This is Part 2 of a two-part blog. For Part one, please read here.
The following information is a timeline of what happened and has been compiled from a series of FoIs. Natural England has refused to release some of the information we asked for (notably a copy of the post mortem report that was paid for with tax payers’ money, but also some email correspondence) because apparently this may ‘affect the course of justice’.
Satellite-tagged hen harrier Rowan was found dead in Cumbria on 22 October 2016.
His corpse was collected by Stephen Murphy (Natural England) and sent to the Zoological Society of London for a post mortem on 24 October 2016.
The post mortem was conducted on 26 October 2016 and the preliminary findings were passed to Natural England on 27 October 2016. The preliminary findings indicated the bird had been shot. Stephen Murphy passed on the preliminary findings to Cumbria Police on 27 October 2016:
Cumbria Police launched an investigation the same day, based on the findings of the preliminary post mortem report (i.e. that Rowan had been shot):
The following day, on 28 October 2016 (the Friday before the Monday Westminster debate on driven grouse shooting), Natural England and the Hawk & Owl Trust issued the following vague joint press statement:
The body of a juvenile, male hen harrier – named Rowan – was recovered in Cumbria on 22nd October. He was satellite tagged at the Langholm project in the Scottish borders, as part of a joint venture between Natural England and the Hawk and Owl Trust. Following an autopsy, Natural England has passed details to the police for investigation.
We are unable to make further comments or enter into discussion at this time as this may be prejudicial to ongoing investigations.
On Monday 31 October 2016 – the Westminster debate on driven grouse shooting took place.
On 3 November 2016, WCO Helen Branthwaite of Cumbria Police sent a copy of a draft press statement about Rowan’s death to Natural England. Pay close attention to the wording of this draft police press statement, particularly the sentence, ‘Following a post mortem examination funded by Natural England it has been established that the bird was shot’:
Stephen Murphy (Natural England) replied to WCO Helen Branthwaite with this:
WCO Helen Branthwaite replied to Stephen Murphy to say she couldn’t get hold of the Natural England press officer (Lyndon Marquis) and asked if anyone else at Natural England should take a look over the draft police press statement:
Stephen Murphy replied to Helen and suggested that Graham Tibbetts (Head of Media at Natural England) and Rob Cooke (a Director at Natural England) should take a look:
At this point, the email chain goes cold (so either this conversation ended here or, if it did continue, Natural England has decided to withhold this information from the FoI response).
Four days later, on 7 November, Philip Merricks (Hawk & Owl Trust) wrote to Rob Cooke (Natural England) asking for a telephone conversation between Rob Cooke, Philip Merricks, Adrian Blumfield (Chief Operating Officer, Hawk & Owl Trust) to discuss the imminent Police press release about Rowan “which will be signed off by” Rob Cooke. Rob Cooke replied and said he would ask Graham Tibbetts (NE’s Head of Media) to make contact with Adrian Blumfield:
We don’t know if that telephone conversation took place because if it did, there won’t be a written record of it, but it is clear that the intention to have a conversation was there.
Later that same day, Cumbria Police issued the following press statement:
Cumbria Police have opened an investigation into the death of a hen harrier.
The body of a male Hen Harrier was found in the Ravenstonedale area of the county on 22nd October 2016. A post-mortem examination funded by Natural England and carried out by the Zoological Society of London has established that the bird was likely to have been shot.
The hen harrier, called Rowan, was satellite tagged at the Langholm Project as part of a joint venture between Natural England and the Hawk and Owl Trust. The bird had recently flown in the Cumbria and North Yorkshire Dales area before being found at Ravenstonedale.
Hen Harriers are specially protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, and the Government has set raptor persecution as one of their wildlife crime action priorities.
There is huge pressure on the survival of the hen harrier in England particularly and projects such as this are working hard to assist with the bird’s survival. Cumbria Police are working alongside such organisations to progress this investigation.
Anyone with information is asked to contact police on 101 and ask to speak to PC 2059 Helen Branthwaite.
Pay really close attention to the wording of this Police press statement, and notice which words have been changed from the draft police press statement that WCO Helen Branthwaite sent to Natural England on 3 November. The press statement no longer says that the post mortem established that Rowan had been shot; it now says the post mortem established that Rowan was ‘likely to have been shot‘.
This raises some really interesting questions.
If Cumbria Police were happy to tell the public that Rowan had been shot, based on a post mortem report (see their draft police press statement), why did the final police press statement only say he was ‘likely to have been shot’? Why the ambiguity?
It is apparent from the wording in Philip Merricks’ email that Rob Cooke (Natural England) was going to “sign off” the police press statement so did Natural England and the Hawk & Owl Trust collude to have this detail changed? It would certainly be in both their interests to have it changed because a ‘muddied’ ambiguous statement about a ‘likely shot’ hen harrier is far less damaging to their friends in the grouse shooting industry than a clear, evidence-based confirmatory statement that a hen harrier had been shot, especially at the time when driven grouse shooting and its associated criminality was being debated at Westminster.
If there was any doubt in WCO Helen Branthwaite’s mind that Rowan had been shot, did she contact the pathologist at ZSL for clarification or did she just accept the word of Natural England / Hawk & Owl Trust? If so, why?
These questions could easily be answered if we had sighting of the post mortem report, because then we’d know whether the final Police press statement was an accurate reflection of the post mortem’s findings or whether it was a cover-up job, but Natural England has refused to release it. Quite how the publication of a shot bird’s x-ray ‘might affect the course of justice’ is a mystery, especially when many police forces routinely publish such images as part of their appeals for information.
Unless of course Natural England is worried that its release might affect the uncovering of corruption….
We’ll be asking the Information Commissioner to examine Natural England’s excuse for withholding the post mortem report. Watch this space.