Hawk and Owl Trust getting it badly wrong

Hen harrierUp until yesterday, we had a lot of respect and admiration for the Hawk & Owl Trust. They’ve got some fantastic staff and volunteers, their conservation work has been exemplary, as has their educational work, and they’ve stood shoulder to shoulder with the rest of us to make a stand against the illegal persecution of raptors. Such was their unity, in 2013 they even walked away from the ridiculous Hen Harrier Dialogue shortly after the RSPB and the Northern England Raptor Forum had walked. They were one of us, with shared ideals and whose patience with the grouse moor owners had been sucked dry. Read their exit statement here.

So it was with an overwhelming sense of shock and disbelief yesterday that we found out the Hawk & Owl Trust’s Board of Trustees had, late last year, “agreed unanimously that a hen harrier brood management scheme trial (NB trial) is the way forward for the recovery of hen harrier populations“.

That is a direct quote from the Hawk & Owl Trust’s Chair, Philip Merricks.

To read more about this staggering statement, read this and this (including the comments) on Mark Avery’s blog.


What has changed within the grouse-shooting industry since the Hawk & Owl Trust penned their exit letter from the Hen Harrier Dialogue in 2013? Absolutely nothing. The industry is still deeply in denial that it is involved in any way with the illegal persecution of hen harriers, the English hen harrier population is still on its knees as a direct result of illegal persecution, and the grouse-shooting industry is still firmly based on widespread criminality. The only thing that has changed is that the Hawk & Owl Trust has a new Chair – Mr Merricks.

Later in the day, and in response to the outcry on social media, the Hawk & Owl Trust tried to clarify their position with a further statement from Mr Merricks – see here. It hasn’t inspired much confidence. Apparently, the Trustees have come up with two “immoveable conditions” that would need to be agreed by all parties before the Trust will engage in more detailed talks with DEFRA. Those two conditions are as follows:

1. “All hen harriers fledged within a brood management scheme trial would be satellite tagged so that their movements could be tracked. And the knowledge that they were tagged (and the fear that other HHs might be) would prevent any gamekeepers from shooting them in the sky“.

This is so extraordinarily naive it beggars belief. Surely the Hawk & Owl Trust are aware that 37 of the 47 hen harriers sat tagged between 2007-2014 are listed as ‘missing’? That’s a staggering 78.7%. Only four tagged birds were known to still be alive in Oct 2014 (see here). Fitting a sat tag to a hen harrier does not “prevent gamekeepers shooting them in the sky” (nor catching them in spring traps and clubbing them to death, or stalking them at their night roosts and filling them with lead shot as they huddle on the ground).

2. “Should any Moorland Association, Game & Wildlife Trust, or National Gamekeepers Organisation member be proved to have illegally interfered with a hen harrier nest or to have persecuted a hen harrier on their grouse moors, the Hawk & Owl Trust would pull out its expertise from the brood management scheme trial“.

Again, complete naivety. The key word here is ‘proved’. By ‘proved’, do they mean a conviction? It’s hard to ‘prove’ criminal behaviour when birds, and their sat tags, suddenly ‘disappear’, and the grouse-shooting industry denies any knowledge of, and/or involvement in, any criminal activity. Even if one of them did slip up and leave enough evidence for a subsequent prosecution, the court case would likely take a few years to conclude and in the meantime, the Hawk & Owl Trust would have to continue to remove hen harriers from grouse moors because they wouldn’t yet have the ‘proof’ that one of their partners had been involved with the crime.

There is a tiny glimmer of hope. A further statement on the Hawk & Owl Trust website says this:

Addressing raptor persecution is a pre-requisite of our talking to DEFRA and landowners. Until this issue is addressed in a satisfactory manner, any form of management of hen harrier is impossible“.

The questions is, how will the Hawk & Owl Trust define “addressed in a satisfactory manner“? That could mean anything. And will it apply just to hen harrier persecution or will it include all the other persecuted raptor species that are either found on (or more often ‘disappear’ on) these moors?

Depending on how the Hawk & Owl Trust defines this condition, there’s every chance that the brood management scheme will never see the light of day because, as we all know only too well, the grouse-shooting industry has been reliant on criminal behaviour for more than a century and it shows no sign of changing.

