Live firing range chosen as release site for brood meddled hen harriers

Earlier this week we blogged about Natural England’s decision to fit the brood meddled hen harrier chicks with ‘untested’ satellite tags and how some of those tags were not functioning reliably in the weeks following the birds’ release (see here). As three of those hen harriers have since been reported as ‘missing’ it is impossible to assess whether they’ve been killed by criminal gamekeepers on grouse moors, as so many have previously, or whether the birds are actually fine, they’re just carrying faulty tags.

The brood meddling fiasco doesn’t end there.

It turns out that as late as June this year, Natural England and its panel of ‘experts’ on the brood meddling project management team had decided that a live firing range on Ministry of Defence land would be a great place to release the brood meddled hen harriers.

Yep, genius. What could possibly go wrong?

[Live firing range on MOD land in Yorkshire. Photo by Ruth Tingay]

Perhaps the team thought it would provide acclimatisation for the young harriers – get them used to the sound of gunshot….

Actually, we know that this live firing range was only chosen because no private grouse moor owner had stepped forward to host the five brood meddled chicks (er, even though we’ve been repeatedly told that by removing hen harriers as part of a brood meddling scheme grouse moor owners’ attitudes towards hen harriers would soften and instead of killing them they’d welcome them with open arms).

How desperate do you have to be to think releasing young hen harriers on a live firing range would be a good idea, just to save face that no grouse moor owners wanted the birds?

Mark Avery blogged about this live firing range in September as he published an email from the scientific committee chair (Prof Ken Norris) who was expressing his concerns about the site.

We now know that the live firing range wasn’t actually used as the release site – at the last minute an enlightened estate (Castle Bolton Estate) stepped in and offered to host the five young harriers – but it’s worth viewing the process and conversations of the brood meddling project management team to understand what a joke this trial is.

The live firing range was agreed as a release site during a project team phone call on 3rd June:

Jemima Parry Jones, a member of the project team and the person responsible for the captive rearing stage of the brood meddling trial, was the first (and only?) member of the team to raise concerns about releasing the birds on to a live firing range as she was worried about her reputation if it all went wrong:

Amanda Anderson’s response to these concerns:

On the same day, Richard Saunders (NE’s Principal Advisor) sent around this email discussing the possibility of conducting noise monitoring at the live firing range in an attempt to appease Parry Jones’s concerns:

At some point between 4th and 24th June, the idea of releasing the brood meddled hen harriers on to a live firing range had been abandoned (the FoI response we got from Natural England omitted any detail about the decision-making) and Castle Bolton Estate had stepped forward to play host:

The rest, as they say, is history. The five brood meddled hen harriers were successfully released and then three of them vanished in September and the other two have left the country.

35 Responses to “Live firing range chosen as release site for brood meddled hen harriers”

  1. 1 Secret Squirrel
    November 1, 2019 at 9:16 am

    Maybe not as mad as it sounds. Mil training sites are usually pretty good places for wildlife, as outside of the firing areas they are pretty undisturbed

  2. November 1, 2019 at 9:24 am

    I see wee Mandy of the Windows is extraordinarily keen on collective responsibility!
    It makes it very clear that when her members are caught, she intends to point the finger at everyone else.

    Why has Parry-Jones allowed herself to become embroiled in this disaster?

    • 5 Messi
      November 1, 2019 at 11:32 am

      The project couldn’t go ahead without Jemima Parry-Jones – she’s the one doing the captive rearing and it’s not obvious that anyone else in the UK would be so silly. So she’s pivotal – sh’s facilitating this and making it happen.

  3. November 1, 2019 at 9:44 am

    They really are desperate. Those arguments against JPJ’s worries are pathetic. ‘We would be happy to have HH choosing to breed in a dangerous situation (would we?) so therefore it is OK to release them there’. Childish logic struggling for an excuse. By that logic they could release them absolutely anywhere at all with no thought of the dangers (e.g. on the verge of the M62).
    So i guess all this means that the original estate has no obligation to host the release site. Bizarre.

