Posts Tagged ‘hen harrier


Responses to hen harrier satellite tag paper: Northern England Raptor Forum

The publication of the hen harrier satellite tag paper on Tuesday (here) that provided compelling evidence to highlight, yet again, the link between grouse moors and the illegal killing of hen harriers, has resulted in a flurry of responses from various individuals and organisations.

We’ll be looking at these responses in turn.

So far we’ve discussed the responses of Supt Nick Lyall (Chair, RPPDG) (here), BASC (here) and Dr Therese Coffey (DEFRA Wildlife Minister) (here).

This time we’re examining the response of the Northern England Raptor Forum (NERF).

NERF has published a statement on its blog – see here.

It’s a powerful commentary on what has amounted to 15 years of failed partnership working in attempts to get the grouse shooting industry to oust its hen harrier-killing criminals.

The sense of frustration at its failure is palpable.

The NERF statement is a must-read for all those who keep telling us we need to engage with conflict resolution approaches and if only we could all sit down around the same table and sip tea and eat Custard Creams everything will be fine. Read the statement and you’ll understand why it won’t.

The time for more talking with those who represent and shield the criminals has just about run out (for some it already has) but NERF is prepared for one more throw of the dice and is “investing a temendous amount of goodwill” in the apparently rejuvenated RPPDG under the leadership of Supt Nick Lyall.

Hats off to the NERF membership – these are ordinary men and women who voluntarily dedicate huge amounts of time and expertise to study, monitor and try to safeguard birds of prey across the north of England, despite the appalling criminality within the game shooting industry that is allowed to continue year after year after year with devastating impacts on individual and on populations of some raptors. Many would have thrown in the towel a long time ago to avoid the aggravation – thank god the NERF members didn’t.


Responses to hen harrier satellite tag paper: Wildlife Minister Dr Therese Coffey

The publication of the hen harrier satellite tag paper on Tuesday (here) that provided compelling evidence to highlight, yet again, the link between grouse moors and the illegal killing of hen harriers, has resulted in a flurry of responses from various individuals and organisations.

We’ll be looking at these responses in turn.

So far we’ve discussed the responses of Supt Nick Lyall (Chair, RPPDG) (here), and BASC (here).

This time we’re examining the response of the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at DEFRA, Dr Therese Coffey.

[Dr Coffey on a grouse moor with some devilled harrier kidneys (just kidding), photo by Dave Mitchell]

Before anyone gets excited, no, Dr Coffey wasn’t sufficiently embarrassed nor energised by the research findings to make a proactive, stand-alone statement about such devastating results; come on, this is the resolutely wilfully blind Dr Coffey who’s best known to us for her disinterested, apathetic responses whenever the issue of illegal raptor persecution is raised.

However, the paper was mentioned in a Westminster Hall debate on wildlife crime yesterday, at which Dr Coffey attended and spoke. The debate was broad ranging and quite interesting on a number of fronts – no time to go in to those details here but you can watch proceedings on this archived video here or read the transcript here. Well worth your time to see which MPs are not only clued up, but also which ones care about various aspects of wildlife crime. Useful info to have when the current Government implodes and you’re back in the voting booth.

The bit we’re most interested in, obviously, is Dr Coffey’s response to the issue of illegal raptor persecution. Here is the relevant part of the transcript, cut from the link above:

Raptor persecution is one of the UK’s wildlife crime priorities. All wild birds are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, and there are strong penalties for those committing offences. In the five years up to 2017—the latest year for which data is available—there were 107 prosecutions for crimes against wild birds and 75 convictions. The police are leading efforts to prevent the persecution of birds of prey. I praise the work done by North Yorkshire police, particularly on Operation Owl, and I commend police and crime commissioner Julie Milligan in particular. She has been fundamental not only in that work, but in chairing the rural group of police and crime commissioners, she has also made hare coursing a key priority for work across a number of forces.

In addition to activity to disrupt and deter criminality, officers of the North Yorkshire police have worked to raise awareness about raptor persecution among local landowners and members of the public. Only through working in partnership with those living and working in rural communities can raptor persecution be combated. Despite instances of poisoning and killing of birds of prey, populations of many species, such as the peregrine, red kite and buzzard have increased. I fully recognise, however, that some species continue to cause concern.

