Regular blog readers will know that we’ve taken a keen interest in DEFRA’s Hen Harrier Action Plan, which was published in January 2016.
We’ve been particularly interested in two of the six action points of this plan: brood meddling and the southern reintroduction.
On brood meddling, through a series of FoIs last year, we were able to find out what was being planned (here), a bit more about what was being planned (here), who was likely to be involved in the practicalities of brood meddling (here), and a bit about an even more bonkers social science survey that was to run parallel with the bonkers brood meddling scheme (here).
However, since November 2016, it all went a bit quiet so on 23 February 2017 we submitted another FoI asking for copies of all recent correspondence on brood meddling and the southern reintroduction. Natural England responded on 21 March 2017 telling us that information was being withheld “as it would prejudice the process of determining the licence application and potentially the quality of that licence”. They also told us, “The discussions are confidential up until the point the licence application has been determined. Once this has happened then details of the licence are available to the public”.
We knew that this licence application was being submitted (by Natural England, to Natural England!) in either February or March 2017, so we left it a while before we submitted another FoI.
Our second FoI asking for information was submitted on 29 May 2017. Natural England responded on 31 May 2017 with this:
‘The application you refer to is still being determined. I’m afraid that we do not have an estimate of when it will be”.
We then learned, from reading the minutes of the Natural England Board meeting held on 22 March 2017 that the brood meddling licence application had been submitted (by Natural England, to Natural England!). We also learned that the Natural England Science Advisory Committee “needed to sanction the work behind the data” but that’s about all we’ve been able to find out.
So on 2 July 2017 we put in a third FoI to Natural England, again asking for copies of all correspondence relating to the brood meddling scheme. Last Thursday (6 July 2017) Natural England responded:
“I can confirm that the licence application is still being determined and we do not have an estimate of when it will be“.
We’re finding this all quite hard to believe and suspect that Natural England is just using this as an excuse not to release any more information about their plans for brood meddling because they don’t like the criticism those plans have attracted. How would releasing notes from the brood meddling team meetings ‘prejudice the process of determining the licence application and potentially the quality of that licence‘? All this secrecy, over a highly controversial project, doesn’t inspire confidence.
On the southern reintroduction action point (although it’s not really a ‘reintroduction’ because harriers are still present in southern England), last year, again through a series of FoIs, we were able to find out about the feasibility/scoping report (here), the project group and its planned work timetable (here), potential funding options (here), Exmoor National Park as a proposed release site (here), Wiltshire as a proposed release site (here), and potential donor countries from where NE will source hen harriers (here).
Since the end of 2016, Natural England has refused to release any further information on the southern reintroduction, again, using the brood meddling licensing application to hide behind. We’ve now submitted another FoI (2 July 2017) asking for this information to be released, as this information has nothing to do with the brood meddling licence application and should therefore be available for scrutiny.
We do know, from the minutes of that NE Board meeting on 22 March 2017, that the NE Board has “considered the overall objective of the southern reintroduction and agreed this was to help relic upland populations in respect of the genetic diversity and the overall favourable conservation status of the species“.
So has the NE Board seen any scientific evidence that has assessed the genetic diversity of the UK hen harrier population and determined that its genetic diversity is in need of “help”? Have the potential donor populations been screened to assess their genetic diversity? And how will releasing hen harriers, that are likely to disperse to the uplands where this species is still routinely shot on sight, help the species achieve favourable conservation status?