Archive for February, 2019

28
Feb
19

Another workshop on raptor satellite tagging for police wildlife crime officers

On the day we learned that yet another satellite-tagged hen harrier has ‘disappeared’ in suspicious circumstances (the 12th since last summer), this forthcoming training workshop for police wildlife crime officers can’t come soon enough.

Following on from the success of a raptor satellite tag training workshop in Scotland earlier this month (see here), a similar workshop has now been announced for law enforcement officers in England and Wales.

Spearheaded by Police Supt Nick Lyall, Chair of the Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group (RPPDG), this will be another genuine partnership opportunity to share expertise and understanding.

As we saw at the Scottish workshop, it’s crucial that wildlife crime investigators understand the capabilities and constraints of satellite tag data – what they can and can’t tell us about a bird’s movements, and critically, how to identify evidence from the data to differentiate between a suspected crime against the tagged bird and a genuine technical malfunction of the tag. This understanding can help speed up investigations and help ensure resources can be targeted at the right location as a priority.

From a researcher’s perspective it’s also important that we have reassurances from the police about how our tag data will be handled and kept secure as part of the police’s investigative process. Police officers may not previously have considered this but given the sensitivity of the data (e.g. known nest and roost sites of highly threatened species) the police need to be aware of the researchers’ expectations of confidentiality. For this to work there has to be trust, and a workshop like this provides an excellent opportunity to continue to build that trust.

Well done to Nick Lyall for his leadership and to all the partners involved – this is a fantastic initiative.

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28
Feb
19

Satellite tagged hen harrier ‘Vulcan’ disappears nr proposed reintroduction site in southern England

RSPB press release (28 Feb 2019)

Rare hen harrier vanishes in Wiltshire

A young male hen harrier has disappeared in suspicious circumstances in Wiltshire and is believed most likely to be dead.

The harrier, named Vulcan, was one of five chicks to fledge from a nest in Northumberland last summer. He was fitted with a satellite tag as part of the RSPB’s EU-funded Hen Harrier LIFE project, which enabled the nature conservation charity to track his movements.

[Hen harrier ‘Vulcan’, photo by RSPB]

Vulcan was tracked by the RSPB moving from Northumberland down to the Peak District where he remained throughout September. He then continued to head further south through Hampshire and Dorset. On 16 January 2019, Vulcan’s tag sent out its final transmission, from a location south of Calstone Wellington in Wiltshire.

RSPB Investigations staff searched the area, which is farmland and heavily managed for pheasant and partridge shooting, but there was no sign of Vulcan or his tag. He has not been heard from since and the matter was reported to Wiltshire Police.

Satellite tagging technology is commonly used to follow the movements of birds. Tags continue to transmit regularly, even when the bird dies, and until the tag reaches the end of its lifespan. Vulcan’s tag was providing regular updates on the bird’s location, so the sudden and unexpected ending of transmission is suspicious and could suggest criminal interference. Vulcan is the 11th satellite-tagged hen harrier to disappear since last summer.

Hen harriers are one of the UK’s rarest birds of prey with only nine successful nests recorded in England in 2018 despite sufficient habitat for over 300 pairs. An overwhelming body of scientific evidence suggests that the main reason for their low numbers is illegal killing associated with driven grouse shooting.

Dr Cathleen Thomas, RSPB Hen Harrier LIFE Project Manager, said: “When a bird you’ve been following since it was a chick suddenly disappears without a trace, it’s a crushing blow. Vulcan’s tag had been performing brilliantly, so for it to suddenly stop transmitting makes us very suspicious that something has happened to him.

Wiltshire is not the only place where hen harriers have disappeared in unexplained circumstances. Since last summer 10 other satellite-tagged hen harriers have also vanished suddenly across the UK including in Northumberland, the Peak District, Wales and Scotland. There is a very worrying trend here.”

PC Marc Jackson of Wiltshire Police said: “Wiltshire Police have received a report from the RSPB in relation to the missing harrier ‘Vulcan’, and the Rural Crime Team are working with the RSPB to establish the full circumstances surrounding the incident.

To find no trace of this bird raises obvious concerns about what may have happened to it. If anyone has information please contact Wiltshire Police on 101 or Contact Crime stoppers on 0800 555111 if you would prefer to remain anonymous.”

Vulcan’s suspicious disappearance may prove a hurdle for the proposed southern reintroduction of hen harriers. Natural England is currently looking into the feasibility of introducing hen harriers from the continent to Parsonage Down National Nature Reserve, near Salisbury Plain.

