Category Archives: NERF Statement

Bob Elliot moving on…

Bob Elliot, UK Head of the RSPB Investigations Team, is moving on to take up a new post as the Director of OneKind. Throughout his tenure as the Department Head Bob has worked tirelessly in the fight against the seemingly never-ending battle to protect the UK’s raptors from relentless persecution. It is widely acknowledged that the RSPB Investigations Team does phenomenal work aiding the police and prosecuting authorities to put the criminals who kill birds of prey before the courts. However, a good team needs good leadership and Bob provided that leadership expertly.

NERF wishes him well as he follows his new and exciting career path, however from a purely selfish point of view there is no doubt that he will be sorely missed by Raptor Workers across the UK, and OneKind can count themselves fortunate to have lured him away.

Good luck Bob

Your friends in NERF

4 October 2018


Three more Hen Harriers join the ranks of the ‘disappeared’

“And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look behind
From where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game”

These words were written by Joni Mitchell in the 1960’s to reflect a young man’s rite of passage but she could have been predicting the fate of Hen Harriers. Unfortunately despite decades of protective legislation Hen Harriers have no rights, they hatch, they fly, they disperse and then they ‘disappear’ on land used for driven grouse shooting.

They hatch, fly, disperse and ‘disappear’ – the circle game is complete for another season. Another season in a long line of such seasons; round and round we go and nothing changes.









Octavia and Hilma
Photographs: Steve Downing, NERF

NERF members found the nest in the Peak District from where Octavia would fledge and our members also found the nest in the Scottish Borders from where Hilma would eventually fledge. NERF members monitored the nests throughout the season, fitted rings to the chicks and later fitted the satellite tags. Endless voluntary hours, committed over many months, to ensure that the cohort of 2018 had the best possible start to their lives – a future flying free.

We now know that the future for these three birds was predictably short and that they have ‘disappeared’ on, or adjacent to, grouse moors. We know this because they were fitted with satellite tags as part of the RSPB’s EU Hen Harrier Life Project. Hilma ‘disappeared’ on a grouse moor in Northumberland and Octavia ‘disappeared’ on a grouse moor at Broomhead in the Peak District. The third ‘missing’ bird, Heulwen, hatched in Gwynedd, North Wales and its short life ended near Ruabon Mountain also in North Wales.

The satellite tags fitted to Hen Harriers are phenomenally robust and reliable and they showed no evidence that there was a problem with any of them before they all catastrophically failed. But what about the chicks that were not tagged? It doesn’t take crystal ball gazing to envisage that these three young birds are the only ones to have suffered from the same fate already this year. Undoubtedly there will have been others, perhaps a higher number, so here we go again round and round again in a never ending circle of death and destruction; Hen Harriers sacrificed at the altar of Red Grouse shooting.

There is no point in asking ‘how long can this go on; when will the killing stop?’ because it will not stop until Defra and Natural England deal with the raptor related criminality with the ferocity that it deserves. Regrettably that’s not on the agenda today or for that matter for the foreseeable future. Hen Harrier reintroduction schemes and brood management schemes are not the answer. We know that, the shooting industry knows that and the Government knows that. The problem is that the Government is wedded to these ridiculous schemes. Lord Keynes said ‘when the facts change, I change my mind’. He didn’t say no one else should change theirs when the facts change and it is self-evident that the Government needs to change its mind and work towards a realistic solution to reinvigorate the remnant English Hen Harrier population by directly dealing with the problem at source.

It is clear that many of the individuals involved in the shooting industry have no respect for the law and they will never give up their hatred of birds of prey. It is also self-evident that the organisations representing the industry have no control whatsoever over the criminal element that pervades the industry and yet Defra and NE continue to treat them as ‘partners’. They are not part of the solution, they are part of the problem, unable to deliver anything to prevent the massacre of our natural heritage despite their never ending proclamations to the contrary.

Here we have evidence of another litany of missing Hen Harriers and undoubtedly more young Harriers will join the ‘disappeared’ in the near future. Once again NERF is calling on the Government to licence driven grouse shooting. Will the Government listen? Will the Secretary of State do the right thing and give the appropriate, overdue instructions to his Civil Servants to set the process in motion? We doubt it.