The Government take the decline in the hen harrier population in England particularly seriously, and we are committed to securing the future of that iconic species. That is why we took the lead on the hen harrier action plan, which sets out what will be done to increase hen harrier numbers in England, including the trialling of brood management. In the recent judicial review into the lawfulness of Natural England’s decision to grant a licence for trials of hen harrier brood management, the claimants’ claims were dismissed. The proposed brood management scheme will continue. It seeks to manage the conflict between the conservation of hen harriers and the grouse shooting industry. That decision means the important work to protect and conserve the hen harrier can continue.

The hon. Member for Workington referred to an article that was published in a journal yesterday; I take that issue very seriously and will be seeking to meet the chair of the raptor persecution group, Superintendent Lyall, to go through it in detail. Although it is not for the Government to tell the police or the Crown Prosecution Service who they should be investigating and charging, we should take a proactive approach, particularly to stamp out the persecution of birds of prey“.


It’s good to see Dr Coffey recognising and applauding the recent efforts of North Yorkshire Police and their Operation Owl initiative and it’s very good to hear that she plans to meet Supt Nick Lyall, Chair of the RPPDG.

But hang on a minute, haven’t the devastating results of a peer-reviewed scientific study just been published in a high-ranking journal, detailing one of the most pressing wildlife conservation issues in the UK – the persistent illegal killing of hen harriers on driven grouse moors in northern England? And Dr Coffey, our Wildlife Minister, has nothing specific to say about those results?

That’s shameful.

Yes, the Westminster Government absolutely should be taking a “proactive approach” to stamp out the persecution of birds of prey, but it hasn’t and it isn’t. It’s as simple as that.


Lying in wait: gamekeepers trying to lure raptors to within shotgun range in Peak District National Park?

Some of you may remember the footage of an armed man, believed to be a gamekeeper, lying in wait close to a decoy hen harrier on a grouse moor in the Peak District National Park, back in 2016 (see here).

The footage was so disturbing, and the public reaction so strong, it prompted the National Trust (the landowner) to pull the shooting lease early and replace the shooting tenant with someone else (see here). Incidentally, that new tenant hosted a successful hen harrier breeding attempt last year (see here), even though some of the offspring didn’t survive for very long after leaving the safety of this moor (e.g. Arthur, see here and Octavia, see here).

We’ve also blogged before about what was believed to be the use of a tethered live eagle owl as a decoy on a grouse moor in the Lammermuirs (see here), although the suspected gamekeeper took off pretty sharpish once he realised he’d been spotted.

Well, it seems this method of using to decoys to lure in birds of prey to within close range of a shotgun is more prevalent than we’d thought.

Today the RSPB Investigations Team has published a video of several armed men (identified as gamekeepers by the RSPB) over a period of months spending hours and hours and hours of their time sitting in specially-dug holes in close proximity to a plastic peregrine and a plastic hawk, believed to have been used as decoys to attract other birds of prey. The location? A grouse moor in the Peak District National Park.

Hmm, it’s really no surprise that the Peak District National Park was identified in the recent scientific analysis of hen harrier sat tag data as one of the grouse moor areas where hen harriers were most likely ‘disappear’ in suspicious circumstances (see here).

The RSPB has also written a blog about this footage, and similar evidence of decoy use that has been recorded on other grouse moors in the north of England. Read the eye-opening blog here.

Fantastic investigative work from the RSPB to get such close and clear footage and there’s a strong chance that these gamekeepers won’t be using those particular decoy sites again in the near future!


Responses to hen harrier satellite tag paper: BASC

The publication of the hen harrier satellite tag paper on Tuesday (here) that provided compelling evidence to highlight, yet again, the link between grouse moors and the illegal killing of hen harriers, has resulted in a flurry of responses from various individuals and organisations.

We’ll be looking at these responses in turn.

Yesterday we looked at the response of Supt Nick Lyall, Chair of the Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group (here).

Today we’re examining the response from the British Association for Shooting & Conservation (BASC).