Gareth Cunningham, RSPB Head of Nature Policy, said: “The disappearance of Vulcan raises serious concerns over the safety of any planned reintroduction. The RSPB has serious reservations about this approach to hen harrier conservation in England and we believe ending hen harrier persecution is the key to restoring the UK’s population of these magnificent birds. As such, the RSPB does not support the proposed reintroduction.”

If anyone has any information relating to this incident, please call Wiltshire Police on 101. Alternatively, call the RSPB Raptor Crime Hotline confidentially on 0300 999 0101.

ENDS

As the RSPB points out, this ‘may provide a hurdle’ (read: should be a bloody great big red flashing light) for the proposed reintroduction of hen harriers to southern England as part of DEFRA’s mad hen Harrier (In)Action Plan.

The location of Vulcan’s last known tag signal is less than 20 miles from Natural Engand’s proposed reintroduction site at Parsonage Down National Nature Reserve:

[RPUK map showing 1: Vulcan’s last known location; 2: Natural England’s proposed hen harrier reintroduction site]

We’ve blogged a lot about this proposed ‘reintroduction’ of hen harriers to southern England although technically it’s not a reintroduction because the species is not regionally extinct here and it should more aptly be called the ‘Let’s divert attention from the criminal killing of hen harriers on grouse moors plan’. We have been strong critics of the plan, not least because those young hen harriers tipped out in Wiltshire will likely roam far and wide during their post-fledgling dispersal period (as we know from sat tag data) and if they end up anywhere near a grouse moor they’ll be shot on sight. Releasing birds in to southern England will not solve the cause of the species’ decline in the first place, which undeniably is illegal persecution on driven grouse moors. And now there’s a strong possibility that Vulcan was a victim of illegal persecution, just a few miles from the proposed hen harrier release site. Which country is going to be stupid enough to donate hen harriers to the UK when we can’t even safeguard those birds hatched here, let alone any that are donated for a so-called ‘reintroduction’ project?

For previous blogs on this topic see:

28 Nov 2016 – Hen Harrier reintroduction to southern England: an update (here)

3 Jan 2017 – Hen harrier reintroduction to southern England: the feasibility/scoping report (here)

8 Jan 2017 – Hen harrier reintroduction to southern England: the project group and their timeline (here)

9 Jan 2017 – Hen harrier reintroduction to southern England: who’s funding it? (here)

9 Jan 2017 – Hen harrier reintroduction to southern England: a bonkers proposal for Exmoor National Park (here)

12 Jan 2017 – Hen harrier reintroduction to southern England: Wiltshire (here)

14 Feb 2017: Leaked email reveals Natural England’s views on Hen Harrier Action Plan (here)

23 Feb 2017: Hen harrier reintroduction to southern England: donor countries (here)

19 July 2017: Hen harrier reintroduction to southern England: new project manager appointed (here)

20 July 2017: Hen harrier reintroduction to southern England: Dartmoor as potential new release site (here)

20 July 2017: Hen harrier reintroduction to southern England: revised costs (here)

21 July 2017: Hen harrier reintroduction to southern England: project team vists France (here)

27 July 2017: RSPB statement on hen harrier reintroduction to southern England (here)

15 Aug 2017: Natural England Board making up justification for hen harrier southern reintroduction (here)

24 October 2017: Hen harrier reintroduction to southern England: Natural England delays release of information (here)

11 December 2017: Hen harrier reintroduction to southern England: report of fieldtrip to France (potential donor country) (here)

12 December 2017: 2018 start date for reintroduction of hen harrier to southern England? (here)

14 January 2018: Stop illegal persecution then no need for reintroduction of hen harrier to southern England, says DEFRA Minister (here)

13 March 2018: Hen harrier reintroduction to southern England: has France said “Non”? (here)

We’ve no idea what the latest is as Natural England is being true to form and keeping everything secret, although there are persistent rumours that birds may be donated by Spain, this year. Time for some more FoIs……

UPDATE 11.20hrs: The RSPB has published a blog about Vulcan’s disappearance (here)

27
Feb
19

New podcast: Ian Thomson, Head of Investigations RSPB Scotland

Ian Thomson, Head of Investigations at RSPB Scotland is never one to mince his words, especially on the subject of the illegal persecution of birds of prey.

Here’s his latest straight-talking podcast with Charlie Moores (a digital producer at Lush) where the discussion includes topics such as the under-recording of wildlife crime, satellite tagging of golden eagles, the suspicious disappearance of golden eagle Fred, satellite-tagging of hen harriers, the recent outlandish claims that tagged hen harrier Saorsa had been “re-sighted”, the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, the Revive Coalition, the Werritty Review, General Licences, General Licence Restrictions, and raising public awareness of raptor persecution.