More Hen Harriers will be killed. Will we ‘go round and round again in the circle game?’ No doubt we will.

September 2018

Another sorry tale of a grouse moor, a bird of prey and a gamekeeper

Another ‘custodian of the countryside’, has been found guilty of killing birds of prey on a grouse moor. Perhaps it should read that it was another poor harvest in the ‘grouse moor orchard’ as another bad apple cropped up.

On this occasion it was two Short-eared Owls that were quietly going about their business, looking for food, when they had the misfortune to cross the gun sights of Timothy Cowin, the gamekeeper on the Whernside Estate in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Having said misfortune, perhaps it was only a matter of time before they were shot to death on this particular grouse moor. The Whernside Estate had been on the radar of the RSPB Investigations Team for a couple of years following a Police investigation in to a report that a pigeon had been found in a crow cage trap on the moor. This is a common practice on shooting estates, used to lure raptors into crow cage traps and is illegal. Unfortunately there was insufficient evidence to pursue this case.

In April 2017 the RSPB returned to the estate to monitor the situation on the ground. At that time two of the Investigations Team bumped into Mr Cowin and exchanged pleasantries before continuing on their way. A little later they saw a masked man dressed in camouflaged clothing sitting a few metres from a plastic decoy and what appeared to be a speaker box on a fence post.

A few days later the RSPB Team returned to install a covert camera but before they had the opportunity to do so Mr Cowin turned up, wandered over the moor and shot two Short-eared Owls to death before concealing their bodies. The incident was filmed and the Police were called. The response time of the Police was exceptionally quick and they arrested Mr Cowin at the scene.

Mr Cowin eventually appeared before the court on 28th August 2018 and pleaded guilty to killing the two owls and to the possession of a device that is capable of being used to lure birds of prey within killing range. He was fined a total of £1,210, including costs and a victim’s surcharge. Many commentators have since derided this amount as far too lenient for this type offence and vented their anger on the courts when it would have been more appropriate to concentrate on the sentencing guidelines that sets out the punishment levels that are available to the magistrates.

There we have it; another case of birds of prey being killed on a grouse moor in the North of England and we only know about it because of the hard work of the RSPB Investigations Team. It wasn’t luck that put them on the Whernside Estate on that day; it was hard, intelligence led graft and it paid off. Of course you don’t have to be a statistical genius to work out that the chances of catching 100% of the raptor persecutors in the act of killing birds of prey will be close to zero. That leaves the obvious question; how many more birds are killed in similar circumstances that go undetected? Information received by the RSPB Investigations Team suggests that the numbers are very high.

Mr Cowin faced trial and was rightly convicted and since he pleaded guilty there is no right of appeal against his conviction and that is the end of it. But this cannot be right. Grouse moor owners are not, under the current legislation, culpable in any way what-so-ever for the actions of their staff. There are so many of these cases of raptor persecution on grouse moors that it is clear that the law requires updating immediately. Grouse moor owners and managers must be held accountable for the unlawful actions of their staff and it is high time that the offence of ‘vicarious liability’ is enacted. Vicarious liability is common place across many other industries and is already in place in Scotland for cases such as this. Once again English legislation is, lamentably, out of touch with reality.

When these offences took place Whernside Estate was, and in fact still remains, a member of the Moorland Association [MA]. We are told constantly, ad nauseam, by the MA that grouse moor owners and managers are capable of self-regulation and legislative intervention is not necessary but this is self-evidently not the case and a system of licensing game shooting is long overdue.

The Moorland Association condemned the actions of Mr Cowin but in reality they were faced with Hobson’s Choice; unable to do anything else but condemn raptor persecution in general and him in particular. The Moorland Association is a member of the Government’s Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group [RPPDG]; as are the RSPB, the Police and for that matter NERF. Why didn’t the Moorland Association’s press release contain a sentence along the lines of ‘Thanks to the hard work of the RSPB’s Investigations Team and North Yorkshire Police another raptor persecutor has been successfully prosecuted and we are grateful to them for ridding our industry of yet one more criminal, please continue your excellent work’. Could it be that they are more used to criticising the RSPB rather than supporting them and consequently felt unable to support them?

