Hen harrier ‘reintroduction’ to southern England: the feasibility/scoping report

Back in November we blogged (here) about DEFRA’s proposed ‘reintroduction’ of hen harriers to southern England, which is part of DEFRA’s Hen Harrier InAction Plan.

We had received information, via an FoI request, that Natural England had identified two potential areas for the reintroduction – Exmoor and Wiltshire.

These two areas had been identified from a ‘project scoping’ (feasibility) report, dated 2012 and cited in DEFRA’s InAction Plan as being ‘unpublished’. We were very keen to see this scoping report and we’ve now got hold of a copy, via another FoI.

The report is called The Feasibility of Translocating Hen Harriers to Southern England, and Prioritisation of Potential Translocation Sites and Strategies. It is authored by D.J. Hodgson [Exeter University], W. Schuett [Exeter University], S.M. Redpath (Aberdeen University], S.C.F. Palmer [Aberdeen University], J.P. Heinonen [Aberdeen University], J.M.J. Travis [Aberdeen University] and R. Saunders [Natural England]. The report was written in 2012, was funded by Natural England, but for unknown reasons has never been published, which seems a bit odd for a report paid for with taxpayers’ money.

You can download it here: draft-hh-reintro-to-southern-england-feasibility-study

It makes for an interesting read. It identifies four potential release areas (Exmoor, Dartmoor, Dorset Heaths and Wiltshire), based on a series of ecological data, with the highest scoring areas being Exmoor & Wiltshire. There is also mention that Scottish birds would be the most suitable for a translocation to Exmoor (based on habitat similarities) whereas birds from the Continent would be more suitable for release in Wiltshire. (Remember, we already know that hen harriers that have been removed from grouse moors as part of the brood meddling scheme cannot be used for the southern England reintroduction project (see here) and so other donor populations need to be identified).

What is most surprising about this report is how dated the reference material is that has been used to justify the project’s feasibility, and, more pertinently, the apparent exclusion of more recent data that would throw a different light on the project’s feasibility, and we wonder whether that exclusion is deliberate. Let us explain….

The whole (presumed) premise of this project is to establish a self-sustaining population of hen harriers in southern England; a population that will be unaffected by the continued persecution of hen harriers on the grouse moors of northern England/Scotland. For this to be achievable, DEFRA/Natural England would need to be sure that the hen harriers released in southern England wouldn’t disperse to the grouse moor badlands in the north, where undoubtedly they’d be killed (illegally) and thus the southern reintroduction project would fail.

So in this feasibility report, the authors have discussed the natal dispersal of hen harriers (i.e. the distance dispersed from the natal nest to the nest of the first breeding attempt). It’s a reasonable subject to include, especially if, as in the case of this project, DEFRA/Natural England are trying to show that hen harriers will attempt to breed relatively close to any proposed release (substitute natal) site. The authors of this feasibility report have cited very short natal dispersal distances, based on the findings of Etheridge et al (1997), although they do acknowledge that there is limited evidence of greater natal dispersal distances based on more recent data. The Etheridge et al paper reported on fieldwork undertaken in Scotland between 1988 – 1995 and natal dispersal distances were assessed from wing tag re-sightings. None of the birds had been radio or satellite-tagged. Natal dispersal distances for males generally fell between 14-150km and for females, 9.5-51km. So, if you’re trying to argue that reintroduced hen harriers are likely to attempt to breed close to the release site, the Etheridge et al paper is a good one to cite.

However, since that 1997 paper was published, many, many more hen harriers have been radio and satellite-tagged (99 radio tagged 2002-2006; 47 satellite tagged 2007-2015 by Natural England according to Stephen Murphy’s presentation in Sheffield last Sept) but the RSPB has also been satellite tagging hen harriers in recent years so the totals will be higher. Natural England has yet to publish the full findings of the hen harrier tagging project (well, it’s only been 15 years since it started) but seeing as though one of the authors of the feasibility report is a Natural England employee (Richard Saunders), surely those more recent data should have been available to include in the feasibility report?

Now, it’s likely that there aren’t that many hen harriers that were radio or sat-tagged since 2002 that have survived for long enough to start a first breeding attempt, so there aren’t that many more recent data on natal dispersal that the authors could have used (there are a few birds that have survived for long enough, but not that many because most radio/sat tagged birds have been killed within the first year or so of leaving the nest (e.g. see here)).