  4. 7 Andy Field
    November 1, 2019 at 9:47 am

    I agree with Secret Squirrel, maybe not as silly as it sounds! The danger zones around live firing ranges are vast and do offer a relatively undisturbed environment. I don’t know the exact circumstances of the site mentioned but the range local to me has held successfully nesting Marsh Harriers, among other species, for many years.

    • November 1, 2019 at 10:11 am

      Even if you are right which would surely depend on local factors, the whole point of the scheme is to release them on to grouse moors. This is proof that no one wants them.

    • 9 Messi
      November 1, 2019 at 11:34 am

      I think you’re missing the point: they’ll be in cages within a live firing range, then ‘dependent birds’ will be fed after release in this area. It’s not wise to have an aviary within a live firing range with birds in it. And, if you’re provisioning birds post-release, you don’t want ordnance exploding around that feeding area.

  5. 10 Valerie Foster
    November 1, 2019 at 9:49 am

    I walk Castle Bolton Estate Upland often and hope one day to see a HH…..alive.
    Walking on the moors is quite depressing I often count species – in summer it was usually
    Grouse 30
    Pipit 5
    Swallow 3
    Buzzard 2
    The waders tended to be a bit further down in the rough reeded fields. Bolton Estate are keen on their wader conservation and it’s good PR.
    The waders in the Dales have been pushed onto the hills because their lower valley habitats have been decimated by intensive silage farming – in fact XXXXX XXXXX XXXXX XXXXX XXXXX XXXXX is a large dairy farm and fields are silaged to wildlife oblivion. Another depressing walk

  6. November 1, 2019 at 9:58 am

    Further invalidation of this as a ‘trial’ which is reinforced by the lack of concern in these e-mails that the firing range might have any relevance to this as a ‘trial’. Perhaps it is mentioned in other e-mails but i seriously doubt it. It appears to be a word solely for the courtroom.

  7. 12 dave angel
    November 1, 2019 at 10:47 am

    Surely they should have secured suitable release sites prior to taking the chicks?

    What would have happened if the MOD site was deemed unsuitable and no other release site was found?

    Why are supposedly reputable people risking their credibility and professional integrity by being involved in such a shambolic scheme?

  8. 13 Lizzybusy
    November 1, 2019 at 11:00 am

    The noise from Otternburn MOD testing range needs to be heard and felt to be believed.


    “Northumberland ‘earthquake’ caused by heavy guns being tested at MoD’s Otterburn site

    (Evening Chronicle) “Readers reported hearing explosions and vibrations more than 30 miles from the MoD’s Otterburn site

    The earth moved for people across Northumberland as a military training exercise kicked in at the Otterburn range.

    Tremors were felt as far away as in Corbridge, Stocksfield and Rothbury by residents who thought they were experiencing an earthquake.

    Residents reported windows shaking, dogs going wild, a series of flashes in the night sky, earth tremors and loud bangs throughout the day.

    The Ministry of Defence said test firing was taking place at the Otterburn range, where heavy weaponry including artillery is tested.”

    The testing continues on an intermittent basis and can be felt and heard across Newcastle upon Tyne.

    And what about this …


    “Sparks from bullets start two grassland fires at Northumberland firing range

    The two blazes broke out near the army ground in Otterburn, the Ministry of Defence says, but there is no risk to the public.” Phew! Only wildlife habitats damaged then!

    The wild animal rehabilitation centre I support does not, to my knowledge, release animals there – but then they are a fussy lot. Caring Zealots!

    • 14 Messi
      November 1, 2019 at 11:36 am

      Yes, Salisbury Plain Impact Area has frequent fires. I’d not position aviaries in an area prone to fires during the dry period when birds will be in those aviaries.

      • 15 sog
        November 1, 2019 at 1:42 pm

        But there are other areas which look like farmland, and places enclosed by fences for preservation. Whether the fences are to protect archaeology or biology, I don’t know.