Another interesting fact about this case is that the RSPB were on the Whernside Estate to install a covert camera in an attempt to film potentially criminal activity. Although they didn’t have the opportunity to do so before Mr Cowin committed the offences that was their intent. We also know that they did indeed film Mr Cowin, without the consent of the landowner. In this case the Moorland Association haven’t condemned the RSPB for covertly filming the defendant as they did following the recent court case involving the killing of two Peregrines in the Forest of Bowland, Lancashire. Does this signal a change of heart by the MA?  Do they now support the RSPB installing covert cameras to catch criminals on grouse moors? Alternatively was the MA left unable to criticise the RSPB in this case because Mr Cowin pleaded guilty? We will find out the answer to that question when the next case involving evidence obtained by the RSPB, using covert filming, comes before the courts; and there will no doubt be many more than one, and probably sooner rather than later.

NERF would like to thank the North Yorkshire Police, the CPS and the RSPB Investigations Team for their hard work in bringing this case to a successful conclusion.


August 2018

Hen Harriers – the English cohort of 2018

In recent days there has been a great deal of positive publicity surrounding the breeding success of Hen Harriers in the North of England during 2018. There is no doubt that the increase in both the numbers of chicks fledging and the distribution of the successful nests is very welcome news indeed.

NERF members in the Dark Peak, the Forest of Bowland and Northumberland were involved in locating the nests, then helping to monitor them throughout the breeding season before ringing and fitting satellite tags to the young. Working in various essential partnerships with the National Trust, United Utilities, the Forestry Commission and the RSPB the long hours, on the hills over many months, certainly paid dividends and everyone involved should be congratulated.

Interestingly it comes as no surprise to read that the Moorland Association tells a different story, claiming that the success is solely down to their members and those of the GWCT stating that the ‘Key to this success has been an unprecedented 21 chicks fledged from land managed for grouse shooting; over 60% of this year’s young (34)’. The question here is, ‘what has changed in 2018’? Is the Moorland Association suggesting that the numbers have increased because fewer of their members killed Hen Harriers this year than in previous years?

The phrase ‘land managed for grouse shooting’ is an interesting one. Dealing only with the nests monitored by NERF members; it is a fact that there are shooting tenants on the land where both the Derbyshire and Lancashire nests, 4 and 13 chicks respectively, were situated. However, it would be more accurate to describe the nest in Derbyshire as being ‘on land owned by the National Trust, managed as a public amenity’ and the 3 Lancashire nests as being ‘on land owned by United Utilities, managed to produce water resources for the north-west and as an upland nature reserve in partnership with the RSPB’.

Having claimed the credit for this year’s ‘unprecedented’ number of Hen Harrier fledglings they fail to mention that two nests, containing 4 and 6 eggs respectively, failed in unexplained circumstances on what is unquestionably a grouse moor in West Yorkshire.

Readers will no doubt separate spin from reality and come to their own conclusions about the contribution that the Moorland Association actually made to this year’s success.

2018 has been announced as a great year for the Hen Harriers in the North of England, but was it? That depends on how the ‘success’ is measured:

  • if the number of chicks fledging this year is compared to the numbers fledging in recent years then it is a good year
  • if the number of pairs breeding in the North of England, 9 pairs – 2 of which had polygamous males, is measured against the SPA designations, 11 in the North Pennine Moors and 13 in the Bowland Fells the situation doesn’t look so good after all. We should have seen 24 pairs, not 9, and if they produced an average of 4 chicks per nest then we would have seen 96 chicks not 34 the situation looks disastrous if the 9 pairs are measured against the projected carrying capacity of 332 pairs across the North of England moors

NERF both recognises and celebrates this year’s first steps in the improved fortunes of English Hen Harriers but it is too soon to break out the champagne. Twenty-eight of 34 English chicks fledged from the nests were monitored by NERF in 2018 and many of these chicks were fitted with satellite tags as part of the RSPB’s Hen Harrier LIFE + Project. These chicks are already flying free and some have dispersed from their natal areas. If future trends can be predicted by past events then regrettably many of the cohort of 2018 will have joined the ranks of the ‘disappeared’ by Christmas, never to be heard of again. Unfortunately it is not just the satellite tagged birds that will die in unexplained circumstances; logic would suggest that many more birds will join the ‘disappeared’ and history teaches us that they will be predominantly lost on land dedicated to driven grouse shooting.

