“Work with moorland managers and other key stakeholders to devise and implement a local approach to end illegal persecution of raptors, including independent and scientifically robust monitoring, and co-ordinated Hen Harrier nest and winter roost site protection”
NERF is represented on the group and works tirelessly for the benefit of birds of prey within the Yorkshire Dales National Park.
Further information about the Working Group can be found here:
Earlier this year NERF published this statement in response to two reports of raptor persecution.
“Another dark day in the Dark Peak
On the 25th February we learnt that the RSPB Investigations Team were concerned about the fate of a satellite tagged Hen Harrier that had joined the ‘disappeared’ in the Peak District near to Stocksbridge. The matter has been reported to South Yorkshire Police for investigation and we will have more to say about that case when further details are made public.
Today [5th March] we learnt that in March 2021 a member of the Peak District Raptor Monitoring Group [PDRMG], a NERF partner, found a dead Buzzard in woodland close to the Flouch near Langsett. Coincidentally, perhaps, as you can see from the Google earth image the Flouch is less than 5 miles from Stocksbridge where the latest Hen harrier went missing. The finder reported the incident to the Police and we now know that the bird was shot to death by someone using a shotgun.”
Anyone thinking, hoping, that this would be the end of persecution in the Dark Peak will have been saddened; but not surprised, to read that two adult, breeding males have joined the ranks of the ‘disappeared’ in the Upper Derwent Valley. Without the support of their male partner females are unable to incubate their eggs and hunt; and inevitably they have to abandon their eggs. That is exactly what happened in these latest cases. Each female abandoned 5 eggs.
It should not be underestimated how hard it is for a fledgling Hen Harrier to reach adulthood and go on to find a female in what remains a tiny population and breed. You don’t have to be a geneticist to recognise that adult breeding males are a valuable asset to the Hen Harrier population and had they continued to survive they could have each fathered a further two dozen chicks. The ‘disappearance’ of these two males needs to be seen in that context. It is not just the loss of two of these iconic birds it is the potential loss of 50 plus chicks. Many of those chicks would have gone on to breed and produce young of their own and that is what we should focus on. Calling the disappearance of these two adult males a tragic loss doesn’t really do it justice.
How ironic that on the same day that the Peak District Raptor Monitoring Group reported the ‘disappearance’ of the two male Hen Harriers the Moorland Association published an article extolling the virtue of the Hen Harrier brood management scheme.
The press release contains nothing new; it is simply a rehash of the number of chicks that fledge each year and how the numbers have increased in recent years. It is correct that the numbers have increased; however to claim that the number of chicks fledging, 84 from 24 nests, represents an increase of over 800% is disingenuous to say the least without also pointing out that if 84 represents an 800% plus increase it had to have increased from 0.
The number of chicks fledging is not the matrix that should be used to judge the success of the brood management scheme. What we need to see is a massive increase in the geographical spread of breeding Harriers away from the core areas of Northumberland and the Forest of Bowland; not just the occasional satellite tagged bird breeding on a grouse moor. We also need to witness an increase in survivability of fledglings that we know have a 72% risk of being killed on, or adjacent to a grouse moor. We know that because Natural England used its own data to come to that conclusion.
Perhaps the Moorland Association’s press release could also have pointed out that:
24 nests represents c7% of the 330 nests that academics calculate is the actual number of nests we should have in England
84 chicks from 24 nest gives an average of 3.5 chicks per nest
330 nests would produce 1155 chicks per year
That may be an ambiguous target, non-the-less it should remain at the forefront of everyone’s mind when deciding what success looks like. The interim stage needs to be consistently achieving the number of breeding pairs designated for the North Pennines SPA, 11 pairs, and the Forest of Bowland, 12 pairs. We are a long way from that situation and that is the inconvenient truth.
Three Hen Harriers have joined the ‘disappeared’ in the Dark Peak since the 25th February this year; one every 3 weeks and the breeding season has only just got underway. The press release also reminded readers that 5 nests have been subjected to brood management and 7 chicks, 1.4 per nest, have also joined the ‘disappeared’. That’s another inconvenient truth.
In the Moorland Association’s press release John Holmes, Chair of the Brood Management Project Board, Natural England is quoted:
‘…………………..monitoring [Hen Harriers] and improving intelligence to detect and prevent persecution……..’
How is the prevention of Hen Harrier persecution part of the plan going Mr Holmes?
