The Natural England hen harrier satellite tag cover up

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:

In the words of Chris Packham:

Update 6 October 2017: The Natural England Hen Harrier satellite tag cover up: part 2 (see here).

44 thoughts on “The Natural England hen harrier satellite tag cover up”

  1. 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%.
    This bit needs to go at the very top of the article as the lede, before anything else, then move onto putting it in context. That is the hook for the article and needs to go before anything else so that even the most casual skimmer of this issue gets the big impact. Shock first, explain later.

  2. So glad you don’t beat about the bush, RPUK. Plain talking and honesty is just what we need. It seems clear to me, and I suspect most harrier workers, that Natural England is complicit in some way with the grouse shooting community, perhaps being plied with too much whisky at the ‘Gift of Grouse’ PR exercises. In a sense I’m joking, but in reality the relationship between gullible (or career-minded) civil servants and industrial interests is all too familiar with those of us who have experienced it at close quarters. The non-inclusion of persecution as a factor in ‘missing’ satellite tagged harriers is a dead giveaway! Do these bureaucrats think we were all born yesterday? This deception has got to be exposed more publicly.

  3. This is the standard of information other government departments tried to release decades ago. Today there would be a Public Enquiry if, e.g. the NHS produced something like this. Why can’t it happen with NE? Who can make it happen? Who ‘signs off’ these reports, so the buck stops with them?

  4. Can I also suggest that people who care about harriers stop giving money for satellite tags to Natural England? The data are not released, there has been no published analysis done on the data, NE twist the detail on each bird they lose, and each bird that gets a tag is one less that can be tagged by people that will publish, pressure, and actually work for the conservation of this and other species.

    So not only is money given to NE wasted, it actually blocks work to protect harriers and all the other birds that are persecuted on grouse moors, as well as the habitat that grouse are shot on.

    1. and how can we be sure someone at NE/DEFRA isnt giving the details of roost sites to estates to ensure the species is wiped out? I certainly would not trust them. OUR money funding the deliberate destruction of the Hen Harrier. stranger things have happended at sea

      1. Many years ago I naively provided nest localities for a protected species to English Nature (as they were then), next minute they’d suffered as the result of a scorched earth policy by the ‘developers’. They say we should trust them, my issue is actions speak louder than words and I judge on merit.

      2. When my local Raptor Study Group was under direct contract with Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) to monitor breeding Hen Harriers on three Special Protection Areas, SNH insisted on providing the estate owners (and their gamekeepers) with reports detailing 10-figure grid references to all the nest sites! At one point they even published a non-redacted report on the internet, although they did admit that was a mistake and redacted it as soon as we complained to them. Due to government austerity cuts, after four seasons the SNH contract was terminated, despite their previous commitment to ensure annual monitoring of all harrier SPAs.

  5. Just keep killing every animal and then they’re all gone…..then you can all shoot each other. Zero respect for any life & no one does anything about it. Sickening.
    it’s time for accountability and transparency.

    1. we need a total revolution in our countryside. Badger cull, fox and stag hunting, raptor persecution…it boils my piss

  6. I’ve never submitted an FOI request before. Can you recommend any guidance to follow here please. e.g. is there any particular format to follow or specific wording required?

    1. There’s another option via

      OK you have to register but it’s worth it and it will irk them if a few people use this very public way of asking for data funded via the public purse. You can also use the same method to reply if they prevaricate or don’t provide all you ask for.

      Another option might be to ask your MP to obtain the data on your behalf, you might have to offer a reason why you have an interest in the issue. I’m awaiting a response from Michael Gove via this route, ok it’s unlikely to see anything worthwhile but again it’s a case of chipping away and pushing the issue higher up the pile …. community critical mass etc.

  7. Anyone with any shred of conscience working for that terrible outfit should think long and hard about what they are helping to perpetrate. Then resign and tell the true facts.

  8. What an incredible data set – a credit to the hard work of the guys on the ground who actually tagged then tracked these birds. It is not their fault we can’t see the data. Equally, whilst there is a difficult moral issue for NE employees there is no doubt they are under the cosh and its not so much career as survival – keeping their jobs – and its a very real issue as the job expectation of an NE Director seems about the same as one of Stalin’s generals. It is probably pointless writing to NE – go straight to the man responsible, Michael Gove – if he comes back and says ‘of course the public must be able to see the results they’ve paid for’ I’ll stand corrected, and even give him some credit for the fine words he has been speaking (without having to actually do anything) about the environment, but its far more likely it’ll be ‘this is down to NE ‘ in which case it’ll be advisable to take everything else he says with a pinch of salt. Remember, this is political – there is no ‘innocent until proven guilty’ – exactly the opposite – the witholding of the data that matters simply proves its going to show exactly what we know and expect – I suspect there are readers of this blog who could actually stick pins in a map for all those lost Hen Harriers and come pretty close to what the NE data would show.

  9. Even to those of us who suspect what is going on, this is quite shocking. So Natural England are simply there to protect a group of people who break the law? And as the information is slowly forced out of them, then this position will be clearer for all to see and may result in sufficient anger to enforce change. That suggests one heck of a lot of bad apples out there-an orchard at least!

  10. I think NE are sh*t scared that revealling the true scale/location of these ‘missing’ tags will fatally flaw their carefully nurtured Hen Harrier plan.

