The Natural England Hen Harrier satellite tag cover up: part 2

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.

Thank you.

33 thoughts on “The Natural England Hen Harrier satellite tag cover up: part 2”

  1. I could not believe it when my FOI request to see the maps was turned down because ‘they do not have the maps’ requested!! Who churns out this rubbish? Surely they didn’t think I would believe them?!

  2. Good thing about Natural England is that it doesn’t fence sit.You know from the start what you are up against.,” Know thine enemy:

    1. Whoever wrote this doesn’t know the first thing about digital mapping. As RPUK says it takes a few minutes to type the grid ref into something like MapMate, even quicker at 10x10km squares.

      1. ‘even quicker at 10x10km squares’
        Technically that is not really correct and i don’t want to spread misinformation.
        Almost certainly the gridrefs will already be in a spreadsheet and nothing will need typing so it will take a little extra time to remove the necessary numerals to get to the required resolution. It could be done manually for all the Hen Harriers’ last location in less than an hour and i gather someone who knows a bit about spreadsheets could, within minutes, create a formulae to do it all instantly.
        Anyone who know the very basics of spreadsheets could generate a map by importing a spreadsheet into a program like Mapmate. It is incredibly easy.
        So to say ‘we don’t have any maps’ is a bit like saying, in the pre-digital age, that we can’t give you the information because ‘we don’t have any envelopes with stamps on’.

        Of course all this is a bit redundant because even if they ‘had maps’ they would use the same excuse as with the data but it does illustrate how desperate they are for petty excuses and how little knowledge the person who wrote that letter actually has.

  3. What a wonderful farce !
    Hen harriers will come to harm !

    It’s now time to do as I suggested some time back & organise a game of ” pin the the dead harrier on the grouse moor map “.

    When the data is eventually forced out of them, I don’t think we’ll be surprised where they died !

    Keep up the pressure !

  4. The whole point of an FoI request is to either provide the information in the form requested or to give reasons why the information cannot be provided in the form or detail asked for.
    Their’s is not to pontificate on the whether a response is in the public interest. They have to be prepared to provide a response as they see fit but have to relinquish that “public interest” decision to an overseeing third party, through legal process if necessary. I suspect they will try to withhold the information simply because someone internally sees the withheld information as potentially damaging, if released. This could, of course, be initial reluctance to say any more than has to be said, knowing full well that to provide more detailed info. will result in more detailed interrogation.

    Any government minister, right thinking and fair minded, would wipe the floor with Natural England for this level of response.

  5. By definition any FoI request IS in the public interest UNLESS it is covered by one of the legally acceptable exceptions. There is no public interest defence, especially if it used to protect those who may be breaking the law.

    1. There are absolute and non absolute exemptions to the duty to provide information under the FoI legislation. Where a non absolute exemption applies a public interest test is applied. That is what has happened here. NE seem to be claiming exemption under three headings (future publication, research and environmental). The question is whether they have applied the public interest test appropriately.

  6. For what its worth this is my take on NE’s reply.

    It appears that NE have responded to all these Freedom of Information (FOI) requests as though they have been requests under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (EIR).

    1 You made requests under the Freedom of Information Act 2000.
    2 The EIR don’t apply as the information requested by you and RP supporters do not fall within the definition of environmental information. The request is therefore covered by the FOI.

    This might sound irrelevant but I think it would be worthwhile contacting the Information Commissioner ‘s Office about this as slightly different rights are available under these different enactments. This may not make a difference but it might be good to seek clarification.

    For those interested …

    I don’t think the information requests fall within the remit of the EIR because they don’t fall within the definition of ‘environmental information’ – see below:

    According to the EIR

    “These Regulations implement Council Directive 2003/4/EC on public access to environmental information. Regulation 2 contains definitions of expressions in these Regulations, including the definition of environmental information …”

    Environmental Information Regulations
    2.—(1) In these Regulations—

    …“environmental information” has the same meaning as in Article 2(1) of the Directive, namely any information in written, visual, aural, electronic or any other material form on—

    (a)the state of the elements of the environment, such as air and atmosphere, water, soil, land, landscape and natural sites including wetlands, coastal and marine areas, biological diversity and its components, including genetically modified organisms, and the interaction among these elements;

    (b)factors, such as substances, energy, noise, radiation or waste, including radioactive waste, emissions, discharges and other releases into the environment, affecting or likely to affect the elements of the environment referred to in (a);

    (c)measures (including administrative measures), such as policies, legislation, plans, programmes, environmental agreements, and activities affecting or likely to affect the elements and factors referred to in (a) and (b) as well as measures or activities designed to protect those elements;

    (d)reports on the implementation of environmental legislation;

    (e)cost-benefit and other economic analyses and assumptions used within the framework of the measures and activities referred to in (c); and

    (f)the state of human health and safety, including the contamination of the food chain, where relevant, conditions of human life, cultural sites and built structures inasmuch as they are or may be affected by the state of the elements of the environment referred to in (a) or, through those elements, by any of the matters referred to in (b) and (c); ”

    In my opinion, if the EIRs don’t apply then the exceptions to the information requests that NE have noted don’t apply.