No matter how the 2021 breeding figures are presented by The Moorland Association et al, or how much they want us to believe that that everything is working perfectly and Hen Harriers are prospering on grouse moors, the reality is that the future of Hen Harriers in England remains in a perilous position. The primary cause, identified by Natural England, is persecution on land connected with the grouse shooting industry.
On the 25th February we learnt that the RSPB Investigations Team were concerned about the fate of a satellite tagged Hen Harrier that had joined the ‘disappeared’ in the Peak District near to Stocksbridge. The matter has been reported to South Yorkshire Police for investigation and we will have more to say about that when further details are made public.
Today we learn that in March 2021 a member of the Peak District Raptor Monitoring Group [PDRMG], a NERF partner, found a dead Buzzard in woodland close to the Flouch near Langsett. Coincidentally, perhaps, as you can see from the Google earth image the Flouch is less than 5 miles from Stocksbridge where the latest Hen harrier went missing. The finder reported the incident to the Police and we now know that the bird was shot to death by someone using a shotgun.
Commenting on this latest incident Steve Davies of the PDRMG said: “Here is yet another case of illegal raptor persecution tainting the image of the Peak District National Park. Wildlife Crime enforcement needs more teeth to enable it to be a successful deterrent. Licencing of shooting estates and the introduction and effective implementation of vicarious liability legislation, including suspension and clawback of any associated agricultural subsidies, would directly impact on the shooting estate landowners or shooting tenants and estate managers who are ultimately responsible and benefit directly from game shooting.”
Readers of this blog will not be surprised to learn about either of these incidents. Regrettably the adjacent Peak District National Park has a long history of raptor persecution. In 2018 in a paper co-authored by Mike Price [PDRMG] and the RSPB, published in British Birds, https://britishbirds.co.uk/content/raptor-persecution-peak-district-national-park the researchers identified that heather burning practices on land managed for driven grouse shooting within the Peak District National Park had a statistically significant relationship with raptor persecution. This paper together with population studies undertaken over many years by members of the PDRMG and intelligence gathered by the Police leaves us in no doubt that raptor persecution, one of the wildlife crime priorities for the National Wildlife Crime Unit, is thriving in the region.
Although 12 months has passed since the incident was reported to the Police NERF has, in confidence, been aware of the timeline associated with this case and we are reassured that the delay was not caused by the Police who were not made aware that the bird had been shot until December last year.
We pride ourselves on being a country of animal lovers. However, if you were a bird of prey living in many parts of Northern England, where death by trap, cosh, poison or shotgun awaits, you may take a different view. In this land of animal lovers there is a parcel of rogues at large apparently killing raptors with impunity.
If you find a wild bird of prey which you suspect has been illegally killed, please:
contact the Police on 101,
email RSPB Investigations at email@example.com, or,
Spokesperson for the ‘Custodians of the Countryside’.
Bird photographs courtesy of RSPB Birdcrime 2020 [gunsights added by NERF]
“Move along, there’s nothing to see here.” At least that is what the ‘Custodians’ would have us believe. In truth, that is far from the reality that we see on the ground. The latest RSPB Birdcrime Report, covering 2020, puts that nonsense to rest, again.
Whilst the general public were obeying the Government’s instructions to stay at home during the Covid – 19 lockdown to save the lives of our families and neighbours, the raptor killers were plying their trade across the countryside that the ‘Custodians’ were supposed to be protecting. You could be forgiven for asking – ‘how did that work out?’ The simple answer is – not well at all if you were a bird of prey on land used for game shooting. You could also be forgiven for thinking ‘well that is not new’ and you would be correct. The statistic that makes 2020 different is the scale of the killing. Lockdown gave the raptor-killers free reign to go about their daily business without fear of being caught and the latest statistics published by the RSPB reveals just how effective they were. You can read the full Bird Crime Report here.
Across the UK there were 137 confirmed incidents of raptor persecution, the highest annual number recorded by the RSPB and agreed by the National Wildlife Crime Unit. The shocking statistics reveal that there were 57 cases of shooting, 17 cases of trapping and 35 cases of poisoning of birds of prey. In total 63% of the reports came from land associated with game shooting [34% pheasant and partridge shooting, 28% grouse shooting and 1% mixed shooting]. Of the 137 confirmed cases, 99 occurred in England and c 66% of those were located in North Yorkshire making the county the hotspot for bird of prey crime for the 7th year in succession.
Following the release of the latest Birdcrime report there will no doubt be cries of derision from the game shooting industry; shouting foul, it’s nothing to do with us, we have zero tolerance of persecution, it was the bad apple brigade trying to discredit us and anyway 137 is a small number. ‘Nothing to see here, move along’.
