23
Aug
18

Heads up for Hen Harriers Project: is this the info they’ve been trying to hide?

The Heads up for Hen Harriers Project is a Scottish Government-funded initiative, led by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) in partnership with the landowners’ lobby group Scottish Land & Estates (SLE), RSPB Scotland and the National Wildlife Crime Unit.

Here is a photo of a hen harrier nest, captured by one of the project’s nest cameras:

The idea behind this project, which began in 2015, is that sporting estates agree to have cameras installed at hen harrier nests to identify the causes of nest failure. This is a flawed idea right from the off. We all know the main reason behind the declining hen harrier population – illegal persecution on intensively managed driven grouse moors – it has been documented time and time and time again, in scientific papers and government-funded reports. So, if you put an ‘official Project camera’ on a hen harrier nest situated on a driven grouse moor, the gamekeepers will know about it and won’t touch that nest (although they’re quite likely to try and bump off the young once they’ve left the nest but are hanging around the grouse drives, away from the nest camera). So if the nest then fails for natural reasons (e.g. poor weather, predation), the Project will only identify those issues as the cause of failure, and not the illegal persecution issue. The grouse-shooting industry will then use those (biased) results to shout about illegal persecution not being an issue. We’ve seen this many times already.

We’ve blogged about this project many times over the last few years and have been highly critical of its claims (e.g. see hereherehereherehere, here, here, here, here). Andy Wightman MSP also condemned the project in a Parliamentary debate last year as “a greenwashing exercise“. You can read the transcript here and watch the video here (and note the stony silence after Andy’s speech!).

One of the controversial claims made by this project emerged in the run up to that Parliamentary debate. Scottish Land & Estates issued a Parliamentary briefing note about the Heads Up for Harriers Project which was sent to MSPs.

You can read that briefing note here.

In this briefing note, SLE claimed:

Up to two thirds of the estates where cameras have been installed [seven of 11 nests over 3 yr period] have been driven grouse moors, indicating a strong take-up where the issue of hen harrier decline is most relevant“.

We wanted to scrutinise this claim and submitted several FoIs to SNH asking for the names of the estates to be released (for some reason, estates names had been kept top secret even though this is a publicly-funded project). Here’s SNH’s response:

FoI request to SNH: In each year, how many estates had successful nests and of those, how many estates were managed for driven grouse shooting?

SNH response: 2015 – 2 estates with successful nests, 2 of which were driven grouse moor. 1 additional successful nest 100m off the estate boundary of a driven grouse moor.

2016 – 3 estates with successful nests, 2 of which were driven grouse moor.

2017 – 6 estates with successful nests, 3 of which were driven grouse moor.

FoI request to SNH: Please provide the name of each estate, in each year, that signed up to participate.

SNH response: We have considered this part of your request very carefully, and we are unable to provide the estate names. Estates enter into the Heads Up For Harriers project voluntarily. The estate name information in this case was provided voluntarily, there are no other circumstances that entitle SNH to disclose it, and the estates have not consented to disclosure. Making the information publicly available would be likely to prejudice the interests of the estates, for example via negative publicity in the event of harriers not nesting on the estate or in the event of nest/s failing on the estate. We are therefore withholding the estate name details under EIRs Regulation 10(5)(f) (Interests of the individual providing the information).

The Heads Up for Harriers project members’ position is that estate wishes must be respected. Further, members agree the most important aspect of the project is to encourage cooperation and a positive working relationship ‘on the ground’ between estates, Project Officers and other project members to promote survival of hen harriers and enable monitoring if and when hen harriers return to breed. We have therefore concluded that, in this case, the public interest is best served by not releasing the estate names.

So SNH was also claiming that seven of the successful nests were located on driven grouse moors. Without being told the names of these grouse moor estates, it was impossible for this claim to be properly scrutinised, but we were suspicious enough to try anyway. We also considered carefully SNH’s explanation for not releasing the names (that it would ‘prejudice’ the interests of the estates involved via negative publicity) but we dismissed this as nonsense. The hen harrier-loving general public isn’t going to be upset at an estate that has made genuine efforts to host breeding hen harriers. Why would it?

It has taken us many months of painstaking research but we now think we know the names of those estates. To be absolutely clear, we aren’t 100% certain that our information is accurate and without being told ‘officially’ by the project partners, we won’t know, but we’re as sure as we can be given the thick veil of secrecy that surrounds this project.

In 2015 three estates had nest cameras placed at hen harrier nests. We believe these were on Ballandalloch Estate, Muckrach Estate, and Novar Estate:

Not one of these estates is on our radar as being involved with illegal raptor persecution and we applaud them for hosting breeding hen harriers. How many were driven grouse moors? Well according to SNH, two of them were. Which of these three estates was being run as a driven grouse moor in 2015? None of them, as far as we’ve been able to find out. There may have been some low-ground shooting (pheasants/partridge) and perhaps some walked-up grouse shooting, and Ballindalloch does have driven grouse shooting on one of its three landholdings but apparently not on the moor where the Heads up for Hen Harrier nest was located.

In 2016, three estates had nest cameras placed at hen harrier nests. We believe these were on Langholm Moor, Muckrach Estate and Novar Estate:

Again, not one of these estates is on our radar as being involved with illegal raptor persecution and we applaud them for hosting breeding hen harriers. How many were driven grouse moors? Well according to SNH, two of them were. Which of these three estates was being run as a driven grouse moor in 2016? None of them, as far as we’ve been able to find out. Muckrach and Novar were being run as they were in 2015, which leaves Langholm Moor, which was being run as a Demonstration Project so definitely not your average driven grouse moor (and they weren’t shooting grouse there either).

