Hen harrier brood meddling legal challenge: day 1

The two-day legal challenge (judicial review) of Natural England’s decision to licence hen harrier brood meddling got underway in the Royal Courts of Justice yesterday.

[Mark Avery with his legal team outside the court at the end of day one. L-R: Lewis Hadler, Tessa Gregory, David Wolfe QC, Zoe Leventhal, Mark Avery. Photo by Ruth Tingay]

This is just a brief summary of proceedings so far and doesn’t go in to great detail – that will have to wait.

The public gallery in Court No. 18 was packed and there were eight lawyers in attendance with more folders, files, notebooks, pens and post-it stickers than a Staples shop.

Most of the day was taken up by David Forsdick QC, presenting the RSPB’s case to Ms Justice Lang. Some of this was hard to follow because (a) he’s quite softly spoken, (b) he kept referring the judge to various exhibits that only she and the lawyers had access to, and (c) a lot of his arguments referred to written arguments made by Natural England which the lawyers have seen but the public has yet to hear.

The RSPB has raised a number of challenges against Natural England’s brood meddling licensing decision but the two issues that received the most attention in court related to diversionary feeding and designated sites for hen harriers, particularly Special Protection Areas (SPAs).

It was argued that as the purpose of the brood meddling licence was to further the protection of the hen harrier by investigating means to reduce grouse predation and thus ‘conflict’ and thus illegal persecution, other options to brood meddling should have been considered. Diversionary feeding is a low impact alternative, proven via research (at Langholm) to reduce grouse predation and causes minimal disturbance. As diversionary feeding is also included in DEFRA’s Hen Harrier Action Plan (to which Natural England was a main party in the drafting and now the implementing of the Plan) and Natural England has issued a generic, England-wide licence to permit diversionary feeding, it follows that Natural England is satisfied that diversionary feeding reduces grouse predation and thus reduces ‘conflict’ and thus illegal persecution.

However, given the “very low” uptake of diversionary feeding by landowners it was argued that Natural England has failed to encourage landowners to take this up as a voluntary option and has also failed to use its statutory powers to require the use of diversionary feeding on designated sites. Natural England’s legal arguments against the use of diversionary feeding as a viable alternative to brood meddling (arguments the lawyers have read but we have yet to hear) were derided when reference was made to a recent public statement made by Natural England’s Chairman on the ‘success’ of the 2018 breeding season in which he referred to the effectiveness of diversionary feeding!

Brood meddling on sites specifically designated for breeding hen harriers (i.e. SPAs) received equal criticism, especially as brood meddling relies on the concept of ‘quotas’ and ‘excess’ nests; this is contrary to the statutory conservation objectives of an SPA and case law was used to highlight this fundamental flaw. The point was made that, theoretically, if there was a single hen harrier nest in the centre of the Bowland Fells SPA, given the brood meddling density threshold (0.0125 pr/km2) this could be the only hen harrier nest permitted in this SPA designated for 12 breeding pairs. It was also argued that removing hen harriers from grouse moors in SPAs and then later releasing them in non-grouse moor areas of the SPA (as permitted by the brood meddling licence) constituted an adverse effect on the integrity of the SPA and was thus unlawful.

The RSPB’s case concluded at 3pm and then David Wolfe QC began his opening arguments on behalf of Mark Avery. David will continue this morning and then the court will hear from Natural England. Both claimants (RSPB and Mark Avery) will then have a right of response before the case is adjourned pending Ms Justice Lang’s ruling on the judicial review, which isn’t expected for several weeks and possibly several months.

UPDATE 12/12/18: Hen harrier brood meddling legal challenge: day two (here)


10 Responses to “Hen harrier brood meddling legal challenge: day 1”

  1. December 6, 2018 at 8:11 am

    As you can imagine, many people are desperate to know how this is going. Even this small snippet, revealing some of the lines of argument, is very welcome.

  2. 2 Loki
    December 6, 2018 at 9:41 am

    Brilliant! Just love this – well done, Mark and everyone involved in this. Fingers (and feathers) crossed!

  3. 3 Ian Gordon
    December 6, 2018 at 10:09 am

    Even the small snippets you have published here demonstrate admirably the bancruptcy of Natural England position/arguments and the mess you get into when you follow politics , not science, in matters like this. wasting taxpayers money to support the unsupportable is unforgiveable. I await their position with interest.

  4. 5 Paul V Irving
    December 6, 2018 at 10:11 am

    Glad to see the challenge by RSPB using the SPA designations argument.

  5. 6 Les Wallace
    December 6, 2018 at 2:23 pm

    Perhaps premature but I can’t help thinking NE will end up looking as ridiculous as SNH did over granting the licence for the Strathbraan raven cull. Excellent piece of ‘court reporting’ RPUK.

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