BASC was quick to publish a lengthy statement on its website and at first glance it looks convincing. BASC accepts that raptor persecution is a problem and calls for its members to help stamp it out:

The statement starts off very strongly but the message gets progressively lame as you scroll down the page, with BASC feeling the need to justify the ‘benefits’ of grouse shooting and then make some incredulous claims about the so-called ‘success’ of last year’s hen harrier breeding season, which actually looks like something that’s been cut and pasted from the Moorland Association’s website.

Nevertheless, we could forgive BASC its small piece of propagandist nonsense because hey, the main message (about stamping out illegal raptor persecution) is clear and it looks like it’s based on sincerely held views.

But wait a minute! Some of the phraseology in BASC’s statement looks awfully familiar.

There are criminals among us“, “Terminal damage“, “We must all take personal responsibility“, “Ensuring the criminal minority do not ruin it for the lawful, ethical majority“, “I want my grandchildren to enjoy shooting“.

Haven’t we heard this before? Ah yes, 16 months ago in November 2017 in response to the RSPB’s Birdcrime report, BASC published a strong position statement in The Times (here) (for which BASC earned well-deserved credit) using some of these very same phrases and then a further piece for the BASC website (here) again using some of these very same phrases. For example, here’s what BASC Chairman Peter Glenser wrote for the BASC website at the time:

Sorry, BASC, but it’s just not as convincing when you can’t respond spontaneously to the results of the hen harrier satellite tag paper but instead rely upon regurgitating a previous media statement just because it got you some good press the first time around, and just attribute it to a different member of staff each time.

To be fair to BASC, it is seen by many in the conservation community as the most progressive of the game-shooting organisations although let’s be honest, the bar is set pretty low and some of its individual staff members need to attend a ‘how not to behave in a way that will embarrass your employer and alienate the public on social media and in real life’ course.

But words are just words and they’re easy to churn out (especially if you’re simply cutting and pasting from an earlier piece). What about actions? What action has BASC taken to demonstrate a commitment to rooting out the criminals amongst its membership and wider industry since what it called the “watershed moment” to do exactly that back in November 2017?

Errrrr……boycotting the first meeting of the RPPDG chaired by Nick Lyall in January (see here, here and here)?

Or perhaps appearing to accept a significant donation from a company owned by somebody long-involved with the sporting management of various estates throughout the UK, some of which are notorious for their appalling record of confirmed and alleged raptor persecution crimes?

BASC’s rhetoric might be fooling some, but……


Responses to hen harrier satellite tag paper: Supt Nick Lyall, Chair RPPDG

The publication of the hen harrier satellite tag paper yesterday (here) that provided compelling evidence to highlight, yet again, the link between grouse moors and the illegal killing of hen harriers, has resulted in a flurry of responses from various individuals and organisations.

We’ll be looking at these responses in turn.

To begin with, Police Supt Nick Lyall, the Chair of the Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group (RPPDG), a so-called ‘partnership’ tasked with raising awareness of illegal raptor persecution and finding ways to eradicate it.

[Nick Lyall and his infamous rapper coat attending the Scottish Raptor Study Group annual conference in Perthshire in February, photo by Ruth Tingay]

Within hours of the hen harrier sat tag paper being published, Nick posted a statement on his blog last night with the heading ‘Time for change‘….. (see here).

He made four key points.

First, an acknowledgement of the high quality of the research and the journal in which it had been published.

Second, an acknowledgement that the research provided evidence of the extent of the raptor persecution issue, which is a significant change from a comment he made five months ago in his first blog about “rogue gamekeepers” (unsurprisingly, written shortly after spending time with the Moorland Association).

Third, and perhaps of greatest importance, that he intended to act upon the research findings via his newly forming RPPDG Enforcement Group, instead of simply discussing the findings and saying ‘Oh, isn’t it all terrible’. Most encouragingly, he also wrote, “I already have a couple of offenders in my sights….”.

Fourth, and the least convincing (to us), was his statement about continuing to work with ‘partners’: “I still firmly believe that an effective partnership response to this issue is the most sustainable way forward“.

We fundamentally disagree with this statement. These are crimes that are being committed – and in our view, serious organised crimes – the people involved should be treated as criminals, not partners.

