NERF’s response to Murgatroyd et al. Natural England’s paper identifying that the persecution of Hen Harriers on grouse moors is suppressing the population in Britain.

NERF welcomes the publication of the Murgatroyd et al paper, which highlights the fact that the pattern of the disappearances of satellite tagged Hen Harriers confirms beyond all doubt that there is widespread illegal killing of Hen Harriers on British grouse moors. Therefore the ‘it’s just a few bad apples’ defence, that we so often hear from the grouse shooting industry, is destroyed completely by science.

But how did we get to this point and why did it take so long? Will this be the catalyst that spurs the Government to say enough is enough, self-regulation has failed our natural heritage and actually take affirmative action, or will it be the beginning of further years and years of pointless procrastination and fudge?

‘Hen Harriers face extinction as a breeding species in England’.

That was the strap line of the Police led Operation Artemis, launched in 2004 to tackle Hen Harrier persecution across the UK. In a nutshell the Operation confirmed that the problem was that Hen Harriers were being systematically killed on grouse moors and sought to directly address the issue with members of the grouse shooting industry. A Police Officer, normally a Wildlife Crime Officer, personally delivered a proposed new code of conduct to every identified grouse moor owner, grouse moor land agent, grouse moor shooting tenant and grouse moor gamekeeper across the UK. Adherence to that code of practice would have brought an end to the vast majority of Hen Harrier persecution. Unfortunately that didn’t happen. The claim that Hen Harriers were facing extinction as a breeding species in England was derided by the grouse shooting industry, which refused en masse to cooperate, whilst claiming that self-regulation was the answer not Police or Government intervention.

Notwithstanding the lack of cooperation from the grouse shooting industry and the ever present threat of Police action, the time period that Operation Artemis was in force, 2004 – 2008, consistently delivered the highest number of breeding pairs and the highest number of fledged young dispersed over a wider geographical area in England than at any other time in the decade 2002 to 2012.

On the 6th January 2009 Natural England declared “There is compelling evidence that persecution continues, both during and following the breeding season. Persecution continues to limit Hen Harrier recovery in England”.

Natural England’s solution to the problem. It’s time to talk. It’s good to talk; isn’t it?

Hen Harriers were still being killed on grouse moors and we, the conservationists, were told that what was needed to resolve the problem was a partnership approach. It was claimed that the partnership approach would solve the ever present so called ‘conflict’ between Hen Harriers and driven grouse shooting. The ‘partnership cloud’ descended on the Hen Harrier persecution problem and any attempt at resolving the issue became instantly fog bound, embroiled in meaningless and pointless discussions for years. The Environment Council, a highly experienced group of negotiators who were used to handling complex conflict resolutions, were called in to set up the Hen Harrier Dialogue. Conflict resolution, that’s a cosy euphemism for dealing with organised criminality whilst not upsetting anyone in the partnership. NERF had a seat at that particular table and spent years listening to the denials, obfuscation and demands from the very industry that everyone in the room knew was largely responsible for the problem in the first place. Not one inch of ground was given by those representing the grouse shooting industry and in the end the very costly Hen Harrier Dialogue, paid for out of the public purse, failed miserably and was abandoned. It was doomed to fail from the outset but the conservationists had attended the meetings and tried to find a workable solution in good faith. Regrettably it was all for nought. Years were lost whilst the talking and the killing continued.

The Hen Harrier Dialogue clearly proved that it is ‘good to talk’; depending that is on which side of the argument you are on of course. Unfortunately the Hen Harriers were on the wrong side once again and the number of Hen Harriers killed illegally continued to rise.

Following the failure of the Hen Harrier Dialogue it was claimed yet again that what was needed was yet another partnership approach. Once more this would mean that all interested parties were working together to achieve a common goal. That would resolve the issue once and for all; wouldn’t it? As a consequence the ill-conceived Hen Harrier Plan swung in to force, however, whilst the grouse shooting industry was included, NERF was excluded from the discussions.

In 2009 the Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime – Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group [RPPDG] was formed. It was time to talk; again. The Group consisting of the Police, The Department of the Environment, Fisheries and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), Natural England, the Welsh Government, The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), The Northern England Raptor Forum (NERF) and the titans of the shooting industry representing the Moorland Association (MA), the National Gamekeepers Organisation (NGO), the Countryside Alliance (CA) and The British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC). The RPPDG, including the very same organisations that had stalled the Hen Harrier Dialogue, set off collectively in an accelerated bout of inaction. Theoretically the talking began afresh with the sole aim of ending raptor persecution in all its forms. Linked in pseudo-solidarity the Raptor Persecution Delivery Group marched in to the ‘partnership cloud’ once more; fog bound and going nowhere again. Olive branch after olive branch, concession after concession has been offered to the shooting industry representatives. Yet each and every positive proposal to date has been met with counter negative proposals designed with the sole aim of preventing any progress being made. At the same time several of the so called partners took every opportunity to attack the RSPB for assisting the Police to put professional criminals before the courts. In 2013 the prediction made by Operation Artemis in 2004 became a reality when the only two Hen Harrier breeding attempts in England failed.

