Licences to kill marsh harriers on grouse moors – an update

In November last year we blogged about some second-hand information we’d received that the Moorland Association (the grouse moor owners’ lobby group in England) was interested in obtaining licences from Natural England for the lethal control of Marsh harriers (see here).

The issue was alleged to have been raised by Amanda Anderson (Director, Moorland Association) at a meeting of the Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group (RPPDG – the English/Welsh version of the PAW Raptor Group) on 9 November 2017.

The news was shocking. It was utterly ludicrous that grouse moor owners might consider this species such a significant threat to their over-stocked grouse populations that they would seek licences to kill it.

Marsh harriers are Amber listed on the UK Birds of Conservation Concern and are recovering from a virtual population wipeout – down to one known breeding pair in 1971 thanks to a combination of illegal persecution, habitat loss and DDT and currently with an estimated breeding population of 400-450 pairs.

[Male Marsh harrier by Markus Varesvuo]

Marsh harriers are locally common in some areas such as East Anglia but still extremely rare or absent in many others. They most commonly breed in lowland wetland habitat, particularly reedbeds but increasingly on farmland too. This female was found shot next to a lowland partridge release pen in East Yorkshire in 2016. Very rarely do they breed on upland grouse moors although when they do, they are illegally targeted by men dressed as gamekeepers.

When we blogged about the news that the Moorland Association was interested in licences for this species, Amanda Anderson denied the allegation with a two word tweet: “Complete nonsense“, but ignored all requests to clarify the MA’s position.

Amanda wasn’t the only one wanting to keep a lid on this. Philip Merricks (Hawk & Owl Trust) weighed in, even though he wasn’t at the meeting, and Chief Inspector Martin Sims, then head of the National Wildlife Crime Unit and who was at the meeting told us, “There was never any discussion about Marsh harriers” (see comments on this blog – scroll down towards the end).

It’s taken us a year, but we’ve finally got some pretty damning evidence that suggests this conversation did take place at the RPPDG meeting last November.

It’s taken us so long because DEFRA has given us the run around on a series of FoIs we submitted between Nov 2017 and July 2018. We asked for the minutes of the 9 Nov 2017 RPPDG meeting, and, suspecting that those minutes may be santised given the public furore over the alleged Marsh harrier licensing, we also asked for copies of all correspondence between RPPDG members relating to those minutes before they were finally approved.

DEFRA repeatedly failed to comply with the FoI regulations over a period of eight months and didn’t provide us with the information so eventually we resorted to threatening to report them to the Information Commissioner. Shortly afterwards, in August 2018, DEFRA finally released some (but not all!) the info we’d requested.

As expected, the minutes of the Nov meeting were heavily redacted: RPPDG-minutes_9-Nov-17_final_redacted

We looked for any discussion about licences for killing Marsh harriers but only found this:

There was an inference about licensing but nothing unequivocal, and the redactions meant we couldn’t be sure the subject had been raised by Amanda or another MA rep, nor with whom she/another rep was having the conservation.

The latter question was answered when we realised that whoever had done the redactions on those minutes hadn’t done a very good job and if the redacted version was pasted in to another programme the original, unredacted version appeared: Unredacted RPPDG minutes_9_Nov2017_final

The unredacted version was useful as it confirmed that Amanda was the only representative of the Moorland Association at that meeting and it also revealed that the above conversation had taken place between Amanda and ‘GS’ , who was identified in the minutes as Ginny Swaile from Natural England:

But still no mention of the word ‘licence’ or ‘lethal control’, just an inference.

So then we turned our attention to the correspondence between RPPDG members as they discussed the approval of the minutes. DEFRA released SOME of this correspondence (we know it wasn’t all of it) but did any of the members mention the inclusion/exclusion of a discussion on Marsh harrier licensing in the draft version of the minutes?

From what we can see, most of them didn’t mention Marsh harriers, although some of this email correspondence was redacted in parts and also the marked-up copy of the draft minutes was not made available to us, so it’s hard to be sure that most of them chose to ignore the subject, although that’s what it looks like, apart from Natural England and the Moorland Association who clearly commented on the issue but the redactions hide the details:

BASC comments (British Association for Shooting & Conservation)

CLA comments (Country Land & Business Association)

MA comments (Moorland Association)

NE comments1 (Natural England)

NE comments2 (Natural England)

NGO comments1 (National Gamekeepers Organisation)

NGO comments2 (National Gamekeepers Organisation)

Police comments (National Wildlife Crime Unit)

Welsh Gov comments (Welsh Government)

Yorkshire Dales NPA comments (Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority)

But there were two other RPPDG members whose correspondence we were particularly interested to see – the RSPB and the Northern England Raptor Forum (NERF).

