Shot hen harrier Rowan – a Natural England/Hawk and Owl Trust cover up? Part 2

This is Part 2 of a two-part blog. For Part one, please read here.

The following information is a timeline of what happened and has been compiled from a series of FoIs. Natural England has refused to release some of the information we asked for (notably a copy of the post mortem report that was paid for with tax payers’ money, but also some email correspondence) because apparently this may ‘affect the course of justice’.

Satellite-tagged hen harrier Rowan was found dead in Cumbria on 22 October 2016.

His corpse was collected by Stephen Murphy (Natural England) and sent to the Zoological Society of London for a post mortem on 24 October 2016.

The post mortem was conducted on 26 October 2016 and the preliminary findings were passed to Natural England on 27 October 2016. The preliminary findings indicated the bird had been shot. Stephen Murphy passed on the preliminary findings to Cumbria Police on 27 October 2016:

Cumbria Police launched an investigation the same day, based on the findings of the preliminary post mortem report (i.e. that Rowan had been shot):

The following day, on 28 October 2016 (the Friday before the Monday Westminster debate on driven grouse shooting), Natural England and the Hawk & Owl Trust issued the following vague joint press statement:

The body of a juvenile, male hen harrier – named Rowan – was recovered in Cumbria on 22nd October. He was satellite tagged at the Langholm project in the Scottish borders, as part of a joint venture between Natural England and the Hawk and Owl Trust. Following an autopsy, Natural England has passed details to the police for investigation.

We are unable to make further comments or enter into discussion at this time as this may be prejudicial to ongoing investigations.

On Monday 31 October 2016 – the Westminster debate on driven grouse shooting took place.

On 3 November 2016, WCO Helen Branthwaite of Cumbria Police sent a copy of a draft press statement about Rowan’s death to Natural England. Pay close attention to the wording of this draft police press statement, particularly the sentence, ‘Following a post mortem examination funded by Natural England it has been established that the bird was shot’:

Stephen Murphy (Natural England) replied to WCO Helen Branthwaite with this:

WCO Helen Branthwaite replied to Stephen Murphy to say she couldn’t get hold of the Natural England press officer (Lyndon Marquis) and asked if anyone else at Natural England should take a look over the draft police press statement:

Stephen Murphy replied to Helen and suggested that Graham Tibbetts (Head of Media at Natural England) and Rob Cooke (a Director at Natural England) should take a look:

At this point, the email chain goes cold (so either this conversation ended here or, if it did continue, Natural England has decided to withhold this information from the FoI response).

Four days later, on 7 November, Philip Merricks (Hawk & Owl Trust) wrote to Rob Cooke (Natural England) asking for a telephone conversation between Rob Cooke, Philip Merricks, Adrian Blumfield (Chief Operating Officer, Hawk & Owl Trust) to discuss the imminent Police press release about Rowan “which will be signed off by” Rob Cooke. Rob Cooke replied and said he would ask Graham Tibbetts (NE’s Head of Media) to make contact with Adrian Blumfield:

We don’t know if that telephone conversation took place because if it did, there won’t be a written record of it, but it is clear that the intention to have a conversation was there.

Later that same day, Cumbria Police issued the following press statement:

Cumbria Police have opened an investigation into the death of a hen harrier.

The body of a male Hen Harrier was found in the Ravenstonedale area of the county on 22nd October 2016. A post-mortem examination funded by Natural England and carried out by the Zoological Society of London has established that the bird was likely to have been shot.

The hen harrier, called Rowan, was satellite tagged at the Langholm Project as part of a joint venture between Natural England and the Hawk and Owl Trust. The bird had recently flown in the Cumbria and North Yorkshire Dales area before being found at Ravenstonedale.

Hen Harriers are specially protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, and the Government has set raptor persecution as one of their wildlife crime action priorities.

There is huge pressure on the survival of the hen harrier in England particularly and projects such as this are working hard to assist with the bird’s survival. Cumbria Police are working alongside such organisations to progress this investigation.

Anyone with information is asked to contact police on 101 and ask to speak to PC 2059 Helen Branthwaite.

Pay really close attention to the wording of this Police press statement, and notice which words have been changed from the draft police press statement that WCO Helen Branthwaite sent to Natural England on 3 November. The press statement no longer says that the post mortem established that Rowan had been shot; it now says the post mortem established that Rowan was ‘likely to have been shot‘.

This raises some really interesting questions.

If Cumbria Police were happy to tell the public that Rowan had been shot, based on a post mortem report (see their draft police press statement), why did the final police press statement only say he was ‘likely to have been shot’? Why the ambiguity?