  11. I found it incredible that there are so few dots along the coast. It seems that most birds are being killed even before their first winter.
    Correct me if i”m way off.

    This Scottish government is a great thing. We have a direct comparison; a government that is making an effort, no matter how slowly against one that is basically corrupt.

    1. Stupid me rushing again in anger.
      The date fitted and date of last transmission are on the spreadsheet. A very quick scan shows that it is correct, most are killed very quickly.
      Not much data for a PhD other than to study persecution.

  12. The spreadsheet makes for shocking reading. Add a new column and calculate the difference between the values in column F and G , only 4 of the tags marked ‘Missing Fate Unknown’ lasted more than a year. And 33 went missing on or near Bowland, 29 in Yorkshire/Dales.

    And Ironically an alternative reason for tag failure is missing. It is ‘Collision with a wind-turbine’ which would tie in nicely with another of the lies from the industry.

  13. Dear Natural England.
    I am extremely cross to see what YOU are allowing to happen to our precious Hen Harriers!
    It is disgusting that YOU allow these beautiful birds to be destroyed from Groose Moors…. Because of a few quid for the bigwig fat cats!
    There are only 3 pairs left, how do YOU think it’s acceptable to let this happen and what’s more it’s barbaric that you are covering up what has happened to these poor birds and the figures.
    You only publish what you think you can get away with, but we all know different, so now you need to man up and come clean with the full report and NOT edited of exactly who has killed them.
    You are responsible for allowing this to happen. You are absolutely disgusting and I will never support anything you do until you clean up your act and stop illegal shoots and killing from happening!
    Publish the report now!!
    Youd very cross
    Sheila Jordan

  14. Natural England is dead men walking. Run by Tory donors for the benefit of Tory donors: science has been relegated to a position of no importance – as has happened in every other walk of life since 2010. It is politics, because everything is politics and currently it is the politics of the killers and criminals in the ascendancy.

  15. “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!”

    Is there an equivalent dataset from another satellite-tagging program for a similar-sized species that might allow comparison or some rough probability calculations? Osprey perhaps (which, given their aquatic habits, you would presumably expect to show a higher proportion of Missing Fate Unknown tags)?

  16. Since the data will eventually be pulled from them, kicking & screaming, how about a bit of fun & some” pin the Harrier on the grouse moor ” mapping ?

    Oh yes , what was that rubbish that Gove came out with about conservation being in the DNA of the [driven ] game shooters ?

    Keep up the pressure !

  17. It would be interesting to ask the Phd student why they did not continue their studies, and how far they got into the study. It could have been ground-breaking the fact that here we have a raptor species whose life cycle appears to be similar to some insects, i.e. as soon as they reach adulthood they die after a few about 13 weeks (the median of the missing birds).

    Could RPUK or some official body approach the University that Phd was originally studying and just inquire what happened (i think it was Liverpool John Moores).

    However no doubt the student has singed a compromise agreement that means they cannot comment on this matter.

    1. Mike,

      As we said at the time, PhDs can be abandoned for a number of reasons, either academic or personal, and it’s none of our business. A university won’t (shouldn’t) respond to any such request for information as it would be seen as a breach of the student’s privacy.

  18. Just sent in a FoI request!

    Also interesting to look at some of the Board members of Natural England and their affiliations with other organisations. The picture becomes far more murkier I’m afraid.

  19. Now how does the cover up job on Hen Harrier Roman look in the light of all this? Guess we were right about that too!
    This looks like crunch time for Michael Gove’s credibility.

    1. It’ll only become crunch time if enough people contact him about the issue and let’s not kid ourselves t’other side have a whole entourage of spin bowlers advocating for the continuation of traditional ritual slaughter of wildlife (raptors, badgers, foxes et. etc. ad nauseaum)

  20. Also explains why police and nwcu are desperate tof have protocols ensuring that downed birds can only be retrieved by them.

    Don’t trust them.

    Sat tags are proving the scale of the killing.

    Britain kills eagles.

  21. Letter sent to Dennis Skinner (my MP)

    Dear Dennis

    This beggars belief! Natural England (NE) are being deliberately obstructive by withholding data that shows the movements and fates of satellite tagged hen harriers in the British uplands. In this obstruction they are complicit in wildlife crime. Not only this, this study is funded by the British tax payer. Please see for further details.

    What has been released is already pretty damning as far as NE are concerned with 79 % of birds with tags going missing without trace. These tags continue to function after the bird has died and under normal circumstances recovery of the bird plus tag is commonplace. So why do so many birds and tags disappear without trace. Well there is possibly a strong correlation between this kind of disappearance and the type of management practice for the type of upland the birds disappear over, that being driven grouse shooting. These are the details NE are refusing to release, or the data itself so that interested parties can work this out for themselves.

    Dennis, they are hiding data because it is absolutely damning for driven grouse shooting and the toffs that practice it. Please raise this in Parliament because It is totally outrageous. I know that many things done by this government are totally outrageous but any opportunity to drive nails into the coffin that they built themselves is surely worthwhile.

    Many kind regards


  22. The NE is a government body and is part of the civil service. How many of the top mandarins of the civil service went to Eton and Harrow? Toffs looking after toffs, an old boys club. I do not have any figures, but I will bet very few came from some rundown council estate.

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