Hen harrier brood meddling – a quick update (of sorts)

As a brief interlude from what’s going on in Scotland, we thought we’d turn our attention back to England and the Government’s bonkers Hen Harrier brood meddling scheme….

As you know, in January 2016, DEFRA published its Hen Harrier (In)Action Plan (see here). There are six ‘action’ points, including #6, a brood management (meddling) trial, where it is proposed to remove hen harrier eggs/chicks from driven grouse moors when breeding pairs have reached a certain density on that moor or on nearby moors, hatch and rear them in captivity, and then release them back to the uplands at fledging age.

As you’ll also know, last year we spent quite a bit of time trying to find out the details of this brood meddling scheme and through a series of FoIs we learned what was being planned (here), a bit more about what was being planned (here), who was likely to be involved in the practicalities of brood meddling (here), and a bit about an even more bonkers social science survey that was to run parallel with the bonkers brood meddling scheme (here).

Since November 2016 it all went a bit quiet. So on 23 February 2017 we submitted another FoI asking Natural England for copies of more recent correspondence relating to the brood meddling and southern re-introduction schemes. Natural England responded on 21 March 2017 with a bit of information (see below), but told us that other information related to the wildlife licensing process had been withheld ‘as it would prejudice the process of determining the licence application and potentially the quality of that licence‘. They also told us, ‘The discussions are confidential up until the point the licence application has been determined. Once this has happened then details of the licence are available to the public‘.


What they did release were the notes from the 5th meeting of the Brood Meddling Project Team, held on 2 February 2017, see here: HH Brood meddling team meeting_No5_2Feb2017 (not especially informative) and a copy of an email from Philip Merricks (Hawk & Owl Trust) to Rob Cooke (Natural England) dated 31 January 2017:

Apart from being amused at Philip’s delusional expectation that criticism of brood meddling will cease once brood meddling actually begins, the information contained within the second paragraph is actually quite useful. We presume James Cross is the same James Cross who is listed as the chief executive of Natural England – take note that at the end of January 2017, James Cross and Teresa Dent (GWCT) were anticipating the imminent submission of a ‘BM application’, which we assume is a brood meddling licence application (although of course we could be wrong). The relevance of this date will become clear in a minute….

So, having had our FoI rejected in February 2017, we thought we’d give it a couple of months to allow time for Natural England to get the licence application sorted out – we know that the plan was for brood meddling to begin in the 2017 breeding season (assuming they can find any active nests on any grouse moors) and we assumed from Merricks’ email that the submission of the licence application was expected to be imminent in January/February 2017.

Three months later on 29 May we submitted a further FoI to Natural England, asking for all the relevant information about HH brood meddling, assuming the licence application had now been sorted. On 31 May we received this response:

The application you refer to is still being determined. I’m afraid that we do not have an estimate of when it will be. With that in mind, would you like to withdraw your request, and submit it at a later date?

Eh? The licence application is still to be determined? At the end of May, when any brood meddling, if it’s going to happen this year, would probably start in May/June? Isn’t that cutting it a bit fine?

And Natural England doesn’t have an estimate of when the licence application will be determined? Eh? Isn’t Natural England the licensing authority for this, er, Natural England-led project? And they can’t say when they’ll decide to licence their own project?

Is it just us or does this all sound a bit dodgy? Is anybody else convinced by this or is it Natural England once more bending the truth when it comes to hen harriers?

Photo of hen harrier by Mark Hamblin


10 Responses to “Hen harrier brood meddling – a quick update (of sorts)”

  1. 1 Chris T
    June 1, 2017 at 4:18 pm

    It sounds to me that they may actually be assessing it properly and that there are some significant issues with the licence application. That’s probably more likely than they are telling you direct lies in the face of your FOI request. I believe that may be unlawful?

