Posts Tagged ‘hen harrier


Natural England Hen Harrier satellite tag data – a new development

Natural England has been fitting tags (radio and satellite) to hen harriers since 2002 as part of what was called the Hen Harrier Recovery Project.

That’s 15 years of tagging.

(Photo by Jenny Weston)

In all that time, they’ve managed to publish just two summary reports: A future for the hen harrier in England (2008) and then in 2014, ‘Initial findings of Natural England’s hen harrier tracking programme 2007 to 2014‘ which didn’t really tell us anything we didn’t already know (see here for our analysis).

Despite many years of asking (e.g. see Mark Avery’s 2015 FoI request here), Natural England has refused (e.g. see Natural England’s FoI response here) to release any detailed results to the public. This has been both disappointing and frustrating given that the public has funded this 15-year study and especially given the huge and legitimate public concern about the continued illegal persecution of this species.

Natural England’s explanation for not releasing detailed information has been twofold: firstly we were told that NE ‘intended to analyse and publish the results’ and secondly, NE was funding a staff member (Stephen Murphy) to undertake a part-time PhD on this subject and so the detailed results were expected to form part of that PhD thesis.

According to the NE website, the PhD began in 2006 and was due to be completed in 2014:

Eleven years after it began, we decided to ask NE about the status of this PhD. We were suspicious that it wasn’t going to be completed because most universities invoke rigid time limits for students to submit a doctoral thesis (typically 4 years for a full-time study and 8 years for a part-time study). Universities are often rigorously strict with these time restrictions because higher education institutes are regularly assessed on their research quality (which relates to the subsequent allocation of research funding) and are financially penalised for, amongst other things, late doctoral completion rates. Sometimes, in extenuating circumstances, students can be granted a short time extension, but in this particular case, we very much doubted that a lengthy extension of three years would have been granted.

So we recently submitted an FoI to Natural England, along the same lines as Mark Avery’s previous FoI, to find out what was going on and, most importantly, when we could expect to read the detailed results of this long running study. Here’s the response to that FoI:

As you can see, the PhD has been abandoned. The reason is not given and, to be frank, we’re not particularly interested. There can be any number of explanations, either academic or personal, and it’s not really any of our business. Whatever the reason, it in no way diminishes the widely-held respect for Stephen Murphy’s field expertise.

What is our business, is the huge amount of hen harrier tracking data amassed over the last 15 years. Those data belong in the public domain, and Natural England can now no longer hide behind the excuse of a pending PhD submission, allowing the data to be kept secret.

You’ll notice in the FoI response that NE says it is intending to collaborate with ‘highly respected academics with an expertise in raptor research’ to analyse the data and submit for peer-review in 2018. That’s fine, but depending on the choice of scientific journal, the quality of the research and the quality of the peer-review, this process can often take several years before a paper is finally published.

That’s not good enough.

At the very least, Natural England should be looking at an immediate short-term output detailing very basic information, such as (a) how many sat tags have been fitted?, (b) where and when were they fitted?, (c) in which counties were they fitted?, (d) what was the fate of each of those tagged birds?, (d) how many of those birds were confirmed illegally killed?, (e) where were the corpses found? (county name and habitat type will do if the exact site information is sensitive), (f) how many tagged birds died of natural causes?, (g) how many tags suddenly stopped functioning in suspicious circumstances with birds ‘disappearing’, where, and in what habitat type?, (h) how many of the tagged birds are still alive?

The release of this basic information should not affect the proposed publication of scientific papers (similar information has recently been released for sat tagged golden eagles, red kites and hen harriers in Scotland) but will allow the public the opportunity to use these publicly-funded results to apply political pressure where it is badly needed.

Keeping these results secret does not help hen harriers but does help shield the criminals within the grouse shooting industry who are responsible for bringing this species to its knees.

If any blog readers wish to contact Natural England to ask for the release of these data, here’s the email address:

We’ll be very interested to hear of any responses.


Species Champion Mairi Gougeon MSP speaks up for hen harriers

‘Species Champions’ are members of the Scottish Parliament who have agreed to provide political support and awareness for Scotland’s threatened wildlife, under a scheme organised by Scottish Environment LINK.

Mairi Gougeon (nee Evans) MSP is the Species Champion for the hen harrier, and it was fantastic to see her attend Hen Harrier Day at Loch Leven a couple of weeks ago. She wasn’t the only MSP present – also in attendance was Alexander Stewart MSP (Scottish Conservatives) and Andy Wightman MSP (Scottish Greens) – Andy had cycled from Edinburgh and broke his pedal 5 miles away but still managed to make it on time – impressive!

