Hen Harrier brood management working group: what they’ve got planned

Hen harrierIn January 2016, DEFRA published its Hen Harrier (In)Action Plan (see here).

There are six ‘action’ points, including #6, a brood management (meddling) trial, where it is proposed to remove hen harrier eggs/chicks from driven grouse moors when breeding pairs have reached a certain density on that moor or on nearby moors, hatch and rear them in captivity, and then release them back to the uplands at fledging age.

At the time of publication, the actual details of this brood meddling scheme were very sketchy. Where would the trial take place? When would it start? Who would fund it? Who would be involved? Was it even legal, given the catastrophically low number of breeding hen harriers in England?

A working group was established to scope out the trial. Since then, very little information has reached the public domain. We learned from Amanda Anderson (Moorland Association) during the e-petition evidence session at Westminster that there were hopes brood meddling would begin during the 2017 breeding season, but that’s about all we’d heard.

Until now.

A series of FoIs have revealed what this working group has been up to.

The working group comprises various individuals and organisations: GWCT (Teresa Dent, Adam Smith), Hawk & Owl Trust (Philip Merricks, Phil Holms), Moorland Association (Amanda Anderson, Robert Benson), Natural England (Rob Cooke, Adrian Jowitt), Jemima Parry Jones (International Centre for Birds of Prey) and Steve Redpath (listed as an ‘independent academic’ although we note he has recently joined the Hawk & Owl Trust Board of Trustees).

The working group has met four times this year and has agreed on some details of the trial, and other details are still being assessed.

Here’s what we know so far:

  • The brood meddling trial area has yet to be established. The Moorland Association wants all its members’ grouse moors to be included but the licence for the trial will have to comply with various legislative instruments concerning wildlife and habitat.
  • Brood meddling will be triggered if the initial ‘ceiling density’ has been reached. For the purposes of this trial, the initial ceiling density is one pair of breeding hen harrier per 80 sq km or 20,000 acres, or a (straight line) distance between pairs of 10km or 6.3 miles.
  • Brood meddling will begin without the need for the English hen harrier population to reach a pre-determined level. In other words, even if there are only two hen harrier breeding attempts in 2017, and at least one of those breeding attempts is on a driven grouse moor and is within 10km of the other nest (even if the other nest is on an RSPB reserve) then the eggs/chicks of that grouse moor nest will be removed. (Absurd, we know).
  • Legal advice given to Natural England suggests there are no legal barriers to the brood meddling trial, despite the failed status of the hen harrier Special Protection Areas.
  • Brood meddling can only take place with landowner permission, regardless of whether the site lies within the licensed trial area. In other words, hen harrier nests on, say, RSPB reserves, cannot be touched unless the RSPB says it can.
  • The brood meddling trial is not dependent on the cessation of illegal persecution. So, even if the released captive bred birds (all satellite tagged) are found to have been bumped off post-release, the trial will continue for five years.
  • The practical aspect of brood meddling will be undertaken by the International Centre for Birds of Prey. The Natural England licence will be in this organisation’s name.
  • All hen harriers reared in captivity will be released back in to the uplands; they will not be used as the source birds for DEFRA’s proposed ‘reintroduction’ of hen harriers to southern England.
  • Possible release sites (not on “prime grouse moor”) for these captive-reared birds have been suggested in Northumbria, West Pennine Moors and Wensleydale. However, the group has since realised that any proposed release sites must not only have a willing landowner, but they must also meet stringent ecological criteria. Natural England is currently assessing various potential sites.
  • A social science study will run parallel with the practical brood meddling trial, to assess whether the attitudes of the grouse shooting lobby change towards hen harriers over the course of the trial. A proposal for this study has been submitted by Steve Redpath and Freya St John (Kent Uni).
  • Funding options for both the practical trial and the social science study are still under discussion.

Here are the official ‘notes’ from the brood meddling working group’s four meetings this year:





Further documents from this working group provide much more detail about certain aspects of the trial, including the practicalities of brood meddling and release and its estimated costs, the proposed social science study and its estimated costs, the ecological requirements of proposed release sites, and some interesting information about the proposed ‘reintroduction’ of hen harriers to southern England. We’ll publish these in due course.