But let’s just suppose for a second that the Hawk & Owl Trust IS satisfied that illegal persecution has been “addressed in a satisfactory manner” and they do decide to go ahead and partner with the grouse-shooting industry to remove hen harriers from grouse moors…

In our view, (and it’s shared by many others if you read the comments on Mark’s blog and on social media), the Hawk & Owl Trust would be heading for hell in a handbasket with this move. The issue is not just about illegal persecution – there are many wider associated issues about the questionable management of intensively managed grouse moors, and there’s also the fundamental ethical issue: why should one of our most treasured and relatively rare (even if it wasn’t being persecuted) species be removed from grouse moors, just so a minority group can farm an artificially-high population of red grouse so they can brag to their mates about how many they’ve shot? By partnering with the grouse-shooting industry on a brood management scheme, the Hawk & Owl Trust would be tacitly supporting these practices.

We think the Hawk & Owl Trust has under-estimated the impact this move may have on their organisation. There is a high risk that (a) they’ll lose their President, Chris Packham (we’ve yet to hear his views but we look forward to them in due course); (b) they’ll lose a lot of members (although they may gain a lot of members from within the grouse-shooting industry) and (c) they’ll lose their hard-earned credibility within the conservation community. That would be a great shame.

Hen harrier photo by Mark Hamblin

UPDATE 7th February 2015: Chris Packham resigns from Hawk & Owl Trust (here).

39 thoughts on “Hawk and Owl Trust getting it badly wrong”

  1. This is just an appeasement to the criminals. Don’t people ever learn that appeasement never pays. Remenber that united we stand – unfortunately you always find one weak link. Why should we bow down to such a minority group? I am, like RPS, totally shocked by the Hawk and Owl trust.

  2. Who on earth would pay for such a scheme? I imagine it would be incredibly expensive. Even after release surely the birds would have to be fed artificially until they have become independent. Has anyone ever done this with Hen Harriers? Has anyone any research showing that there would be a survival rate at least equal to wild birds?
    But those questions aside, the ethics of such a scheme is my main concern. This really is utter madness.
    Maybe it will crate a media storm which will backfire on HOT. Resignation of Chris Packham?

          1. Suspect he’s constrained by BBC contract while WinterWatch has been on (remember all the grief he got when he made public statement re: badger cull – BBC v sensitive to complaints about that). Give him a bit of time…

            1. Aye, which effectively destroys any argument on freedom of speech, or freedom of expression, in the UK.

              Fact is, that FoS or FoE is not allowed in the UK, with much of it illegal, and more laws against it coming soon. All of this despite the corrupt UK mainstream media allowing David Cameron to repeatedly lie on the issue since the Charlie Hebdo massacre, in which he was persistently allowed to state that the UK supports freedom of speech, all of which went completely unchallenged as usual.

              However, freedom of speech is permitted in some instances, especially by the BBC, as long as there is a distinct anti-Scottish flavour to the lies and misinformation. Last night’s Question Time, for example.

  3. This has hit like a ton of bricks, |’m still trying to get my head round it. Feels like a stab in the back after having some interesting talks with guys on the stand at Bird Fair 2014. As stated above, the shooting industry is in complete denial that they are involved with persecution so what’s the point of talking to them, if they stopped killing out birds then a natural recovery could start.

  4. So basically I pay the HOT my membership money so they can interfere with HH nests, then release them back onto the Grouse Moors to be shot by trophy hunters? I will be cancelling my membership ASAP and I hope I am not the only one

  5. This mad brood management scheme is a way around avoiding prosecuting gamekeepers- -no hen harriers, no prosecutions.

  6. Well now, let’s hope Mr P gives them the bum’s rush – at least I can go back to the RSPB with their dropping of their previous Bird Fair location – bung ho – oops! – Pip

  7. Very sad that HoT has capitulated in this way. Have always had a suspicion that as an organisation they’ve been rather close to land-owning interests and this confirms it. Have never been a member but do hold a season ticket to their Sculthorpe Moor reserve which I will not be renewing as a protest against their position on hen harrier brood management.

  8. Knowing the Hawk and Owl Trust they would stick a camera on the HH then rake in the cash, that seems to be their usual MO. Money money money!

  9. @ Norfolk Birder, you raise a good point about the Hawk and Owl Trust being in bed with certain land owners, when the story of the gamekeeper at Stody broke every bird organisation worth their salt condemned the Gamekeeper/Estate……….apart from one organisation who kept very quiet. I wonder why?

