or unnecessary; it’s actually a long overdue and pretty measured response to decades of criminality and unsustainable practices. Carrieanne’s livelihood is only at risk from those criminal gamekeepers and their employers who refuse to reform and continue to stick up two fingers to the law.

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