It was gratifying to see all three of these politicians giving up their Saturday to come along. And they didn’t just turn up for the photo call and then clear off; they spent a considerable amount of time talking with the public, asking pertinent questions (and listening to the responses!) and they all stayed to hear the presentations throughout the afternoon. Mairi even gave a short but very encouraging presentation – you can watch it here (it’s only 4 mins long – well worth a listen, thanks to Guy Shorrock for recording it):

Perhaps of all three politicians in attendance, Mairi had the most cause to be there. Not just as the Hen Harrier Species Champion, but also because her SNP constituency is Angus North & Mearns, which includes the Angus Glens grouse moors, a notorious raptor persecution hotspot.

The history of illegal raptor persecution in this area is well known (see here for a long list of incidents), and it’s also known for its lack of breeding hen harriers – not a single recorded breeding attempt on these grouse moors for 11 years, although there was one breeding attempt in the area this year, but it wasn’t on a driven grouse moor. It’s clear from Mairi’s speech that she is well informed about the situation there.

Here’s a map we’ve created for Mairi to study. It’s a map of her constituency and includes data from the recent expert review of golden eagle satellite tag data and also from the RSPB’s recent map showing the locations of ‘disappeared’ or illegally killed satellite-tagged hen harriers and red kites. It’s quite clear that it’s the grouse moor areas of the Angus Glens that are bringing her constituency in to such disrepute.

Thanks to all three MSPs for their genuine interest in protecting the hen harrier and particular thanks and good luck to Mairi – we hope blog readers will support her endeavours to draw political attention to this species’ plight.


Natural England Board making up justification for Hen Harrier southern reintroduction?

Last month we blogged about the minutes of a Natural England Board meeting (held 22 March 2017) in relation to the proposed reintroduction of hen harriers to southern England. The published minutes stated:

The NE Board has considered the overall objective of the southern reintroduction [of hen harriers] and agreed this was to help relic upland populations in respect of the genetic diversity and the overall favourable conservation status of the species”. 

We were curious about the scientific evidence used by Natural England’s Board to assess the genetic diversity of the UK hen harrier population and determine that its genetic diversity is in need of “help”. We were also curious about whether potential donor hen harrier populations had been screened to assess their genetic suitability.

The reason we were so curious is because we were unaware of any genetic assessment ever having been undertaken for the UK hen harrier population, but, considering the scientific credentials of many NE Board members, we assumed they would have insisted on seeing such evidence before making such a claim. So we submitted an FoI to Natural England to ask for these details.

Natural England has responded as follows:

So basically, Natural England is unable to point to any scientific evidence to indicate that the genetic diversity of the UK hen harrier population is in need of ‘help’, and yet the NE Board has claimed that ‘helping’ the species’ genetic diversity is suitable justification for the southern reintroduction project to go ahead.

As Mark Avery said on his blog this morning, ‘Is NE fit for purpose? Quite honestly I don’t think it is. I no longer trust NE to do the right things for nature, and I no longer trust NE to tell the truth about what it is doing‘. We’re in full agreement with that, and based on this latest FoI response, we’d extend that to the NE Board.


More illegal raptor persecution hotspots revealed in new map

Ian Thomson, Head of RSPB Investigations Scotland has written an interesting blog examining the ‘disappearance’ and/or illegal killing of satellite tagged red kites and hen harriers – see here.

It’s well worth a read. And take a close look at this map, illustrating the locations of suspicious disappearances as well as where the corpses have been found:

Here’s a direct quote from Ian:

It is clear from this map that, like golden eagles, the distribution of illegally killed or suspiciously disappeared satellite-tagged red kites and hen harriers is far from random, and shows clear clusters in some upland areas. As with the “hotspots” for eagles, these clusters are almost entirely coincident with land dominated by driven grouse shooting management, again including areas like the northern Monadhliaths and the Angus Glens. But, harriers and kites have clearly being targeted in other regions – notably, but not exclusively, upper Strathspey, Strathnairn and the Lowther Hills of S Lanarkshire‘.

Following the recent news that the RSPB, in partnership with LUSH, has satellite-tagged a record number of hen harriers this year, we can expect many more dots to appear on this map, most of them will be added before Xmas.

We’ll be undertaking some finer analyses of this map, probably next week, and we’ll be asking blog readers to get involved. More on that soon.

