In 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.
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)