“We have more Spoonbills breeding in Yorkshire than we do Hen Harriers”

Two months ago we learned that Natural England could no longer use the long-held excuse of an impending PhD submission as reason to withhold hen harrier satellite tag data (see here) so we started to ask for the release of these 15-year-old data.

Many blog readers also took the time to contact Natural England about this (well done) and the following correspondence has been sent to us by blog reader Mike Whitehouse, detailing his exchange of views with Natural England. It’s well worth a read as an example of Natural England’s obstructive tactics and the subsequent exasperation felt by many of us.

The start point of this correspondence is shortly after Natural England released some (very) limited information, which told us how many sat tagged hen harriers were ‘missing, fate unknown’ (43 of 59 hen harriers sat tagged between 2007-2017) but, crucially, no details about the habitat types in which they’d disappeared or whether there was any suspicious geographical clustering of final tag signals.

Photo: a dead satellite-tagged hen harrier. A post-mortem revealed it had been shot.

Mike’s email to Natural England, dated 21 Sept 2017:

Good evening Natural England,

At last a smidgeon of data – limited but nonetheless welcome. Amazing what a bit of pressure can achieve isn’t it?

In your notes you say that “Hen Harriers currently breed on heather moorland in the uplands across the UK. Your patch is England and as you know full well there are no breeding Hen Harriers at all on the heather moorland in England that is reserved for grouse shooting.

There are hardly any breeding pairs anywhere in the rest of England. It is time for you to get a move on if you do not want to be reporting on exactly the same number of Hen Harriers in England as there are Dodos. Not a good advertisement for NE and all of its efforts and funding. This issue is becoming high profile and fence sitting is not going to be comfortable for you.

As you are aware there is pressure on you to give details showing the locations of the missing Hen Harriers so it is clear whether or not they disappeared in suspicious clusters in or around shooting moorland.

Just for the record, I have just spent the last 3 days in the northern Yorkshire Dales (Swaledale, Wensleydale and Arkengarthdale), I have traversed exactly the upper Heather Moorland that you refer to and I failed to see any raptors whatsoever in 3 days but several hundred Red Grouse mainly waiting on or around the roads and tracks.

How is the Hen Harrier Action Plan going and do you have any targets to see high numbers of Hen Harriers that you can report on?

I would apreciate a reply.


Natural England’s reply to Mike, dated 29 Sept 2017:

Mike’s reply to Natural England, dated 30 Sept 2017:

Thank you for your timely but disappointing response.

We are both aware that NE is just playing with words and that since NE started to tag Hen Harriers in 2002 they have been in terminal decline with just 3 successful nests in 2017. We have more spoonbills breeding in Yorkshire than we do Hen Harriers and that is despite the vast ranges of heather moorland available for Hen Harriers in our National Parks.

My last email to you was not intended as an FOI request although it was interpreted as such. Fine by me.

I would like to make a formal request for information on this occasion however.

Would you please let me know from your overall collected database since 2002 how many tags (both radio and satellite technology) stopped transmitting whilst:-

  1. Within the current boundaries of the Yorkshire Dales National Park.
  2. Within the boundaries of the Peak District National Park.
  3. Within the boundaries of the North York Moors National Park.

I look forward to hearing from you in a similarly timely fashion.

Regards, Mike

Natural England’s response to Mike, dated 20 Oct 2017:

[NB: We’ve cut NE’s response short to save space and because the rest of it is virtually identical to previous generic responses sent out by NE that we’ve already blogged about here].

Mike’s response to Natural England, dated 20 Oct 2017:

Dear Natural England,

Your response is absolutely bonkers and you know it is.

I have read your letter which by now, I assume, is a standard reply for anyone having the temerity to seek information from a public body such as yours. Some of us want to use the requested information constructively to help protect the Hen Harrier population in England. I wanted the information so that I could effectively lobby the 3 National Parks to get consolidated action to halt criminality on grouse moors. A laudable, if slightly ambitious aim.