It is understandable that the recent publicity about birds of prey has focussed on the good news about Hen Harriers but we must not lose sight of the fact that it is not just Hen Harriers that are persecuted on grouse moors. Marsh Harriers, Peregrine Falcons, Short-eared Owls, Goshawks and Red Kites are also under-represented in the same areas and there is no doubt that persecution continues to play a significant part in suppressing these populations.

With the Moorland Association claiming that they have full commitment to securing a healthy population of Hen Harriers NERF expects the same commitment, not spin or rhetoric, to be shown towards reducing persecution of all Birds of Prey on grouse moors in the northern uplands. Time will tell!

To highlight the plight of raptors across the North of England NERF is holding a Raptor Persecution Awareness Day at The Devonshire Institute, Grassington, North Yorkshire on 11th August. Further information is available on the NERF website. Speakers at the event include the Head of the National Wildlife Crime Unit, a North Yorkshire Police Wildlife Crime Office, a RSPB Senior Investigations Officer, and representatives from the Yorkshire Dales National Park, Peak District National Park and the RSPB Bowland Project Officer.


5th August 2018

The 2014 National Peregrine Falcon Breeding Survey

The results of the 2014 national Peregrine Falcon breeding survey have been published in the BTO’s journal, Bird Study, providing an up to date population estimate for the country.

The breeding population of Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus in the United Kingdom, Isle of Man and  Channel Islands in 2014  M. W. Wilson, D E Balmer et al


Members of the Northern England Raptor Forum made a significant contribution to the original survey through voluntary time spent monitoring specific sites and being allocated “random squares”.

The report estimates the overall population in 2014 to be 1769 pairs, an increase of 22% from the last major survey in 2002.  This outwardly encouraging result does however mask an unwelcome but not unexpected contrast in fortunes.  Populations in lowland regions in England have shown a dramatic recovery which is indeed a real success story in the post-pesticides era.   Sadly those in several upland regions have exhibited worrying declines.

This gap is stark and continues to grow.  The report attributes the demise of upland populations to possible decreases in prey availability in some regions and to known, illegal killing and deliberate disturbance especially in upland areas where the land use is predominantly for driven grouse shooting.  The results support earlier published studies including Amar et al (Ref 1) which demonstrated a reduction in site occupancy and breeding success from eyries close to managed grouse moors. Click here to read the abstract.

The situation in the uplands of northern England is perhaps best demonstrated by summarising those results from the survey which specifically covered the EU designated Special Protection Areas (SPAs).


In these 3 major SPAs only 4 nests from at least 24 pairs holding territory were known to be successful. This position falls well short of the levels expected from the citations when the SPAs were originally designated. It is clear that the present provisions for Peregrine within our SPAs are wholly insufficient.   SPAs are protected under EU Directives and the survey results expose serious infractions.  The UK government needs to take urgent action to restore the populations of Peregrine and other threatened raptors to a favourable status within our supposedly most protected landscape areas.  The situation of course extends to most upland areas in northern England.

The NERF Annual Reports have documented examples of Peregrines having been the direct target of illegal shootings and poisonings in recent years.

9th March 2018

REF 1 Amar et al . “Linking nest histories, remotely sensed land use data and wildlife crime records to explore the impact of grouse moor management on peregrine falcon populations”. Journal of Biol. Conservation . 145: 86–94.