It is apparent from the wording in Philip Merricks’ email that Rob Cooke (Natural England) was going to “sign off” the police press statement so did Natural England and the Hawk & Owl Trust collude to have this detail changed? It would certainly be in both their interests to have it changed because a ‘muddied’ ambiguous statement about a ‘likely shot’ hen harrier is far less damaging to their friends in the grouse shooting industry than a clear, evidence-based confirmatory statement that a hen harrier had been shot, especially at the time when driven grouse shooting and its associated criminality was being debated at Westminster.

If there was any doubt in WCO Helen Branthwaite’s mind that Rowan had been shot, did she contact the pathologist at ZSL for clarification or did she just accept the word of Natural England / Hawk & Owl Trust? If so, why?

These questions could easily be answered if we had sighting of the post mortem report, because then we’d know whether the final Police press statement was an accurate reflection of the post mortem’s findings or whether it was a cover-up job, but Natural England has refused to release it. Quite how the publication of a shot bird’s x-ray ‘might affect the course of justice’ is a mystery, especially when many police forces routinely publish such images as part of their appeals for information.

Unless of course Natural England is worried that its release might affect the uncovering of corruption….

30 thoughts on “Shot hen harrier Rowan – a Natural England/Hawk and Owl Trust cover up? Part 2”

  1. Something is indeed rotten in the state of England! Now we just need to find out what. Great work again.

  2. So..what is the purpose of such a press release?…A naive person might think it’s to inform the public about a crime of wide public interest – and to help solve the crime and therefore prevent further such crime taking place. Wrong – it appears to be all about covering the backs of those engaged in the doomed joint grouse moor owner/hen harrier eradication [sorry….recovery] project. Well done in tracking this shocking media manipulation RPUK.

  3. Natural England is not fit for purpose: unless its purpose is to be a propaganda mouthpiece for the shooters, hunters and the government – essentially, for the people determined to destroy our wildlife.

  4. Great work RPUK. This is an absolute joke! Let’s all make sure our backs are covered before a press release! Crime committed + post mortem to prove it = press release to gather evidence! You don’t need to divide by your mates to check they are all happy! Geniuses!

  5. I would hope that if enough people make an FOI request for the post mortem, they will eventually cave in.

    Don’t forget to ask for copies of x-rays, scans and any notes or appendices attached to the report.

    The email address is – I am expecting my reply “within 10 working days”.

    [Ed: Thanks Kiteman, but this may be a waste of time. NE will simply respond to a pile of email enquiries with the standard ‘refusal to disclose’ message. We think the most effective route is for us (i.e. RPUK) to challenge NE’s decision about our original FoI request via the Information Officer at NE, and if that fails, then we go to the Information Commissioner to request a review. This is the standard method of challenging an unsatisfactory FoI response. Cheers]

  6. You could make a FOI for the telephone records of all these individuals on the relevant days and then you’ll be able to establish the telephone time line. These individuals were, presumably using work phones / mobiles and NE and Cumbria Police are public authorities so this information should be released and telephone records aren’t going to jeopardise an investigation into a potential criminal offences so that clause for non disclosure shouldn’t apply.

    For the sake of clarity, I have set out below, the definitions of the words “data” and “information” according to the Freedom of Information Act 2004 and Data Protection Act 1998.

    Freedom of Information Act 2004, S84: “”information” (subject to sections 51(8) and 75(2)) means information recorded in any form.)”

    Data Protection Act 1998, S1(1) “”data” means information which—
    (a)is being processed by means of equipment operating automatically in response to instructions given for that purpose,
    (b)is recorded with the intention that it should be processed by means of such equipment,
    (c)is recorded as part of a relevant filing system or with the intention that it should form part of a relevant filing system, . . .
    (d)does not fall within paragraph (a), (b) or (c) but forms part of an accessible record as defined by section 68; or
    (e)is recorded information held by a public authority and does not fall within any of paragraphs (a) to (d);”

    S3(2) of the FOIA:

    “For the purposes of this Act, information is held by a public authority if—

    (a) it is held by the authority, otherwise than on behalf of another person, or

    (b) it is held by another person on behalf of the authority.”

    Good luck.

    1. If this is possible, were there other phone calls flying around between NE and the other partners in th Harrier shambles….. if so why?
      What communications, email or phone calls were there between NE staff and the Harrier project partners during that time frame. Did the ministers officials get in on the act…..

