Hen harrier reintro to southern England: report of fieldtrip to France (potential donor country)

As many of you know, one of the six action points in DEFRA’s Hen Harrier Action Plan is to ‘reintroduce’ hen harriers to southern England.

As you’ll also know, over the last 12 months we’ve been trying to prise details out of Natural England about this ‘let’s divert attention from illegal persecution on driven grouse moors’ plan, and that has proved challenging to say the least.

[Hen harrier photo by Robin Newlin]

Here’s what we’ve learned so far from a year’s worth of FoI requests:

28 Nov 2016: Hen harrier reintroduction to southern England: an update (here)

3 Jan 2017: Hen harrier reintroduction to southern England: the feasibility/scoping report (here)

8 Jan 2017: Hen harrier reintroduction to southern England: the project group and their timeline (here)

9 Jan 2017: Hen harrier reintroduction to southern England: who’s funding it? (here)

9 Jan 2017: Hen harrier reintroduction to southern England: a bonkers proposal for Exmoor National Park (here)

12 Jan 2017: Hen harrier reintroduction to southern England: Wiltshire (here)

14 Feb 2017: Leaked email reveals Natural England’s views on Hen Harrier Action Plan (here)

23 Feb 2017: Hen harrier reintroduction to southern England: donor countries (here)

19 July 2017: Hen harrier reintroduction to southern England: new project manager appointed (here)

20 July 2017: Hen harrier reintroduction to southern England: Dartmoor as potential new release site (here)

20 July 2017: Hen harrier reintroduction to southern England: revised costs (here)

21 July 2017: Hen harrier reintroduction to southern England: project team visits France (here)

27 July 2017: RSPB statement on Hen Harrier reintroduction to southern England (here)

15 Aug 2017: Natural England Board making up justification for hen harrier southern reintroduction (here)

In early October 2017 we submitted another FoI request and Natural England asked for more time due to the “complexity and voluminous nature of the request” (it was neither complex nor voluminous, this was just another delaying tactic from NE).

That extra time has now expired and Natural England has released a limited amount of further information (although some has been withheld, for various reasons).

Part of the information NE released was a report from a fieldtrip to France (a potential hen harrier donor country) undertaken in June 2017 by two members of the Southern Reintroduction Project Team (Simon Lees from Natural England and Jemima Parry-Jones from the International Centre for Birds of Prey). Here’s the [redacted] report:

The two French researchers whose names are redacted from the above report are Dr Alexandre Millon and Dr Vincent Bretagnolle. Both of these guys have had long and productive careers studying various harrier species and both are highly respected within scientific conservation circles. Which kind of begs the question why they might be supportive of a plan to remove French hen harriers and take them to England where the species is on the verge of breeding extinction due to the continued & rampant illegal persecution of this species by gamekeepers?

What they should have told Natural England is, ‘Get the grouse moor managers to stop illegally killing English hen harriers and all your problems will be solved. Harriers will recolonise the southern lowlands all by themselves if they weren’t being illegally shot, poisoned, trapped and bludgeoned to death on the upland grouse moors’. Or words to that effect.

But anyway, it’s not their decision to make; that’s for the French statutory authorities to decide and you’ll note that Natural England recognises it could really do with support from the RSPB to present a ‘unified conservation case’. However, according to a statement issued by the RSPB in July this year:

The RSPB has serious reservations about this approach to hen harrier conservation in England, and therefore is NOT supporting the project“.

We’ll come back to Natural England’s need to get the RSPB on board for this project in another blog post (due shortly). Cooperation and support from the RSPB is something that Natural England has identified as a potential hurdle in getting this project off the ground.

More soon….

UPDATE 12 December 2017: 2018 start date for reintroduction of hen harrier to southern England? (here)

20 thoughts on “Hen harrier reintro to southern England: report of fieldtrip to France (potential donor country)”

  1. It’s interesting that concurrently with this plan Natural England has put huge pressure on the RSPB to reduce the cost of the Salisbury Plain and Breckland stone-curlew recovery projects. This is because much of the stone curlew increase has involved birds nesting out in arable, some on plots, some in spring cereals.

    According to Natural England, they cannot continue to increase their part-funding for increasing numbers of field workers who have to go out, locate stone curlew nests, and provide protection that’s a whole lot cheaper than would be required for harriers in arable (RSPB staff simply shift stone curlews to one side during field operations, then stick them back again.

    So, Natural England – are you cutting funding for stone curlew recovery on Salisbury Plain to divert funding to hen harrier re-introduction?

    I wonder how much the costs of stone curlew field workers compare to the likely costs of this silly harrier conservationist attention diversion tactic?

