Posts Tagged ‘hen harrier

14
Dec
17

Heads Up for Harriers Project condemned as “greenwashing exercise” in Parliamentary debate

Yesterday evening saw a Members Debate in the Scottish Parliament as a result of MSP Mairi Gougeon’s recent motion in support of the Heads Up for Harriers Project and the Role of Species Champions.

The archive video of this debate can be watched here and the official report of the meeting can be read here:

Heads up for Harriers debate 13Dec2017

The debate centred on two topics: the role of the species champions and the Heads Up for Harriers Project (HuHP). For the purpose of this blog, we’ll just be focusing on the HuHP – that’s not to say the role of the species champion isn’t important – as we’ve blogged before, it’s an incredibly worthwhile initiative and one that we very much support. We are especially pleased that Mairi Gougeon used her position as the Hen Harrier Species Champion to secure this debate – all credit to her, well done.

A number of MSPs spoke specifically about the HuHP and all except one acknowledged that illegal persecution continues to be a threat to the hen harrier and to several other raptor species. The only one who didn’t acknowledge this fact was John Scott MSP (Conservative), who gave a bizarre speech about the lack of fox and “vermin” control on FCS land and suggested that this played a part in the decline of the hen harrier population. He obviously hasn’t been told that just across the Scottish border at Kielder, the ONLY successful breeding pairs (x 3) of hen harriers in England this year were on, er, FC land.

He went on to say, “Notwithstanding the alleged predation of hen harriers by land managers, I still believe that the safest place for hen harriers to raise chicks is on well-managed grouse moors“.  Dear God.

John Scott’s parliamentary colleague Donald Cameron (Conservative) (and the Species Champion for the Merlin) was far better informed, although he did say, “There has been much criticism of people in the grouse industry who actively persecute birds of prey. I think that we all acknowledge that grouse shooting is an important industry for the rural economy of our country. The vast majority of land managers, whether they are owners or employees, use sustainable environmental management practices to a high standard and operate within the law. It is important to note that many estates carry out measures to conserve and preserve raptor populations“.

We agree that some estates do “employ sustainable environmental management practices to a high standard and operate within the law“. We heaped praise on one of them quite recently (see here). But it’s quite clear from the scientific data on several raptor species (e.g. hen harrier, golden eagle, peregrine, red kite) that there are still a large number of estates that do NOT operate within the law, and those landholdings just happen to coincide with areas intensively managed as driven grouse moors.

We’re not talking about the odd nest failure here and there due to predation or poor weather – these are natural causes of failure that you’d expect from time to time, and everybody acknowledges this. What we’re talking about here is the persistent, long-term absence of these species in areas where they should be, and would be, thriving if they weren’t being routinely and systematically persecuted.

The speeches of two Parliamentary members were the most interesting to us – those given by Andy Wightman MSP (Scottish Greens) and Liam McArthur MSP (Lib Dem). You really do need to read them (and/or watch the video). Both of them pointed out that the HuHP does not address the fundamental issue of tackling illegal persecution because none of the participating estates that have had cameras deployed are known raptor persecution hotspots, nor are they operated as intensively managed driven grouse moors. Andy Wightman went further and said,

Indeed, I believe that the project is being used as a greenwashing exercise to hide the criminal activities that are undertaken by some in the driven grouse shooting industry and to promote the misleading impression that it is voluntarily cooperating to clean up its act“.

Bravo!

The claim that many of the estates with nest cameras on them are managed as driven grouse moors is an interesting one, and, we believe, is untrue.

According to the briefing paper from Scottish Land & Estates (SLE), provided to MSPs prior to the debate:

Up to two thirds of the estates where cameras were installed have been driven grouse moors, indicating a strong take-up where the issue of Hen Harrier decline is most relevant“.

See SLE’s briefing paper here: SLE briefing Heads Up for Harriers debate_13Dec2017

Why do we believe this statement to be untrue? Well, we could argue that any information from SLE on raptor conservation issues is quite likely to be misleading. We’ve seen many examples of outright propaganda from this organisation over the years (under it’s own name and also under the name of its subgroups, the Scottish Moorland Group and the Gift of Grouse), e.g. here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and as a result we don’t trust a word they say.