Indeed 137 is a small number; but it has to be seen in context when discussing raptor persecution. The real question is not how many victims were found; it is – what percentage of victims were found? Most birds of prey are predominately brownish, perfectly camouflaged, a dead body will cover less than 1000 cm2 and they are killed on hundreds of thousands of hectares of land that is predominately brown. The amazing thing is that any are ever found and the true figure must be very, very significantly higher than the number reported. The phrase ‘the tip of the iceberg’ is frequently used when discussing raptor persecution statistics and it is an accurate description of the scale of the crimes against birds of prey. When searching for the victims of persecution the phrase ‘looking for a needle in a haystack’ is appropriate; but in 2020 no one was allowed to look in the haystack. Unlike the individuals who are employed in the game shooting industry, who were allowed free range over the countryside, the general public were confined within our homes. We were oblivious of how high the body count of protected species was becoming.
The negative media coverage criticizing the game shooting industry over recent weeks has, or should have, caused reputational damage to the industry; but does it care? There have been numerous reports of multi-agency, Police led, raids on shooting estates. Mr Phil Davies, the Countryside Alliance representative on the Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group [RPPDG], has rightly been removed from the Group following his involvement in a webinar where fox hunters were advised about tactics that they could use to avoid prosecution when conducting illegal hunts. You can read more about this on the Raptor Persecution UK Blog here.
A damning article entitled ‘Reports of raptor killings soared during the U.K.’s lockdown’, published in the National Geographic, a highly respected publication with global reach, focuses on the disgraceful illegal killing of birds of prey on shooting estates during the Covid lockdown period. You can read the full article here, although you will have to share an email address to read it.
Now we have RSPB Birdcrime spotlighting the fact that 137 confirmed cases of raptor persecution, the highest number on record, were reported in 2020. It also highlights the fact that 63% of the birds of prey that were slaughtered were killed on land associated with game shooting and 40% took place on protected landscapes, in our National Parks and in Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty or their Scottish equivalent.
It is a national disgrace and we all know it, so what response can we expect from the shooting industry in light of this latest report? “Move along, there’s nothing to see here” followed by attacks on the integrity of the RSPB and suggestions that a small amount of persecution is only part of the story, all is well and raptors are thriving. We have heard it all before. It’s as predictable as day follows night.
NERF has been calling for the licensing of the shooting industry, with the licence being applied to the land, not the owners or managers of the land, for several years. Once again we reiterate that call for licensing of shooting estates and it has to be implement without further delay. The public require it and our natural environment deserves it. We know that Government Departments set media alerts for reports such as the National Geographic article, Birdcrime and blogs, including the NERF website. Defra Ministers and Natural England know what is happening to our birds of prey, they know the scale of the problem and they know the causes of the problem; it is persecution by individuals connected with games shooting. The RSPB report identifies the fact that of the 186 individuals convicted of raptor persecution 66% were gamekeepers and a further 6% were also connected to the game shooting industry. The Government has published its own data which confirms these facts. How much more evidence do Ministers need before they take meaningful action?
The Government also knows that land management practices on upland shooting estates, which includes heather burning, adds to global warming and destroys countless reptiles, amphibians, the eggs of early ground nesting birds, kills billons of insects, which is the primary food source for upland birds, and leads to increased downstream flooding. Having had these facts reinforced, again, with these latest reports will Defra Ministers and Natural England grasp this nettle with both hands and actually do something about it rather than tinkering around the edges with schemes such as Hen Harrier Brood Management and the ludicrous Hen Harrier Southern Re-introduction proposal. They might; but regrettably the chances of that happening are next to nil under the current Government and we are all the worse off for that.
In theory the Wildlife and Countryside Act provides all of the protection that raptors require. In reality it is inadequate because it fails at the compliance and enforcement stages. It is time for a change of emphasis, a change in enforcement strategy and sentencing guidelines; changes that will actually protect our iconic birds of prey are long overdue. They, and you, deserve nothing less.
If you have information in respect of any bird related crime please contact the RSPB’s confidential hotline on 0300 999 0101
If you think that you have read this information previously you are correct; only the name of the bird has changed. The remaining information is another example of business as usual as another Hen Harrier disappears without trace on or near a grouse moor in Northern England. This report refers to the 4th Hen Harrier to join the ranks of the ‘disappeared’ this year, and it has not ended yet.
