The Hen Harrier issue through the eyes of Natural England.

Rob Cooke (Natural England Director) wrote the attached leaked email 6 February 2017:

Hen Harriers

Hen Harrier Day 2016-3

Hen harriers (HHs) are having a rough time in England. Although juvenile birds have a high natural mortality there is plenty to suggest that illegal persecution is ongoing, either through shooting or disturbance. The level of persecution is such that it is undoubtedly having an impact on the conservation status of the species in England.  Amongst a diet usually dominated by meadow pipits and voles can be red grouse, which is where the problem arises.  As a semi-colonial nester HHs can predate high numbers of grouse which can bring them into conflict with grouse shooting.

In early 2016 Defra published the Joint Action Plan to increase the English hen harrier population. The two new elements proposed a southern reintroduction and trialling a brood management scheme; Natural England chairs sub-groups on both.  Brood management is the most controversial element. Notwithstanding that, establishing a separate southern population has attracted criticism, even from some of those who purport to want to see more HHs, presumably as they fear that it will divert attention from persecution in the uplands. The notion that anyone wanting to see more HHs can argue against a reintroduction is I’m afraid beyond me (and as I type this I can see a red kite gliding by overhead).

Put simply brood management (BM) is removing eggs/chicks from vulnerable nests, rearing them in captivity and releasing them back into the uplands.  Of course if there was no persecution threat the nests wouldn’t be vulnerable (to human persecution at any rate) and therein lies the rub.  Those opposed to BM say it effectively condones persecution, and actually more effort should be put into stopping that.  I agree with that, but in practice despite the collective efforts of us, the police, RSPB and others it has not proved possible to stop persecution.  Radio tagged birds disappear, and even when recovered proving who fired the shot is very difficult in large remote upland areas.  There is an argument being made that driven grouse shooting should be banned (rejected recently by parliament), and the RSPB’s approach is that there should be greater regulation of shooting.  Effective regulation requires effective enforcement, and in Scotland where there is a stronger regulatory framework (incl vicarious liability and SNH’s power to remove General Licences) they still have a significant ongoing HH and raptor persecution issues.

The rationale behind BM is that if upland managers have a way of managing the density HHs (so that any impact on grouse is sustainable) then there will not be a ‘need’ to persecute the birds.  Whether this is the case or not time will tell (it is a trial after all), but we need to give it a go, since there is no Plan B on the table. Undertaking BM does not mean that anyone will put any less effort into enforcement, and there will continue to be tagging and rigorous protection of nest sites, where Stephen Murphy and his network of dedicated volunteers do wonders.  Since all the birds will be returned to the uplands there should be no impact on the population (and possibly even, more chicks will survive to adulthood than would otherwise have been the case as nests do suffer natural predation). It goes without saying that the trial will be subject to full veterinary, statutory assessment and licensing processes. BM would not require the removal of all birds from grouse moors, but would kick in when a published density threshold was reached.

rowan-x-rayRecent events have resulted in a large number of FoI requests and fair bit of resultant commentary on raptor blogs.  Much of this is commentators adding up 2 and 2 and coming to 5.  In particular the huge amount of space devoted to whether NE ‘watered down’ a media release concerning Rowan’s post-mortem to say ‘likely to have been shot’, as opposed to ‘shot’.  The simple truth is that the post-mortem did not say definitively that the bird was shot so nor did we (or the RSPB either – ‘injuries consistent with being shot’).  That prosaic point aside what is really disappointing is that this focus detracts from the spotlight which needs to be shone on the continuing plight of HHs and work underway to change that.  The lurid accusation that NE is in some way colluding with those responsible for hen harrier persecution is simply absurd.

Natural England leads much of this work and criticism is par for the course; constructive criticism is good and keeps us on our toes, but it is disappointing that much destructive criticism comes from the ‘wildlife sector’; rather darkly I wonder whether those who are responsible for persecution are sitting back smugly watching this internecine bickering.  The bottom line is that there are a number of people working extremely hard to improve the status of HHs in England.  We are all working to our strengths and membership organisations need to be able to take their members with them, to persuade them and win their support; hard line approaches can lead to alienation.  I believe in the sincerity of those involved in the plan, even if we might have differing motivations, but no one is blind to the challenges; persecution still happens and it needs to stop. If this plan does not deliver then we will need to look at other approaches.

But ‘How’ is the question? Simple enforcement is not enough so we need to adopt other approaches as well. After all, our experience over the last 15 years or so is that even reducing persecution is much easier said than done. There has been progress of sorts to date; the issue is very much in the public eye, we have the Moorland Association and other representative bodies openly condemning raptor persecution, we have tackling wildlife crime as a Govt priority and we have a Govt published plan. The proof of course will be in the eating; it won’t be easy but we do need to give it a try.

We need to be robust in our objective of restoring HHs to favourable conservation status in England, and not be distracted by those who, from whatever perspective, would derail us.