But in this case our suspicion is based on more than just a natural distrust of SLE; it’s based on some long-term and painstaking investigative research that we’ve been doing to identify the estates involved in this Heads Up for Harriers Project.

We are confident that we’ve identified the three estates that had cameras deployed in 2015, the three estates that had cameras deployed in 2016, and five of the six or seven estates (there seems to be uncertainty about the actual number) that had cameras deployed in 2017. We are also confident that NOT ONE of these areas where the actual cameras were deployed is a known raptor persecution hotspot and NOT ONE of them is managed for driven grouse shooting.

But before we can publish our findings, we need to verify our conclusions. So we submitted an FoI request to SNH and this is what we got back:

FoI request to SNH: In each year, how many estates had successful nests and of those, how many estates were managed for driven grouse shooting?

SNH response: 2015 – 2 estates with successful nests, 2 of which were driven grouse moor. 1 additional successful nest 100m off the estate boundary of a driven grouse moor.

2016 – 3 estates with successful nests, 2 of which were driven grouse moor.

2017 – 6 estates with successful nests, 3 of which were driven grouse moor.

FoI request to SNH: Please provide the name of each estate, in each year, that signed up to participate.

SNH response: We have considered this part of your request very carefully, and we are unable to provide the estate names. Estates enter into the Heads Up For Harriers project voluntarily. The estate name information in this case was provided voluntarily, there are no other circumstances that entitle SNH to disclose it, and the estates have not consented to disclosure. Making the information publicly available would be likely to prejudice the interests of the estates, for example via negative publicity in the event of harriers not nesting on the estate or in the event of nest/s failing on the estate. We are therefore withholding the estate name details under EIRs Regulation 10(5)(f) (Interests of the individual providing the information).

The Heads Up for Harriers project members’ position is that estate wishes must be respected. Further, members agree the most important aspect of the project is to encourage cooperation and a positive working relationship ‘on the ground’ between estates, Project Officers and other project members to promote survival of hen harriers and enable monitoring if and when hen harriers return to breed. We have therefore concluded that, in this case, the public interest is best served by not releasing the estate names.

Interesting, isn’t it? As Andy Wightman pointed out in his speech, this is a publicy funded project and yet the names of the participating estates are being kept secret. Why is that, do you think?

Given the serious nature of our concern that inaccurate and misleading information is being spewed out, not only by SLE but significantly by SNH, to portray this project as a genuine attempt by the driven grouse shooting industry to support hen harriers, we’ll be challenging SNH about its refusal to release information that would either support or refute our suspicions that the Heads Up for Harriers Project is just a greenwashing exercise.

Watch this space.

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13
Dec
17

Heads Up for Hen Harriers Project: Parliamentary debate today at 5pm

Today in the Scottish Parliament there’ll be a Members’ Debate on the controversial Heads Up for Hen Harriers Project.

The debate has been secured by Mairi Gougeon MSP, the Species Champion for the hen harrier, following her recent motion congratulating the Project on its “intense” and “considerable efforts” to protect the hen harrier:

Heads Up for Harriers Project and the Role of Species Champions

That the Parliament commends the Heads Up for Harriers Project on what it sees as its intense efforts to protect the hen harrier from extinction; underlines what it considers the importance of the role of species champion, with currently over 90 Members signed up to be champions, in promoting and protecting many of the wildlife found across the country; believes that, with specific regard to the hen harrier, there is need for action to protect the species in light of 2016 national hen harrier survey, which suggested that there had been a 9% decline in the number of sightings in Scotland from the previous study in 2010, falling from 505 pairs to 460; understands that this national population decline is further highlighted in Angus North and Mearns and across North East Scotland, where the 2016 study found that the number of hen harrier pairs had plummeted from a peak of 28 in 1998 to just one in 2014; commends the considerable efforts of the Heads Up for Harriers Project in trying to reverse the declining population, with 2017 figures showing that 37 young birds successfully fledging from nests in seven of the 21 estates that have signed up to the project, and recognises both the specific challenges facing all species currently represented by a Member species champion and the pivotal role that it believes the champions play in promoting and preserving Scotland’s wildlife.

We congratulate Mairi on securing this Members’ Debate and thus keeping the issue in the political spotlight. Whilst we disagree with Mairi’s views about the purpose and value of this Project (we consider it nothing more than a greenwashing exercise), getting Parliamentary time to debate the subject will enable alternative opinions to be heard.