The RSPB ‘Skydancer’ Project and the ongoing Hen Harrier Life Project, have for several years been highlighting the fact that Hen Harriers have been disappearing on or adjacent to moorland used for driven grouse shooting at an alarming rate.

Satellite tags which have catastrophically failed under inexplicable circumstances indicate that persecution is the most likely cause. The data has been dismissed as irrelevant by the grouse shooting industry for years. Rather than accept the reality they have constantly sought to divert attention from the fact that birds are being illegally killed on grouse moors by trying to lay the blame at the door of the tag manufacturers, RSPB staff, the Raptor Workers who fit the tags, bird watchers who allegedly disturb the birds and insufficient food supply.

All of these claims are ludicrous of course and they are disseminated for one purpose and one purpose alone – to divert attention away from the fact that the primary reason we have suppressed populations of Hen Harriers in the north of England is persecution of the species by members of the grouse shooting industry itself. This simple fact was accepted , without contest, by Natural England in the proceedings of the recent legal judgement on the challenge to Hen Harrier brood management trials– a plan in itself designed to allow yet another 5 years pass by whilst birds are persecuted.

So this is how we’ve arrived at where we are today and whilst some bird of prey populations are increasing the threat level for many others, including Hen Harriers, remains persistently high.

The RPPDG has been meeting for ten years and many tens of thousands of pounds have been squandered to deliver precisely nothing. Under the Chairmanship of Nick Lyall much is expected of the RPPDG in future and NERF remains committed to help to drive change forward. The number of conservation NGOs on the Group recently increased, at the moment we are collectively investing a tremendous amount of goodwill in the hope that progress will be forthcoming and the chairman is under tremendous pressure to deliver positive outcomes for all raptors not just Hen Harriers.

The sorry state of the Hen Harrier population and the root cause of the problem has been known for many years, probably decades. Now Murgatroyd et al provides the following stark, unequivocal evidence identifying the intensity of the persecution of Hen Harriers that exists on grouse moors. Their statement reads:

“We conclude that hen harriers in Britain suffer elevated levels of mortality on grouse moors, which is most likely the result of illegal killing.”

The authors of the report analysed satellite data from 58 Hen Harriers gathered over a 10 year period [2007 – 2017]. That is a very impressive amount of data to analyse and the conclusions, drawn from their analysis, are equally impressive. The authors need to be congratulated for their efforts in producing the paper. From their careful analysis of thousands of pieces of data they conclude that 72% of the 58 birds monitored, 42 individuals, were either confirmed killed [4 birds / 7%] whilst the remainder simply ‘disappeared’ when their tag inexplicably failed on grouse moors, predominantly in our protected landscapes.

Searches for those birds carried out with very sophisticated equipment by highly trained Natural England staff failed to locate either the bodies or the tags. This mirrors exactly the same pattern experienced by RSPB staff, evidenced by the number of unexplainable incidents where tags have catastrophically failed on or adjacent to grouse moors and neither the birds nor the tags were found after extensive searches were concluded.

What the paper doesn’t do, what it wasn’t tasked to do, is make a judgement about how many non-tagged Hen Harriers were killed over the same period in the same geographical areas. Whilst the exact number may never be known it is reasonable to assume that a great many birds were killed illegally in those same areas and for the same reasons that the satellite tagged birds were illegally killed. Whatever the true number of Hen Harriers illegally killed is, it will be certainly higher than the 42 individuals identified by this report.

This joint paper produced at the request of Natural England must be the last in a long line of wake up calls for the Government. Ministers need to publicly acknowledge that Hen Harriers have been and still are being systematically killed across the north of England by what can only be described as persistent organised crime.

There is absolutely no point in the Government pursuing flawed policies including the plan for brood management and the proposed southern re-introduction scheme. Both of these ‘experiments’ will achieve nothing more than putting Hen Harriers, perhaps more Hen Harriers than would normally be expected, at risk of being illegally killed on grouse moors. The Government’s own data speaks volumes to that effect.

NERF believes that the Government should, with immediate effect:

  • abandon the proposed southern re-introduction scheme
  • abandon the proposed brood management scheme
  • take steps to licence driven grouse shooting, with appropriate sanctions when licence breaches occur
  • divert the funding allocated to the southern re-introduction scheme and the brood management scheme to the National Wildlife Crime Unit in order that adequate resources can be deployed to tackle the root cause of Hen Harrier persecution, i.e. organised crime.

It has been 15 years since Operation Artemis was launched, 15 wasted years but this paper can and should be the catalyst for change. Your department produced the data analysed by Murgatroyd et al Mr Gove; it is time for you to take decisive, affirmative action now to stop Hen Harrier persecution on driven grouse moors. Don’t waste another 5 years on unnecessary experiments whilst wallowing in the current unacceptable status quo, repeating the errors of the past. We know what the problem is and we don’t need to watch the continued slaughter of Hen Harriers on grouse moors in protected landscapes by armed criminals just to confirm once more what we already know.

NERF

21 March 2019