If you have an hour to spare, it’s well worth a listen on the Lush Player HERE

[Ian Thomson, photo by Charlie Moores]

27
Feb
19

Questions on grouse shooting for Tony Juniper but not on hen harrier persecution

Tony Juniper, the nominated candidate for taking on the role of Chair of Natural England, faced a pre-appointment hearing yesterday in front of members of the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs Committee and the Environmental Audit Committee.

If you weren’t able to watch it, the proceedings have been archived and can be viewed here.

And was that Amanda Anderson (Moorland Association) arriving late to join the public gallery, along with grouse moor-owning Richard Benyon MP?

They wouldn’t have been disappointed. The subject of grouse shooting and moorland management was raised a couple of times by two Conservative MPs (Julian Sturdy MP at 15.16 mins and Robert Goodwill MP at 15.43 mins) who were looking for assurances from Tony Juniper that he wouldn’t be looking to rewild grouse moors and he wouldn’t be campaigning to prevent rotational heather burning.

Disappointingly, Angela Smith MP (hen harrier species champion) failed to use this opportunity to ask Tony for his view on the illegal persecution of hen harriers on driven grouse moors, a long-standing issue that is yet again about to be confirmed by the imminent publication of a new research paper based on Natural England’s hen harrier satellite tag data.

Perhaps the most amusing ‘hardcore questioning’ came from Sheryll Murray MP (Conservative) at 15.09 mins who spoke as if she was reading from a script and it was the first time she’d seen it. In painfully slow speech, she questioned Tony’s integrity about his claim that he hadn’t been politically active for several years. She accused him of making a £50 donation in 2017 to support the election of a Green Party candidate and then, horror of horrors, accused him of attending a vegan breakfast at a Green Party fringe event in 2018. She wanted assurance that Tony was capable of managing these political ‘conflicts of interest’ should he be appointed Chair of Natural England. Good grief.

Her fellow Conservative, Zac Goldsmith MP, put the £50 donation accusation in to context at 15.57 mins: “I have to put on the record if it hasn’t already been put on the record that Andrew Sells, the previous [Natural England] Chairman gave £111,000 to the Conservative Party before he was appointed“. Sniggers all round.

The entire hearing was a masterclass on retaining one’s composure when confronted by some idiotic questions (although to be fair there were some decent questions, too) and a bullish, arrogant Chair – Neil Parish MP. What is it with these Westminster committee chairs? Are they always so rude? Mr Parish kept interrupting Tony Juniper and insisting on having a ‘Yes/No’ answer to some questions, despite Tony explaining that his responses needed to be more nuanced, and Parish went on and on and on (at 15.25 mins) about wanting assurances that Tony wouldn’t ‘interfere’ with the Government’s badger cull (presumably Tony knew that Neil Parish has a family farm in Somerset and has been a vociferous supporter of the badger cull).

It turns out that the Committee’s decision on whether to approve Tony’s appointment or not is not a binding decision – Ministers can take the Committee’s comments in to consideration but they don’t have to listen to them – which made yesterday’s hearing a bit of a pointless exercise, although it was useful to have some transparency for the public and no doubt useful for Tony Juniper to find out which issues are likely to be raised with him in the future, if he didn’t already know.

UPDATE 28 Feb 2019: Full transcript of the pre-appointment hearing now available here

 

26
Feb
19

Gamekeeper convicted of wildlife crime on Yorkshire grouse moor (where Marsh harrier nest attacked in 2017)

Today at Skipton Magistrates gamekeeper Austin Hawke was convicted of a wildlife crime that took place on a Yorkshire grouse moor in May 2018.

The offence related to a dead badger found caught in a snare close to a stink pit on Denton Moor on 28 May 2018. Hawke was found guilty of failing to check the snare contrary to section 11 of the Wildlife & Countryside Act.

[Photos of the dead snared badger and the stink pit, contributed by a blog reader who wishes to remain anonymous]

On conviction, Hawke was given a 12 month conditional discharge and ordered to pay a £20 victim surcharge and £625 costs.

A pathetically feeble penalty, again, but well done to North Yorkshire Police’s Rural Task Force for pursuing this case and to the Crown Prosecution Service for securing the conviction.

What’s particularly interesting about this case is the location. This offence took place on Denton Moor and within one mile of the location of a Marsh harrier nest that was illegally attacked on several occasions in May 2017. The Marsh harrier nest was under video surveillance by the RSPB and the camera captured a number of armed gunmen, dressed as gamekeepers, who appeared to be shooting at the adult harriers and removing the eggs from the nest.