The debate will begin shortly after 5pm in the Debating Chamber and can be watched live on Scottish Parliament TV (here).

We’ll post an archive video and the official minutes as soon as they become available.

UPDATE 14th December 2017: Heads Up for Harriers Project condemned as “greenwashing exercise” in Parliamentary debate (here)

12
Dec
17

2018 start date for reintroduction of hen harrier to southern England?

Further to yesterday’s blog (here), Natural England has released more information in response to our FoI requests in relation to the proposed ‘reintroduction’ of hen harriers to southern England.

NE has established a new ‘internal’ group to advise the wider Southern Reintroduction Project Team on various technical aspects. This new internal group held its first meeting on 21st September 2017 and here is the agenda:

Also released through FoI is a copy of the draft Project Brief (see below).

From this draft Project Brief, it looks like Natural England is much further ahead with this proposed ‘reintroduction’ than we had imagined. The last we’d heard was that the first release of donated (French) hen harriers in to southern England was planned for 2020. It now looks like 2018 is the favoured start date, as directed by Natural England’s Senior Leadership Team (SLT), although this will depend on securing the necessary permissions from the French statutory agencies.

It also looks like Natural England has agreed to underwrite the costs for this whacko scheme, which means that us taxpayers will be footing the bill of at least £1 million if NE can’t attract any external funders.

The draft Project Brief also reveals that Natural England intends to approach Roy Dennis (and his newly named Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation) to ask if he’ll serve as a consultant to the project. Given Roy’s long track record on managing successful reintroduction projects it’s easy to see why NE would want him on board, not just for his expertise but perhaps also to allow Natural England to use Roy’s good name and reputation to give the impression that this project has a genuine conservation purpose, rather than the purpose we all know is behind it – that is, to draw attention away from the on-going persecution of this species on the upland grouse moors.

We’ve recently spoken to Roy about his potential involvement and how that might backfire on his reputation, in the same way the Hawk & Owl Trust’s former good reputation has now been tarnished by its wilful blindness to the criminal activities of the grouse shooting industry. Roy told us he had indeed been approached and had so far only agreed to visit Salisbury Plain (the proposed release site) in late January 2018. He said he hadn’t yet committed to anything more and would make a decision after meeting with NE on Salisbury Plain.

The draft Project Brief also discusses the importance of gaining RSPB support for this proposed ‘reintroduction’. As we discussed yesterday, the RSPB has so far stated that it does NOT support the project because it didn’t believe the proposed reintroduction complied with IUCN reintroduction guidelines, although this decision was based on pretty sketchy outline feasibility plans and the RSPB was waiting to see more detailed proposals. It’ll be interesting to see what the RSPB makes of this more detailed draft Project Brief.

Here it is:

11
Dec
17

Hen harrier reintro to southern England: report of fieldtrip to France (potential donor country)

As many of you know, one of the six action points in DEFRA’s Hen Harrier Action Plan is to ‘reintroduce’ hen harriers to southern England.

As you’ll also know, over the last 12 months we’ve been trying to prise details out of Natural England about this ‘let’s divert attention from illegal persecution on driven grouse moors’ plan, and that has proved challenging to say the least.

[Hen harrier photo by Robin Newlin]

Here’s what we’ve learned so far from a year’s worth of FoI requests:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

27 July 2017: RSPB statement on Hen Harrier reintroduction to southern England (here)

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

In early October 2017 we submitted another FoI request and Natural England asked for more time due to the “complexity and voluminous nature of the request” (it was neither complex nor voluminous, this was just another delaying tactic from NE).

That extra time has now expired and Natural England has released a limited amount of further information (although some has been withheld, for various reasons).

Part of the information NE released was a report from a fieldtrip to France (a potential hen harrier donor country) undertaken in June 2017 by two members of the Southern Reintroduction Project Team (Simon Lees from Natural England and Jemima Parry-Jones from the International Centre for Birds of Prey). Here’s the [redacted] report:

The two French researchers whose names are redacted from the above report are Dr Alexandre Millon and Dr Vincent Bretagnolle. Both of these guys have had long and productive careers studying various harrier species and both are highly respected within scientific conservation circles. Which kind of begs the question why they might be supportive of a plan to remove French hen harriers and take them to England where the species is on the verge of breeding extinction due to the continued & rampant illegal persecution of this species by gamekeepers?