    Whatever the law, NE are a disgrace.

    1. If my comments above about the EIR not applying are incorrect, this might prove useful. …

      Duty to make available environmental information on request

      “5.—(1) Subject to paragraph (3) and in accordance with paragraphs (2), (4), (5) and (6) and the remaining provisions of this Part and Part 3 of these Regulations, a public authority that holds environmental information shall make it available on request. ”

      Now – this ludicrous suggestion that NE don’t have the grid references/maps for the last known transmitted locations of the tagged hen harriers is very interesting as it seems that it is an offence to deliberately mislead in order to block a valid request …I

      Offence of altering records with intent to prevent disclosure

      “19.—(1) Where—

      (a)a request for environmental information has been made to a public authority under regulation 5; and
      (b)the applicant would have been entitled (subject to payment of any charge) to that information in accordance with that regulation,

      any person to whom this paragraph applies is guilty of an offence if he alters, defaces, blocks, erases, destroys or conceals any record held by the public authority, with the intention of preventing the disclosure by that authority of all, or any part, of the information to which the applicant would have been entitled.

      (2) Subject to paragraph (5), paragraph (1) applies to the public authority and to any person who is employed by, is an officer of, or is subject to the direction of, the public authority.”

      Good luck with whatever action you choose to take.

      Keep up your outstanding work. You’re an inspiration.

      1. Whoh hoo hooo! I’ve just checked out the FOI Act and it’s illegal under that Act, as well, to try to prevent disclosure by concealing records! I hope, very much hope, that NE have got themselves into a very difficult position claiming that they don’t have maps of the last transmissions. Here’s the legislation:

        “77 Offence of altering etc. records with intent to prevent disclosure.

        (a)a request for information has been made to a public authority, and
        (b)under section 1 of this Act or section 7 of the M1Data Protection Act 1998, the applicant would have been entitled (subject to payment of any fee) to communication of any information in accordance with that section,any person to whom this subsection applies is guilty of an offence if he alters, defaces, blocks, erases, destroys or conceals any record held by the public authority, with the intention of preventing the disclosure by that authority of all, or any part, of the information to the communication of which the applicant would have been entitled.”

    2. I think S22c of the Freedom of Information Act is interesting – Information intended for future publication.

      (1)Information is exempt information if—and

      (a)the information is held by the public authority with a view to its publication, by the authority or any other person, at some future date (whether determined or not),
      (b)the information was already held with a view to such publication at the time when the request for information was made, and
      (c)it is reasonable in all the circumstances that the information should be withheld from disclosure until the date referred to in paragraph (a).

      Well, hmm, if NE decide that this is a FOI instead of an EIR then this might be of use to you.

      Good luck.

  7. There is so much nonsense and illogicality in this statement from NE, I don’t know where to start! However I’m intrigued by the claim that the data will be reviewed by “highly respected academics.” I think some of us could name right now the very learned academics they are likely to consult, and would not be surprised if it were certain individuals who have already blemished their professional reputation, by virtually colluding with the game shooting industry. Unfortunately it would be unprofessional and unscientific, probably libelous, to name names at this point. A particular irritation I find is the presumption that only academics can be considered experts on harrier biology and behaviour. There are many long experienced members of Raptor Study Groups who know a hell of a lot more than some higher academics who have researched specific aspects of harrier biology. These people are highly respected naturalists or amateur ornithologists, who have much to contribute.

  8. In my foi request I also asked this, with their response : 2. I would also like to know, if not the name of the individual, then the department
    responsible for the collation, interpretation and publishing of the information.”
    Staff from the Strategy and Reform Team collated and interpreted the data and Natural
    England published the information

    Will send the follow up mail as suggested, for which, many thanks – the legalities and intrigues of all this are beyond my comprehension!

  9. More frankly embarrassing answers from Natural England. Are they protecting the birds? or perhaps the locations of possible nest sites? No, absolutely not. You cannot protect dead birds and no nests. What exactly are they protecting, or who? They might as well just respond with “No comment”. Are these respected academics experts in the natural behaviour of raptors and in particular, of hen harriers? So, all the time, effort and money spent in tagging, monitoring, following, reporting? on these so called ‘safer’ tagged birds has come to this. Natural England need a massive shake up in senior personnel and in my opinion they are not fit for purpose.