  9. 16 George Murdo
    November 1, 2019 at 11:01 am

    This illustrates the strong military connections between some grouse moor owners .. specifically aristocratic in nature … and some of their employees when it comes to these issues. Their ages old networks are principally defined by the hegemonic power they command in all areas of administration, both regionally and nationally.
    However it adds to the huge amounts of evidence which is mounting against them which, hopefully, will lead to a successful resolution of the whole driven grouse shooting dilemma as other priorities emerge from this threat.

  10. 17 Paul V Irving
    November 1, 2019 at 11:25 am

    If you look at a map of the SPA the only part of the live firing range within it is adjacent to the main Leyburn to Grinton road and ALL viewable from that road, not only a poor site because of regular live firing but also easily overlooked. Why in all the mails is the harrier field experts name blanked, we know who everyone else is, pathetic- it can only be one of 3 people?
    I had always thought that in the original proposals that birds should go back to the original estate, which we know was Swinton. If they don’t want them back they should not have had the option of them being brood meddled. We also know from other sources that the nest that was left was fed, hardly playing the game is it as I don’t suppose that Swinton paid for the chicks/mice/rats. The male of the remaining nest was also satellite tagged, surely it would have been better to BM that nest if we have to have BM at all to confirm the continued survival of at least one parent, given past history in the nesting area. As it is do we know if the adults, whose young were removed, continued to survive?
    You would have thought that this would all have been sorted before any nest needed BM as it is it reads like a complete ad hoc shambles with NE staff and Anderson coming out of it especially badly. One hopes that JPJ will see the light and withdraw from this shambolic group even before NE kill this ludicrous scheme ( which they surely must with 3 of the young down and out)
    I and a colleague saw and reported the pair displaying who were eventually managed, we will not be telling NE anything about harriers ever again as a result of this. As I say from start to finish all are or should be damaged by this from Swinton onwards and the only folk who don’t share in that are Castle Bolton Estate.
    The SPA stretches from Otley nearly to the Scottish border, Swinton is a major landowner in the Nidderdale AONB many of us think that NE should have insisted that the birds went there, if there was no agreement to this then there should have been no BM.

    • November 1, 2019 at 4:46 pm

      ‘surely it would have been better to BM that nest if we have to have BM’
      Paul, i didn’t understand that bit. Both nests were on Swinton weren’t they, so what difference would it make which nest was brood meddled and by extension which was fed? Sorry for being thick.

    • 19 Lizzybusy
      November 2, 2019 at 10:39 am


      I need to tell you how wonderful it is to read your comments. Your knowledge is astounding. Thank you.

      I feel very sorry for you that your genuine attempt to support the hen harrier population by reporting your sighting to NE was used to support this scheme. That betrayal will, I am sure, feel worse given your view on this project. I am sure that some, if not all, the members of this hen harrier brood meddling scheme will be aware of your opinions. Shame on them.

  11. 20 Messi
    November 1, 2019 at 11:28 am

    Pretty odd that Richard Saunders suggests that Jemima might be tasked with using the sound data to work out if it’s problematic, given she expressly states she doesn’t know much about hen harriers. Appropriate Assessments (this is an SPA, and HH is an Annex 1 species) require expertise to determine whether things like noise might adversely affect the interest features. I’m not aware of any evidence either way as to how hen harriers in cages might respond to noise of various types, so even NE ornithologists wouldn’t be able to conclude an HRA/AA. This is pretty amateurish behaviour from NE. Presumably, because the Team Muddled-Meddlers didn’t actually select this live firing range, they didn’t bother with an HRA/AA?

  12. November 1, 2019 at 11:42 am

    A suggestion perhaps that people “in the know” had reason to believe that a “live range” might indeed be the “least unsafe” point of release. That may just have caused JPJ to put things into perspective – if she had real doubts about the “live range” release point pre-release, she may have re-assessed that now.
    Clearly though, no-matter where they’re released, the real danger increases as they travel to or through the areas, well documented, of known high risk.

