Posts Tagged ‘hen harrier


No confidence in new satellite tags fitted to brood meddled hen harriers

Last week we blogged about how the brood meddling project management team had agreed to fit a new, untested type of satellite tag to at least three of the five brood meddled hen harriers (see here).

This new tag was also fitted to other hen harrier chicks by Natural England this year. One of those chicks was called Rosie, who was reported as ‘missing’ on 17 September 2019 (here) only for her tag to re-start transmitting data three days later (here).

We blogged about the scientific and political stupidity of testing a new type of tag in the brood meddling trial, where understanding the fate of the brood meddled chicks is fundamental to assessing the trial’s ‘success’ or failure. It makes no sense whatsoever to do this – why not stick with the tags that you know, from several years worth of experience, have a 94% reliability rate on harriers? It’s been reported that three of the five brood meddled hen harriers ‘disappeared’ in September but because there is so little confidence in the reliability of the new tags nobody knows whether those birds have been illegally killed (like so many before them) or whether they’re actually fine and just carrying dodgy tags.

This afternoon we learned that at least one of those brood meddled hen harriers is actually ok and yes, it is clearly carrying a dodgy tag. This from Natural England on twitter:

So now we have no confidence whatsoever in these particular tags.

For the avoidance of doubt, that doesn’t mean that all satellite tags are unreliable, as undoubtedly the persecution deniers will try to claim. As we’ve blogged previously, there are many different tag models and the quality of both the tag and the data it produces can vary massively. There is constant communication between many researchers who deploy these tags as nobody in their right mind would want to buy a tag, let alone deploy it, if there was any hint of that particular model under-performing.

Which begs the question, again, why were these tags selected for the brood meddling trial?


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.


What you need to know about the satellite tags fitted to the brood meddled hen harriers

Just when you thought the hen harrier brood meddling trial couldn’t be discredited any further… turns out that three of the five brood meddled chicks have been fitted with a new, untested type of satellite tag which showed reliability problems right from the start of the trial.

A further five hen harrier chicks, unrelated to the brood meddling trial, were also fitted with these new tags this year (by Natural England), including hen harrier Rosie who was reported ‘missing’ on 17th September (see here) but whose tag started transmitting again three days later (see here).

As far as we are aware, these new tags have not previously been deployed on any harrier species in the UK.

What the actual f….?

It’s anybody’s guess why the project team chose to deploy a new type of tag for the brood meddling trial. The type of tag selected for any animal movement research project will depend on a whole host of things, not least the type of research questions to be addressed by a project (e.g. do you need long-term coarse scale data or do you need shorter-term high resolution data?) but also technical issues such as your study species’ size, weight and ecology as well as tag size, weight and functionality, and there is always the issue of affordability and most definitely reliability.

[A selection of satellite tags on display at the police/researcher satellite tag workshop held earlier this year – photo by Ruth Tingay]

There are a number of tag manufacturers competing in a tight market and competition is high – researchers talk to one another about the tags they’ve been using, the pros and cons of each tag type and which manufacturer’s tags are out performing the others. Tag technology is constantly developing and improving and sometimes researchers will decide to take a risk to test out cutting edge tag technology and novel attachment methods – this is how research advances and methods improve and it’s generally a good thing as long as feedback is widely available to the scientific and technology community from which to learn.

However, if you’re running a politically sensitive research trial where understanding the fate of your study species is crucial (i.e. Natural England’s hen harrier brood meddling trial), and you need to compare survival rates with those of hen harriers tagged in previous years, it is utterly incomprehensible, both politically and scientifically, to elect to try out a new type of tag for that trial because then you have no basis for confidence in the tag’s reliability. It’s completely bonkers!

The hen harrier brood meddling project team agreed to test new tags in the brood meddling trial, apparently for a higher resolution of tracking data. The potential for the tags to fail to provide relevant data was identified as a risk in the Brood Meddling Project Plan and yet still the project team agreed to press on:

We know from an FoI response that at a project team meeting on 27 August 2019, it was noted that there had been unreliability issues with the tags when the chicks were still in the release aviary (the team thought the aviary’s wire mesh may have caused an issue) but there was still an issue with at least one of the harrier’s tags post-release from the aviary:

We also know that in early September news of the tags’ unreliability had reached the gamekeeping community, as evidenced by this gamekeeper’s post on social media. This is a huge worry. Who told the gamekeepers the tags weren’t functioning properly? Talk about giving them a green light to attack! ‘It’s ok lads, you can shoot the harriers this week ‘cos the tags aren’t working properly so they’ll never know it was you’.

We contacted Natural England to ask whether there was any truth in the claims of tag unreliability and to their credit they responded openly, confirming that two of the tags had been malfunctioning but were now back online, that NE hadn’t been concerned about the harriers because they still had ‘eyes on’ the birds in the field so they knew they were ok, and that NE would be talking to the tag manufacturer to understand the issues.