In summer of this year a female Hen Harrier called Reiver fledged from a nest on Langholm Moor in southern Scotland. Prior to fledging RSPB staff fitted her with a satellite tag as part of a long-standing project monitoring the movement and fate of the birds post fledging. The tags used in this project are extremely reliable and rarely fail as a result of faulty equipment. In fact, they are so reliable that they continue to work after a bird dies of natural causes, enabling researchers to locate the body. Having successfully fledged and strengthened her powerful flight muscles she made what would prove to be a fatal mistake; she crossed the border and entered English airspace. From that moment on her fate was sealed. This was one ‘Border Reiver’ that would not be returning home.
Initially Reiver’s tag functioned as expected providing technical data, together with her location and confirmation that she was in good health. Whilst the technical data and health indicators were welcome news her location gave cause for concern. Previously Hen Harriers had disappeared without trace in the same general area. In 2019 a Hen Harrier called Ada sent her last transmission to the satellite from a grouse moor east of Allendale Town. At the end of February this year Tarras, a bird that also fledged from Langholm, was never heard from again when contact with her was lost suddenly and inexplicably near Rowfoot, Northumberland.
On 17 September RSPB researchers pronounced that Reiver’s tag had ‘stopped, no malfunction’. Those 3 words may sound like a description of a technical failure, however that is far from the case. In fact, they are a euphemism for – the bird has been killed and we can’t find the body. Reiver disappeared without trace less than 5 kilometres from the area where Tarras also disappeared. A coincidence, or organised crime?
In addition to the 3 birds that have joined the ‘disappeared’ in Northumberland, Yarrow, a bird satellite tagged in 2020, disappeared in April. The satellite data from the last contact with Yarrow revealed that the flight path put her on a trajectory that would take her to the grouse moors of the North York Moors; a raptor persecution hotspot.
Four Hen Harriers are named in this article; Ada, Yarrow, Tarras and Reiver. They all disappeared in similar circumstances this year; never to be seen or heard of again. Even the most naïve nature lover would not accept that the disappearance of these 4 birds was a coincidence; and they would be correct to avoid that trap. Analysis of data from both the RSPB tagged birds and the data from birds tagged by Natural England unequivocally indicate that when Hen Harriers suffer from a satellite tag catastrophic failure / stop no malfunction on or near a grouse moor the most likely cause of the failure was that the bird was killed and the tag was destroyed. The common denominator in these cases, and countless others, is land managed for grouse shooting. It is long past the time when the Government stopped tinkering at the edges and got a grip on the Hen Harrier persecution problem. It will take more than declaring raptor persecution a wildlife crime priority, continuing with Brood Management and the ludicrous southern re-introduction scheme, if it ever happens, to resolve the raptor persecution problem on grouse moors. NERF has been calling for the licencing of grouse moors for several years and whilst it may not prevent all raptor related crimes in the uplands it will be a huge step to achieving that goal. Drafting legislation, which would include the suspension of a licence to operate a shoot, is not difficult; it just needs the political will to get on with it. Therein lies the problem; the Government does not have the political will to take any meaningful action to prevent raptor persecution. There are no ‘sunlit uplands’ for birds of prey in the North of England Prime Minister; in this part of the country the uplands are killing fields. The current situation is unsustainable; urgent action is needed to tackle this pernicious situation and it needs taking now.
We are only able to discuss the disappearance of these 4 birds because they were fitted with satellite tags by the RSPB; without those tags we would be totally unaware of the fate of these individuals. Whilst we can collectively mourn the loss of these 4 it is inconceivable to think that untagged Hen Harriers have not been killed this year in the same or similar locations.
Now that is a truly frightening thought; but it does go a long way to explain why the English breeding population remains perilously low. Unfortunately; the population will remain in a critical condition until persecution is ended and there is a very long way to go before that happens despite what the shooting industry would have us believe.
If you have any information relating to the disappearance of Reiver please contact Northumbria Police on 101 quoting reference NP-20210920-0837.
Alternatively, if you have information in respect of any bird related crime please contact the RSPB’s confidential hotline on 0300 999 0101
You can also pass information to the Police anonymously via Crimestoppers on 0800 555111
The Nidderdale Raptor Study Group in collaboration with the Northern England Raptor Forum are proud to bring you this exciting fund raising opportunity to raise money for the RSPB Investigations Team to purchase satellite tags to be fitted to Hen Harriers.
