Natural England has been fitting tags (radio and satellite) to hen harriers since 2002 as part of what was called the Hen Harrier Recovery Project.
That’s 15 years of tagging.
(Photo by Jenny Weston)
In all that time, they’ve managed to publish just two summary reports: A future for the hen harrier in England (2008) and then in 2014, ‘Initial findings of Natural England’s hen harrier tracking programme 2007 to 2014‘ which didn’t really tell us anything we didn’t already know (see here for our analysis).
Despite many years of asking (e.g. see Mark Avery’s 2015 FoI request here), Natural England has refused (e.g. see Natural England’s FoI response here) to release any detailed results to the public. This has been both disappointing and frustrating given that the public has funded this 15-year study and especially given the huge and legitimate public concern about the continued illegal persecution of this species.
Natural England’s explanation for not releasing detailed information has been twofold: firstly we were told that NE ‘intended to analyse and publish the results’ and secondly, NE was funding a staff member (Stephen Murphy) to undertake a part-time PhD on this subject and so the detailed results were expected to form part of that PhD thesis.
According to the NE website, the PhD began in 2006 and was due to be completed in 2014:
Eleven years after it began, we decided to ask NE about the status of this PhD. We were suspicious that it wasn’t going to be completed because most universities invoke rigid time limits for students to submit a doctoral thesis (typically 4 years for a full-time study and 8 years for a part-time study). Universities are often rigorously strict with these time restrictions because higher education institutes are regularly assessed on their research quality (which relates to the subsequent allocation of research funding) and are financially penalised for, amongst other things, late doctoral completion rates. Sometimes, in extenuating circumstances, students can be granted a short time extension, but in this particular case, we very much doubted that a lengthy extension of three years would have been granted.
So we recently submitted an FoI to Natural England, along the same lines as Mark Avery’s previous FoI, to find out what was going on and, most importantly, when we could expect to read the detailed results of this long running study. Here’s the response to that FoI:
As you can see, the PhD has been abandoned. The reason is not given and, to be frank, we’re not particularly interested. There can be any number of explanations, either academic or personal, and it’s not really any of our business. Whatever the reason, it in no way diminishes the widely-held respect for Stephen Murphy’s field expertise.
What is our business, is the huge amount of hen harrier tracking data amassed over the last 15 years. Those data belong in the public domain, and Natural England can now no longer hide behind the excuse of a pending PhD submission, allowing the data to be kept secret.
You’ll notice in the FoI response that NE says it is intending to collaborate with ‘highly respected academics with an expertise in raptor research’ to analyse the data and submit for peer-review in 2018. That’s fine, but depending on the choice of scientific journal, the quality of the research and the quality of the peer-review, this process can often take several years before a paper is finally published.
That’s not good enough.
At the very least, Natural England should be looking at an immediate short-term output detailing very basic information, such as (a) how many sat tags have been fitted?, (b) where and when were they fitted?, (c) in which counties were they fitted?, (d) what was the fate of each of those tagged birds?, (d) how many of those birds were confirmed illegally killed?, (e) where were the corpses found? (county name and habitat type will do if the exact site information is sensitive), (f) how many tagged birds died of natural causes?, (g) how many tags suddenly stopped functioning in suspicious circumstances with birds ‘disappearing’, where, and in what habitat type?, (h) how many of the tagged birds are still alive?
The release of this basic information should not affect the proposed publication of scientific papers (similar information has recently been released for sat tagged golden eagles, red kites and hen harriers in Scotland) but will allow the public the opportunity to use these publicly-funded results to apply political pressure where it is badly needed.
Keeping these results secret does not help hen harriers but does help shield the criminals within the grouse shooting industry who are responsible for bringing this species to its knees.
If any blog readers wish to contact Natural England to ask for the release of these data, here’s the email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
We’ll be very interested to hear of any responses.