Nick thinks an effective partnership would be the most sustainable way forward. But in any partnership, no matter what the topic, it will only work if all the partners share the same objectives. The simple fact of the matter is that in the RPPDG, they don’t, and this particular partnership charade has been allowed to continue for ten years without achieving anything of any significance in the world of raptor conservation. Not one thing. Other ‘partnership’ initiatives to tackle illegal raptor persecution go back much further than ten years and they’ve all failed too.

Nick got a taste of the ‘partnership’ at his first RPPDG meeting in January (see here), which was boycotted by several of the so-called ‘partners’ in an attempt to disrupt proceedings simply because they weren’t getting their own way, as they had for the previous ten years. It remains to be seen what will happen at the next ‘partnership’ meeting in April. Our hope is that they’ll get booted out so that the genuine partners, all working towards the same goal, can get on with it without further disruptions. We’ll see.

Regular blog readers will know that we have a huge amount of time for Nick Lyall and for what he’s trying to achieve. There’s no question that he ‘gets it’ and that he understands the challenges ahead, and that he’s working his socks off to start implementing change, most of which (or all of which?) is done in his own time.

Right now, in just six short months, he’s single-handedly putting to shame many of the others in positions of authority who have had, and still do have, the opportunity to bring about change but who have failed, and continue to fail, to even start trying.


At least 72% satellite tagged hen harriers presumed illegally killed on grouse moors

At long last, after years of stalling, hiding, prevaricating and obsfuscating (e.g. see here and here) and 13 years after its publicly-funded study began, Natural England’s hen harrier satellite tag data has finally been analysed and published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

The paper is open access and can be downloaded here: Widespread illegal killing of HH on British grouse moors

Here is the abstract:

The results? Entirely predictable (hen harriers are highly likely to be killed on grouse moors – gosh, who knew?), and are more likely to be killed inside protected areas such as National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) with large areas of grouse moors than any other type of landuse, especially these protected areas in North Yorkshire, Bowland and the Peak District:

Unfortunately the results do not have the same fine resolution as those of the golden eagle sat tag review, but that is simply a consequence of using different types of satellite tag and duty cycles. E.g. the golden eagle tags, especially the newer GSM solar powered tags, are ‘on’ constantly and are collecting data every minute when fully charged, whereas the hen harrier tags are using the Doppler/Argos system so the tags are less spatially accurate and have frequent periods when they are not ‘on’, thus not collecting data. Nevertheless, even being forced to undertake an analysis at a coarse scale, the results are still damning.

The most devastating result, in our opinion, is the extent of the criminality and this is what should be grabbing the attention of Ministers. Sure, we’ve all known for years that hen harriers are killed by gamekeepers on many driven grouse moors; everybody knows and acknowledges that, but the scale of the killing has always been challenged (or more usually, denied).

But this paper puts an end to those denials. 72% of the Natural England sat tagged hen harriers are presumed to have been illegally killed, versus 9% natural deaths. 72% is the MINIMUM value. If you exclude the tagged birds that are still alive/being tracked (7), and thus just look at the tagged birds with a known end fate, then the maximum value of illegally killed satellite tagged hen harriers would be 82% versus 9.8% natural deaths. It’ll be interesting to add the RSPB-tagged birds to this in due course.

82% of young tagged hen harriers are likely to have been illegally killed, on grouse moors. Compare that to the 31% of satellite tagged golden eagles that ‘disappeared’ in suspicious circumstances on or near driven grouse moors in Scotland. In a direct response to that 31%, Scottish Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham ordered an independent review of grouse moor management, specifically to examine opportunities for licensing.

How do you think her Westminster counterparts, Michael Gove & Dr Therese Coffey will respond to the 82% figure? Let’s see, shall we?

A press release has been issued by the partner organisations involved in the hen harrier sat tag analysis, as follows:


A new study reveals that young hen harriers in England suffer abnormally high mortality compared to populations in Orkney and mainland Scotland and the study provides compelling evidence that the most likely cause is illegal killing in areas associated with grouse moor management.

Published today in Nature Communications, this paper represents the culmination of a 10-year Natural England study involving 58 satellite tagged hen harriers. The analyses have been led by the University of Cape Town and Aberdeen University with the provision of land use data by the RSPB. The study showed the likelihood of hen harriers dying, or disappearing, was ten times higher within areas predominantly covered by grouse moor, compared to areas with no grouse moor. The study revealed that 72% of tagged harriers were either confirmed or considered very likely to have been illegally killed.