Photograph of hen harrier nest by Mark Hamblin

UPDATE 15 Nov 2016: More brood meddling revelations (here)

UPDATE 16 Nov 2016: Brood meddling: the role of the International Centre for Birds of Prey (here)

38 thoughts on “Hen Harrier brood management working group: what they’ve got planned”

  1. I have an image of someone planning which Hen Harriers can be killed with a ruler and compass, ‘too close to the edge of the moor, can’t risk that we might get a second pair’.
    The only positive thing in this expected but thoroughly disheartening news is that the juveniles will be released in the uplands. The fact that they won’t be released on grouse moors says it all. I have no doubt as soon as they fly over a grouse moor they will be shot especially if it is August or later.
    Thanks RPUK for excellent reporting.

  2. “MA felt that they would be able to make a contribution.” This statement alone is astonishing when you consider that the whole project is for the benefit of Grouse moors and absolutely nobody else. If Grouse moors don’t want Harriers on their land then why don’t they pay for their removal. But no folks, not only are they going to remove Harriers from your local patch, but you are going to help pay them to do it.

  3. The sub-text from the grouse moors, seems to be, that they will stop killing raptors, when there are none on ‘their’ moors. Did I understand correctly ?

    Meanwhile, the working group to prevent burglary, has had a meeting with the mafia, the thieves guild, the police and the home owners assoc. and agreed that the best way to stop burglary, is to remove all objects of value from homes. These items will be removed to somewhere ‘safe’, that safe place has yet to be agreed upon.

    At the recent parliamentary debate on actually upholding the law to catch and punish the burglars, the issue was roundly laughed at by the MP’s, most of whom admitted links with the burglars guild, they further stated that the current weak laws, with almost impossible levels of proof required, and a diminished police force, was robust enough, and that aggrieved homeowners should return to the above working group, and continue with the 50 years of talks.

    To me, this is how criminally ridiculous the brood ‘management’ scheme is.

  4. All a bit of a waste of time when it is quite clear no Grouse moor in England is planning to have any Hen Harriers any time soon, and I do hope the Tories remember the Forest sales fiasco painfully enough n ot to go anywhere near the FC’s Harriers.

  5. This is obscene and I think we need to do everything possible to stop it in its tracks. Hen harriers are supposed to be legally protected. What next: shift the birds out of the Thames estuary using bird scarers to make way for an airport? Shunt the woodlarks and nightjars out of the Thames Basin and Dorset Heaths to allow developers to build as many homes as possible all around them without fear of disturbing heathland birds? Nudge the waders away from Dibden Bay to allow for a deep water port? Basically the government, Steve Redpath, International Centre for Birds of Prey, HoT etc are now saying that, rather than mitigate the impacts of things we do on protected wildlife, we need to mitigate the impact of wildlife on whatever we choose to do. This is a retrograde step and will undermine a whole raft of wildlife policy and legislation. You can see all sorts of sectors lining up in the coming years to ask ”Why do we need to modify our plans if the driven grouse moor industry can get the wildlife removed so that can do what they like?”

  6. I keep trying to have constructive thoughts on this issue, but have only come up with one good reason for removing eggs or young from a nest – namely that it might ensure that the young would survive that bit longer than might otherwise be the case. Once the young are released, what is there to prevent them returning to their natal areas or moving onto other grouse moors. We know enough from satellite tracking to be aware of the lengthy journeys some of the birds make in their first year, so anything could happen.

    I wonder whether the social science study associated with brood meddling will adequately address and measure responses to the possibility that Hen Harrier numbers might actually increase (though for how long?) under the scheme.

    I see that their preferred basis for the application for a licence to remove eggs or young from nests is Section 16(1)(c) of the WCA – ‘for the purpose of conserving wild birds’. Which species is it that they’re seeking to conserve – Red Grouse or Hen Harriers?

    It is my view that intentionally depriving adult Hen Harriers of their full clutch of eggs, as appears to be the favoured approach, is as morally corrupt and indefensible as illegal egg-collecting. Maybe even worse, as the early illegal removal of eggs might allow the birds to re-lay, whereas the meddling team are seeking to ensure that eggs would not be taken so early as to cause ‘re-cycling’ (aka re-laying).

  7. I saw Amanda Anderson heading into the Defra offices in York this morning. No doubt more brood plotting under way

  8. International Centre for Birds of Prey… Silly me! I didn’t realise it was so prestigious. I thought it was just another falconry display park.

    1. Thought wrong then didn’t you. Suggest you check out what they do. And JPJ is no walkover. I would be surprised if she is not the strongest voice on there on the side of the hh. .