  10. Yet another example of of why the public and raptor workers should not trust ‘protocols’. This is a shameful example of conflict of interest.

    If a bird goes down go get the bird and tag……..

    1. Simon – yes, and to be totally transparent with it – immediately publish the last known time and location – if and when when the location was attended – and whether anything was found – nothing; bird and tag; bird, no tag etc. This is information that they will have to hand anyway – if they don’t, then clearly they are making less than valid attempts to reach a solution. Surely they can release that information, where practically possible, where a signal hasn’t been received over a 24 hour period.

  11. “We then seek permission of the landowner to search for the bird which has never been refused”….and there you have it in a nutshell. Anyone who thinks that investigating a dead harrier with anything less than a full, careful criminal investigation has not been listening for the last 30 years. They are always suspicious deaths and any landowner is a suspect as is his staff….The time for faffing about on this is long gone….and as for refusing permission to search?..toa government official?..Who is running this country…[thats a rhetorical question!].

  12. Hi There

    This is a standard Defra line. Suggest the following will dislodge some or all of the obstacles:

    Re submit EIR and FOI but without stipulating what type of maps you require – suggest ‘location information and key – this might be OS reference or any other form’.

    Legally, they should release to you related data which will provide you with the information your query is seeking – i.e. They should interpret what you want and provide it even if it isn’t in the format set out.

    All request under FOIs and EIRs should contain the line ‘or other data which will provide the information sought. Please contact me if I can clarify my request to enable you to provide the information.’

    Then once you have the next response, submit a complaint to the Information Commissioner’s Office – the Defra line was and still is that politically sensitive information should not be released until directed to by the ICO – even then they drag their feet but eventually they do have to give it up.

    Suggest you also make contact with these respected academics and ask for their written agreement to the information being released by Defra – it won’t in any way damage their research or the peer review process.


    Rosie Wood _____________________________

  13. If the reason that the information is not being released is to protect Hen Harriers then they aren’t going to give the locations in the paper either. The passage of time isn’t going to make any difference especially as these ‘missing’ Hen Harriers date as far back as 15 years ago and over half are from over 10 years ago!
    We really need to get this information now. I will definitely take into account Rosie’s suggestions.

    1. I can’t understand why the location of the birds’ death would provide any information regarding breeding sites. This is a feeble excuse, just like so much of what comes from Natural England these days. Their apparent fear of possible recrimination shows that we are still living in a class-ridden society.

  14. My letter if it helps:

    I am sorry this response is not good enough.
    This is a last attempt before I apply directly to the Information Commissioner for a decision. I am therefore requesting an internal review of this FOI request and subsequent refusal.

    My initial request for the ‘exact position of where the ‘Missing Fate Unknown’ last transmitted’ was not wise. I knew the response would be rejected if too exact but I couldn’t allow you to make the resolution so large that the data was meaningless as far as land use and land ownership of the sites was concerned. This is after all a request for evidence and patterns of suspected criminal activity.
    I now reword my application to: FOI request for information on position of where the ‘Missing Fate Unknown’ Hen Harriers last transmitted or other data which will provide the information sought. Please contact me if I can clarify my request to enable you to provide the information.

    I have to point out the flaws in your rejection:

    Having no maps excuse: if it is to believed, is an answer given by someone with no knowledge on this matter and whose only job appears to be obstruct the application. Everyone involved in species distribution and levels knows that a map is simply generated by importing spreadsheet into mapping software. We know NE have them because they use and publish them regularly.
    I am an amateur naturalist and I can generate a map with your spreadsheet in half an hour. It just requires creating correctly named columns in the spreadsheet which are acceptable by the mapping software which you cannot possibly in all seriousness and honesty deny having at your disposal.
    In other words having a spreadsheet means you have a map. It is like saying you don’t have a stamp addresses envelope when you already have the address, the envelope and the stamp.
    This excuse although trivial, is important in that it shows there is a deliberate attempt to block this release on information at any cost and with the flimsiest of ‘reasons’.
    So fail on that excuse.

    The public interest excuse: will let the Information Commissioner decide, if it has to go that far. It is a pathetic excuse and doesn’t deserve a counter response except to say that this is is a request for evidence of suspected criminal activity and you are saying this is not in the public interest? The word cover-up is not inappropriate.