The hen harrier, sometimes called the ‘skydancer’ because of its amazing acrobatic display in the breeding season, is one of England’s rarest birds and is legally protected. Illegal killing of hen harriers has long been thought to limit their population size, but identifying the scale of these crimes and their impact on harrier populations has been difficult because they occur in remote areas and evidence is likely to be destroyed, thus successful prosecutions are rare. This long-term study has enabled patterns of disappearances to be assessed across a large number of birds. This provides overwhelming evidence that illegal killing is occurring on some grouse moors, where some gamekeepers view hen harriers as a threat to their grouse stocks.

Stephen Murphy from Natural England led the data collection and commented: Natural England welcomes the publication of this study, which demonstrates the value of tagging as a legitimate conservation tool. These analyses are a significant step in understanding the fate of tagged hen harriers, and confirm what has long been suspected – that illegal persecution is having a major impact on the conservation status of this bird.”

Dr Megan Murgatroyd, from the University of Cape Town, who is the lead author of the study said: “Natural England’s long-term commitment to this tracking study has yielded an important dataset involving over 20,000 individual fixes. This is a remarkable achievement for a species whose population in England has averaged only a handful of pairs for the last few years. Whilst dead harriers can be disposed of, the pattern of hen harrier disappearances revealed by this data could not be hidden. [Ed: She’s clearly been listening to Dr Hugh Webster – that’s his line!] The multiple levels of analyses of the data have all led to the same robust conclusion that hen harriers in Britain suffer elevated levels of mortality on grouse moors, and this is most likely the result of illegal killing.“

Dr David Douglas, RSPB Principal Conservation Scientist and a co-author on the paper, said: “The high rate of illegal persecution on grouse moors revealed by this study goes a long way to explaining why hen harriers are barely hanging on as a breeding bird in England. Satellite tag data is giving us very valuable insights into what is happening to our birds of prey in the UK. It has already provided compelling evidence of the link between suspicious golden eagle deaths and grouse moors in Scotland and now it has done the same for hen harriers in England.”

Rob Cooke from Natural England said: “Natural England will continue its satellite tracking work to further improve our understanding of hen harrier movements and behaviour, and will continue work to improve the conservation status of the species. Natural England welcomes the support of many landowners in this, and will continue to work with all landowners and other interested parties to find ways of enabling hen harrier populations to increase from their current critically endangered levels in England”. 


[Satellite-tagged hen harrier Carroll, who’d been shot]

UPDATE 20 March 2019: Responses to hen harrier satellite tag paper: Supt Nick Lyall, Chair RPPDG (here)

UPDATE 21 March 2019: Responses to hen harrier satellite tag paper: BASC (here)

UPDATE 21 March 2019: Response to hen harrier satellite tag paper: DEFRA Wildlife Minister Dr Therese Coffey (here)

UPDATE 22 March 2019: Response to hen harrier satellite tag paper: Northern England Raptor Forum (here)


‘Effective regulation required for excesses of driven grouse shooting in Scotland’

Duncan Orr-Ewing, Head of Species and Land Management at RSPB Scotland, has written a blog discussing the state of raptor conservation in Scotland, how certain species are still suffering due to the ongoing illegal killing associated with land managed for driven grouse shooting, and how the Scottish Government needs to bring about significant change.

Duncan’s blog is reproduced here:


Most people accept that the conservation prospects for many raptor species in Scotland have improved in recent decades, and since full protection of these birds in the UK from the 1950s. This is most apparent in the rise in the common buzzard population. This bird of prey species has made a welcome return and can now be seen in almost all of the countryside of lowland Scotland, and even in some of our main towns and cities. Like the common buzzard, various other raptor species have re-established their populations naturally,  particularly when the main constraint of human persecution has ceased or been significantly reduced. Red kite and white-tailed eagle have been given a helping hand by conservationists, working with landowners, through well planned reintroduction programmes, and are also on the way back.