The Current Status of the Peak District Bird of Prey Initiative

Recent social media publications have referred to the Peak District Bird of Prey Initiative which is in disarray after the members failed to agree a joint statement following the publication of their latest report. The Peak District, including the National Park, has a justified reputation as a raptor persecution hotspot. The laudable aim of the Initiative was to find a new way of parties working together to increase the number of raptors breeding within the National Park. Unfortunately, the Initiative has failed spectacularly with the numbers of breeding pairs of key species falling and not increasing as planned.

NERF members, the Peak District Raptor Monitoring Group, have worked tirelessly within this Initiative and we fully support their frustration both with the Initiative in general and with the response of the Moorland Association in particular. Once again the Moorland Association has nailed its colours to the mast by refusing to acknowledge the true extent of the problem and at the same time continuing their tactics of discrediting the RSPB, volunteer raptor workers and now they have turned their attention to the Police.  According to FOI responses the Moorland Association are refusing to accept that an osprey found in the area with two fractured legs was not the subject of a crime and want the incident expunging from the record. This incident was thoroughly and professionally investigated by Derbyshire Police, the post-mortem results concluded that the osprey had suffered injuries that were consistent with being caught in an illegal spring trap.

What will it take for those in authority, including the Government, to wake up to the fact that the Moorland Association is a lobbying organisation committed only to benefitting their members’ interests?  Of course it is not just within this group where they seek to spread their influence, they are members of PAW and use the same tactics in that forum. It is NERF´s opinion that unless they demonstrate a change in attitude towards species’ protection they should no longer be treated as equals in Bird of Prey protection fora.

NERF fully understands the reasons why the RSPB has withdrawn from the Initiative and we look forward to working together on their Upland Skies project. As for the Peak District Bird of Prey Initiative, 2018 is likely to be the make or break year. Further failure to achieve its stated goals will inevitably lead to a withdrawal of co-operation from NERF members. Whilst this would be regrettable, continuing with the status quo is no longer acceptable.

1st Feb 2018

Petition to license Driven Red Grouse shooting

From the very beginnings of driven grouse shooting individuals within the industry have been wreaking havoc in the northern uplands. Birds of Prey have been systematically killed in significant numbers with the single aim of increasing the stock of Red Grouse for commercial reasons, including elevating the land value of the estates. Red Kites, Goshawks, Peregrine Falcons, Raven and Short-eared Owls remain absent or substantially under-represented in vast swathes of eminently suitable habitat across the Pennine chain, the Forest of Bowland and the North York Moors. Hen Harriers in particular have been pushed to the brink of extinction as a breeding species throughout the region. All of the available evidence indicates that persecution on some grouse moors is the main driver limiting both regional and national populations of these species.

It is not only birds of prey that suffer from illegality or inappropriate upland management. To achieve high densities of Red Grouse the industry annually burns vast tracts of heather moor resulting in the death of countless numbers of reptiles, amphibians, early ground nesting birds , their invertebrate prey and reducing botanic diversity in the process. Heather burning regimes are now widely acknowledged to reduce the carbon storage capacity within the peat and that the process adds to the risks associated with global warming. It also adversely affects water quality and increases flood risk for downstream communities.

Traditionally the “very British” way of dealing with such issues has been through self-regulation. Representatives of the shooting industry have for many, many years attempted to reassure the public that self-regulation works and that they are best positioned to secure the future of our uplands, their overall biodiversity and the birds of prey that should thrive there. Evidence proves that this is far from the true. Self-regulation by this industry does not work, has never worked and despite reassurances to the contrary will never work in the future.

It is NERF’s opinion that the time for ineffective self-regulation is over. It is time for the Government to acknowledge that many of those controlling the Red Grouse shooting industry cannot be trusted to self-regulate and cannot be trusted to protect our birds of prey. The only way to deal with the environmental and conservation problems emanating from driven Red Grouse shooting is to introduce a robust system of licensing applicable to the landowners, estate managers and their staff. This is surely a reasonable and sensible approach and as with every other licensing system those not involved in criminality will have nothing to fear from a robust licensing system.

NERF supports the current petition to license Driven Red Grouse Shooting. To add your support please sign the petition at

15 January 2018