    1. I have no idea whether HoT have a ‘relationship’ with the Stody Estate but their coziness towards land owners was also exposed by their lukewarm response to the proposed re-introduction of white-tailed eagles to eastern England several years ago. At one public meeting I went to, the local HoT chap went to great pains to distance HoT from the proposal. Anyway, the HoT trustees have dropped a massive collective (and metaphorical) bollock here and I really hope that their membership holds them to account over this debacle.

  10. The main reason for not doing this is that it wouldnt work, as everyone is pointing out, the young would just migrate back into the killing zones. Its an interesting example of the mindset of the shooters/landowners/land managers – the one thing they cant bear is the idea of wildlife wandering about without their permission. Add control freakery to the long list of psychological ticks that these people suffer from.The whole concept of managed grouse moors is unsustainable for wildlife…get rid of it and stop this expensive and idiotic mucking about.

    1. Exellent well worded reply, the grouse shooting fraternity have no interest whatsoever in allowing the Hen Harriers or any other Raptor for that matter interfering with their so-called “sport”, they’ll use any ruse they can think of to make sure they get their own way regardless of whether it means breaking the law or not. As I’ve said on this blog before, appeasement is usually one sided and has only one result, reference Chamberlin.

      The Hawk & Owl Trust should come out from under the bushes and say where their true allegiances lie !!!

    2. Spot on! Bought their way through life to get what they want – and the HOT haven’t had the guts to stand up for their members’ beliefs – I’ll be resigning

  11. This is a bit of a cock up really, I don’t agree with the Hawk and Owl Trust but I have just put on my blog why I won’t be pulling my membership just yet.


  12. I’ve agreed with pretty much everything I’ve ever read on this excellent website, but disagree with the views on H&OT. I’m not sure what the H&OT’s motivation might be to support brood management, but from my parochial English perspective (i.e. we have no harriers so the situation cannot get any worse), I think if managed correctly this could be a good thing (although this is quite a bit ‘if’):

    Harrier settling density is not reduced – birds are left alone to incubate.
    Chicks are taken, reared in captivity and released – productivity is likely to increase.
    There should be no intervention until SPA populations have recovered.
    It would remove the last lawful option yet to be tested.
    Success would give more harriers.
    There would have to be enough compliance checking / monitoring to detect any ongoing persecution.
    Failure would indicate (to the general public and not just an interested minority) that grouse shooting is only sustained through illegality.

    Personally I think it would fail, but I think this would be the quickest / only way that legislative reform is likely in England. Shooting groups are quite happy to continue sitting round the table and welcome any intransigence. Some shooting bodies might actually like a watered-down brood management scheme. Those more closely involved with grouse shooting really do not want the type of scheme described above, as they would have backed themselves into a corner and would have to deliver. Call their bluff I say.

    1. Aye-aye, We start to manage raptors on shooting estates in any form then the killers of these birds have won. We as a country must come down hard when these raptor killing criminals are caught and we must also invest more in detecting, investigating and bringing to court these people. More jail time like we have seen recently will also help to send a message out to these wildlife criminals that the law is catching up with them and it IS taking prisoners. As soon as we go down the road of relocation of raptors from shooting estates to protect them from persecution then where will these raptor ‘management’ ideas end? It’s just simply playing into the hands of those with shooting interests who want to see raptors managed. Believe us, you give these people an inch and they will take one hundred miles before you have even had time to say where are all our raptors gone.

      Every one of us can help with this process of actually helping to catch these criminals. We don’t mean playing detective as such but simply to keep an eagle eye out for raptor crimes when out and about. May be even make a promise to yourselves that if you know of a shooting estate then you will take a ramble up there once a month to carry out your recreation, whether it be simply for a walk, photography, orienteering or birding etc. and at the same time look out for signs of raptor persecution. You can visit our website at Project Raptor for more information on what kind of things to keep an eye out for and what to do if you do come across something or you can also visit a great website, ‘Birders Against Wildlife Crime’ (BAWC) and learn more to help you detect crimes against raptors. We can assure you that as we write here now on this blog that throughout the UK there will be pole traps set as well as other trapping devises unlawfully targeted at raptors and also poison baits ready and waiting to kill out there. There will also be raptors, already killed by these criminals, having been shot, poisoned or bludgeoned to death, buried in shallow graves within remote woodland or stuffed into rabbit holes. Have no doubt, up and down the country the unlawful killing of birds of prey went on yesterday, is happening today and will continue tomorrow but WE can try to help slow down this silent slaughter. The only people that we can truly rely on is ourselves, the people that do genuinely give a sh*t about protecting our wildlife from those who see it as almost a sport in itself to getaway with the unlawful killing of our birds of prey here in the UK.

