Hen harrier ‘reintroduction’ to southern England: Project team visits France

Continuing on from recent blogs (herehere and here) about a series of updates on the proposed ‘reintroduction’ of hen harriers to southern England, here’s some more news gleaned from the latest FoI response from Natural England.

We know from previous FoI responses from Natural England that the Southern England Reintroduction Team has been scouting around looking for a donor population of hen harriers (see here). They’re not allowed to use any hen harrier eggs or chicks that might be ‘brood-meddled’ in northern England so they’ve been looking elsewhere in Europe. The Netherlands, Spain and Poland all said ‘no’ but France seemed to be a distinct possibility, which was a surprise given that the French hen harrier population is showing a long-term declining trend.

Earlier this year Adrian Jowitt (Natural England) wrote to researchers in France about a potential visit. This was to learn more about the captive rearing and release scheme (hen harrier & Montagu’s harrier) that the French have been undertaking for genuine conservation purposes, as the birds are threatened by industrial harvesting machinery before the young are able to fledge the nests in agricultural fields. The French team collects the birds, keeps them in captivity until the harvesting period is over, and then releases them back to the wild once the threat has ended.

Incidentally, the UK grouse-shooting industry often argues that this French conservation project is ‘proof’ that hen harrier brood meddling is a tried and tested conservation tool and they use it as justification for the UK brood meddling scheme. What they don’t seem to understand is that the two situations are incomparable. In France, the threat to the harriers is temporary (just during the crop harvest) and so the birds can be safely released back to the wild whereas in the UK, the threat to hen harriers is year-round, on the grouse moors and, increasingly, at winter roosts. There is no ‘safe’ time to release brood-meddled hen harriers in the UK.

Anyway, back to the France visit. Here’s a copy of Adrian’s email to the French researchers: Planning visit to France_May2017

It makes for quite an amusing read, as Adrian’s choice of words tries to minimise the scale of the problems the proposed project is facing in the UK – he mentions “small pockets of resistance” from some landowners (actually strong enough resistance that the Project Team is now suddenly keen to explore Dartmoor National Park as an alternative release site) but emphasises the ‘positives’ such as the Chair of Natural England declaring that he wants to see more hen harriers in England within the next three years. Yep, that’s what the grouse shooting industry claims too – talk is cheap.

In June this year some members of the Project Team did visit the French project and here’s Project Manager Simon Lee’s thank you email to the French researchers:

Simon says “Let’s not talk of the British politics again“. He probably didn’t mean this in a literal sense, rather it was likely just an acknowledgement that they’d spent a good deal of time talking about it during the visit. But talk of it he, and the rest of us, must, because whether the project is technically feasible or not isn’t the issue here; the ‘politics’ (i.e. legislation & ethics) is still the main issue to be addressed.

We’re not convinced that a reintroduction is legal. The IUCN guidelines are clear: ‘There should generally be strong evidence that the threat(s) that caused any previous extinction have been correctly identified and removed or sufficiently reduced‘. This criterion cannot possibly be met when the current hen harrier population is on its knees, showing no signs of recovery (see results from 2016 national survey), and the main cause of the decline (illegal persecution) has not been dealt with. We used the same argument against the planned re-stocking of golden eagles in southern Scotland, although in that scenario there is a counter argument that golden eagles in the Highlands (the proposed source birds) are just as likely to be killed in the north as they are in the south, whereas hen harriers in France would have much better survival prospects if they remained in France as opposed to being sent to persecution-rife England. (So, sorry, Simon, but your notion that this reintroduction could possibly “benefit European harrier conservation” is just ludicrous).

As for the ethics of reintroducing hen harriers to southern England, well we’ve talked about that over and over and over again. The proposed reintroduction is clearly a plan to move the focus away from the real problem (illegal persecution on grouse moors) – shove a load of hen harriers in the south, hope they survive, and then shout about how the species’ conservation status has improved, whilst ignoring the on-going illegal slaughter in the north. Job done.

And talking of ethics, here’s a rather confusing message from Jeff Knott (RSPB) to the new Southern Reintroduction Project Manager Simon Lees:

While we have said we don’t actively support the reintroduction project, nor are we opposed to it and of course we would want to see it be a success“. Eh?

Photo of hen harrier nestlings by Andrew Sandeman.

24 thoughts on “Hen harrier ‘reintroduction’ to southern England: Project team visits France”

  1. Have RPUK contacted the relevant French authorities to point out the obvious conflict of interest here? It would seem to me that the whole idea of bring their Harriers from a safe environment ( after release ) into a situation where the principle cause of decline has not been tackled or even acknowledged is completely anathema to serious conservationists.

      1. Actually, France is staying in the EU so they might listen to the EU. So maybe the EU needs to be made aware that the UK trying to use a very dodgy derogation.

  2. So what the hell is the RSPB now playing at? Jeff – come here and tell us why the RSPB ‘is not opposed to it’. The IUCN criteria – and this is criteria that the RSPB routinely ALL such re-introduction / translocation projects to adhere to – makes it quite clear that the factors driving the decline must be demonstrably, sufficiently addressed PRIOR to any re-introduction attempts. Quite apart from the obvious fact that hen harriers are being slaughtered in the English uplands, birds of prey are also being illegally killed in the southern lowlands.