      1. Jemima Parry-Jones is the ”strongest voice on the side of the hen harrier”? If that were the case, she’d be fighting for harriers to be left in peace, for diversionary feeding to be tried where impacts on grouse are clear. And she’d be fighting for the ludicrously high densities of red grouse demanded by driven grouse shoots to be moderated. Brood removal is being enabled by one organisation – the International Centre for Birds of Prey. It can’t be done without Jemima Parry-Jones and ICBP. I admire a lot of Jemima’s work elsewhere, but in this instance she has it badly wrong. Brood removal simply facilitates the continuation of intensive driven grouse shooting and turns a blind eye to the killings of other birds of prey on those same grouse moors from which hen harriers will be removed.

        1. Apologies to Steve. I was not aware of JPJs involvement in this way (just read the later post of the ICBP involvement)

  9. I have never read so much rubbish in all of my life.

    How will young harrier avoid the death traps when they are released in the uplands? These are the very areas that the magically ‘disappear’ in.

    Perhaps we should ask Donald Trump if they would be allowed to enter the USA legally and before the walls and fences are erected to keep the desirables out. Pause, do they have grouse moors in the USA, perhaps not but plenty of shooters who may enjoy finding something different to blast out of the sky

    I really despair about the present plight of our birds of prey and the so called laws that are supposed to protect them.

  10. All makes me very angry , particularly that NE and HOT seem OK with the ridiculously low density trigger. Through the environment Council process years ago it was shown that grouse moor bags would be unaffected at TWO pairs of harriers per 5000 acres yet amongst a whole set of totally unacceptable proposals we have a density many times lower. Brood management is unpalatable and wholly unacceptable without much higher numbers of harriers in England, a cessation of persecution, birds being released where they came from and a realistic density, even then it may be unacceptable to many. This is nothing short of appeasing the criminals.

  11. Hen Harrier social science study 1960.
    Q. Mr Game keeper, what do you think of Hen harriers?
    A. “I think they are smashing birds and I could never harm one….”
    Hen Harrier social science study 1970.
    Q. Mr Game keeper, what do you think of Hen harriers?
    A. “I think they are smashing birds and I could never harm one….”
    Hen Harrier social science 1980.
    Q. Mr Game keeper, what do you think of Hen harriers?
    A. “I think they are smashing birds and I could never harm one….”
    Hen Harrier social science study 1990.
    Q. Mr Game keeper, what do you think of Hen harriers?
    A. “I think they are smashing birds and I could never harm one….”
    Hen Harrier social science study 2000.
    Q. Mr Game keeper, what do you think of Hen harriers?
    A. “I think they are smashing birds and I could never harm one….”
    Hen Harrier social science study 2010.
    Q. Mr Game keeper, what do you think of Hen harriers?
    A. “I think they are smashing birds and I could never harm one….”
    Hen Harrier social science study 2020.
    Q. Mr Game keeper, what do you think of Hen harriers?
    A. “English Nature say I can kill as many as I like…..”

    Redpath has truly left reality behind if he thinks he will ever get the truth from a game keeper! Why are public funds being diverted to such a stupid stupid project?

  12. It is even worse than most of us had anticipated. The grouse shooters are offering no concessions whatsoever, offering no suggestion that their management practices will change, or that illegal persecution will stop. And harriers are being given absolutely no time and absolutely no space on grouse moors for their population to recover.

    Further, grouse shooting estates are being excused from the “inconvenience” of killing harriers at the nest by the International Bird of Prey Centre and the Hawk and Owl Trust taking the harriers off their hands, licenced by Natural England. Will the IBPC and HoT feel any shame when the estates continue to kill harriers outside the breeding season? Or any shame when the estates continue to kill all other birds of prey? Or is that off-topic as this is the hen harrier action plan?!

    It is just utterly shameful that this is the best that “Natural” England can come up with to protect England’s rarest breeding bird, as well as all the other birds of prey that should be in our uplands, and the protected habitats that are being trashed, all in the name of killing grouse for fun.

  13. To put it into context, what a load of crap, an obvious ploy by DEFRA and NE to give their shooting buddies all the leeway they need to pretend they’re law abiding citizens who wouldn’t hurt a single feather of an Hen harriers head. DEFRA and NE are clearly not fit for purpose and should be either disbanded altogether or reformed with people who know what they’re talking about and care for the welfare of wildlife in this country, I won’t hold my breath for either. If it was up to me this gang of shooting estate appeasers would receive not one jot of information of Hen Harrier breeding attempts anywhere in the UK.