      Less talk of managing our protected wildlife for the benefit of the shooting lobby and more talk of managing our criminals and how we go about catching more of them.

      1. Project Raptor – I agree with a lot of what you say but I am a bit more pessimistic / realistic (take your pick). The killers of these birds have been winning for years. Increased protection will not recover populations. There will always be more keepers, they will always be better funded and with more political backing. We might win the odd battle – but they continue winning the war.

        If interpreted correctly, the precedent could only relate to a scenario where a protected species’ population was increased as a result of a proven conflict (although I accept there is a risk any ‘precedent’ was not misinterpreted).

        I think the recent focus on harriers and persecution issues has been excellent. For legislative reform to take place (be it banning / licensing), however, I think the level of interest has to be increased another level. Twenty thousand signatures on a petition is an amazing achievement, but 9 million tune in to the X factor. I think government’s hand has to be forced – and the failure of brood management might just do this. If on the other hand it works……

        1. They will win the war only if we stand back and let them.

          We are starting to turn the tide (yes its painfully slow) by simply standing up for what is legal. and sustainable.

          Harriers are not the only front in this battle to conserve our moorland ecosystem, burning is under challenge (why is it illegal to burn a stubble field but not at moorland), the flooding issue is at the fore too. it would also be useful if the police started to check the alcohol content of those wielding guns and driving landrovers, etc….

          Grouse moor management is an extremely damaging activity and leaves us with an impoverished landscape and a skeletal biodiversity. The loss of Harriers is just the tip of the iceberg.

          Brood management of Hen Harrier (because of the totemic nature of the species) will undermine all of the efforts that are trying to address this much larger situation.

          There is also the cost to the public…. Its been proven that diversionary feeding protects the keepers interests…. but they refuse to pay to implement it! I have no idea what BM will cost but it will cost many times more than DF…. will the shooting estates pay? I have no idea what has been discussed around the edges of the secret recovery plan meetings….but have the shooting estates given a clear commitment that they will pick up the cost of brood management if its a success??? Of course not, they will be expecting the public purse to add it to the long list of subsidies.

          Brood management is nothing to do with the recovery of hen harriers and our upland habitats it simply creates a smokescreen to help maintain the status quo.

          1. On the cost of diversionary feeding; I recall Duncan Thomas making the following statement on Twitter shortly after the “Countryfile” episode he appeared on:

            “Credit for spending over £300 on “diversionary feeding” to both our HH nests? Where was the RSPB contribution?”

            So £300 for two nests. Probably the cost of a nice lunch out for a few grouse moor owners.

            Blanaid Denman (RSPB Hen Harrier project) response was: “RSPB contribution was >£25,000 in nest protection staff, volunteers & equipment for 24/7 watch”

  13. Very disappointing, H&OT seem to have been infiltrated by the killing animals for fun brigade, I won’t be renewing my membership or trusting them again until they regain some credibility

  14. It is an outrage that any raptor conservation group should be even considering to agree with removing birds of prey from shooting estates. What a sickening thought that these protected birds may have to be forcebly relocated for the sake of a bloodsport.

  15. Even if brood management is a ‘practical’ solution (to what exactly?) I totally agree that ANY form of management of wildlife for no other end than to increase the numbers of grouse, pheasant or partridge to unnaturally high levels so they can be shot is just morally unacceptable and utterly ridiculous. If this is acceptable then society has no genuine appreciation of wildlife or a conservation ethos (the threat to many ancient woodland by golf courses underlines this too), we must fight to ensure it has so although it may have been well meant, the HOT is at the very least extremely naive. The comments about being close to the landowning sector does strike a chord, although BoPs are detested by the Field Sports sector strangely falconry has sort of been included in the margins of it at times – so there is some connection and scope for the old boys network to be in operation here. Suspect that the HOT will back off ASAP, can’t see C.P being happy about this.

  16. Does a 12 year old run the Hawk and Owl unTrust twitter account? I have just seen a reply from them to a queston about this debacle on twitter which ends #getyourfactsright this kind of reaction is not doing them any favours at all

  17. Pingback: Hen Harriers
  18. The hawk and owl trust want to maintain a managed harrier population in a severely damaged habitat. That’s not conservation. Why don’t they just apply for a licence to keep a collection of captive harriers in cages…that’s the level of their conservation thinking.

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