What they should have told Natural England is, ‘Get the grouse moor managers to stop illegally killing English hen harriers and all your problems will be solved. Harriers will recolonise the southern lowlands all by themselves if they weren’t being illegally shot, poisoned, trapped and bludgeoned to death on the upland grouse moors’. Or words to that effect.

But anyway, it’s not their decision to make; that’s for the French statutory authorities to decide and you’ll note that Natural England recognises it could really do with support from the RSPB to present a ‘unified conservation case’. However, according to a statement issued by the RSPB in July this year:

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

We’ll come back to Natural England’s need to get the RSPB on board for this project in another blog post (due shortly). Cooperation and support from the RSPB is something that Natural England has identified as a potential hurdle in getting this project off the ground.

More soon….

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

07
Dec
17

Yorkshire Water agrees to hen harrier brood meddling on its landholdings

Further to Tuesday’s blog about Natural England inviting the Ministry of Defence and Yorkshire Water to participate in the highly controversial hen harrier brood meddling plan (see here), we’ve heard back from Andrew Walker, Catchment Strategy Manager at Yorkshire Water (and we thank him for his prompt & courteous correspondence).

Natural England asked YWS to support the trial of a Hen Harrier recovery plan which comprises a six point plan. The last of these was to scope out feasibility for trialling brood management for which we sought further explanation from Natural England. The explanation we received was that a group, chaired by Natural England, was currently working up a licence application for this trial. The proposal, we understand, is that all nests in the English uplands  – where the land is included within the geographical scope of the licence – could contribute to the density figure (generally expressed as 10km between nests) but that landowners will make the decision as to whether or not they wish a particular nest to be brood managed in this way.

We support hen harrier conservation and, on balance, decided to support the plan because we think that a multi stakeholder approach is more likely to be effective because we don’t see the population we may expect at this moment in time“.

It’s not clear how the temporary removal of protected hen harriers, for the sole benefit of the grouse-shooting industry, fits in with Yorkshire Water’s Biodiversity Action Plan. Nor how the later release of those brood meddled birds back to the same general area will help increase the harrier population, especially as their release will coincide with the peak period of the grouse shooting season (August, September & October) and we know from far too many examples that young harriers are ruthlessly (and illegally) targeted on grouse moors during this period, presumably as they might ‘disrupt’ the grouse drives and so reduce the number of grouse available to be shot.

It’s bad enough that Yorkshire Water permits driven grouse shooting (with highly toxic lead ammunition) on its landholdings, knowing full well the proven links between driven grouse shooting and the criminal persecution of birds of prey, especially in Yorkshire, the raptor killing capital of the UK. But to then sign up to the legal persecution of hen harriers (because effectively that’s what brood meddling amounts to) to appease the grouse shooting industry? Sorry, Yorkshire Water, your environmental credentials have just been flushed down the toilet.

06
Dec
17

Heads Up for Hen Harriers Project: total greenwashing propaganda

It’s that time of year again when the Heads Up for Hen Harriers Project trots out more propaganda in an attempt to greenwash the criminal activities of the driven grouse shooting industry.

This project began a few years ago and we’ve criticised it many times for being a partnership-working sham (e.g. see here, here, here, here, here). You won’t be surprised to learn we’re going to do so again.

The idea behind this project is that sporting estates agree to have cameras installed at hen harrier nests to identify the causes of nest failure. This is a flawed idea right from the off. We all know the main reason behind the declining hen harrier population – illegal persecution on intensively managed driven grouse moors – it has been documented time and time and time again, in scientific papers and government-funded reports. So, if you put an ‘official Project camera’ on a hen harrier nest situated on a driven grouse moor, the gamekeepers will know about it and won’t touch that nest (although they’re quite likely to try and bump off the young once they’ve left the nest but are hanging around the grouse drives, away from the nest camera). So if the nest then fails for natural reasons (e.g. poor weather, predation), the Project will only identify those issues as the cause of failure, and not the illegal persecution issue. The grouse-shooting industry will then use those (biased) results to shout about illegal persecution not being an issue. We’ve seen this many times already.