Despite a thorough investigation by North Yorkshire Police, nobody was ever charged for these alleged offences. As we’ve come to expect, the police received little help from the grouse shooting community when trying to identify the armed suspects.

Here is the map we created at the time, and below that is the RSPB’s video footage of the repeated attacks on the nest.

UPDATE 27 Feb 2019

North Yorkshire Police have issued the following press statement today:

A gamekeeper found guilty of committing a wildlife crime received a conditional discharge at Skipton Magistrates Court.

Austin Hawke, 51, of Ilkley, failed to check a snare following an incident at Denton on 29 May 2018 where a badger was found dead.

The offence is listed under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

Following a trial on Tuesday (26 February 2019), Hawke was found guilty and received the conditional discharge. He was also ordered to pay £645 costs and surcharge.

Sergeant Kev Kelly, of North Yorkshire Police’s Rural Task Force, said: “This case was reported following a member of the public who was aware of our proactive work under Operation Owl.

From the evidence collected, it was apparent that the badger had suffered before it had eventually died after being caught in the snare. Therefore this case was fully investigated to ensure other animals didn’t undergo the same fate.

If the defendant had been using breakaway snares it is less likely that he would have killed the badger.

I am disappointed as we have been doing some really good partnership working with local Nidderdale keepers who want to show the public good practice and accountability.

Hawke’s conviction will no doubt have an impact on how his profession is viewed. I think he has done his wider colleagues a disservice.”

Geoff Edmond, RSPCA National Wildlife Coordinator, said: “The RSPCA continues to work closely with the North Yorkshire Police’s Rural Task Force and this result highlights the strength of partnership working under Operation Owl.

“This badger will have suffered a horrific and prolonged death having been snared in this way.

“The RSPCA is against the use of snares because they are indiscriminate in what they catch and they cause tremendous suffering. But while they remain legal we hope we can work together with the Police and National Gamekeepers’ Organisation to raise awareness of the good practice guide so as to improve accountability.”

ENDS

26
Feb
19

Six grouse shooting estates under investigation for burning heather moorland

Six grouse shooting estates are under investigation by Natural England after campaigners submitted evidence of continued heather burning alleged to be in contravention of a voluntary agreement to stop, signed by five of the estates last year.

The Guardian ran with this story on Sunday, as follows:

An official watchdog is investigating five grouse-shooting estates for allegedly damaging the environment in a practice that they had pledged to stop.

Natural England is looking into allegations that the estates have repeatedly burned heather on their land to maximise the number of grouse for shooting. The watchdog launched its investigation after being passed evidence in the form of eyewitness accounts that the environmental group Friends of the Earth had collected.

The owners of the estates had voluntarily committed to ending the practice last year due to the threat of a compulsory ban. They categorically rejected the allegations laid against them by FoE, claiming that none was in breach of its voluntary commitments.

In a statement, Natural England, which is responsible for promoting nature conservation and protecting biodiversity, said it had been “investigating a number of reported incidents of burning taking place in upland areas. In a number of situations, we found that no further action was required. In others, we will continue further investigations and discussions concerning the management of these sites.”

Environmentalists have been pressing for a ban on the practice of burning heather, or rotational burning of blanket bog, as it is known. Blanket bog is a wet peatland habitat that is globally rare and threatened. The old heather is burned to expose new shoots – a food source that attracts grouse. Estates charge people who want to shoot grouse.

The watchdog’s investigation comes after Michael Gove, the environment secretary, was accused of letting the owners of large grouse moors off the hook over the practice.

The owners face the threat of a compulsory ban after the European commission launched an investigation into whether the UK government was failing to protect blanket bog habitats.

According to Whitehall documents, in February last year, Gove had suggested to the owners that they should stop the practice voluntarily to head off the possibility of a ban. The five estates were among more than 150 that signed up last year to the idea of voluntarily committing themselves to ending the practice. However, the evidence collected by FoE was gathered in October after the estates had signed up to the voluntary commitments.

The Moorland Association, a lobbying body that represents grouse moor owners, issued on a statement on behalf of the five estates. Its director, Amanda Anderson, said that where heather burning has taken place over blanket bog, it was to remove overgrown vegetation to enable the blanket bog to recover in accordance with government-endorsed guidance.

She added: “It is important to note that visitors to the uplands will continue to see smoke in the burning season as a result and that carefully implemented and legal burning on shallow peat will continue as a conservation tool. Burning is also used to reduce wildfire risk.”

The five estates are the Grimwith estate in the Yorkshire Dales, Midhope Moor, Hurst and Chunal Moors, and Moscar Estate in the Peak District, and West Arkengarthdale in the north Pennines, according to correspondence between FoE and Natural England.

