Archive for January, 2018

19
Jan
18

Update on claim that grouse moor owners want licences to kill Marsh harriers

In late November 2017, we blogged about a series of reports we’d received about how grouse moor owners wanted licences from Natural England to kill Marsh harriers. It had been claimed that Amanda Anderson (Director, Moorland Association) had raised the issue at a meeting of the Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group (RPPDG) meeting on 9 November 2017 (see here and here).

This claim was dismissed by Amanda Anderson as being “complete nonsense” but she refused to elaborate further.

Then came some astonishing claims and counterclaims from Philip Merricks (Hawk & Owl Trust), Martin Simms (National Wildlife Crime Unit) and Bob Elliot (RSPB Investigations) which can be read in the comments section of our blog (here).

Marsh harrier photo by Markus Varesuvo

It was clear we weren’t going to get any further without seeing the minutes of that RPPDG meeting. We’d already submitted an FoI to DEFRA in mid-November asking to see the minutes of all RPPDG meetings that had been held during 2017 (30 March, 25 July and 9 November).

Two months on, we’ve finally had a response from DEFRA (but only after we threatened to report them to the Information Commissioner for repeatedly failing to comply with the FoI regulations).

DEFRA has now released the minutes of the RPPDG meetings in March and July 2017, but is withholding the minutes from the 9 November 2017 meeting as they have not yet been approved by the RPPDG. We kind of expected that, because in the minutes of all the other RPPDG meetings, the first item on the agenda has been to approve the minutes from the previous meetings. That’s pretty standard so we have no concerns there – we’d just thought that given the controversy about the discussion at the November meeting, the RPPDG might have wanted to speed things up to clarify the situation sooner rather than later. But apparently not. Can’t think why.

Not to worry. We understand the next RPPDG meeting is due to be held in March 2018 so we’ll just sit and wait.

Tick tock.

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19
Jan
18

Northern England Raptor Forum slams ‘outrageous’ hen harrier brood meddling plan

Following the announcement earlier this week that Natural England has licensed the highly controversial brood meddling trial for hen harriers (see here), the Northern England Raptor Forum (NERF) has issued a damning statement in response.

Quoting from the statement (which we encourage you to read in full on the NERF website, here), NERF’s main reasons for objecting to this trial are as follows:

  • The Hen Harrier is near extinct as a breeding species in England (an average of just 3 successful nests per year over the last 9 years, ranging 0-6 nests annually) and is threatened thoughout the year as the pattern of disappearance of satellite tagged juvenile birds confirms.
  • Bowland and the North Pennine Special Protection Areas {SPAs} are both designated for their supposed breeding populations of Hen Harrier at 13 and 11 pairs respectively. In 2016 and 2017 there were none in either.  The UK government has a legal responsibility to correct these serious infractions and restore the species to a favourable status.
  • Given the species’ fragile status we would expect Natural England to be focused on protection and addressing the known principal reason for the species’ demise which by their own admission (‘A Future for the Hen Harrier?’ NE 2008) is that of illegal persecution.
  • Recent nesting pairs have only occurred on land which is not used for driven grouse shooting. As such breeding birds cannot possibly impact on the overall economics of driven grouse shooting estates. To contemplate interference via brood management with potentially the very first nesting pair to repopulate any one or more estates is outrageous and an affront to sound species’ conservation.
  • Research has shown the natural carrying capacity of Hen Harrier habitat in northern England to be 300+ pairs! Therefore as a minimum we would expect to see the upland SPAs, protected under EU Directives, demonstrably supporting their designated populations of Hen Harrier. Across the whole region we’d also expect to have at least 70 breeding pairs, below which published reports show there would be no economic impact on Red Grouse numbers. Only when these thresholds are reached should the case for brood management be considered anew.
  • Adequate protection against illegal persecution must be evidenced first and a growth in breeding numbers seen. There is no point in expending an estimated £0.9-1.2 million, to release young birds after hand rearing, into a dangerous environment where continuing illegal persecution severely diminishes their chances of surviving their first winter.

NERF is clearly angry (justifiably) about Natural England’s decision to licence this brood meddling trial at a time when the hen harrier’s breeding population is so desperately small, due to illegal persecution. So angry, in fact, that the last paragraph of the NERF statement is unusually forthright:

NERF is left dismayed that Defra and Natural England, as protectors of our natural environment should promote this untimely and unnecessary intervention which seems wholly contrary to the best principles of conservation.  As such NERF members are now intent on re-evaluating areas of cooperation with Natural England‘.