  7. My partner and I are direct debit members of the HOT. Should I cancel my membership; why would the Trust not have the best interests of any BOP at heart? Surely it is their mission, it makes no sense to me…

    1. As per RPUK reply – I stopped all support for HOT a year or two back when it became clear it had badly lost its way. Luckily, there are many admirable organisations that would welcome your transferred allegiance. From the very specific – Barn Owl Trust – to the general, like Wildlife Trusts, BTO, local bird/animal hospitals, RSPB…. or a donation to this closely related project? .

    2. Lyn – while I fully understand and sympathise with your position, I think it would be a shame if all the decent human beings cancelled their memberships and left the future direction of the HOT entirely in the hands of the deplorables.

    3. Hi Lyn
      At one time I too considered joining the HOT. I changed my mind due to recent knowledge.
      But I’d really like to know what went on at the 2016 AGM in relation to Philip Merricks re-election and the HH debacle. I keep checking the HOT website but there is no report on the 2016 AGM that I can find, only the 2015 AGM. Why are HOT hiding this?
      Doesn’t a charity have an obligation to make public a report of an AGM? I am not clear. Or do only members see an AGM report? Did you go Lyn?

  8. Well done RPUK. Sadly these types of manipulations appear to be common currency in those who are in someway involved with confronting the systematic crimes committed against our birds of prey. We need an independent body to investigate these crimes. It is small wonder that in Scotland the granting of investigative powers to the SSPCA in addressing crimes where the bird if dead is being so strongly resisted by the SGA …..and so sad to see what appears like connivance between the current investigatory bodies and a organisation who claim their Raison D’etre is the welfare of raptors.

  9. I am having to do an internal double-take here.
    Am i actually strongly prefering that the police had made a press release on raptor crime without the input of two conservation organizations, one ‘semi-‘governmental an one NGO, whose remit is to protect our wildlife and raptors?
    It appears so. Welcome to George Orwell’s unpublished sequel, ‘2017’.
    No doubt Merricks will appear here ‘shortly’ to explain the mix-up.

  10. Your tenacity at following this sort of stuff up is commendable and impressive. What the hell is going on here with NE? They should be part of the pressure to stop what is going on out on our moors
    Keep it up RPUK thanks!

    1. One, possibly the main, objective of a press release is to seek information about something which is believed to have occurred at a particular time in a particular place. It should provide a firm basis for the request for information. In this case, a particularly important factor would be whether anyone has information about the shooting of a Hen Harrier. However, the whole thing has gone off at half-cock because that vital piece of concrete confirmation is missing from the press release. I wonder how far back down the line the back-tracking goes.

  11. Something has to be done as it would seem that now we have more information available to us via the Internet, it’s exposing just how corrupt this country’s ruling classes really are.

    1. They are a disgrace! With David Cameron at the helm. Parasitising the nation via taxes, murdering our wildlife with it, soaking up our taxes via the EU from so called compensations schemes and all because they can. Im utterly ashamed. Mugabe has nothing on the untouchable, disgusting upper class of this nation.

  12. Reading between the emails, it seems highly likely that there was collusion between Phillip Merricks (H&OT) and Rob Cooke (NE) to tone down the certainty that the bird had been shot. Why? Because to accept it had been shot should technically have led to the Hawk & owl Trust to withdraw from the Defra (In)Action Plan. The final wording could be more easily dismissed by the H&OT as “insufficient evidence” of persecution. They are obviously determined to hang on in there by any means they can get away with. Funding and reputation are at stake.

  13. This issue perplexes me. I have followed it closely from the original release of information. I will stress at this point that it is not my intention to defend any party involved, but I do feel that from a phorensic point of view this incident is not clear cut. In all other x-ray images of ‘shot’ birds that I have seen, albeit a limited number, it is clear that the metal shot is intact and embedded in the birds body. In this case, whilst the damage to the bird itself is perhaps consistent with a wound caused by metal shot, the metal in the x-ray appears to be scattered and not consistently sized. If this is actually metal shot, then I’m surprised that a metal pellet has shattered in contact with a quite delicate and hollow bird tibia. Is it possible that a post mortem was required to eliminate the possibility of the x-ray having highlighted metal fragments from injury caused by an illegal pole-trap? This possibility would be consistent with comments regarding ongoing police investigations, press releases, public information and any subsequent prosecution, if one were to prove possible. Either way this is an abhorrent incident which the perpetrator of is unfortunately unlikely to be bought to justice.

    1. Hi John,

      It’s a common myth (often repeated by those within the gameshooting industry) that lead shot does not fragment on impact. Try googling ‘pbweekmia’ for some images of x-rayed shot gamebirds that Mark Avery published on his blog last year. The evidence is clear.

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