    This appears to be shocking weakness and back-peddling from an organisation which I usually go out of my way to defend.

    1. As we’ve said before, wouldn’t be fundamentally opposed to the idea as long as it complies with IUCN criteria, but don’t think its the priority for now – ending illegal killing is. We don’t know yet if this project will or wont meet the criteria, as haven’t seen a proposal to assess. But certainly some big questions for the project still to answer, some of which have been outlined here.

      1. Another piece of not so clever sophistry from RSPB. The whole scenario is becoming more outrageous by the day, and with such implicit support from “the UK’s largest conservation organisation,” the fools planning this brood meddling scheme must be feeling ever more confident. So the IUCN criteria are “not the priority for now – ending illegal killing is.” I would not criticise the front line troops in the form of RSPB Investigations Officers, who make a supreme effort, but there is something very seriously wrong with the management of the society when they claim this to be priority, but don’t direct sufficient resources to tackle the problem as effectively as they could. It’s sheer hypocrisy as far as I’m concerned, and although I might be out on a limb by publicly saying so, I know I’m by no means alone in holding this view. The conservation movement in the UK needs a really good shake up.

      2. Is it not self-evident that the key factor driving the hen harrier decline in England – illegal killing – has not been resolved? Do we need an IUCN assessment to reveal this? I think we do know, now, that the project cannot possibly claim that illegal killing has been addressed. Why do you ‘not know’ this yet?

        1. I agree Messi – cant see how they can say any birds released wont be at risk of persecution. But we’ll see what case they make.

          And completely agree with Iain that the investigations team does a fantastic job, as do those working on the hen harrier Life project, in trying to protect harriers from illegal killing.

  3. The ethical holes in NE’s proposal are so disturbing, as is NE’s determination to ignore them.

    Are there maybe UK harrier workers who’d be interested in making a presentation to their French colleagues, as Simon is suggesting he does ? I’m assuming the symposium referred to is the one organised by the LPO Mission Rapaces, previous editions described here http://rapaces.lpo.fr/busards/sensibilisation — focused on conserving the French harrier population, so mainly representatives from the French projects, but the programmes seem to include speakers from outside France fairly regularly.

  4. Can’t believe what I’m reading here, you wouldn’t make it up. Bringing harriers from another country to be shot here, which idiot thought of this. We don’t need to relocate harriers we need to stop persecution, make keepers abide by the law or ban grouse shooting. If a bank gets robbed they don’t move the bank they go out of their way to catch the villain and jail him,what’s the difference

    1. Whereas I’m happy that the RSPB are willing to listen and talk at this stage. They’ve set out their T & Cs already.

  5. I know that the RSPB have got a wide membership to try and keep onside, but it is also obvious that they are alienating people who want them to stand up more aggressively for our birds. They may well be nervous about the rantings of the right-wing press, but the time is rapidly approaching where they are going to have to decide which side of the fence they are on.They can’t keep on asking for financial support from people who feel strongly on these issues, if they are not willing to show that they too care.It is maybe time to confront the aggression -not to run away from it.

  6. Shame on the RSPB, they should stand firm. Anything less will mean, make no mistake, the end of hen harriers breeding naturally in England. I couldn’t believe what I was reading in this blog about this appeasement by Jeff Knott. Is he speaking for the RSPB? Betrayal of membership. Shocking & shamefulll.

    1. Unless those involved in the project can show that illegal killing wont stop it succeeding, then I cant see how it can work. But as we’ve not seen their proposals yet, seems reasonable to listen?

  7. No wonder raptor conservation in this country is in such a mess when a high level RSPB spokesperson feels free to come out with such doublespeak!

    1. Who is the ultimate arbiter as to whether or not IUCN Guidelines have been met? Maybe it/they should be lobbied too.

      1. Normally it would be up to Natural England (or NERC?), however in this case they appear to be prepared to breach the guidelines themselves! Did someone turn the world upside down?

  8. Thinking about this some more…

    I don’t know for certain what the regulatory bodies would be on the French side, but two possibilities that spring to mind are the French Agency for Biodiversity http://www.afbiodiversite.fr/ (part of the Dept for Ecological&InclusiveTransition, previously “Environment”) and the National Office for Hunting and Wildlife http://www.oncfs.gouv.fr/ (joint between the Depts for Agriculture&Food and E&IT).

    The ONCFS in particular has a very wide remit which includes issuing/regulating hunting permits, monitoring rare/protected species and enforcing environmental/wildllife law. Among other things they seem to keep an eye on wildlife crossing national borders (recent conference on Pyrenean species which ordinarily move between France/Andorra ; active border controls against trafficking ; partner in bear/wolf reintroductions), which makes me think that if there were a project to export Hen Harriers out of France, there is a reasonable chance that the ONCFS would need to be involved (whether for information, logistics or legal clearance).

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