  14. It’s thoroughly wrong for Steve Redpath to dry to compare the illegal killing of birds of prey to allow wealthy shooting folks to partake in a hobby, with genuine human-wildlife conflicts, like elephants destroying crops or tigers hunting villagers. What this amounts to is Steve misusing science to help out those who wish to intensify grouse moor management. He lives in a hen harrier-grouse moor bubble, and cannot see a bigger picture – the goshawks, buzzards, peregrines, kites etc etc, also killed to make way for this silly hobby. Removing hen harriers will perpetuate a hobby which also drives illegal killing and wider environmental damage. What every other sector has to do in such cases in the UK is apply the mitigation hierarchy – moderate their activities so as to reduce their impacts on protected species and protected habitats. That’s how nature conservation addresses damage to sensitive wildlife. Here, one might first ask ‘Do you REALLY, honestly need such high densities of grouse on these SSSIs / SPAs?”, the answer to which is ‘Not really, so’, in which case, you can reduce the intensity of management. And, if harriers do settle to nest, you might ask, ‘What might we try first, to moderate their impacts on grouse shooting’, and you’d try diversionary feeding. Those two steps combined – reduce grouse density demanded and thus management intensity, plus diversionary feeding in specific instances, aught surely to solve the ‘problem’? And if they don’t, well, one can review the situation.

    1. I don’t know if we’re allowed to express this opinion, but it is my belief that Steve Redpath is not oblivious to the bigger picture – he has in fact carved out a nice little career niche by siding with the grouse shooting movement. I don’t know Steve personally, but have been up against him at a Public Local Inquiry concerning a windfarm proposal on a moorland peripheral to a breeding Hen Harrier SPA, and found his evidence lacking in ornithological expertise but rather skilled in manipulating convenient answers to technical questions. To be blunt, quite disingenuous. Add his “expertise” to the Hawk & Owl Trust and it’s a case of the partially sighted leading the blind. If the individuals concerned knew anything about harrier ecology and biology, they MUST know that the proposed brood meddling will do absolutely NOTHING for the harriers, and will ONLY satisfy the demands of the powerful grouse shooting lobby to minimise the UK harrier population. Every single aspect of the proposal is unworkable and part of a conspiracy to control harriers whilst pretending to be based on scientific principles. Key aspects of harrier biology are being deliberately ignored, for example the tendency for the species to breed semi-colonially, which may act as a breeding stimulus, or the known distances the released juveniles are likely to wander away from less suitable to more suitable breeding habitat, in other words straight back to the grouse moors where they will enter the cycle of illegal persecution or their very own brood medddling. The whole scenario is insane, and it is to the shame of Natural England that they are prepared to go along with this utter farce of a project. Whatever next?

  15. We know this is utter bollocks.
    How did we arrive at this ridiculous situation.
    Move over Raptor killers and give nature a chance.

  16. No I too dont like the sound of this idea at all, its all a bit complicated, and I dont agree to the cost it will occur, can imagine hundreds of motorway miles being done, going to meetings, checking if habitats right,obtaining permissions,how does this work anyway ? if say Jack Smith said no I dont want any let out on my land, then his neighbour two miles away says yes ill have a few harriers, would they carry on and release.
    Also, taking the eggs and getting them into an incubator of the right temperature is a bit risky, ive had enough failures trying to hatch a few hen eggs.
    Then when the harriers are fledged, did they say they would have them in a release pen ?, this is also high risk, from people/vandalism, only needs someone to break in and let them out too soon, then thats the end of them. Some may say that maybe the chicks would be safer by collecting them and keeping them in a pen, where they would not be at risk from a fox eating them. And why should we agree to have a population level/density ?, next thing could be them saying we have to only have 1 buzzard nest every ?? miles.
    It is a great shame that more broods are not allowed to be left alone as most important moors have more than enough grouse to supply the guns and have some let days, some years they have a few more grouse days added in, to bag as many as possible. This is especially so nowadays, with the boom and bust years ironed out with modern methods ie medicated grit easier keepering by access with quads and roaded tracks, night vision etc.

    1. Seeing as we are now being guided by game keeper ecology(my ribs are hurting!)…. the optimum super bestest moorland habitat, where Hen harriers can live rich and fully fulfilled lifestyles, safe and secure, are driven grouse moors. It is impossible for harriers to survive anywhere else.

      So why on earth are they planning to release them in sub-optimal, dangerous habitats?

      See natural England and science flushing themselves down the pan.