First up, the RSPB’s correspondence. Interestingly, and perhaps tellingly, DEFRA did not release the RSPB’s initial comments made to the RPPDG when the minutes were being discussed in early December 2017. Instead, they released two pieces of correspondence, one dated 18 January 2018 and the other dated 12 February 2018. Why do you think the early December correspondence was missing? Perhaps DEFRA ‘forgot’ to include it.

RSPB comments1 (dated 18 January 2018: Bob Elliot (then Head of RSPB Investigations) just asking DEFRA and RPPDG Chair Police Supt Chris Hankinson what was the status of the minutes)

RSPB comments2 (dated 12 February 2018: a heavily readacted email from Bob Elliot to the group saying he didn’t feel the minutes were an accurate reflection of the meeting but his reasons for this were all redacted):

Then we looked at the correspondence from NERF. Again, DEFRA had released two pieces of correspondence, one dated 7 December 2017 where Steve Downing (NERF Chairman) tells the RPPDG he is out of the country but will respond in detail the following week, and the other dated 17 April 2018 where Steve writes to Supt Hankinson telling him he objects to the sanitised final version of the minutes and that he intends to raise this issue at the next RPPDG meeting. Interestingly, and again perhaps tellingly, DEFRA did not release Steve’s email from December where he laid out his comments on the draft minutes. Hmmm.

NERF comments1 (dated 7 December 2017)

NERF comments2 (dated 17 April 2018, see copy below):

It was pretty clear to us by then that both the RSPB and NERF had objected to the way the minutes had been edited but we were still none the wiser about the specific details.

Having had a belly full of DEFRA’s ineptitude with our long-running FoI requests we decided to approach the RSPB and NERF directly to see if they would be prepared to share their unredacted RPPDG correspondence so we could see exactly what was going on.

Being gentlemen of principle, both Bob and Steve agreed but on the condition that they would only share with us their comments, and would redact the comments of any other RPPDG member. Fine by us, because the redacted names can be pieced together from the unredacted version of the minutes for those who want to look.

Here’s what they sent us:

The unredacted version of Bob’s RSPB email to the RPPDG dated 12 February 2018 (we have added the red box for clarity):

The unredacted ‘missing’ email from Steve to the RPPDG, dated 12 December 2017, outlining his recollections of the meeting on 9 Nov based on notes he’d taken during that meeting (we have added the red text box to highlight the bit about licences for the lethal control of Marsh harriers on grouse moors):

So there you have it. Two members of the RPPDG recall a discussion between the Moorland Association and Natural England about the potential for obtaining licences to kill Marsh harriers on grouse moors. None of the other RPPDG members seem to recall it, not even Amanda. Imagine that.

Here’s a reminder of Amanda’s response to our original blog in November last year:

For the record, we’ve checked with Natural England to see whether anyone has submitted an application for a licence to kill Marsh harriers but according to NE (if you believe them), nobody has. Yet.

This sordid episode of what looks like a massive cover-up /suppression exercise is no more than we would expect from the RPPDG. We’ve criticised this so-called ‘partnership’ for several years because, like many other ‘partnerships’, it has contributed absolutely nothing of any value towards the conservation of birds of prey since it was established in 2011. If Supt Chris Hankinson was still in charge of it we’d be calling for his resignation right about now.

Kudos to Bob Elliot (now Director of OneKind) and Steve Downing (NERF Chair) whose integrity speaks volumes. Bob must be delighted not to have to endure this cabal anymore.

However, as some of you may be aware, there’s a new Chair in town and he’s looking to shake things up at the RPPDG. Police Supt Nick Lyall took on the role in September 2018 and already we’ve seen more action from him in the last seven weeks than we have from Chairs over the previous seven years.

He’s bringing transparency to the group (we’ve already had a conversation about the need to provide un-redacted minutes from RPPDG meetings without having to chase them via FoI requests), he’s writing a blog to keep people informed of RRPDG activities, he’s active on Twitter (@SuptNickLyall), he’s inviting more conservation-focused groups to join the RPPDG to counter the current game shooting industry imbalance, and later this week we’ll be attending his national raptor persecution workshop where he intends to gather ideas to put together an action plan for the RPPDG, with measurable targets, instead of letting it fester from year to year with no direction and no accountability. If any blog readers have any ideas please leave a comment – we know Nick will be reading this post (to his credit, we gave him warning that this blog was coming and he didn’t try to dissuade us from writing it).