18
Jan
18

Pile of 200 shot dumped pheasants prompts health & safety concern

Thanks to the blog reader who sent us these cuttings from Tuesday’s edition of the Derry Post – front page news, no less:

In this latest case, the local council is having to make arrangements to remove the corpses (at the taxpayers’ expense, of course).

This dumping of shot pheasants is becoming quite a regular habit, isn’t it? (E.g. see hereherehere, here, here). Somebody really should set up a website where this obscene practice can be documented in one place.

We can expect to see a lot more of it in the future as the game shooting industry struggles to get shot birds in to the human food chain and yet still releases in to the countryside an estimated 50 million non-native gamebirds every year, just to be shot for fun. As the industry is largely unregulated, there is no sign of this number being reduced, either volunatarily or via legislation (see here).

17
Jan
18

5 red kites, 1 buzzard & 1 raven found dead in suspicious circumstances in Oxfordshire

Press article from today’s Oxford Mail:

A police investigation has been launched after five red kites, a raven and a buzzard were discovered dead in a village in Oxfordshire.

The birds were discovered by a family on Sunday, September 17, near the village of Pyrton, on the edge of the Chilterns, who reported them to the RSPB.

All the birds were recovered and x-rayed by a local vet. The x-rays revealed no signs of shot.

However, the birds have now been sent off for toxicology testing by Natural England as part of the Wildlife Incident Investigation Scheme (WIIS), to see if the birds have been poisoned.

All birds of prey and ravens are protected by UK law, making it illegal to kill or harm them. Those found to have done so could face six months in jail or an unlimited fine.

Thames Valley Police, Natural England and RSPB are now working together on a joint investigation and are appealing to the public for information.

If you have any information relating to this incident, call Thames Valley Police on 101.

With their six-foot wingspan, red kites are Britain’s third-largest bird of prey and feed mainly on carrion.

If you find a wild bird which you suspect has been illegally killed, contact RSPB Investigations on 01767 680551, email crime@rspb.org.uk or fill in the online form: https://www.rspb.org.uk/our-work/our-positions-and-campaigns/positions/wildbirdslaw/reportform.aspx

ENDS

Four months after discovery and still no toxicology report?

17
Jan
18

Five year Hen harrier brood meddling trial gets green light to start this year

Natural England has finally given the green light to the highly controversial hen harrier brood meddling scheme and has issued a licence for the five-year trial to begin this year.

As many of you already know, brood meddling is one of six action points in DEFRA’s ludicrous Hen Harrier Action Plan, designed to rescue the English hen harrier breeding population from virtual extinction.

For the benefit of new blog readers, here’s a quick overview of what brood meddling is about:

Hen harriers have been wiped out as a breeding species on driven grouse moors in England. Even though this is a protected species of the highest conservation priority, it has been, and still is, illegally persecuted, with impunity, by grouse moor owners and their gamekeepers. There is enough room for over 300 breeding pairs in England: last year there were only three successful pairs, and none of those was on a grouse moor (prime habitat). So, here’s DEFRA’s ‘rescue’ plan.

Instead of throwing absolutely everything in to catching and prosecuting these criminals (because that’s what they are), the Government is instead going to allow the temporary removal of hen harriers from grouse moors during the breeding season. Eggs/chicks will be collected from nests (‘brood meddled’) and hatched/reared in captivity for a few weeks. The idea is that by removing the hen harrier eggs/chicks, the adult hen harriers won’t prey on as many red grouse chicks (which are already at a ridiculously artificial high density thanks to intensive management), which means there’ll be even more red grouse available later in the season for paying clients to shoot in the face, for a bit of fun. The grouse moor owners and their gamekeepers will be happy and there’ll be no need to kill any more hen harriers. Sounds good, right?

But wait. What about those young hen harriers that have been reared in captivity? What happens to them? Well, they’ll be released, at fledging age, back to the moorland areas from where they were first removed. They’ll no longer be a threat to the grouse moor owners’ profits because all the red grouse chicks will have grown in to adults so they won’t be as vulnerable to hen harrier predation.

Perfect. Everybody lives happily ever after (except the red grouse).

There’s just one tiny problem with this plan.

Those young hen harriers will be released back on to the moors around the same time that the grouse shooting season opens on 12 August. Those young hen harriers are going to be flying around the moors looking for food and the red grouse will react by either trying to hide or by scattering in all directions. This will disrupt the grouse ‘drives’ which is when the red grouse are flushed in lines towards the grouse butts and the waiting guns. Guests who have paid thousands of pounds for the chance to stand in a grouse butt and shoot those grouse are not going to be happy if there aren’t many birds available for them to blast to smithereens.