There’s one other point in Ian’s blog that is worth highlighting here, in response to the unsubstantiated yet repeated claims by some that raptors do better on driven grouse moors than they do on RSPB reserves:

More pairs of hen harriers bred successfully on one RSPB reserve on Islay in 2017, than on the grouse moors of Aberdeenshire, Kincardineshire, Angus and the Scottish Borders put together. In fact, RSPB nature reserves hold 10% of Scotland’s breeding population of hen harriers, with 46 pairs in 2016‘.

How many hen harriers do you think bred successfully on Scottish grouse moors in 2016 (where driven shooting took place – not on moors which are currently not being shot)?

Photo of hen harrier Annie, who was found shot on a grouse moor in South Lanarkshire in 2015. (Image: RSPB Scotland).


Record number of hen harriers fitted with satellite tags


RSPB press release:

The RSPB has fitted a record number of hen harrier chicks with satellite tags in the UK this year, more than doubling the number from any other year.

More than 24 birds have been fitted with transmitters so far, the majority of them in Scotland, as part of the conservation organisation’s EU-funded Hen Harrier LIFE Project. Harriers were also tagged in Wales and the Isle of Man.

By tracking the movements of these threatened birds of prey, the RSPB will be able to build up an even clearer picture of where hen harriers go and where they are most at risk, for example from illegal persecution.

This is the third consecutive year that hen harriers have been tagged as part of the project [6 tagged in 2015; 12 tagged in 2016]. The increase in the number of tags deployed in 2017 was made possible by cosmetic company LUSH, which raised funds through the sales of a specially created “Skydancer” bath bomb.

Conservationists hope the ‘Hen Harrier Class of 2017’ will fare better than last year’s cohort. Out of the 12 young harriers fitted with tags by the RSPB in 2016, only five are still alive. [See here for fates of RSPB and Natural England tagged 2016 hen harriers].

One of the birds, Carroll, was found dead having suffered from an infectious disease. Disturbingly, a post mortem later revealed lead pellets, indicating she had survived being shot at some earlier point in her life. Two of the other birds disappeared in suspicious circumstances when their tags suddenly stopped transmitting, while a further three were lost to unknown causes. All are presumed to have died, as it is very rare for tags to fail for technical reasons.

It is not only RSPB-tagged hen harriers that have met with untimely demises over the past 12 months. In May this year a police investigation was launched after a hen harrier was allegedly shot on Leadhills Estate in South Lanarkshire, while in October Rowan, a bird tagged by Natural England, was discovered shot dead in Cumbria.

The RSPB sincerely hopes that Natural England will publish the publicly funded satellite tracking data which the statutory agency has collected over the past decade, as this will add significantly to the weight of evidence being gathered through the RSPB’s work. [We have an FoI back from NE about this and will blog shortly].

The need for this sort of data has never been greater. Hen harriers are in serious trouble across the UK. The results of the recently published National Hen Harrier Survey revealed that in the last 12 years, the number of breeding pairs has declined by more than a quarter (27%) in Scotland and by over a third (39%) in the UK as a whole.

While the final numbers are still being collated, anecdotal reports suggest the situation in Scotland does not appear to have improved this breeding season with hen harriers notably absent or in very low numbers in areas of suitable habitat, particularly in the south and east. In England, the final figures for 2017 show only three successful nests across habitat suitable for over 300.

The main reason hen harriers are continuing to decline is illegal killing and disturbance associated with the increasingly intensive management of driven grouse moors. The Scottish Government recently set up an independent enquiry into gamebird shoot licensing after an independent scientific review of golden eagle satellite tracking data revealed that approximately a third of them are being illegally killed.

Blánaid Denman, Project Manager for the RSPB’s Hen Harrier LIFE+ Project, said: By satellite tracking more hen harriers than ever before, we’ll gain a clearer picture of where these birds are spending their time and what exactly is happening to them. We’ve already discovered previously unknown nesting and winter roosting sites, as well as been able to pinpoint where natural deaths and illegal killings have occurred.

“It’s both infuriating and utterly heartbreaking to see these beautiful birds, year after year, disappear off the radar. Something needs to change. A system of grouse moor licensing would not only protect hen harriers but also tackle wider damaging grouse moor management practices, such as heather burning on deep peat and inappropriate drainage. For now though, I’ll be watching our newly fledged hen harriers, praying for their safety, and waiting to see what incredible journeys are about to unfold.”

Paul Morton from LUSH said: “We’re thrilled to hear that the money raised by our customers has allowed the RSPB to sat tag more hen harrier chicks than ever before. Monitoring as many youngsters as possible as they take their first flights across the length and breadth of the country is vital for their long-term protection. The message is loud and clear; a nation is watching and will have the welfare of each of these birds close to our hearts. The illegal persecution of hen harriers or any bird of prey will not be tolerated“.