The issue of tag reliability (or in this case, unreliability), cannot be over-estimated. It’s huge. When these three brood meddled hen harriers, along with HH Rosie, went off the radar in September it was completely reasonable for the public and the police to assume they’d been illegally killed because their disappearances fitted the suspicious circumstances of so many before them (at least 72% of all NE-tagged hen harriers have either been illegally killed or presumed to have been killed on grouse moors, according to authoritative research).

We now know Rosie hadn’t been killed – just that her tag had temporarily stopped, for unknown reasons and for an unknown period of time. Perhaps the tag data have already provided a clue to the cause of this (e.g. low battery voltage) but the project team hasn’t commented so we don’t know.

But what of the still missing three brood meddled hen harriers? Can we be sure they’ve been killed? No, we can’t. It’s highly plausible, of course, but it’s equally plausible, knowing what we now know about these particular tags’ unreliability, that the harriers are actually fine but their tags have just stopped functioning for unknown reasons. Will this uncertainty affect Natural England’s decision to issue another brood meddling licence in January?

This situation is obviously unsatisfactory on many levels, not least for the scientific integrity of the brood meddling trial – it’ll be interesting to hear what the scientific advisory group has to say about all this.

Why didn’t they stick with the tags previously used to monitor hen harrier survival? Sure, like any tag those tags also have constraints but their known reliability is excellent (94%) and of course using the same tag type ensures consistency when trying to compare across studies.

And if you think you’ve heard everything there is to hear about the shambolic brood meddling trial, you’re sadly mistaken…..


Re-discovery of hen harrier Rosie not quite as it’s being portrayed

You’ll recall that satellite-tagged hen harrier Rosie was reported as being the fourth young hen harrier to disappear this autumn, in a vague statement issued by Northumbria Police on 17th October 2019 (see here).

Rosie was not one of the brood meddled hen harriers but was a 2019 bird satellite tagged by Natural England in Northumberland. We were not told the date of her tag’s last transmission nor the location of the tag’s last known position other than ‘near Whittingham’.

Three days later on the evening of 20th October 2019, Supt Nick Lyall tweeted to say “Rosie is alive and well“. It was not reported whether Rosie’s tag had come back online or whether she’d been observed and identified in the field by other means, e.g. the unique code on her leg ring.

On 23rd October 2019 Northumbria Police posted the following statement on social media:

You’d be forgiven for reading this statement, particularly the part we’ve highlighted in red, and thinking that Rosie’s tag had failed and she was only re-discovered thanks to the extraordinary efforts of local landowners and gamekeepers.

Indeed, Amanda Anderson of the Moorland Association has been quick to exploit this view on her social media accounts:

Isn’t it all fantastic? We don’t need ‘unreliable’ technology to protect this species – we can simply rely on lovely landowners and gamekeepers, working in partnership with the police, and the hen harrier will be kept safe.

The thing is, this version of events is complete bollocks.

When Nick Lyall tweeted that Rosie was ‘alive and well’, we contacted him to ask for more detail. He told us that Rosie’s tag had come back online and that’s how she’d been relocated, and this was ground-truthed by an experienced Natural England fieldworker who confirmed the sighting. (Thanks for being upfront, Nick).

So why the hell is Northumbria Police stating that “Rosie has been located thanks to local information and partnership working” and inferring that she was found thanks to the efforts of local landowners and gamekeepers, when actually she was found because her tag came back online?

Was this police press statement issued with the blessing of Natural England?

And if it wasn’t, why hasn’t Natural England since clarified the details of Rosie’s re-discovery?

What sort of shambles is this? How are we supposed to have any confidence in what we’re being told?

This blurring of the facts isn’t the only issue of concern. We’d like Natural England to be much more upfront about the type of tag Rosie is carrying….and you’ll understand our concern about that when we blog about the tags that were fitted to the brood meddled hen harriers……


Is SNH about to impose a General Licence restriction on Leadhills Estate?

Last week RSPB Scotland published a blog called ‘Why vicarious liability is failing to have an impact in Scotland‘.

Written by Duncan Orr-Ewing, Head of Species & Land Management, it’s the latest in a series, following on from the excellent blog challenging the Scottish Gamekeepers’ ignorance on satellite tags, written by Ian Thomson, Head of Investigations at RSPB Scotland.

Duncan’s blog is well worth a read. It questions the Crown Office’s recent decision not to prosecute anyone for alleged vicarious liability following the conviction of Scottish gamekeeper Alan Wilson for a series of barbaric wildlife crimes on the Longformacus Estate in the Scottish Borders.

It also considers the potential benefits of having the threat of a vicarious liability prosecution, and how this may have driven down the use of illegal poisons as a method of killing raptors, but been replaced by shooting and trapping methods which are much harder to detect.

The really interesting part of the blog, as far as we’re concerned, is the section on the Leadhills Estate in South Lanarkshire. Blog readers will recall this is where a male hen harrier was found with an almost severed leg caught in an illegally-set spring trap next to his nest earlier this summer. Despite the heroic efforts of a number of experts, he didn’t survive. The estate denied all knowledge and responsibility and nobody has been charged.