But what we do know from the hen harriers tagged since 2002 is that juvenile dispersal  (i.e. the movements made by the young birds before they settle to breed), as opposed to natal dispersal, involves huge distances of hundreds of miles across large parts of the country, with some birds even dispersing to the Continent. It is these distances that need to be taken into account in the feasibility study, not just natal dispersal distances, because the chances are, any young birds released in to southern England will travel far and wide during the period of juvenile dispersal (probably to the grouse moors of northern England and Scotland) and so the probability of them still being alive to return to breed in southern England has to be seen as pretty slim, to say the least.

It’s all very well for the authors of the feasibility report to cite short natal dispersal distances, but to ignore the period of dispersal between fledging and first breeding attempt seems a fairly fundamental flaw, especially when the report authors have acknowledged throughout that persecution in the uplands continues to be a major issue. The authors did consider juvenile dispersal distances when they modeled population spread from southern England, but again, this was flawed because, if we’ve correctly understood the feasibility report, they only used dispersal distances from the Etheridge paper AND they assumed ‘no illegal activity’ in their modelling variables!

And it’s not just the information on dispersal that is so outdated in this feasibility report. The rest is pretty old too – the most recent reference cited in the reference list is from 2009. Sure, the feasibility report was written in 2012 but there are a lot more recent data they could have used, including the Hen Harrier Conservation Framework that was published in 2011. That Framework Report (written by Fielding et al) is the most comprehensive review on the ecological requirements and status of hen harriers (if you exclude the updated HH Framework Report that was submitted to SNH in 2013 but remains unpublished, four years on, because SNH wants to keep it a secret) so why weren’t the findings of the 2011 Framework Report incorporated in to this 2012 feasibility report?

It’s possible, of course, that we’ve misunderstood the feasibility report (and we’d be very keen to hear others opinions once you’ve had a chance to read it) but if we haven’t misunderstood it, and the feasibility report is flawed, then where does that leave DEFRA’s planned hen harrier reintroduction? It surely can’t proceed if the science used to justify the project’s feasibility is so flaky and unpublished?

We’ll be blogging more about the planned hen harrier reintroduction to southern England over the coming days, including further information about specific release sites, funding, and potential hen harrier donor populations that have been revealed via FoI.

Photo of satellite-tagged hen harrier Elwood, by Adam Fraser. Elwood ‘disappeared’ last year on a grouse moor in the Monadhliaths just a few weeks after fledging (see here).

18 thoughts on “Hen harrier ‘reintroduction’ to southern England: the feasibility/scoping report”

    1. I think the BAN should include ALL driven game shooting. The next petition should highlight the insanity of this cruel shooting industry that rears birds of gun fodder. Of course add to this the environmental damage done to support the cruelty.


      1. I’ve been out on a limb for many years, but have always stood firm in the belief that ALL shooting of wildlife is unacceptable in a civilised society, driven or not. I’m told repeatedly that this is unachievable, but that does nothing to change the ethics or morality of fun-killing, or the associated control methods and destructive habitat management associated with these so-called sports. To pretend that controversy doesn’t exist is merely to take a blinkered view of human behaviour and psychology. In my experience the great majority of responsible people are pretty appalled at the cruelty inflicted by fellow man (and a few women), and would love to see an end to it once and for all. A handful of liberals inhibit progress in the field, preferring to be seen as “nice” understanding people as if their respectability and status are more important than moral parameters.

        Indeed I’d go as far as to say that the ethics displayed by pro-shooting scientists in particular is deeply questionable, and it seems to me that most of them may well be in it for the financial and status rewards that such a line of research offers. Some of the familiar names are of people who think of themselves as distinguished scientists, but they must surely be fully aware of the flaws of the Defra Hen Harrier Inaction Plan, particularly the sham “reintroduction” and naive “brood management” proposals. These birds deserve a well-earned rest from human persecution, and should be effectively afforded the legal protection to which they are entitled. Stop messing with our Hen Harriers!

        1. Not sure you are that much out on a limb Ian. I suspect many agree but focusing on the worst culprit for illegal persecution is the first step. Wiltshire is not a safe haven for raptors: 3 buzzards were shot and killed near Pewsey a couple of years ago, almost certainly by one of the pheasant / partridge lobby.

        2. I think I’m sitting on much the same limb as you are, Iain. My impression is that it will be very difficult to excise one particular form of shooting – the rest of the fraternity will rally round to protect any part that they feel is under threat.
          Going further, I think it will be difficult to make any real progress without exposing the unpleasant nature of many of the activities associated with all forms of shooting, thereby challenging the authority, credibility and morality of the so-called ‘real countryman’.
          I suspect that driven pheasant shooting is also highly damaging to many forms of wildlife – the main difference is it’s not causing an imminent extinction threat to an iconic species in the way that grouse shooting does.
          But above all, I think we’d all be better off ditching the notion that it’s OK to go out and deliberately kill things for fun.