A sixth estate, Walshaw Moor in Yorkshire, is also under investigation by Natural England, even though it did not sign up to the voluntary commitment, and instead reached an agreement with the watchdog to manage the estate’s environment. The estate also rejects the claim levelled by FoE.

The European commission launched its investigation in 2016 after receiving allegations that the Walshaw estate was burning heather on blanket bog.

FoE campaigner Guy Shrubsole said: “Burning moorland on rare blanket bogs wrecks ecosystems, worsens flooding downstream, and helps fuel climate change by causing the UK’s biggest carbon store to go up in smoke.

But the government’s efforts to get wealthy grouse moor owners to give up this archaic practice voluntarily have clearly not worked. The evidence we’ve gathered shows landowners are continuing to set protected moorland ablaze in breach of their own pledges.”

Gove has said that the government will take steps to introduce legislation “if our constructive, voluntary approach does not deliver”.

ENDS

This subject was also featured on BBC’s Countryfile on Sunday evening, available to watch here for 28 days (starts at 13.54 mins).

Great work by researcher Guy Shrubsole and some readers of Mark Avery’s blog who reported alleged burning mismanagement to the authorities.

26
Feb
19

Countryside Alliance agitated over Tony Juniper’s nomination for Natural England Chair

Earlier this month the Secretary of State for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Michael Gove MP, announced that Tony Juniper had been selected as the Government’s preferred candidate to take up the post of Chair of Natural England, the Government’s advisor for the natural environment in England (see here).

This was a surprising but welcome announcement given Tony Juniper’s long-standing environmental credentials and Natural England’s long-standing environmental incompetence.

[Tony Juniper CBE, photo by Getty]

Not everyone’s happy with this nomination though. According to an article in the Sunday Telegraph, the Countryside Alliance has accused Tony Juniper of being “prejudiced against the countryside” and that his views on grouse shooting make him ‘unsuitable to run Natural England’.

Here’s the Sunday Telegraph article in full:

Natural England chief ‘biased’ against country sports

Campaigner who has been critical of grouse shooting ‘wrong for watchdog role’, says Countryside Alliance.

By Patrick Sawer

The next head of the country’s nature watchdog has been accused of being “prejudiced against the countryside” ahead of his appointment.

Tony Juniper, a veteran environmental campaigner and former Green Party candidate, is to be made chairman of Natural England by Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary.

But campaigners representing farming, countryside communities and businesses have said he is the wrong person for the job, claiming his views on country sports such as grouse shooting show he does not understand the importance of rural activities.

Mr Juniper has previously criticised grouse shooting, claiming landowners who run the sport enjoy the benefits of huge taxpayer subsidies. In his 2015 book, What Nature Does for Britain, he wrote: “One lever society has for influencing how the land is managed is the vast amount of money paid from our taxes to upland shooting estates….the sport of a privileged few will continue to be subsidised”.

The Countryside Alliance says Mr Juniper’s views make him unsuitable to run Natural England, which helps to protect England’s nature and landscapes and is the Government’s adviser for the natural environment. Tim Bonner, the chief executive, said: “Mr Juniper is simply wrong to claim that there is any subsidy for shooting. In response to an anti-shooting petition on parliament’s website in November 2017, Defra responded that ‘neither subsidies nor agri-environment payments are paid to farmers to support shooting activities”.

“His comments also reveal a worrying undercurrent of prejudice and completely misunderstand the importance of grouse shooting to many upland communities. It is extemely worrying that the nominee could have written this just four years ago”.

Mr Bonner added: “Grouse shooting alone supports 1,520 full-time jobs and is worth £97.7 million”.

The Alliance hit out ahead of a hearing on Tuesday of the environment, food and rural affairs committee, where Mr Juniper will be questioned about his suitability for the role.

In 2010 Mr Juniper stood as prospective parliamentary candidate for the Green Party on a manifesto that pledged to extend the ban on hunting with dogs to other blood sports.

Defra said he had not declared any significant political activity in the past five years. A spokesman said: “Tony Juniper has a wide range of experience of working with WWF, the Prince of Wales, Friends of the Earth and many others, and the environment, food and rural affairs and environmental audit committees will soon have the opportunity to carry out further scrutiny on his suitability for the post”.

A spokesman for Mr Juniper said he would comment ahead of the hearing.

ENDS

The pre-appointment hearing will take place today at 2.45pm and can be watched live here.

UPDATE 27 February 2019: Questions on grouse shooting for Tony Juniper but not on hen harrier persecution (here)

 




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