6 comments to The Hen Harrier issue through the eyes of Natural England.

  • Albert Ross

    Filed under “Boll**ks”, sub folder “NGO waffle”
    This guy has no clear argument and he contradicts himself.
    On the one hand he says that BM will be better as “in practice despite the collective efforts of us, the police, RSPB and others it has not proved possible to stop persecution. Radio tagged birds disappear, and even when recovered proving who fired the shot is very difficult in large remote upland areas.”
    and on the other
    “and in Scotland where there is a stronger regulatory framework (incl vicarious liability and SNH’s power to remove General Licences) they still have a significant ongoing HH and raptor persecution issues.”

    So tell me please how BM will change that underlying fact?
    Will culprits somehow know their target was a BM brood and let it fly on?

    Raptors are being persecuted illegally right across the UK and the only way to control illegality is by sanction of the offenders. Make the existing legislation work and nail the ba$tards who are breaking the law! Until then all other ideas such as BM are a waste of resources that could be better deployed in detection and prosecution of offenders.

    If that is beyond the comprehension of Mr.Cooke I can draw him a picture.

  • What a bad start to a letter. ‘Although juvenile birds have a high natural mortality’ – Wrong as Derek Ratcliffe found out with Peregrines. With so much habitat to take over Peregrines exceeded their so called juvenile mortality to around 80+% which is what harriers will do with so many sq miles to hunt in if they were not shot.
    Can predate large numbers of Red Grouse – no mention of artificial feeding! Well that was a waste of time then!! No it wasn’t. He just forgot about it!!

    Is this man new to the job? A high flier with no experience in the field? Director of Sustainable Development = Rob Cooke Say no more. Hopefully he knows that Wildlife Tourism is worth more than shooting in Scotland and would be in England if things were not shot.

  • Sad that we live in such a hypercritical world whereby certain people analyse every word and statement from every direction trying to pick fault to belittle the author (e.g. see RPUK). In this case I for one can’t see anything wrong with what Rob has written.
    Surely this whole conservation mess should have been dealt with professionally and sensibly almost 20 years ago after the release of the findings of the original Langholm Study. With this huge time delay just look at the dramatic decline in the number of successful breeding harriers found today on managed grouse moors compared to Pre Langholm. I ask a very simple and basic question? Who created the ‘fear’ factor for this wonderful raptor?

  • Albert Ross

    Oh come on Mike. The piece was pure waffle and “Gov speak” from somebody who should know better.
    If folks were merely ‘nit picking’ as you suggest they would have commented on such blatant whitewashing and lame excuses as- “Recent events have resulted in a large number of FoI requests and fair bit of resultant commentary on raptor blogs. Much of this is commentators adding up 2 and 2 and coming to 5. In particular the huge amount of space devoted to whether NE ‘watered down’ a media release concerning Rowan’s post-mortem to say ‘likely to have been shot’, as opposed to ‘shot’. The simple truth is that the post-mortem did not say definitively that the bird was shot so nor did we”

  • Who created the ‘fear’ factor for this wonderful raptor? Answer – The Grouse In Health And In Disease 1911 First Edition (Two Volumes)
    Nothing to do with Langholm.

  • Bowland Bill

    Look BM (suggested for Bowland too) is still taking the birds away. They may or may not have a better chance of actually surviving for a few seasons. Who knows?

    Sorry to say that the RSPB did not help the current situation by undermining Mark Avery’s e-petition to ban driven grouse shooting and in doing so, in my (RSPB member) opinion they nobbled the whole 130,000 members of the public, who were there in name only in support of the e-petition.In my humble opinion the killing of our ‘protected’ raptors is now much worse since the parliamentary debate at Westminster 31 October 2015.

    I can only see that truly massive fines and removal of gun licenses, might, just might be a sufficiently worrying deterrent. The introduction of a licensing scheme for grouse moors and the introduction of Vicarious Liability as suggested by the RSPB has not gone down with estate owners so will almost certainly not be adopted in England. Who is pulling the strings?

    Of course, to make an example of someone means catching them in the act. Yes?

    So that leads me to Natural England, seemingly victimising good, knowledgeable raptor workers and again helping those greedy bastard estate owners, with grouse shooting income as their ‘beer money’. I’m talking about NE deciding not to renew the licenses for some of the very best raptor workers in northern England.

    We have all discovered nests accidentally, with the bird flushing from right in front of you. Surely, there is no-one out there who traverses open land, who has not experienced this. I believe Terry Pickford was the victim because he is not afraid to and indeed does tell the truth on some controversial issues, where the killing of raptors are concerned.

    If folk stuck together a bit more and perhaps even started to trust others, who themselves are doing what they can to protect raptors, then it would be a decent starting point for better relations and a stronger force against the greedy bastards who simply kill all wildlife which predate on grouse, as a part of their diet.

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