You will of course be aware of the recent news from the Yorkshire Dales National Park regarding the missing/shot, but tagged, hen harrier. Time is not on their side. You are fiddling (quite literally), whilst Rome burns.

Let me challenge some of the nonsense in your reply:-

  1. “Disclosure is in effect a disclosure to the world”. Yes of course it is. What a good idea to get more people onside in an effort to stop people with guns breaking the law.
  2. “We are withholding this information as we consider its release endangers Hen Harriers”. There were 3 breeding pairs this year none of which were in the 3 National Parks referenced. It is guns, traps and poisons that endanger the remaining Hen Harriers that have the temerity to fly into our National Parks. I would argue that lack of information endangers them more.
  3. “Natural England believes in openness and transparency”. You patently do not!
  4. “More detailed information is being withheld….having said this and following a number of further enquiries we are reviewing our approach”. We are not going away. 100,000 signed the penultimate petition to Parliament and the new petition will need a response from the Minister soon. You are getting yourselves on the wrong side – time to be brave.
  5. “The academics need a ‘safe space'”. I assume you were trying to resort to irony here. It is Hen Harriers that need a safe space. The heather moorland of England should be that safe space.
  6. “We feel there is little public interest in releasing this information”. You could not be more wrong. See 1,2,3,4 and 5 above. Your current and future post bag will clearly show that this issue is not going away.

There are very many complex arguments. I think it is simple. If people with guns stopped shooting, poisoning and trapping Hen Harriers there would be more of them – there could hardly be less. I have been lucky to see Hen Harriers in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. I believe my family, their children and all visitors should have the chance or the right to this privilege. We, the general public, have rights too.



It’s fascinating that Natural England is refusing to even release the fairly non-detailed info Mike requested about how many tagged hen harriers went ‘missing’ within the boundaries of those three National Parks. How does withholding that information ‘endanger hen harriers’? Answer – it doesn’t.

And actually, in its haste to just issue a blanket refusal, Natural England hasn’t realised that this information is already available in the limited info NE released earlier in October.

We’re not bothering to look at radio-tagged hen harriers because, as previously discussed, the technology was too poor to draw any reasonable conclusions. Instead, we’re just looking at satellite-tagged hen harriers (2007-2017).

With this in mind, here are the answers to Mike’s questions:

  1. How many satellite-tagged hen harriers stopped transmitting whilst within the current boundaries of the Yorkshire Dales National Park? Answer – 11 (actually it’s now 12 if we include the latest victim that NE is refusing to discuss).
  2. How many satellite-tagged hen harriers stopped transmitting whilst within boundary of the Peak District National Park? Answer – 1.
  3. How many satellite-tagged hen harriers stopped transmitting whilst within the boundary of the North York Moors National Park? Answer – 1.

This doesn’t include information on the number of hen harriers that have been found dead (confirmed as illegally persecuted) within these three National Parks and neither does it include information about ‘missing’ hen harriers that were satellite-tagged by the RSPB.

Still, not to worry. Natural England reports that work on the Hen Harrier Inaction Plan is “progressing as expected“.

Yep, isn’t it just.

Cartoon by Gerard Hobley

15 thoughts on ““We have more Spoonbills breeding in Yorkshire than we do Hen Harriers””

  1. An excellent set of requests and responses. Makes me think I should add to the stream of FOI requests. Well done Mike and RPUK. If only the issue was not so important and the situation was not so serious….

  2. Wow! There excuses have gone beyond ridiculous.
    Surely the excuse that revealing how many have gone missing in the NPs is enough to report to the Information Commission.
    The only conclusion i come to is that they have given up on Hen Harriers in the uplands and are going for lowland re-introductions in the hope that it will increase the English population.

  3. A cracking attempt to prise open this inefficient organisation. As the two top people are on record as being donors to the Tory Party (I wonder why, with their lack of science or natural history backgrounds, they were appointed?) one can only surmnise that they are carrying out the government’s wishes.