  2. What a waste of our money. And all because of criminality for ‘sport’. You couldn’t make it up!

    I do however disagree with what the French scientists should have said to NE. Something along the lines of ‘Obtenez les gestionnaires de la grouse maure pour arrêter de tuer illégalement les busards anglais et tous vos problèmes seront résolus. Les Harriers vont recoloniser les basses terres du sud tout seul si elles ne sont pas tirées illégalement, empoisonnées, piégées et matraquées à mort sur les landes des tétras.’would have been more appropriate. (And if it’s wrong, blame Google Translate!)

    1. Since my French is almost certainly worse than yours, I had to put your comment through Google Translate to make sense of it. Hence your comment was translated from English into French and then back again before I could read it and with a predictable result. Although the result was not on a par with the immortal Pedro Carolino’s English prose, it would have been better to give us it in English and then give the hopeful Google translation. I’m not so much ‘having a go’ as taking the opportunity to remind readers of the glories of Carolino’s “English As She Is Spoke” which, of course, still makes a lot more sense than the average press statement on grouse shooting, Hen Harriers and illegal persecution by the CA et al.

  3. I notice that it is recommended that “initial release locations should be centred on known winter roosts” so that the young birds can learn how to hunt avian prey. Are there any such roosts of any size in the mooted release locations?

  4. I have always been very uncomfortable about this whole idea from the point when it was first suggested during the
    Environment Council HH dialogue way back in about 2009 and yes brood meddling was suggested there too and none of the conservation bodies were in favour of either then. As I understand it there is no money for this from government until the next parliament if then ( the same is true for BM). The whole thing is a bloody travesty and NE may want to be using some of the Stone Curlew scheme money for it, and they want RSPB help. that fortunately seems most unlikely currently. I have a much better idea, well two actually. In the current situation lets use any money that might have been used in this ridiculous scheme to improve enforcement and protection in the uplands or ban driven grouse shooting and then if the population needs a boost release some French birds in our uplands. Failing either of these options this scheme should just NOT happen.
    Going back to those EN facilitated meetings in 2009 the people who raised and supported this idea were quite miffed when told that we would still want an end to persecution in the uplands and birds breeding there. they had hoped I think that we would be satisfied with a token few birds on Salisbury Plain or somewhere else in the south west. Answer then and now is we will not and we expect the real issue of persecution in our uplands to be solved sooner rather than later this whole scheme smacks of fiddling whilst Rome burns

  5. I think it’s time that we start contacting the French researchers to clearly set out what a bad idea this is. Whilst Natural England does nothing about raptor persecution trans-located birds will not be safe in England (surely one of the most important considerations of any “re-introduction”).

    I’m sure NE and HOT have given them a balanced picture (deep sarcasm), but they might be surprised by the amount of opposition amongst conservationists in Britain to this proposal.

    It’s also extremely telling that they are considering radio-tracking rather than satellite tagging. Radio tagging has all ready been shown to be inappropriate for tracking the movements of hen harriers – wouldn’t it be nice if NE had published their data on this?!!!

    1. Spot on! Furthermore, it makes you wonder whether NE has actually addressed this issue. It should be their ‘starter for ten’. How much more dead money (presumably ours) will be involved before they come to their senses and pack it in?

  6. This is fairy tale land, and would be hilarious if it wasn’t presenting a potential and costly disaster. Gamekeepers must be laughing up their sleeves at causing Government scientists and bureaucrats to go to such extreme measures to help them in a project to control harrier populations ‘by the back door.’ I can only imagine what the late, great Donald Watson would think of all this. So many aspects of the proposal are just plain wrong, and confirms my suspicions that many of the leading ‘experts’ with an academic background have not developed an holistic approach to their studies, just focusing on researching parts of the jigsaw which produce statistically testable results to further their careers. For starters, I’ve yet to see any mention (in the context of this project) of the nomadic nature of Hen Harriers, with individual birds prepared to occupy nesting territories in entirely different areas between years. Yes, some pairs will occupy the same territory for several years, but immature birds in particular do a lot of wandering to seek out the most productive areas for suitable prey populations. So the likelihood of the introduced birds travelling widely and ending up on a grouse moor somewhere is very high.

    Another question which never seems to be asked is what species of vole do continental harriers rely upon? The basic mammalian prey in the UK is the field vole (Microtus agrestis), whereas the more usual vole on farmland in France appears to be common vole (M. arvalis). There is no reason to assume that Hen Harriers could not rely on either, partly because on Orkney they prey upon common voles (known as the Orkney Vole), where field voles are absent. However, it would be interesting to know what French Hen Harriers normally prey upon. Does the common vole achieve higher population densities on French farmland than the field vole does in the UK, thereby enabling that habitat type suitable for three species of harrier? No doubt it is even more complex than that.