The Hen Harrier, Circus cyaneus, is the UK’s most persecuted Bird of Prey. Previously driven to extinction as a breeding species in England the population is struggling to make a widespread come-back. The population remains perilously small and persecution on land managed for driven grouse shooting continues to be the primary factor limiting both population growth and expansion.
In a scientific paper published by Murgatroyd et al, using data from Natural England’s Hen Harrier Recovery Project, the authors revealed that the likelihood of Hen Harriers dying, or disappearing, was ten times higher within landscapes predominantly covered by grouse moor, compared to areas with no grouse moor. The study also revealed that 72% of tagged harriers were either confirmed or considered very likely to have been illegally killed.
For the past 10 years the RSPB has been monitoring Hen Harriers, firstly within the Skydancer Project and latterly as part of the Hen Harrier Life Plus Project. In both projects satellite tags were fitted to nestlings during the breeding season by highly trained specialists. The solar powered tags, weighing 9.5 grams, are fitted to the birds by a harness that resembles a backpack. Once activated the tags are exceptionally reliable and provide data that allows the RSPB Investigations Team to accurately track the bird’s movements daily.
The satellite tag also provides the ornithologists with data about how much solar generated voltage the tag has available and also information regarding the bird’s mobility and temperature. When analysed in conjunction with one another it can tell us whether the bird is dead or alive.
By carefully analysing all the data it is possible to determine the most probable reason why an individual bird appears to have stopped moving. Obviously, the bird may have died of natural causes or been predated. In the event that the tag suddenly and without prior warning fails to communicate with the satellites overhead, within a predicted time frame, a situation frequently referred to as ‘stop no malfunction’ , the most likely reason is that the bird has been killed.
In both scenarios a thorough ground search is conducted by the RSPB Investigations Team in the area of the last known location of the bird using very sophisticated equipment. In cases where the satellite data indicates that the bird probably died of natural causes the dead bird is invariably located. In contrast when the tag inexplicably ‘stops no malfunction’ the dead birds are rarely located, a further indication that the bird was illegally killed and the tag destroyed.
Whilst the RSPB data has yet to be published [the scientific papers are being completed at the moment] by reading the high volume of press statements released by the RSPB over the life time of both projects, it is not unreasonable to assume that analysis of the satellite data will provide another damning indictment of the grouse shooting industry.
In addition to highlighting regions of high levels of persecution the satellite date also identifies previously unknown winter roosting areas. There is a saying amongst Hen Harrier workers – ‘Harriers bring Harriers’. By following the satellite tagged Harriers we are able to count the untagged birds that are also using the winter roosts, some of which were previously unknown prior to the development of satellite tags. That in turn allows researchers to better understand how Hen Harriers occupy the landscape across the northern uplands over winter. Using all of this data the statisticians are able to model the autumn / winter population more accurately.
Using the modelled winter population data and comparing it with the known breeding population gives us a better understanding of how the population is prospering overall year on year. This information can be used by the RSPB and other conservation NGOs to lobby Government to change legislation to better protect this extremely vulnerable species from disturbance during the autumn / winter roosting season.
Map showing Apollo’s’ journey
Raptor workers have long suspected / known that the UK hosts Hen Harriers from Scotland and the near continent during the autumn and winter. The use of satellite tags has now confirmed that ‘English Hen Harriers’ also travel vast distances to over winter hundreds of miles from their breeding sites. This satellite track indicates the movements of a bird that was originally tagged in the Forest of Bowland in 2019. The bird returned to Bowland earlier this year and is now back in Spain. Sharing this data with our European partners enables them to monitor the bird over-winter on our behalf and to potentially locate unknown local roosts, in much the same way that the RSPB Investigations Teams do in the UK.
The use of satellite tags has already delivered a tremendous amount of new data confirming the continuing high level of persecution on land managed for driven grouse shooting. Additionally the data has highlighted the remarkable mobility of Hen Harriers outside of the breeding season. However, there is still much to learn about these magnificent birds and the continued deployment of satellite tags is vital to achieving this goal.
Artist Dan Evans
Dan Evans, a Yorkshire-based artist, has kindly chosen to create an A2-sized oil painting of a male Hen Harrier, which has been donated to the Nidderdale Raptor Study Group for an online auction; all proceeds will go to RSPB Investigations to fund satellite tags for Hen Harriers. The painting was inspired after Dan had spent time with members of the Raptor Study Group monitoring Hen Harriers locally. This is a unique opportunity to acquire the original spectacular painting. To place your bid for the painting please click this link to the auction.
