Last week we blogged about how Natural England has been withholding 15 years worth of hen harrier tagging data, most of it paid for with public funds, and we encouraged blog readers to email them and ask for the data to be released without further delay (see here).
Specifically, we wanted to find out how many satellite-tagged hen harriers have ‘disappeared’ on grouse moors in England and whether those disappearances occured in non-random clusters on specific grouse moors, much like the suspicious clustering of ‘missing’ satellite-tagged golden eagles in certain grouse moor areas of Scotland.
We know that many of you did email Natural England (thank you) and yesterday (Mon 18 Sept 2017) they caved in and released some more data. Unfortunately, they’ve only released part of the data they hold. And of the information they did release, their interpretation of it is, frankly, scandalous. Natural England are either grossly incompetent or are being deliberately obstructive in an attempt to shield the criminal grouse moor managers from the spotlight. Actually, looking at the evidence, we think they’re being both incompetent and deliberately obstructive. See what you think.
Here’s what they released yesterday:
A spreadsheet showing the number of hen harriers they tagged between 2002 and 2017. This is an updated version of the spreadsheet they published in 2014. It shows a total of 158 harriers were tagged: 99 with radio tags and 59 with satellite tags. Download the spreadsheet here: hen-harrier-tracking-data-2002-onwards
Accompanying this spreadsheet is some inaccurate explanatory text and three maps. We know that both the text and the maps are inaccurate because the explanatory text says that “Fig 2 shows the movement of birds obtained from the satellite tracking data covering 158 birds” when actually only 59 birds have been satellite-tagged. Figure 2 is also supposed to show the movement of satellite-tagged hen harriers but it doesn’t include any tag data from the continent, and we know from the spreadsheet that at least one sat tagged hen harrier was defintely recorded in Spain (McPedro) and two other birds were recorded in France. However, these international locations ARE shown in Fig 3, which is supposed to be a combination of the data from Figs 1 & 2. That’s just sheer incompetence.
We can largely ignore these maps because (a) we know they’re inaccurate but, more importantly, (b) they’ve been produced at such a low scale as to render them virtually useless. They do show that some tagged hen harriers wander widely across political boundaries but that’s not new information.
What we’re more interested in is the updated spreadsheet.
The updated spreadsheet shows how many of these tagged hen harriers are ‘missing, fate unknown’. 86 of the 99 radio tagged harriers are in this category (that’s 86.8%). Radio tags were used during the early years of the study, prior to the availability of satellite tags. Natural England quite rightly points out that, due to the limitation of this technology, not much can be surmised about the birds’ fates. If the bird moves out of range of the hand-held tracking receiver (which has a limited line-of-sight range of a few kms), then there’s no way of knowing whether the radio tagged bird is alive or dead. That’s fair comment, and it’s why many research studies switched over to using geographically unconstrained satellite tags in the late 2000s.
So let’s ignore the radio tagged hen harriers and instead concentrate on the ones that were satellite-tagged between 2007 and 2017. There were 59 satellite-tagged hen harriers during this period, and of these, 43 are listed as ‘missing, fate unknown’. That’s a very high 72.8%. Natural England provides some explanatory notes about what might have happened to these harriers:
Natural England, are you for real? This is the sort of half-arsed spin we’d expect from Dr Charlotte Tan, Professor of Grouse Moor Managementology at the GWCT. Are we seriously expected to believe that the 43 missing sat tagged hen harriers have all died of natural causes, lying on their backs, thus rendering their tags incapable of charging and transmitting further data? Sure, that might have happened in a handful of cases, but in 43 out of 43 cases? Come on!
It’s scandalous that Natural England excludes ANY explanation for these missing harriers that might just involve illegal persecution, especially when they’ve previously admitted that their own tagging research found “Compelling evidence that persecution continues, both during and after the breeding season” and “Persecution continues to limit Hen Harrier recovery in England” (Natural England, 2008, A Future for the Hen Harrier in England?).
Now, had Natural England published a map showing the locations of where these 43 ‘missing, fate unknown’ hen harriers went off the radar, we might be able to detect some patterns to see whether they disappeared at random locations across the landscape (which you’d expect if the birds had died on their backs of natural causes) or, rather like satellite-tagged golden eagles, they disappeared in suspicious clusters in certain grouse moor areas.
That Natural England haven’t provided this level of detail is very telling indeed. They’ve got the information and it would only take a matter of minutes to upload those data on to a map that would have sufficient resolution to identify suspicious geographical clustering but that wouldn’t compromise sensitive site details.
It is quite clear to us that Natural England are involved in a cover-up job, designed to protect those hen harrier-killing grouse moor managers from any hint of suspicion. Sorry, Natural England, but we won’t allow you to continue to mislead like this.
We’d urge blog readers to write again to Natural England and ask for the release of this information. This time we recommend sending the email as a formal FoI request as opposed to a more informal general enquiry (which Natural England can easily swerve, as above). Emails please to: email@example.com
In the words of Chris Packham:
Update 6 October 2017: The Natural England Hen Harrier satellite tag cover up: part 2 (see here).