    What I find depressing is that this is supposedly a scientific body / regulator and their role has clearly been corrupted into being a smokescreen for criminal behaviour for and on behalf of the landed gentry. There has not been one instance, from the badger cull, to licensing the killing of buzzards and lesser black-backed gulls, to the extirpation of predators from grouse moors, where these people have put natural England ahead of Tory Party interests: i.e. the price of everything and the value of nothing.

    I wonder if they have any scientists or conservationists worthy of the name still working for them?

  4. Natural England haven’t been fit for purpose for a long, long time. They care not a jot for defending our natural heritage and will do everything they can to subvert the truth for the benefit of their gun toting masters at the so called CA and NFU. Raptors, badgers and pretty much any other wildlife which gets in their way will be persecuted without repercussion.

  5. A point of clarification, the term Yorkshire Dales on the table released by NE includes the Nidderdale AONB. Whilst technology has moved on since the radio tagging and one accepts the criticism of it compared to Satellite tags there is no doubt in my mind based on some conversations that the radio tag data does show at least one cluster.

  6. Whilst placing the old caveat that ‘Interesting to the public is not the same as in the public interest’ I do hope MIke pursues this with the Information Commissioner

  7. It is clearly time to cut through the crap and take this to the top. On its website, Natural England describes itself as ‘the government’s adviser for the natural environment in England’ and as a ‘non-departmental public body sponsored by Defra’. It is time to see what advice it has been giving the government on the Hen Harrier issue. The head of Defra is one Michael Gove – whose appointment as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs by Theresa May last June was apparently regarded by some as a bit of a joke. His name might well be an anathema to many readers of this blog, as it was to myself. However, it is worth pointing out that here we have a Defra leader who was not born with a proverbial silver spoon in his mouth. Neither does he have obvious vested interests such as being a grouse moor owner nor has he openly professed his support for fox hunting. He has made more sensible noises on environmental and related issues since coming to office than collectively made by several predecessors. Indeed, in today’s Guardian, he is reported as warning, at the parliamentary launch of the Sustainable Soils Alliance, that the UK is 30 to 40 years away from the fundamental eradication of soil fertility in parts of the country. We have absolutely nothing to lose and plenty to gain by writing to him to air our concerns and frustrations regarding Natural England’s extremely unhelpful stance on the withholding of information for totally spurious reasons.

    We are not alone in suffering frustration at Natural England’s incompetence. The latest newsletter of the Great Bustard Group (GBG) records that they applied for their 2017 release licence in November 2016. A feature of the licence is that it permits eggs to be removed from the nests of bustards in the UK for rearing in incubators alongside eggs sourced from Spain. Seemingly Natural England either lost or overlooked the application, resulting in the issuing of the licence being delayed until August this year. It was helpfully backdated to March, notwithstanding the fact that the breeding season had already ended and the opportunity for collecting UK laid eggs lost. Tellingly, the GBG records that ‘The lack of support and competence from the UK authorities makes it harder and difficult to secure the support of the Spanish authorities’ whose co-operation and assistance in negotiating the export procedures for eggs from that source is so essential.

    1. That’s awful about the Great Bustard Group being mucked about like that. The guy who drove that project forward did so at immense personal cost – literally. Chris Packham quite rightly thinks very, very highly of him. Good that the GBG were direct and open in their criticism ‘lack of support and competence’ indeed.

    1. Addresses to write to the Right Hon. Michael Gove MP, Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs:
      House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA or
      Defra, Nobel House, 17 Smith Square, London, SW1P 3JR

      May be best to cover both bases and write to him at each address

  8. Addresses to write to the Right Hon. Michael Gove MP, Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs:
    House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA or
    Defra, 17 Smith Square, London, SW1P 3JR

    May be best to cover both bases and write to him at each address.

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