  2. 2 Secret Squirrel
    June 1, 2017 at 4:39 pm

    Cynic in me says that as they have to make it public once decided, they will ‘decide’ the Licence at the very last minute and the actual meddling will take place that day/next day, thus preventing any protest/objection and the BM being a fait acompli.

    Hence not yet determined.

  3. 3 Paul V Irving
    June 1, 2017 at 4:52 pm

    I think Secret Squirrel may be right but it may also be that they will only grant the licence at the last minute if there are birds to meddle with and I strongly suspect talking to various colleagues that there are not.

    • 4 Marco McGinty
      June 1, 2017 at 6:00 pm

      Secret Squirrel could be onto something here, but I also think you could be correct, Paul.

      Considering the disastrous situation of the Hen Harrier in England, it should be a good number of years before the population reaches the critical mass that would enable the start of any meddling.

      Any meddling carried out before then, would be a serious breach of plan.

      • June 1, 2017 at 6:26 pm

        The ‘critical mass’ threshold that has been determined for brood meddling is just two nests within a (straight line) distance of 10km, and at least one of which has to be on land where the landowner’s permission for brood meddling has been given.

        There are (currently) active hen harrier nests in England, but whether there are two that meet the above criteria remains to be seen.

        • 6 Marco McGinty
          June 1, 2017 at 6:34 pm

          I thought it was 5km, but it has been a while since I read the documents. Apologies for that.

        • 7 Iain Gibson
          June 1, 2017 at 7:09 pm

          If there were only three (?) pairs breeding on English grouse moors last year, then the probability of two of them being closer than 10 kms is surely rather low. The crucial time will come some years down the line, because recovery of Hen Harriers takes time. At best (from the meddlers’ point of view), there might be one or two eligible nests in 2017, unless last year’s publicised figure is wildly wrong. It is a matter of considerable frustration to harrier workers that the results of the national census have still to be revealed.

          I agree that the brood meddling scheme is utterly “bonkers,” but that’s about the kindest interpretation. It will be a scientific and conservation scandal if this foolhardy and risky management of a rare wild bird is attempted, when the inhibitory factor to population growth is so obvious and curable. Even in a best case scenario involving the brood meddling scheme, the maximum population achievable will be only around a quarter of the optimum potential. There are also many behavioural aspects to take into account, for example will aviary rearing of harrier chicks produce individuals that are as viable as naturally bred? Or will the enforced low densities reduce the overall breeding fitness of a species which has a habit of nesting semi-colonially? There is strong evidence, as yet unpublished, that harriers clustering in areas of periodic high vole density contribute significantly to the overall success of the species in the UK. The brood meddling proposal will remove that factor, which would please the shooting community of course.

          My fear is that the organisations involved will deliberately interpret the results to declare the experiment a success, followed by demands that brood meddling be extended to the rest of the UK.

  4. 8 Jimmy
    June 1, 2017 at 7:32 pm

    The word “omnishambles” spring to mind

  5. June 1, 2017 at 9:25 pm

    I wonder….how many members of the NE board are members of HOT… they sound a bit cosy? In fact I would hope that none of the NE officials in the decision tree are members of the HOT. (Especially as there wasn’t a tendering process.. well none that I was aware of?

  6. 10 Roderick Leslie
    June 4, 2017 at 8:47 pm

    There weren’t 3 pairs last year on English grouse moors – and there aren’t this year because 2 of them were on FC land which is not shot. As I have pointed out to Phillip and others, there can’t be brood meddling without Hen Harriers. I cannot believe that Defra Ministers – or NE – will go anywhere near FC Hen Harriers – I know my former colleagues in FC are proud of their Hen Harriers and after the forest sales fiasco in 2011 – and the massive public support for FC – Conservative Ministers know that meddling with FC risks their jobs.

    On HOT, of which i am a member and ex trustee , the idea that there is unity is about the same as the forlorn claim that the country is coming together over Brexit. HOT continues to do good work – but for the people who are working hard to deliver that work brood meddling is a huge embarrassment .

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