Response to the Defra Announcement of plans for Hen Harrier Brood Management

Defra has announced approval by Natural England of advanced plans to introduce brood management trials for Hen Harriers in 2018. See   https://www.gov.uk/government/news/innovative-licence-issued-to-help-hen-harrier

This is not wholly unexpected since the concept featured in Defra’s six point Hen Harrier Emergency Action Plan issued in January 2016.

The Northern England Raptor Forum was not consulted by the overseeing Upland Stakeholder Group during the plan’s evolution and NERF was refused a seat at the table. Nonetheless NERF has to date been willing and able to directly support certain features of the Defra plan; in particular, Action 1 – monitoring populations, Action 3 – the work of the Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group hosted by the National Wildlife Crime Unit, and Action 4 – nest and winter roost protection.   Indeed NERF members, along with other groups, have devoted endless hours of entirely voluntary fieldwork in monitoring & protection effort towards these aims.  Despite little acknowledgement from the Defra Stakeholder Group the reality is that the Hen Harrier’s status in the uplands of northern England would be far less well understood without NERF’s contribution.

Whilst ensuring that evidence-based data on the Hen Harrier’s true status is available as a fundamental input to the process, NERF throughout has been resolutely opposed to the inclusion of Brood Management in the Action Plan.   We have previously set out our reasons, In the following public statements “Statement on Hen Harrier Brood Management”“The Defra Hen Harrier Emergency Action Plan – Assessment of Year 1” and “Response to the publication of RSPB Birdcrime 2016” .

To recap on NERF’s reasons for opposing brood management and the initial research trials:-

  • The Hen Harrier is near extinct as a breeding species in England (an average of just 3 successful nests per year over the last 9 years, ranging 0-6 nests annually) and is threatened thoughout the year as the pattern of disappearance of satellite tagged juvenile birds confirms.
  • Bowland and the North Pennine Special Protection Areas {SPAs} are both designated for their supposed breeding populations of Hen Harrier at 13 and 11 pairs respectively. In 2016 and 2017 there were none in either.  The UK government has a legal responsibility to correct these serious infractions and restore the species to a favourable status.
  • Given the species’ fragile status we would expect Natural England to be focused on protection and addressing the known principal reason for the species’ demise which by their own admission (‘A Future for the Hen Harrier?’ NE 2008) is that of illegal persecution.
  • Recent nesting pairs have only occurred on land which is not used for driven grouse shooting. As such breeding birds cannot possibly impact on the overall economics of driven grouse shooting estates. To contemplate interference via brood management with potentially the very first nesting pair to repopulate any one or more estates is outrageous and an affront to sound species’ conservation.
  • Research has shown the natural carrying capacity of Hen Harrier habitat in northern England to be 300+ pairs! Therefore as a minimum we would expect to see the upland SPAs, protected under EU Directives, demonstrably supporting their designated populations of Hen Harrier. Across the whole region we’d also expect to have at least 70 breeding pairs, below which published reports show there would be no economic impact on Red Grouse numbers. Only when these thresholds are reached should the case for brood management be considered anew.
  • Adequate protection against illegal persecution must be evidenced first and a growth in breeding numbers seen. There is no point in expending an estimated £0.9-1.2 million, to release young birds after hand rearing, into a dangerous environment where continuing illegal persecution severely diminishes their chances of surviving their first winter.

In respect of the Defra / Natural England announcement, made on 16 Jan 18, confirming the intention to pursue brood management (subject to nests being found),  NERF continues to see brood management chiefly as a tool to increase grouse bags and little to do with the committed conservation of Hen Harrier in England. In our view it is certainly not, as its title suggests, a ‘help to Hen Harriers’ nor does it represent ‘the best possible outcome’ for them.  We cannot accept legitimising the removal of Hen Harriers from our moors given their tenuous status. The announcement amazingly gives no recognition of the underlying issue of illegal persecution.  Worryingly there is no suggestion within the terms of the research trial of a limit being set on the number of nests that might be targeted during the research period.

NERF is left dismayed that Defra and Natural England, as protectors of our natural environment should promote this untimely and unnecessary intervention which is seems wholly contrary to the best principles of conservation.  As such NERF members are now intent on re-evaluating areas of cooperation with Natural England.

18 Jan 18

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