Raptor species are now amongst the most studied birds in Scotland, much of this work prompted by the effects of organochlorine pesticides on their populations from the 1960s. We have good information on the population distribution of most raptor species, as well as a clear scientific understanding of the main threats to their conservation status. There are a number of native raptor species whose populations have not recovered, and these include the hen harrier. National surveys of this species have shown that the population of hen harriers in Scotland has declined between 2004 and 2016 from 633 to 460 breeding pairs, or by 27%. When you scrutinise the data more carefully there are significant geographical differences; the breeding hen harrier population is doing relatively well on Orkney and the Western Isles but is struggling in the eastern and central Highlands and southern uplands. The authoritative Conservation Framework for Hen Harriers in the UK (Fielding et al. 2011. JNCC) estimated that the Scottish breeding population of this species should be between 1467 and 1790 breeding pairs based on the availability of suitable nesting habitat. So what is happening?

[Hen harrier, photographer unknown, via Alamy]

What is now becoming clearer is that many raptor populations in Scotland are held below their potential population levels and range because of continuing illegal human persecution on land managed for “driven” grouse shooting. For the raptor species that have got commoner, it is clear to those who monitor them that even these species are largely absent from “driven” grouse moor areas as breeding birds. Equally, the raptor populations that hang on in these areas do not behave as you would expect – traditional nesting sites become occupied periodically, and then breeding birds disappear or nesting attempts routinely fail in mysterious circumstances. Young birds attempt to breed that would normally be excluded from good sites by adult birds. For those species, like the hen harrier, where grouse moors are their most suitable breeding habitat, and where populations remain heavily persecuted , it is held that their populations simply cannot increase without changes in land management culture and behaviours. Population “sinks” occur where the best habitats are repeatedly attracting nesting birds and these birds are repeatedly killed illegally. Most recently, new technological advances in the study of the survival and dispersal of birds, in the form of GPS satellite tagging, have reinforced the point that many of these marked raptors simply vanish without trace in grouse moor areas. The report “Analyses of the fate of satellite tagged golden eagles in Scotland” (Whitfield et al. 2017. SNH) highlighted that a third of a large sample of marked golden eagles disappeared in precisely this way.

[RPUK map, derived from data in the golden eagle sat tag review, showing the last known location of satellite-tagged golden eagles that had disappeared in suspicious circumstances on or close to driven grouse moors]

Sadly, it is now clear to many people involved with raptor conservation efforts that progress has stalled. Until now, the Scottish Government has made important, but piecemeal changes, to raptor protection laws. These measures have had the desired impact in large parts of Scotland. However, on land managed for “driven” grouse shooting, it is equally evident that raptor persecution is such an entrenched part of their business model, that tougher measures are now urgently required. Our RSPB Investigations team report that ever more extreme measures are being deployed by grouse moor gamekeepers to kill birds of prey and avoid detection, including the use of thermal imaging gear and night vision equipment to kill raptors at night. Many in the grouse moor community will tell you quite openly that they do not believe that they can manage their estates to deliver high grouse bags for sporting clients without breaking wildlife protection laws. This appalling situation has been further compounded in recent decades by the arrival on the scene of a new breed of sporting manager, and the proliferation of more intensive grouse moor management methods, involving ever increasing grouse bags for clients to shoot. This type of operator has commercialised grouse shooting. They have the resources to disregard public opinion; they have little concern for Scotland’s international reputation; and feel safe in the knowledge that it is very hard for the public authorities to bring the perpetrators of these wildlife crimes to justice.

From a RSPB Scotland perspective, we have put significant investment over many years into working with responsible landowners. We recognise that many landowners understand the harm that is being done to their sector by the more extreme grouse moor interests, but are apparently powerless to stop this momentum. We have engaged with conflict resolution processes, including the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project, designed to investigate ways that grouse moors can be managed both legally and sustainably. However, we have reluctantly concluded that amongst the “driven” grouse moor sector at least, there is little appetite to adapt businesses in line with modern day expectations. We simply do not think that further piecemeal changes to wildlife protection laws will be adequate.

The current independent Grouse Moor Management Review Group, commissioned by Scottish Government, is due to report in May 2019. This could be an important milestone if we are prepared to accept that a significant change must occur if we are to tackle the deeply embedded cultural issues concerning the current model of “driven” grouse moor management. This is also why the RSPB supports the licensing of “driven” grouse moors, including proportionate sanctions to remove such licences to operate, where the public authorities have good evidence of illegal activities taking place.


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