    The interfering with an ongoing paper excuse: Releasing partial, low resolution data will not threaten the academics’ ‘safe space’.
    (see next excuse)

    The harm to the Hen Harrier excuse: This is the only reason which is at least concerned with the issue of Hen Harrier killing but it is also absurd and is redundant after reading the wording of my revised application. But again it is obvious that this is another attempt at blocking the data as an aim in itself.
    1. First of all the Hen Harriers are already dead.
    2. If the location data is going to be released in the paper then it can also be released now. The passage of time isn’t going to make any difference especially as these ‘missing’ Hen Harriers date as far back as 15 years ago and over half are from over 10 years ago!
    3. If roost and nesting sites need protecting (which must be rarely) then that particular location can be released at a lower resolution, problem solved.
    4. The public interest is to have this information now as crimes are being committed and NE is covering up the evidence of the crimes.
    5. If roost and nest sites are being targeted by criminals this needs to be in the public domain. If this is the case the criminals already know and if so the horse has already bolted. This again need to be known to the public who are after all paying for many of these tags.

    I notice my reasoning that if Scotland can do it then so can England, was ignored. So I will repeat it. Any blocking of this information fails on that grounds alone. Scotland has released Golden Eagle tracking data and is in the process of releasing Hen Harrier and Red Kite tracking data and is comparing this data to known raptor crime sites.

    NE fail.

    Anand Prasad

  15. There is some very helpful guidance on the Information Commissioner’s website:

    (The dos and don’ts is particularly helpful.)

    It doesn’t really make sense, in my opinion, to encourage people to submit the same requests to the same public authority. More of the same request will not (necessarily) lead to a better response. (It will probably just place unnecessary burden on civil servants who could be doing something more productive than copy-pasting responses to copy-pasted requests.) One does not have ‘campaign’ the public authority to obtain the information. If the information is disclosable, then it should be released – even if only one person requested it. If it is refused, then (after exhausting the public authority’s complaints procedure) one can appeal for a decision to the Information Commissioner, which can be appealed to the Information Rights Tribunal (i.e. the General Regulatory Chamber of the First-tier Tribunal). There are further routes of appeal on legal issues. See:

    It doesn’t matter how long it would take to generate the information. If the information is not held, then the public authority can refuse the request. It is a duty to make information available not a duty to create / generate the information. Instead of trying to convince the public authority what information they hold, it might be a better idea to reword the question. (See the above ICO guidance.)

    Tagging data
    The request was handled under EIR 2004. Assuming that was correct, the public authority is required to undertake a two step test when consider the refusal of disclosure:
    – first, whether an exception applies (under para 4 or 5),
    – secondly, if an exception applies ‘the public interest in maintaining the exception outweighs the public interest in disclosing the information’. (reg12(1))

    The Freedom of Information Act 2000 lists numerous exemptions (sections 21 – 44), including Information intended for future publication (section 22) and ‘information obtained in the course of, or derived from, a programme of research is exempt information’ (section 22A). There are no comparable exceptions in the 2004 Regulations. It seems that NE was using the ‘incomplete material’ exception (regulation 12(4)(d)) to essentially replicate the publication and research exemptions of the FOIA. If this project has been running since 2002 and there are no plans to terminate it, then it will always remain ‘in the course of completion’ or ‘incomplete’ and therefore it seems that the information will never be releasable. But (arguably) the exceptions under the EIR are deliberately narrower than the FOIA exemptions and if Parliament wanted to include exceptions relating to publication and research, then it would have made it clear when enacting the EIR. NE states that the ‘tracking data is part of the research material’ intending to be used for publication. One could argue that the exception does not apply, or if it does, then the explanation provided is not entirely satisfying.

    (As a footnote, it will be interesting to see what will happen to the EIR after the exiting of the EU, as the Regulations implement the European Council Directive on public access to environmental information.)

    1. Thanks Adam.
      I am sure my request is not correct in many ways.
      I presume that reasons are not important and that a simple request for information would be enough.
      I just can’t resist the bate when fobbed off like that.

      It isn’t important but i’m not convinced by the generating a map logic. The spreadsheet they released needed to be created as does any release of information. I doubt very much it was originally in the format they released partly because nothing was redacted. It must have been created or heavily edited. Creating a map is no different than creating a pdf or doc. It really is that easy. It is simply that they are using it as an excuse. But as i said that is unimportant.

      What i do find important are these myriad of excuses some of which contradict each other. I too suspect they they intend to never release the locations. If they do then it contradicts the protecting Hen Harrier excuse. It smacks of desperation that they can’t decide which excuse to fall back on, so are trying to cover all bases.

  16. Enough of the “cover up” outrage.

    Your FOI request fails automatically.

    It fails because the f*cktard who wrote that FOI request asked –

    In units of CARATs, how much cheese does the government hold.

    No f*cker,
    not even the ‘Ordnance Survey’,
    uses OSNG GRID REFERENCES as their WORKIING coordinate system.

    Hence NE’s entirely valid response –
    “Natural England does not hold maps as you describe”

    Resubmit your request,
    asking for the COORDINATES and their COORDINATE SYSTEM.

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