Once again all profits from the prints will go to fund satellite tags through the RSPB Investigations Team.
We appreciate that these are extraordinarily challenging times and not everyone who would like to buy a print will be in a position to do so but still want to support the project. To ensure that you have the opportunity to contribute to this invaluable scheme, on any level, we have created a ‘Justgiving’ fundraising webpage. If you would like to help us donate satellite tags to the RSPB Investigations Team please visit:
We would like to thank you in advance for supporting this scheme; a scheme that will be of tremendous benefit to Hen Harriers by increasing their level of protection and also by revealing invaluable data about how they move through, and use, their natural environment throughout the year. We would be grateful if you could circulate the details of the project as far and wide as possible.
In the meantime we would like to wish you and your families a Happy Christmas and a peaceful and fulfilling New Year.
NERF has been a member of the Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group [RPPDG] for 10 years, working tirelessly to monitor and protect birds of prey in the North of England.
Between 2015 and 2019 NERF partnered the RSPB Hen Harrier Life Project committing an extraordinary amount of voluntary time monitoring Hen Harriers at roost sites during the winter and locating and protecting nests during the breeding season. During the lifetime of the Project NERF members committed almost 15000 hours monitoring Hen Harriers and travelled in excess of 150,000 miles to and from the roost and nest sites. The value of NERF’s contribution to protecting Hen Harriers has been formally acknowledged by Superintendent Nick Lyall, the National Chair of the RPPDG, who has awarded NERF members a Certificate of Appreciation.
The citation on the certificate states:
“For your time, effort and commitment in providing your personal time and money in order to monitor and protect endangered Hen Harriers.”
NERF is a voluntary organisation and it is humbling to have our efforts acknowledged by Nick.
This picture shows Ada having been satellite tagged as part of the RSPB Hen Harrier Life Project. It was taken just prior to her being returned to her nest. She was on the point of fledging, on the point of leading a long and productive life, adding generations of Hen Harriers wild and flying free in the North of England, or anywhere else she chose. That was her promise to her species; a promise that she would never live long enough to fulfill.
Whilst Ada’s nest was in southern Scotland, just over the Northumberland / Scottish Border, she was monitored and satellite tagged by NERF members working in partnership with the RSPB Life Project staff. We were heavily invested in Ada’s well-being and future potential. Her ‘disappearance’ without trace after a short life of 130 days, 2,790 days less than her expected lifespan, is not just an unfortunate tragic statistic to be accepted by the people involved. NERF takes the loss of Ada, and all of the other ‘disappeared’ Hen Harriers, tagged or not, personally and we are sick of it! Society is sick of it! Be under no illusion, the killing of Hen Harriers is not a random isolated act of brutality; it is a function of organised crime pervading grouse moors across our uplands, often sustaining their profitability. Anyone with a modicum of humanity cannot avoid being emotionally affected by the never-ending pointless slaughter. It is not just an insult to Hen Harriers, or the people that commit their lives to protecting them, it is an insult to the very fabric of civilization.
The sudden and inexplicable catastrophic failure, or ‘stopped no malfunction’ of Ada’s tag followed an all too predictable pattern:
Ada was tagged on 28 June
the tags used by the RSPB are known to be 94% reliable
the tag provided excellent data for 105 days
prior to failure there was no indication that there were technical issues with the tag
the tag inexplicably ‘stopped no malfunction’ on 10 October
her last transmission placed her on a grouse moor, east of Allendale, Northumberland
a ground search conducted by very experienced RSPB staff using sophisticated tracking equipment failed to locate her
despite long periods of settled, sunny weather there has been no contact with Ada’s solar powered tag in the last 6 weeks
Police enquiries have proved unsuccessful
The pattern surrounding ‘disappeared’
Hen Harriers repeated itself, again, and Ada was the latest victim.
Unless the body of Ada is recovered we will never know what actually happened to her. However, our previous experience gives a very credible working hypothesis. The bodies of Hen Harriers that die naturally are invariably recovered and post-mortem examinations pronounce the cause of death as natural, even though some were revealed to have been previously shot although the injuries had not been fatal. The opposite is also true. Birds with satellite tags that ‘stop no malfunction’ when the last transmission was from a grouse moor are invariably not recovered. Why is that? This scenario was eloquently described in a recent paper, ‘Patterns of satellite tagged hen harrier disappearances suggest widespread illegal killing on British grouse moors‘ Murgatroyd et al, March 2019, using Natural England’s data. The data revealed that 72% of the satellite tagged Hen Harriers in their study were killed, or very likely to have been killed, on British grouse moors.