So what do you think’s going to happen? You don’t need to be a genius to work it out. And indeed satellite tag data has shown time and time again that young dispersing hen harriers are routinely killed on grouse moors, especially during the first few months of the grouse shooting season in August, September and October, because grouse moor owners and their gamekeepers will not tolerate anything that threatens to disrupt their lucrative grouse shoots.

Nobody will get caught/prosecuted, the grouse-shooting industry will deny all knowledge (they’ll deny it’s even happening because they’ll be careful to hide the evidence), there’ll be further delay in the Government considering any other kind of action (such as licensing or banning driven grouse shooting) because it’ll say the five-year trial needs to run its course, and so we’ll end up back where we started with virtually no hen harriers and the untouchable, filthy grouse shooting industry still getting away with their crimes.

Despite knowing all this, yesterday Natural England finally issued a licence that will permit brood meddling to begin this year. We’ve been asking for the details of this project for a long, long time and Natural England has put every possible obstacle in our way while the licence application was being considered. Reading the details that have just been released, it not hard to see why they would want to keep it under wraps for so long.

The most important documents for you to read are these:

Hen Harrier brood meddling trial project plan

Brood meddling licence 2018_2020

Letter to licensing applicant

Additional conditions for brood meddling licence 2018_2020

Technical assessment of brood meddling licence application

These documents (above) will provide you with a good overview of what’s going on. There are other documents that go in to more detail for those who wish to know more, and these are provided at the end of this blog.

Here are the main points about the brood meddling plan:

  • The licence covers moorland throughout northern England
  • No eggs or chicks may be taken into captivity unless the threshold of two nests within 10km is met
  • Nests can only be brood meddled where the harrier pair has the potential to reduce the shootable surplus of red grouse
  • No hen harrier pair can be brood meddled in consecutive nesting attempts (this assumes individuals can be identified)
  • Hen harriers cannot be brood meddled without the landowner’s consent
  • Hen harriers cannot be brood meddled until a release site has been determined and the ‘local team’ has been approved by Natural England
  • All brood meddled hen harriers will be satellite-tagged prior to release
  • Hen harriers cannot be brood meddled until satellite-tags have been procured
  • The Moorland Association is procuring the satellite tags (yes, really!)
  • A ‘new’ type of satellite tag will be used
  • The Moorland Association and GWCT, as members of the Project Board, will have access to the hen harrier satellite tag data (yes, really!)
  • Natural England is responsible for analysing the satellite tag data (yes, really!)
  • Hen harriers removed from a Special Protection Area designated for hen harriers (Bowland Fells SPA, Nothern Pennines SPA) must be returned within the boundary of that SPA
  • Hen harriers removed from sites outwith an SPA will be returned to ‘suitable habitat within the trial area and where practical close to the area from where they were taken’
  • There is a recommendation that hen harriers ‘should not be released within sight of burnt heather strips’ (!!)
  • Brood meddling will be undertaken by the International Centre for Birds of Prey (Newent, Glos) – the brood meddling licence holder is Mrs Jemima Parry Jones of the ICBP. Natural England tried to redact this information without realising it had already been released in response to one of our earlier FoIs, and they also made a hash of the actual redaction: ‘Dear Jemima’ is a bit of a giveaway!
  • The Moorland Association will pay the ICBP to undertake the brood meddling trial and has entered into a five-year legal contract with the ICBP to ensure funding throughout the trial
  • Brood meddled eggs/chicks will be held in captivity at the ICBP in Newent
  • At approx 3 weeks old, captive hen harriers will be removed to a temporary aviary at a suitable release site where a ‘local team’ will look after them
  • There must be 24hr site security at the release aviary
  • Details of release sites have not been given
  • The trial can be stopped at any stage if a number of things happen. One of these is if ‘there is higher than expected mortality of birds post release’. This is suspicously vague and may well become a contentious issue, a bit like the Hawk & Owl Trust’s so-called ‘immoveable provisos’ on illegal persecution that turned out to be quite moveable after all.

That’s quite a lot to digest so we’ll return to some of these details in due course.

The big question now is, how many grouse moor owners will ‘allow’ a pair of nesting hen harriers on their land? The grouse shooting industry is kind of backed in to a corner, and it’s all of its own making. Grouse moor owners probably all thought brood meddling was a great idea when it was first mooted, as they thought those ‘brood meddled’ harriers would be removed from their moors and dumped hundreds of miles away in southern England as part of the proposed reintroduction scheme down there. Now they’ve been told that’s not going to happen – brood meddled hen harriers have to be returned to the upland moors.