[The trapped hen harrier found on Leadhills Estate. Photo by Scottish Raptor Study Group]

Regular blog readers will know this poor hen harrier is not the only victim reported from the Leadhills Estate. The list is long and goes back more than a decade (e.g. scroll down this page). Duncan’s blog discusses some of the most recent incidents including the witnessed shooting of a hen harrier in May 2017; the witnessed shooting of a short-eared owl just a few weeks later and whose body was recovered; the discovery of a buzzard in 2018 that was found to have been shot twice; and the filmed buzzard that according to the RSPB was likely killed in a crow trap in January 2019.

Nobody has been charged for any of the above, but significantly, Duncan’s blog says this:

“We are advised that only now is an Open General Licence restriction, another sanction in the public authority wildlife crime “toolbox”, to be imposed here”.

SNH has had the power to impose General Licence restrictions since 1 January 2014. This was instigated by former Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse in response to continuing difficulties of securing criminal prosecutions and was an instruction to SNH to withdraw the use of the General Licence (available for legal predator control) on land where crimes against raptors are believed to have taken place but where there is insufficient evidence to instigate criminal proceedings. The decision to withdraw the licence is based on the civil standard of proof which relates to the balance of probability as opposed to the higher standard of proof required for a criminal conviction.

This measure is not without its limitations, particularly as estates can simply apply for an individual licence instead which allows them to continue predator control activities but under slightly closer scrutiny.

SNH has only imposed four such restrictions since 2014 – a pathetically small figure when we are aware of at least a dozen other cases where a restriction should have been applied. SNH has claimed it is ‘not in the public interest‘ to explain those failures.

We’ve looked on the SNH website to see whether Leadhills Estate has been listed as having a General Licence restriction imposed (SNH does publicise the details when it imposes the restriction) but so far Leadhills Estate is not named. Potentially the estate has been notified and is currently in the period where it may challenge SNH’s decision, as per the framework for a General Licence restriction.

Watch this space.


Missing hen harrier Rosie reported to be alive and well

Following last Thursday’s news that a fourth satellite tagged hen harrier had ‘disappeared’ this autumn  – one called Rosie who vanished in Northumberland on an unknown date (here), news emerged last night on Supt Nick Lyall’s twitter feed that apparently she is alive and well.

There is no further detail at the moment.

[Hen harrier Rosie, photograph from Natural England]

We’d be very interested to find out from Natural England when, exactly, they called this bird as ‘missing’ (the original appeal for information from Northumbria Police strangely excluded this detail) and for how long the tag was actually offline.

If it was a genuine technical tag malfunction then nobody should be the least bit surprised. Assuming Rosie’s tag is the same type of tag as used in previous years, it’s known to have a 94% reliability rate. We’re aware of only one other hen harrier tag that was listed as a ‘stop no malfunction’ (i.e. a suspicious disappearance) but the bird was identified alive and well several months later (‘Highlander‘, a HH tagged by the RSPB) so if Rosie’s tag has temporarily malfunctioned that’s well within the expected 6% failure rate.

And of course even if this was a genuine tag malfunction it doesn’t change the fact that three of the five brood meddled hen harriers are still missing in suspicious circumstances and that 72% of all hen harriers sat tagged by Natural England have either been illegally killed or have disappeared presumed illegally killed on grouse moors. We’re expecting to see a similar figure from RSPB -tagged harriers when their tag analyses have been completed.

UPDATE 27 October 2019: Re-discovery of hen harrier Rosie not quite as it’s being portrayed (here)


Decision on next Hen Harrier brood meddling licence to ‘take into account the results to date’

Yesterday, before the news that a fourth satellite-tagged hen harrier had vanished in suspicious circumstances this autumn (see here), DEFRA published the following blog:

We’re still waiting to learn from Natural England what, exactly, is the exit strategy for the hen harrier brood meddling trial and specifically, what are the criteria for making that decision?

Well what a relief to learn that the decision on whether to renew the hen harrier brood meddling licence ‘will take into account the results to date‘.

Those ‘results’ will be the suspicious disappearance of three of this year’s five brood meddled hen harriers (we understand the two surviving brood meddled birds have flown off to France) plus the suspicious disappearance of at least one other satellite-tagged hen harrier (Rosie) in recent weeks and there’s absolutely no doubt there’ll be more before this year is out.

The decision whether to renew or not should be easy and it should already have been made. Nobody in their right mind can think that brood meddling has (a) been successful and (b) is in any way helping hen harrier conservation.

But then look at that last paragraph in the DEFRA blog, above. It claims that the ‘ultimate aim’ of the DEFRA Hen Harrier (In)Action Plan, of which brood meddling is a part, is to ‘reduce hen harrier predation of grouse chicks on driven grouse moors……’


Why is a Government department (DEFRA) and the statutory conservation agency (Natural England) focusing on protecting excessive numbers of red grouse (that are going to be shot for fun) at the expense of a protected red-listed bird of prey in population free-fall due to illegal killing on aforementioned grouse moors?

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Blog Stats

  • 5,546,480 hits


Our recent blog visitors