Last month we blogged about how Natural England is continuing to withhold information about the last known locations of 43 hen harriers that were satellite-tagged between 2007 – 2017 and that are listed by Natural England as ‘Missing, fate unknown’. Natural England’s explanation for what might have happened to these ‘missing’ hen harriers included a suggestion that they could have died on their backs, thus preventing the tag from transmitting further data. Unbelievably, Natural England did NOT suggest that illegal persecution on driven grouse moors might be a contributory factor in these disappearances (see here). This is plainly absurd. We know that Natural England acknowledges illegal persecution on driven grouse moors is the main cause of this species’ catastrophic decline, otherwise why instigate, as part of the Hen Harrier Action Plan, the controversial brood meddling scheme on, er driven grouse moors?
Photo: a dead, satellite-tagged hen harrier. A post-mortem revealed it had been shot.
We argued that Natural England has a duty to release this information as the tags (and their data) have been paid for by us, the tax-payers, as part of a 15-year study on hen harrier dispersal, a project for which the public has seen no meaningful output/results. We also argued that by continuing to withhold these data, Natural England is either being incompetent or being deliberately obstructive, or both. The intention is clearly to shield the criminals within the driven grouse shooting industry.
We suggested that at the very least, Natural England could publish a map showing the locations and habitat type of where these 43 ‘missing, fate unknown’ hen harriers went off the radar, at such a resolution that it wouldn’t compromise sensitive nest/roost site locations. By doing this, we might be able to detect some patterns to see whether these hen harriers 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.
We encouraged blog readers to submit formal FoI requests to Natural England to ask for the release of these data. Many of you did – well done, and thank you. Over the last week or so, Natural England has been sending out a generic response to these requests, as follows:
Needless to say, we don’t accept this explanation.
Fist of all Natural England claims not to hold the maps. Eh? Are they trying to tell us that after 15 years of study, nobody, not even the PhD student that was supposed to be analysing these data (and who, we were told at various conferences over the years, was ‘on the verge’ of submitting his thesis), has ever bothered to map the last known locations of these ‘missing’ hen harriers?!! And even if that is the case (which seems highly implausible), all Natural England has to do to generate such a map is to input the location of the last known sat tag signals in to a simple GIS programme and voila! There’s the map! This would take an undergrad less than five minutes to complete.
Natural England then claims that the release of these data would ‘endanger hen harriers’. Er, these hen harriers are already dead (probably)! NE claims that the data would ‘compromise the locations of sensitive breeding and roosting sites’. Not if the data were released at such a low resolution that the actual sites couldn’t be identified.
Natural England then argues that the data are ‘intended to be used to collaborate with highly respected academics’ (and who might they be?) and that these academics need ‘a safe space to do the research’. Eh? How would releasing partial, low resolution data threaten the academics’ ‘safe space’ (whatever that may be)?
We could go on. However, let’s cut to the chase.
The bottom line is that we disagree with Natural England’s reasons for continuing to withhold the data and we intend to challenge them on it. The next step in this process is to complain to Natural England about this response and ask Natural England to undertake an ‘internal review’. Natural England then has a duty to ask another member of staff to review NE’s original response.
If the internal review results in the same decision (i.e. that NE will continue to withhold the data), then the next step after that will be to submit an official complaint to the Information Commissioner.
However, before we can complain to the Information Commissioner, we have to exhaust the official route of complaining to NE and asking for an internal review.
So, if you’ve received one of these letters (as above) from Natural England, we’d encourage you to write back to them and say you find NE’s original response unsatisfactory (and explain why), and ask for a formal internal review.