What will the grouse moor owners do? Do they play ball and allow hen harriers to breed on the moors (because DEFRA et al are going to be pretty upset if it looks like the grouse shooting industry is not cooperating)? But if they do that, they run the risk that ‘their’ nest may not get brood meddled, especially if neighbouring moors refuse to ‘let hen harriers in‘, and so then they’ll be stuck with an unwanted hen harrier pair plus offspring.

It’s all going to get quite interesting in the next few months.

Here are the additional documents released by Natural England for those who want more detail of this disgraceful decision:

SSSI notice proforma supplied with brood meddling licence

Summary of brood meddling licensing decision

Habitats Regulations Assessment of brood meddling licence application

Brood meddling licence application

Information from the applicant on project submitted in the form of a draft Habitats Regulations Assessment

Applicants email response to further information request

Information from applicant in response to further information request

16
Jan
18

Environment Committee to scrutinise annual wildlife crime report – watch it live

The Scottish Parliament’s Environment Committee will take evidence on the Government’s 2016 annual wildlife crime report this morning.

This can be watched live at 10.30am on Scottish Parliament TV here [click on Committee Room 1]. We’ll post a link to the archive video and the official transcript when it becomes available.

The Committee will hear evidence from Police Scotland and the Crown Office. Last year, for the first time, representatives from the RSPB, Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association, Scottish Badgers and the Bat Conservation Trust were also invited to present evidence, but apparently not this year.

Here are the background papers relating to today’s evidence session: ECCLR agenda papers 16 January 2018

The Environment Committee has a good track record of asking pertinent questions about the annual wildlife crime report and has not been afraid to challenge witnesses with some determination (e.g. see here and here).

Since last year’s evidence session a number of issues have emerged, not least the Crown Office’s controversial decisions to drop a number of long-running prosecution cases, mostly without explanation. The Environment Committee wrote to the Crown Office to seek explanation but many questions remain unanswered. Hopefully the Committee will pursue this matter today.

15
Jan
18

Grouse shooting banned on Ilkley Moor

Press release from the campaign group Ban Bloodsports on Ilkley Moor, 15 January 2018:

Bradford councillors vote to ban grouse shooting on Ilkley Moor

Bradford Council’s Labour Group votes by overwhelming majority to not renew grouse shooting rights for Ilkley Moor, a move that has been strongly welcomed by wildlife campaigners.

Bradford Councillors voted to not renew controversial grouse shooting rights for Ilkley Moor at City Hall tonight. The decision, which was taken by the Bradford Labour Group, is understood to have been supported by an ‘overwhelming majority’ of those councillors who voted.

Bradford Labour is the largest party on the Council and ending grouse shooting is also backed by Bradford Liberal Democrats, Bradford Green Party and the majority of Independent councillors.

Ban Bloodsports on Ilkley Moor (BBIM), which has lobbied Bradford Council to end grouse shooting on the moor since its formation in May 2014, has strongly welcomed the move. The group notes that over half of protected breeding bird species have declined or become locally extinct on Ilkley Moor, government figures collated by the RSPB Northern England office show. It has urged for efforts to now be focused on reversing the wildlife crash, which has negatively impacted on the moor’s population of specialist species, including Merlin, Dunlin and Short Eared Owl, could result in the loss of the site’s conservation designations if declines continue.

Luke Steele, Spokesperson for BBIM, comments: “Bradford Council’s Labour Group decision tonight to not renew grouse shooting rights for Ilkley Moor is to be commended in the highest terms. It reflects the urgent need to reverse wildlife decline, habitat degradation and public dismay which has overshadowed this treasured moorland since grouse shooting was introduced in 2008. 

“We thank all of those who have relentlessly persued an end to grouse shooting on Ilkley Moor – the strong cross-party representation of Parish and District Councillors, regional MPs including John Grogan, Alex Sobel, Judith Cummins and Naz Shah, visitors to the moor and conservation groups. This is as much a victory for them as it is for the precious wildlife and habitat. Our efforts will now turn to reversing the terrible legacy of grouse shooting on the moor in pursuit of a first-class asset for the region, which promotes wildlife biodiversity, education, leisure and the local economy.”

Bradford Council is the last local authority in the UK to allow grouse shooting to take place on public moorland. Others, including the Peak District National Park Authority and Sheffield Council, already prohibit the practice on their upland estates, having previously allowed it, and now maintain the land using other methods.  During a recent consultation on the future management of Ilkley Moor, the largest number of submissions received by the local authority on any single topic urged an end to grouse shooting.

ENDS

This is a significant victory for a grassroots campaign group. Well done!




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