In 2017, six estates had nest cameras placed at hen harrier nests. We believe these were Langholm, Wildlands Ltd (1); Wildlands Ltd (2), Airlie Estate, Midfearn Estate and Balnagown Estate:

Again, not one of these estates is on our radar as being involved with illegal raptor persecution and we applaud them for hosting breeding hen harriers. How many were driven grouse moors? Well according to SNH, three of them were. Which of these six estates was being run as a driven grouse moor in 2017? The only one we have a question mark over is Airlie Estate (in the Angus Glens), which may or may not have been managed for driven grouse shooting in 2017. Our local informants suggest it wasn’t, but the nest (which failed – but not under suspicious circumstances) was close to the boundary of another estate that is managed for driven grouse shooting. The other estates are either rewilding projects, low ground, or have no gamebird shooting whatsoever.

So, if our analysis is correct (and it might not be – again, it’s important to reiterate that we’re not able to verify our findings because the estate names are being kept secret by SNH), only one of these eleven estates might have been managed for driven grouse shooting at the time the nest cameras were placed. Not seven, as SNH claims, and not two-thirds, as SLE claims, but one, possibly, maybe.

We are able to have some confidence in our findings after listening to a Hen Harrier Day presentation given by Brian Etheridge a couple of weeks ago in the Highlands. Brian, an acknowledged expert on hen harriers having studied them for well over 40 years, works as a Heads up for Hen Harriers Project Officer. He told the audience that in 2018, of seven successful nests, two were on driven grouse moors. He said of these hen harriers successfully fledging on the two driven grouse moors, “It’s the first time I’ve recorded that since way back in the 1990s“.

It sounds like there’s a bit of good news from this year’s project then, although we’re awaiting the results to be announced formally, not that we’ll believe them if they’re announced by either SLE or SNH.

However, this apparent good news this year does not, and should not, detract from the apparently misleading statements made by both SLE and SNH about the project’s previous so-called success on driven grouse moors. We’d expect nothing else from SLE but for SNH, a statutory Government agency, to be making what appear to be inaccurate statements, well that’s a very serious matter.

We’ll be writing to SNH to invite a response to our findings and to tell us we’ve got this completely wrong and to provide evidence to demonstrate why we’ve got it wrong.

Or is it the case, as Andy Wightman MSP put to the Scottish Parliament last December, that the project is being used as a greenwashing exercise to hide the criminal activities that are undertaken by some in the driven grouse shooting industry and to promote the misleading impression that it is voluntarily cooperating to clean up its act?

We’ll keep you posted.

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9 Responses to “Heads up for Hen Harriers Project: is this the info they’ve been trying to hide?”


  1. August 23, 2018 at 7:55 pm

    I think it important also to know if the young are satellite tagged. I would be more comfortable if there was some monitoring of the fledged birds, but that might be much more difficult to ascertain. I had heard that there was participation of driven grouse moors in 2018. One set of birds fledgling on an estate is a huge difference from the previous years, so am a little encouraged.

  2. 2 Chris T
    August 23, 2018 at 8:00 pm

    If RSPB are still an active partner here they should ask for all the data and names to be released. Even if the information is still not made publicly available RSPB should then make a statement about the veracity (more probably lies) of SLE and SNH. They should call them out.
    They could even do this with priviliged access to the information and not name the estates if they’re genuinely worried about being identified, they could simply say that the news is either true or false.
    If they are indeed making progress, I’d have thought the estates would have wanted it shouting from the rooftops, why hide their identities if it’s all going swimingly?

  3. 3 Billyc
    August 23, 2018 at 8:45 pm

    This is a thorough piece of work and must have taken an great deal of time to piece together. Congratulations and thanks for the time and effort involved. It’s great to be able to interrogate the information given out to get some clarity to what is presented (often it seems) as very misleading version of events.

    • 4 lizzybusy
      August 24, 2018 at 11:31 am

      I completely agree. RP your work is outstanding, meticulous, incredible and invaluable. Thank you for advancing the cause of raptor protection so effectively.

  4. 5 Dougie
    August 23, 2018 at 11:38 pm

    SNH was formed in 1992 from the amalgamation of the Nature Conservancy Council for Scotland and the Countryside Commission for Scotland to “secure the conservation and enhancement of, and to foster understanding and facilitate the enjoyment of the natural heritage of Scotland”

    How has that outfit managed/been allowed to develop into an organisation where it is necessary to make use of FOI legislation in order to find out about their activities. One would expect that any such public organisation would have nothing to hide. They certainly should not be involved in anything that has to be hidden or be employing anyone who feels predisposed to indulge in secrecy.

  5. August 24, 2018 at 10:20 am

    Excellent analysis and thank you so much for explaining the obvious flaw in this project so well.

  6. August 24, 2018 at 3:38 pm

    Couldn’t be less surprised!

  7. 8 AnMac
    August 24, 2018 at 5:03 pm

    Many thanks to you for continuing to ask questions on such subjects from SNH. Their silence on such FOI requests is much in keeping with our SNH Government generally when asked pertinent questions.

    Your tenacity is ‘lovely’ and you are doing us all a great service. Many thanks.

  8. 9 Andy Paton
    August 24, 2018 at 5:21 pm

    Great work.


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