    Another idea which seems dubious is the proposal to release young inexperienced harriers at known winter roosts, in order for the experienced adults to “teach” the naive introduced birds how to catch small birds. One element missing from their upbringing is their own parents. When I first started studying harriers in detail, I occasionally wondered why the parents bothered to travel such huge distances to obtain prey items which were abundant in the immediate vicinity of the nests. The reason became fairly obvious when I observed young birds just fledged taking advantage of the prey within that immediate vicinity, a sort of ‘larder’ where the adults trained the young to hunt by example. Within a few weeks the young harriers begin to disperse far and wide in search of prey on their own. As regards adults in winter teaching young birds to hunt, that to me seems a wild assumption. Having watched the cautious interactions between individual harriers at roost sites, it just seems very unlikely that any formal education process is taking place! In situations where multiple harriers are attracted to a rich food supply, the individual foraging birds tend to remain a significant distance from their competitors.

    In a strange way I’m ashamed to be even remotely associated with the bureaucrats and self interested parties involved in this ludicrous project, and hope that the RSPB continues to stand firm in its opposition.

    1. And there’s me thinking that the reason that harriers went to roost was, well, to roost! Never occurred to me that they’d be looking around for inexperienced young birds to tell them a bedside story about how to catch their food. What an unbelievable farce. It has been suggested that one advantage of Red Kites roosting communally is that, somehow, other birds will be led to known food sources once the roost breaks up the next day. They’re mainly carrion feeders, so such an analogy would not be applicable to a hunting species.

  7. I think ashamed is the right phrase Iain. The first thing that comes to mind whenever this is raised is ” Stop them being killed by the morons on the moors and they will then colonise where they want to be” Simple really.

  8. The RSPB won’t be backing Natural England in this rubbish attempt at so called conservation, how can they it doesn’t make any sense. And what happens when French harriers start being shot because you can bet your life that they will. No there is only one solution to this and that is an outright ban, the sooner the better

  9. Alexandre Millon actually worked in Kielder Forest in Northumberland before his present job and has done fascinating work on vole populations & tawny owls – of particular interest (and concerning) are his conclusions on the Europe-wide ‘dampening’ of vole cycles and their impact on vole-dependant raptors like Tawny owl and Hen Harrier. I’d be rather surprised if he wasn’t aware of the issues surrounding all this – and the slim chances faced by an UK re-located HH chicks. But I do think letting the French scientists know (politely) what the feeling on this is in the UK is a good idea.

    1. Roderick, I’d be extremely interested in Millon’s work on voles. Could you provide a reference? I appear to be the only Scottish Recorder who has noticed the recent significant recent decline in Tawny Owls, which coincided with the corresponding drop in Kestrel, Buzzard and Hen Harrier. The decline in Short-eared Owl has been rather obvious and more widely reported. Our knowledge could be helped if those carrying out scientific research were to inform Local Ornithological Recorders of their findings! The dampening of field vole populations throughout mainland Europe has also affected most parts of northern Britain (at least), which is intriguing.

  10. What a terrible idea! as long as grouse shooting continues you might as well ring their necks before releasing them, they have no chance of long term survival. like releasing lynx or wolves, its just a non starter for me, total waste of time, money and resources.

  11. Am I being naive? Why would Drs Alexander Millon and Vincent Bretagnolle support this? I doubt they will remain ‘highly respected’ if they continue to involve themselves in this crazy scheme. They must surely be aware of hen harrier persecution in the UK? It doesn’t make sense. Apart from the ethical issue, I can’t see this furthering their careers in any way? What would the motivation to become involved be?

    1. I may be wrong but I’m not convinced their involvement in a controversial species reintroduction project, with an impressive line-up of academics (Redpath, Newton et al.) will damage their academic standing. Considered in isolation, aspects of the reintroduction are bound to succeed (captive rearing and release) and they’ll get papers out of that. They might also pitch it as an interesting human-wildlife conflict case study, with a couple of papers from that too. They’ll get papers out of modelling how the population expands across the landscape, what habitats they occupy, recruitment and servivorship etc. There are innumerable well-respected academic scientists involved in controversial species-related programmes. So, within the academic world (and thus career-wise), I think they’re fine. Scientists thrive on conflicting ideas! I doubt that the broader context of this – that it’s simply an attempt to divert attention away from upland persecution by creating a ‘good news story’ – will register much in their academic world.

      Maybe I am wrong: maybe they’re so invested in the conservation side of their work that any conflict with the BirdLife partner and RSPB will be decisive. Really that depends on the RSPB having a clear view and expressing this to their French counterpart, and frankly I don’t think the RSPB wants to be involved. It would rather turn a blind eye if at all possible.

      1. That makes sense, Messi – thanks. Depressing though; that academics can be so caught up in the science that the overall welfare of the species is secondary.

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