  1. I’m only a little way through this report but I was struck by the claim on P21 that the existing grazing regime on Salisbury Plain [Training Area] ”maintains a short-sward for nesting stone curlew…” Not last time I looked! Unless things have changed on the training area, by mid summer the 28,000ha of chalk grassland is tall, dominated by upright brome (and devil’s-bit scabious – that’s why it’s so great for marsh frit butterflies). Yes, grazing has increased, but animals move across a vast area, so the majority remains tall, not tightly-grazed, grassland.

    The stone curlews cannot nest on this upright brome grassland – that’s why the MoD creates cultivated plots within the grassland for them too nest on, and farmers in the adjacent arable landscape provide bare plots in their cereals.

    I’m sure hen harriers won’t predate stone curlews, and I’m sure I’ll see this thoroughly considered later in the report. But those cultivated plots are small – one hectare is open within grassland and cereals at any time. If I were a hen harrier trying to find food on tall winter wheat in mid summer, I’d check out those fallow stone curlew plots embedded in the middle of the cereals. OK, stone curlew chicks will freeze so presumably won’t be vulnerable to harrier predation. These stone curlew plots also support most of the local nesting lapwings, and are much favoured by hares.

  2. What really depresses me that in spite of the detailed no stone unturned no criminal estate or useless politician unnamed, pearls of truth and stark reality on this website, the killing of our protected raptors continues. Relentlessly. Contemptuously. Defiantly. By bastard gamekeepers and Estate owners who consider only their own blinkered interests.
    Again I salute you RPUK, without your persistance these birds would probably have been wiped out by now. Happy and successful New Year.

  3. Well done RPUK you guys are seriously amazing.

    So we have significant public funding spent (courtesy of NE) on this now out of date scoping report? Do we know the amount?

    This old ‘science’ will now be used to ‘justify’ around £500,000 re-intro scheme which will be handed to the establishment (in that I include their mates promoting [In]Action Plan) to deliver safe and protected Hen Harriers? Hope they’ve got a raptor specialists who can guarantee that any young will not stray or tour other (upland) sites in following season(s)?

    Where is the scrutiny? Where is the transparency? What happened to a risk assessment on potential conflict of interest?

  4. Whats the history of Hen Harriers in this part of the UK?? I assume they were wiped out in the same way the Kite,Sea Eagle etc. were

  5. Drawing the following conclusion is painful, however…..
    Perhaps the only solution is to let them run their flawed reintroduction based on flawed science. Let them release sat-tagged fledglings in the south. Let the juvenile birds wander far and wide and onto grouse moors. Let the birds be shot. Let them see what the problem really is. Let them finally understand what we’ve been saying all along.

    It’s sad and it’s wrong but maybe this is what it will take for the penny to drop.

    1. I don’t for one minute believe that these people do not know what the situation is in reality rsp, and what the outcome is likely to be. These people are not that naive to not know what will likely happen. Question is.. why are they staking their ‘reputations’ on this cop-out – for that is what it is. If it gets started – and is successful – expect English Nature to start granting licences for Hen Harriers up north because the species is doing ‘very well’ further south. In my opinion that is what the shooting sector have been told already – on the quiet of course – as long as they go along with the charade.

  6. A quick review of the index makes no reference to the reasons why Harriers are extinct in the proposed release areas? Without this information it is impossible to undertake an assessment against the IUCN criteria. Maybe its buried somewhere in the text, but as it is part of the key test you would think that it should be rather prominent?
    If they conclude that the reason that they are extinct is persecution (which the report explicitly states is an ongoing issue) how are they going to be able to demonstrate that it will stop… before they start? What do they do if any of their release birds are persecuted? What are their contingency plans?

    By the way.. should there be a Strategic Environmental Appraisal of the plan?

  7. All I know is that strength of voice, number of feet, volume of response are the only measures for taking this seriously, if it were not for this ongoing and strong continuing article to maintain awareness and keep all informed, then quietly and without choice, our hen harrier would almost be a thing of the past already. What is clear and infinitely obvious, is the power of the gun, as no longer is this a historical practice with value and respect, therefore until we wake up to the fact that we are the wrong doers, the failure and the cause of all of this persecution then there is but only a fine line of chance left for a species iconic in its own right. Seems the relocation talk always comes along to pacify and quiet the swelling crowd when the chance of saving them on their home turf is no longer a thing of possibility. I fear there will never be reprieve, until the real words are spoken. No longer is this level of shooting on grouse moors right or acceptable for wildlife. Trouble is human saturation needs more than a campaign to stop the rot, when all can see whats happening, but not enough are on the right side of it…

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