In short – the combination of live Hen Harrier plus grouse
moor equals killed Hen Harrier, 72 times out of 100.
Ada was a Scottish Hen Harrier. She joined the ‘disappeared’ on an English grouse moor.
What will SNH have to say about that? What will the Scottish Government have to
say about that? Will there be harsh, angry communications between Scotland and
England or will it all be swept under the heather?
Where does Ada’s ‘disappearance’
leave the Defra / Natural England failed Hen Harrier Recovery Plan now? Will it
be business as usual, throwing huge amounts of tax-payers money, our money, at
the ill-conceived Brood Management Plan and the ludicrous Southern
Re-introduction Scheme? Or will the senior managers in Defra and Natural
England take a spoonful of humility, a dose of reality and make a public
announcement that these schemes are not fit for purpose until persecution ends
and the northern Hen Harrier breeding population reaches the minimum number set
out in Natural England’s SPA designations?
A change of policy by the senior managers at either Defra or
Natural England is highly unlikely, so it remains business as usual and Hen
Harriers will continue to ‘disappear’,
presumed killed, on grouse moors across the northern uplands. It is widely
accepted that past performance predicts future behaviour. Facing that
inevitability, under the current circumstances we must continue to collectively
apply pressure to the decision makers to do the right thing. The ‘right thing’ in this case would include
introducing a system of licensing driven grouse moors, introducing vicarious
liability for owners and managers of grouse moors, take a harder line by withholding
financial support under the farm payment scheme where appropriate and
suspending the use of General Licences.
In the meantime we await the next inevitable, depressing, press
release from the RSPB Hen Harrier Life Project that another bird has ‘disappeared presumed dead’.
“It’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness”. – Terry Pratchett – Men at Arms.
NERF has been opposed to the Natural England / Defra Hen Harrier Brood Management Plan from the moment it was announced. The plan was terminally flawed from the outset, it placed far too much trust in the claim made by the grouse shooting representatives, that they can deliver their part of the process and end Hen Harrier persecution. To say that such a belief was naive would qualify as one of the all-time understatements in the world of bird of prey protection.
The Brood Management Plan was introduced to placate the grouse moor owners and it is pointless to pretend otherwise. In return we were promised that once grouse moor owners had a ‘safety net’, allowing Hen Harrier chicks to be removed from grouse moors if two or more pairs attempted to breed within a predetermined area, then persecution would end.
2019 saw the implementation of this plan, followed shortly thereafter by the abject failure of the plan within a few short months.
Recent press releases detail the disappearance of three of the five Hen Harrier chicks, satellite tagged as part of the Hen Harrier Brood Management Plan and indicate that police investigations are being undertaken in all three cases.
This is the first year that the Brood Management Plan has been implemented and to date 60% of the chicks have ‘disappeared’, believed to have been illegally killed. However, if we take in to account the fact that the two remaining chicks from the ‘managed’ brood are reported to have migrated to France, then 100% of the brood managed birds that remained on grouse moors in the North of England, the most dangerous area for raptors in the UK, are in all probability dead. And in all probability, likely killed by members of the industry that asked us to trust them not to do so. How ironic!
The fact that these three young Hen Harriers have ‘disappeared’ will not have come as a surprise to anyone, nor will the fact that they all disappeared on grouse moors in the North of England; one in County Durham and two in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. According to Natural England’s own published data 72% of Hen Harrier chicks that were satellite tagged as part of their research ‘disappeared’ in similar circumstances over the last ten years.
These three birds join the list of many other Hen Harriers satellite tagged by Natural England and the RSPB which are now listed as ‘disappeared’ in suspicious circumstances.
At some point Natural England will have to publicly acknowledge that the representatives of the shooting industry (in particular, the Moorland Association) are lobbying groups, not delivery groups. They are unable to either compel or ensure that their members will comply with any of the promises they make. Those of us who have sat around a negotiating table with them for over two decades realised this a long time ago. It would be helpful if this acknowledgment by Natural England came sooner rather than later and an alternative plan, a plan which is fit for purpose, is prepared for implementation before the 2020 breeding season arrives.
It is not only NERF members who believe that the Brood Management Plan should never have been implemented. Mark Avery and the RSPB both independently lodged legal challenges against the legality of the scheme. Whilst both legal challenges initially failed in court, they are now subject to the appeals process. Hopefully these legal challenges will be successful early next year, and the brood management plan can be consigned to the history book of catastrophic failed conservation measures.