  13. 24 Dales Resident
    November 1, 2019 at 11:46 am

    In recent years grouse moor keepers have had access to my local Swaledale MOD live fire range. The keepers have had (2017) Larsen and baited clam traps on the MOD land with the knowledge and consent of the officer responsible for the range. These traps were of considerable concern to the local wildlife officer and some uncomfortable conversations resulted. Subsequently these and other traps were removed or have not been in use but access to the range by keepers has continued. This particular area has a history of local raptor persecution some of which has resulted in police appeals which have been documented on this site. I am aware of other local MOD land that is used for recreational game shooting by syndicates of MOD personnel, this also results in gamekeepers operating on MOD land and firing ranges.

    MOD land in the Yorkshire Dales is not free from the activities of game keepers and as such should not be assumed to be safe refuges for wildlife or free from illegal persecution.

  14. 25 Keen birder
    November 1, 2019 at 7:11 pm

    What about releasing them in a suitable place in Wales where theres no driven grouse moors, and its a lot close to Jemimas place, the birds could then spread out to where ever they want to . Be better to not bother at all, but it could be looked upon as a similar situation to the Curlew release project which are also at great risk of not surviving .

    • 26 Messi
      November 1, 2019 at 7:47 pm

      Odd logic that – we’ll appease driven grouse moor owners by removing pesky harriers off their English driven grouse moors, and will stick them over in Wales.

    • 27 Paul V Irving
      November 1, 2019 at 7:58 pm

      It is a brood meddling scheme NOT a translocation scheme the birds are supposed to go in the same SPA they came from. Many pairs in Wales fail due to the wet weather or foxes, I know I now live in mid Wales.I agree better no scheme at all.

  15. 28 Iain Gibson
    November 2, 2019 at 3:40 am

    Why do we rarely, if ever, hear of any research being carried out to determine the density of prey items on these allegedly suitable locations for brood-meddled young harriers? The idea of planting the birds in a live firing range is simply ridiculous, as is becoming ever more clear as each year passes. Presumably firing ranges are prohibited areas to the general public, but anyone who thinks the birds would settle (naturally or otherwise) in an area where gunfire and explosions are frequent, simply don’t understand harrier behaviour. However, even if loud explosions and frantic military practice did not frighten off potential breeders, the possibility of the brood-meddled young harriers, or even experienced adults, settling on the site would be determined by prey abundance. This will be influenced largely by whether field voles are abundant and available for males to provision a sufficient number of voles to prospecting females. It is well known that the natural density of breeding harriers is directly linked to an abundance of voles, especially in early spring, along with good populations of ground-nesting passerines, especially meadow pipits. If such conditions simply don’t exist on the chosen release.site, the transplanted brood-meddled young harriers will simply move onto pastures new, or more likely to grouse moors where their chances of survival would be slim. It is quite astonishing that at least one ‘harrier expert’ is complicit in this unworkable scheme. And Natural England should be ashamed of themselves.

  16. November 2, 2019 at 7:14 am

    Was the original nest that was robbed within an SPA?

  17. 33 alancranston
    November 2, 2019 at 8:12 pm

    As several people have commented, Amanda Anderson comes out of this particularly badly. I had thought her evasive fantastical nonsense was reserved for what she is paid to out in press releases. But her comments to Jemima Parry Jones adopt exactly the same patronising all’s well in the world tone. If I were JPJ and treated like that I’d be out of it right now.

    • 34 Les Wallace
      November 3, 2019 at 2:44 pm

      I can see JPJ blowing her top over this, and she wouldn’t be shy in letting the world know why. She’s a very, very no nonsense person. I was surprised she was ever involved in the first place.

  18. 35 Roderick Leslie
    November 4, 2019 at 12:08 pm

    What I still don’t understand is how there is a scientific panel in the first place – why are respected academics prepared to get involved in this fiasco ? is it to protect their DEFRA research grants ? And I think Jemima’s enthusiasm for rearing raptors, at which she is brilliant and has done hugely important work eg Indian Vultures, has rather carried her away into a place no respectable conservationists would want to be.

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