From September, it will be possible to follow the travels of a selection of this year’s tagged hen harriers, together with last year’s surviving birds at:


A fantastic partnership effort (real, actual partnership-working rather than the charade of pretence we’re so used to seeing from the PAW Raptor Group). Well done to all involved at RSPB and LUSH, and well done to everyone who purchased a Skydancer bathbomb because you helped this project happen.


Three successful hen harrier nests in England (none on driven grouse moors)

The RSPB has just announced the results of the 2017 hen harrier breeding season in England. There was a pathetic total of three successful nests (England has the capacity for ~330 pairs).

The three successful nests (with ten fledglings) were on land managed by the Forestry Commission in Northumberland.

Read the full, sorry details on the RSPB’s Skydancer blog here.

Well done to the Northumberland Hen Harrier Protection Partnership (Northumberland National Park Authority, Forestry Commission, RSPB, Natural England, Northumberland Wildlife Trust, Ministry of Defence, Northumbria Police, and the Northern England Raptor Forum).

There’s an interesting quote from Andrew Miller of the National Park who says, “We will continue to monitor our birds throughout the year….” This implies that the young birds have been satellite tagged, but according to our sources, only one fledgling was fitted with a tag because Natural England left it too late this year. This seems hard to believe, given NE’s experience of sat tagging hen harriers, but no doubt we’ll hear more about this in due course.

The real story, and what should be our focus of attention, is that for a second year in a row, there wasn’t a single successful breeding attempt on any driven grouse moor in England. This is despite the grouse shooting industry supposedly being signed up to DEFRA’s Hen Harrier InAction Plan.

[Drawing by Gerard Hobley]

If this year’s shameful breeding results don’t inspire you to attend a Hen Harrier Day event this coming weekend, nothing will.

Well done to the RSPB for publishing the details of this year’s breeding season in good time (presumably Natural England is still fiddling with its super computer, trying to count up to three and ‘analysing’ the data).


RSPB statement on hen harrier reintroduction to southern England

Last week we wrote a series of blogs updating what we know about the proposed controversial ‘reintroduction’ of hen harriers to southern England.

In one of those blogs (here) we included an email from Jeff Knott (RSPB) to Simon Lees (Hen Harrier Southern Reintroduction Project Manager, Natural England) that included the following muddled sentence:

While we [RSPB] have said we don’t actively support the reintroduction project, nor are we opposed to it and of course we would want to see it be a success“.

We, and many others, didn’t have a clue what that meant. The RSPB has now published a clarification statement, posted on an RSPB community blog by Tony Whitehead, RSPB Public Affairs Manager, SW England region:

A consortium led by Natural England is currently looking at the feasibility of re-introducing hen harrier to southern England. The species is red listed, and has declined markedly over the past few decades with it’s continuing rarity due to ongoing illegal persecution on and around intensively managed grouse moors in northern England.

The current NE feasibility project aims to assess the opportunity of re-establishing a viable population away from the moors, and thus improve the bird’s prospects. Areas being looked at include Dartmoor, Exmoor and Wessex.

The RSPB has serious reservations about this approach to hen harrier conservation in England, and therefore is NOT supporting the project.

Firstly, the RSPB only advocates reintroduction in situations where natural re-colonisation is not possible through other measures. At present, we believe that this could be achieved if persecution in the uplands was stopped.

Secondly, the RSPB is concerned that if hen harriers were to be re-introduced to southern England, birds that disperse from their natal areas would be threatened by ongoing illegal persecution in the uplands. Therefore, again, persecution would need to stop entirely before any re-introduction would be viable.

However, the re-introduction project is still at the feasibility stage, and we have yet to see detailed proposals. Although we have serious doubts, to be fair, if the project can address these concerns, which we believe it would need to do in order to comply with IUCN re-introduction guidelines, then the RSPB would wish it every success.

Currently we don’t see how it can do this.


This statement provides us with a much better understanding of the RSPB’s position (it DOESN’T support the project) but it’s not as unequivocal as it could/should be. The RSPB is suggesting that it is only ‘fair’ to wait and see a detailed proposal. Why? What possible detail could alleviate the legitimate concerns about ongoing illegal persecution? Why pretend that the grouse-shooting industry and Natural England might pull something out of the bag to change all our minds?

There’s a time for diplomacy, sure, but on the subject of the illegal killing of hen harriers, that time has long since passed. Drop the final paragraph, stop pandering to the criminals and stand up with the rest of us.

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