Many independent raptor workers and other conservationists across the country have also denounced the scheme and will no doubt continue to do so if the plan is implemented in future years. It is also true that some of the Brood Management Board have expressed doubts about the plan, they should be listened to.
Following information that ‘Rosie’, another Natural England tagged bird, recently came back online, it is likely that there will be cries of foul from the grouse shooting industry claiming that the three ‘disappeared’ missing brood managed birds were also fitted with faulty tags. However, the circumstances of their disappearance, when the three tags ‘stopped no malfunction’, coupled with the fact that years of scientific research reveals that only 6% of satellites fail then any such claim would be misplaced.
What should happen next?
“If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got.” – Albert Einstein et al.
There is little point continuing to rehash the events of 2019. Brood management was tried and despite the hard work of the Fieldworkers involved it has failed spectacularly within months. The project licence expires before the 2020 breeding season and NERF is firmly of the opinion that it should not be renewed. Natural England / Defra gave the benefit of the doubt to the grouse shooting industry, the Government tried and failed. It is now time to move on and abandon their Brood Management Plan.
“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”
This statement, or a version of it, is frequently attributed to the British economist John Maynard Keynes. The statement actually referred to macroeconomics but it is equally applicable to many aspects of daily life and is very relevant in relation to the failed Brood Management Plan.
So what will you do now Natural England? Fail to heed Einstein’s warning and plough on regardless of the facts, or follow Keynes’ philosophy and change direction?
In a few months time the outcome of the 2019 Hen Harrier breeding season will be announced. Some people will claim that it has been a good year and others will trumpet the outcome as a great year for Hen Harriers in England. Neither of these claims will be true, nor will they accurately reflect the fact that whatever the actual number of fledglings is this year, the population will remain perilously low for years to come despite the fact that there is sufficient space for c 300 pairs in the northern uplands.
If brood management goes ahead as planned 2019 will not be remembered as a good year for the English Hen Harrier population. It will be remembered, by leading conservation groups, including NERF, and Raptor Workers across the country as the year that Natural England (the English Statutory Nature Conservation Organisation) betrayed Hen Harriers to placate the grouse shooting industry. An industry that is, according to Natural England’s own data, largely responsible for the unexplained demise of 72% of Hen Harriers satellite tagged by their own staff. With that knowledge it is not unreasonable to assume that a similar percentage of un-tagged birds ‘disappeared’ under identical circumstances over the same period. It is also clear from press releases issued by RSPB that many of the birds satellite tagged as part of their Hen Harrier Life Project have also suffered the same fate on land managed for grouse shooting.
Natural England’s answer to those facts is the implementation of their flawed policy of Hen Harrier brood management on the basis that it is essential for Hen Harrier conservation and will lead to an increase in the English population. That second assertion may be true during the breeding season but it totally ignores the fact that all of the evidence reveals that persecution is more problematic after the chicks disperse from their breeding grounds. Brood management will do nothing to prevent persecution despite claims to the contrary. Anyone who believes that the entire grouse shooting industry will wholeheartedly welcome an increase in the Hen Harrier population is at best delusional. There are members of the industry who won’t even tolerate the small number of birds that already reside in, or transit through, the uplands at the present time let alone an increased number.
Following the confirmation that brood management has taken place this year, NERF fully expects an announcement in due course from Natural England stating how many eggs, or chicks were taken in to the scheme .What the hatching rates were from each clutch. What the fledging rates were and confirmation that the birds were released back onto the moors from which they were removed. The project calls for all of the chicks to be satellite tagged prior to release back to the wild, in the interest of transparency NERF expects to read a prompt press release when the birds either die naturally or ‘disappear’ in circumstances that suggest persecution was the probable cause. The press release should include the location of the last known fix from the satellite tag.
Natural England has the legal right to undertake brood management, because they licensed themselves to do it. However, there is no right way to do the wrong thing and there is, in NERF’s opinion no justification for pursuing the brood management of Hen Harriers. We often hear the Police say that they cannot arrest their way out of the Hen Harrier persecution problem and in part that may be true. However, it is also true that Government policy should not be influenced by individuals or organisations that rely on criminality for their industry to prosper.
Additionally we need to know how much of the significant cost of brood management is being borne, not by the industry which has created the problem through illegal persecution, but by the British taxpayer.
Despite the hype that we can expect at the end of the breeding season, 2019 will not be a good year for Hen Harriers in England.