Natural England Hen Harrier satellite tag data – a new development

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:

We’ll be very interested to hear of any responses.

16 thoughts on “Natural England Hen Harrier satellite tag data – a new development”

  1. The entire process cannot move on properly until this publicly funded data is released. There should be laws against deliberately witholding public information like this. Is it NE choosing not to release or are their hands tied by the tory ministers higher up in DEFRA? It all smells of corruption or incompetence. Good to see our tax was used to fund an unfinished phd. Whats the betting this was pulled as it was going to show some unpalatable results for ballbag botham and his chums

  2. A further question – what pressures are you under from DEFRA and gov ministers with land-owning ‘friends’ to abandon hen-harrier projects and hide the data from those projects? Please will a whistleblower have the guts to enlighten us on these pressures that affect NE’s ability to carry out its remit.

  3. There are processes in the FOI system for pursuing satisfactory response. I think ‘They Work For You’ also pursues unanswered FOI requests…….?

  4. There were strong rumours several months ago of the demise of Natural England. I know from personal contacts that most of the operation has been run on a “virtual basis” for several years. So everybody keeps their head down. Surely, Michael Gove, when he gets round to it, will give it the chop………if so, what then?

    1. No discernible difference – we carry on!

      I have written to my contact at NE along the following lines

      “You will of course have seen the blog today re NE on the RPUK website. I am writing to you today in support of this very clear and concise article, to ask for your help.

      Those of us trying to campaign to save the Hen Harrier in England need you guys to come on side. There has been far too much stalling and now you need to get on with it.

      Here is an opportunity for NE to be open and transparent and to be seen to be open and transparent. RPUK’s request for outline data is eminently reasonable. This long awaited study, now cancelled, is publicly funded after all.

      I await your response with interest”.

  5. When no information is forthcoming, in a case like this, one is entitled to suspect that NE is intentionally covering up information it clearly doesn’t want to be released into the public domain. This looks very suspicious and would appear to worthy of further robust investigation.

  6. I’m puzzled that NE views thesis submission and peer reviewed publication of results as such strict alternatives. The doctoral candidates I met while working in the UK (albeit in different fields) were all encouraged to present at conferences and publish in journals/proceedings over the course of the PhD, meaning that in the ordinary way of things their data became fairly widely available before submission/examination (and the analysis generally turned out better for having been through peer review/comment before writing up). It seems very odd to me that these data have had no outing at all, that NE seem to consider that normal and acceptable (all the more so in these days of open access!) and that writing up for peer review submission is only now being considered.

  7. ‘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’


    Presumably this data will include the location of nest and roost sites.

    I’m sure members of the public would be interested in having the information, for all sorts of reasons.

    That doesn’t mean it’s in the public interest to release it.

    1. Don’t be ridiculous, Dave. We don’t expect (or want) NE to release site or roost site data, hence the caveat written in the blog, ‘County name and habitat type will do if the exact site information is sensitive’.

      What we do want, and expect, is the release of basic information (how many tags fitted, in which counties, fate of all tagged birds etc etc) which can be provided without compromising the ‘safety’ of sensitive sites (most of which aren’t safe anyway) and also without compromising any planned research papers. It’s not difficult.

      1. Thank you for clarifying that you do not want to see NE releasing any site sensitive information, not just that relating to the location of dead birds.

      2. What might have been interesting though is if comparisons could have been made, by the NE or others, of known roosting sites (within the report) prior to any tagged birds disappearing in that immediate vicinity.

  8. The FoI provisions related to publication are subject to a reasonableness test before getting to the public interest test. NE’s prevarication on this is such that I fail to see how it could pass the even the first test let alone the second. Whatever they say in the latter part of their letter posted above, this seems worth pursuing to the ICO. See the ICO notes on this here:

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