    2. So as I see it, a nest/brood will be targeted by this miserable cabal and the birds will be watched until it is decided to act and take the eggs/young – all, mind you, with the connivance of the local landowner. So, the eggs/young are taken from the nest and they all troop off somewhere else, leaving the adult birds at the mercy of the landowner. I bet they won’t even last a week!

  17. Brood management has always been a position of last resort that most on our “side” find unpalatable and largely unacceptable. In its original form the young( Never eggs) would be removed to a place of rearing as near as possible to the nest site, reared and released on the moor or at least area they came from. The thinking being that the adults would not take a large number of grouse chicks to rear them ( doesn’t supplimentary feeding do that!) This is far more sinister it seems birds will be released on non grouse moor sites , so the criminals are getting their way , they want no harriers on grouse moors at all.Yes the adults will probably be killed and in any case at the proposed density harrier population will not behave normally interms of the way colonisation and population growth occur. They will constantly gravitate to the ” honey pot ” sites and be brood managed. There has been NO shift in the attitudes of the grouse lobby at all and this is and should remain totally unacceptable to all conservationists. HOT and NE have sold their souls to the dark side.

  18. Spot on Paul. And still no comments from the HOT on the killing/disappearance of their showpiece tagged ‘Rowan’ and ‘Tarras’; and still no reply to my request that Stephen Murphy tells us how many of his other tagged harriers have vanished into the ether with no trace. Come on both parties, tell us how you justify your ill-fated, ill-conceived and ill-thought out cow-towing to the pleasure killers. Shame on you and your organisations – and I speak as a former trustee of the HOT in the heady days of the chairmanship of a true conservationist – the much missed doughty Barbara Handley. This would never have happened under her leadership.

    1. I’d really like to know what went on at the H oT 2016 AGM, Tony. I can find no report on their website and although I emailed them 5 days ago to ask where it was on the site, they haven’t even had the courtesy to reply. Did you attend? Or know anyone who did? Why are they being so secretive?

  19. This is both shameful and frightening. That the nation’s statutory conservation body is participating in this farce shows how low they have sunk. I feel sorry for the good people working for NE and wonder just which ignorant, cringing jobsworths are responsible for this situation. As for the Hawk & Owl Trust – words fail!

  20. ‘The brood meddling trial is not dependent on the cessation of illegal persecution. So, even if the released captive bred birds (all satellite tagged) are found to have been bumped off post-release, the trial will continue for five years.’

    So Merricks was going way, way, ‘beyond the facts’ when he spike of ‘immovable conditions’ and ships ‘leaving the harbour’ ‘on the way’ and now sinking.

    I prefer the old fashioned term lying.

  21. This proposed brood management trial would be understandable if there was many pairs of hen harriers nesting on English grouse moors and depleting the numbers of grouse available for shooting but given that there are very few pairs of hen harriers nesting on English grouse moors the proposed brood management trial can only be detrimental to the current fragile population.
    Even if the trial did go ahead and the birds were released in “safe” habitat they are unlikely to stay there but are likely to gravitate to what they decide is good nesting habitat namely grouse moors.
    I am surprised that an eminent ecologist such as Dr Steve Redpath is getting involved with this proposed trial given that he knows the dire straits that the English population of hen harriers is in at present.
    Could the reason for his involvement be that a similar proposal he made for a brood management trial in Scotland wasn’t given any encouragement by SNH because of the likely high monetary costs. Perhaps the attraction to the proposed English trial is the likelihood of rich grouse moors owners surreptitiously contributing towards the trial so that they can get rid of harriers by the back door.
    If I remember correctly when this proposal was put forward in Scotland we were led to understand that a derogation in law was required from the EU before it could take place.
    It is anticipated that Brexit will take two years to take place so how come EU wildlife derogations appear to have been abandoned in England before Brexit has even taken place?

  22. The opponents of the petition to ban driven grouse shooting argued vehemently that Hen Harriers are not suffering significantly from persecution on English grouse moors. They alleged that the current low population (three pairs) is a result of natural causes and effects of weather, prey shortage, etc. So why is there any need to “reduce” the population to an average density of 1.2 breeding pairs per ten-kilometre square? That isn’t even logical. Or could it be that this “plan” is an open admission that current persecution levels are extremely severe? If so, there are only two possible solutions to the immediate problem: either they stop killing harriers, or society bans grouse shooting. We’re told that the latter is an unlikely outcome, but I’d suggest that the former is even more unlikely.

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