This year, once again, SNH put out a misleading press release that claimed a ‘bumper’ year for project success, with 37 hen harriers successfully fledging from 7 of the 21 participating estates.

Photograph from one of this year’s nest cameras:

Sounds great, doesn’t it? And it is, in a way. We have no problem recognising the efforts of these seven estates – they’ve all hosted successful hen harrier breeding attempts and they absolutely should be applauded for their efforts. But, and here’s the rub, not one of these estates is on our radar as being a raptor persecution hotspot and not one of them operates as an intensively managed driven grouse moor. Hen harriers would just as likely have nested on these seven estates even if they hadn’t signed up to be part of the Heads Up Project, so for the Heads Up Project to claim these breeding successes as a Project success is highly disingenuous.

Several of these estates are managed as re-wilding projects, some of them have low ground shooting/stalking or walked-up grouse shooting and at least one of them has no game shooting whatsoever. The only one that comes anywhere near being a driven grouse moor is Langholm, and given that this is a highly-scrutinsed demonstration project (i.e. no illegal raptor killing allowed), and they’re not shooting grouse there, it doesn’t qualify as an intensively managed driven grouse moor, nor an estate of (current) concern.

So while SNH and the driven grouse shooting industry are busily trumpeting this as a great partnership success and real hope for hen harrier population recovery, the reality is that illegal persecution on intensively managed driven grouse moors remains out of the spotlight.

In our opinion this is a total greenwashing propaganda exercise. We expect nothing else from the driven grouse shooting industry but for SNH to be heralding it as anything but a sham is an embarrassment.

Unfortunately, Hen Harrier Species Champion Mairi Gougeon MSP appears to have had the wool pulled over her eyes. We have a lot of time for Mairi, and appreciate her efforts in using her political status to draw attention to this species’ plight, but have a look at this recent Parliamentary motion, lodged by Mairi but with the Dark Side’s fingerprints all over it:

This motion acheived cross-party support (by no doubt similarly well-intentioned MSPs) and as such will result in a Members Debate in Holyrood a week today:

We look forward to watching this debate (it’ll be available on Scottish Parliament TV – we’ll add a link nearer the time) and we especially look forward to some well-informed MSPs asking some probing questions to expose the Heads Up for Hen Harriers Project for the greenwashing scam that it is.

05
Dec
17

Natural England invites MoD and Yorkshire Water to get involved with hen harrier brood meddling plan

Brood meddling is one of the six action points in DEFRA’s Hen Harrier Action Plan, launched in January 2016.

Regular blog readers will know that we initially got some information out of Natural England about this controversial action point (see here, here, here, here), but for the last year all our requests have been refused for one reason or another, but mainly because NE considered the release of information would “prejudice” the internal licence application. This is, of course, complete nonsense.

In early October 2017 we submitted yet another FoI request, only to be told by Natural England that more time was needed to gather the requested information “because of the complexity/voluminous nature of the request“.

Natural England has now had the extra time it requested and the information it has released was neither “complex” nor “voluminous”. Once again, requested information has been withheld (for “confidentiality” purposes this time) but some info has been released.

The Hen Harrier Brood Meddling Group held its sixth meeting in June 2017 and here are the notes from that gathering:

Unfortunately these notes provide little information, mainly because much of the discussion was centred on the Brood Meddling Draft Project Plan, which has not been made publicly available.

We have submitted another FoI to ask for a copy.

The only other bit of information that NE released as part of this “complex and voluminous” request was a couple of letters to the Ministry of Defence and to Yorkshire Water, inviting them to get on board with the hen harrier brood meddling plan. Here is a copy of the letter to the MoD (the letter to Yorkshire Water was virtually identical so we won’t reproduce it here):

We have no idea whether the MoD or Yorkshire Water has agreed to sign up to the hen harrier brood meddling plan (i.e. to permit the removal of hen harrier eggs/chicks from their land).

Despite a thoughtful (but some might argue naive) position (see here), Yorkshire Water does permit grouse shooting on its land.

So does the MoD – here are a couple of photos of grouse butts photographed on a military firing range in North Yorkshire [photos by Ruth Tingay].

We await the Brood Meddling Draft Project Plan with interest.

UPDATE 7 December 2017: Yorkshire Water agrees to hen harrier brood meddling on its landholdings (here)




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