34 thoughts on “Licences to kill marsh harriers on grouse moors – an update”

  1. At least this provides relatively unequivocal evidence of the corruption involved from certain game management bodies of the RPPDG “partnership” – what a joke. It makes one wonder where would we be without RPUK, and why do some so-called conservation bodies remain confidential or strangely quiet about these back-room issues? Long live honest transparency!

  2. Defra are very devious at the best of times and not to be trusted. The moorland association are in their pocket’s and they work together, they both can never be trusted.

  3. Excellent and persistent work yet again RPUK. So there wasn’t just a throwaway remark at the end of a meeting this nasty little detail was incorporated within it. The minute any predator, raptors especially, appear on ‘their’ moors it has to go. This is truly disgusting and contemptible, I didn’t think my opinion of Amanda ‘thirty pieces of silver’ Anderson could sink any lower, but I was wrong.

  4. Well done RPUK. The RPPDG is there for Defra and NE to hide behind rather than to get anything done. How many times has Therese Coffey mentioned the RDDPG and yet we see it produce very little of any value? The focus is on the new Chair to sort this out and gain public confidence in this body – I say gain rather than regain because it has never been there. I would like to see RSPB and NERF give this body one year to prove itself and if not, then they should pull out. I’m not sure my RSPB membership subscription is being well spent by silently attending these meetings and not speaking out publicly about their failings. Well done RPUK, without whom we would know nothing about all this.

  5. Well done RPUK.
    You have shone a light where it was believed that none would or could ever penetrate.
    The honesty and integrity of the two people prepared to reveal their own correspondence is in marked contrast to everyone else involved, many of whom are in the position they are in, and have a duty, to ensure that events are correctly but fairly recorded.
    A huge task awaits Police Supt Nick Lyall. He is clearly a person of integrity, I believe.
    I wish him well.

  6. Truly appalling but unequivocal evidence of the modus operandi of Defra, of the deceit of MA, and the process by the police. It confirms our very worst understanding of the behind the scenes conspiracy and lends credibility to even the wildest conspiracy theory we harbour. This is the lowest of the low points, to have it so clearly illustrated, and shows just what a long long climb we have to reach a level playing field. Thank you, yet agai, RPUK.

  7. Like Mark I wonder whether my RSPB subscription is being well-spent. It is time they spoke out on behalf of raptors. Trying to deal reasonably with undreasonable people like the Moorland Association is a waste of effort.

    1. My RSPB subscription was cancelled a few years ago and used to help fund more useful action such as Walk for Wildlife, crowd-funded legal challenges etc.

      When I visit RSPB reserves I always give generously as my issue is with the senior managers not the hard-working, poorly paid reserve staff.

      Well done RPUK for this great research!

  8. Well done getting to the bottom of this in the face of what we can only call obstruction by DEFRA. Bob and Steve were based on the is evidence the only honest folk in the room but then some of us already knew that. Amanda Anderson caught out again, no xxxxxxx, no xxxxxxx just there to serve the interests of the worst of the moor owners ( as surely they are not all this bad, although I know the better ones are in a small minority) she may appear more pleasant than her predecessor, Gillibrand at these things but in reality is just the bloody same.
    What do the MA, NGO, GWCT and BASC bring to the RPPDG? Are they helping to combat raptor crime, are they helping to make public the extent of raptor crime, are they helping the police in identifying culprits, are they even suspending members who are being investigated or strongly suspected of raptor crimes, are they “Shopping” those they know to be guilty? If not what the fuck are they doing there!!!
    As to Countryside Alliance they are just a bloody pressure group and should never have had a place they can deliver nothing. Merricks showed his true colours again has it slipped his over bearing self righteous mind that he represents Hawk and Owl Trust these days not the bloody CLA. and he wasn’t even there, tosser.
    Incidentally the YDNP are there to represent the protected Landscapes who in my opinion are also under represented, perhaps one rep for NPs and another for AONBs

  9. Ah the smell of burning pants.

    Looking at the list of attendees it does look like it’s stacked with multiple overlapping shooting interests.
    The police are well represented…. Are they not open to FOI too?

  10. [Ed: sorry, we can’t publish that as its potentially libellous. Although many will have drawn the same conclusion!]

  11. Well done RPUK. Sad to see that, the RSPB and NERF having released requested transcripts, certain individuals decide to have another pop at the RSPB.

    They have their faults: I would be happier if the RSPB released this information as a matter of course: it would certainly make the lightweight puffery of “Nature’s Home” a more interesting read, but there is nobody else who has the clout and potential influence, through their membership, to make a real difference.

    Whilst they maintain their investigations team and keep trying to bring miscreants to justice, deliberately hamstrung as they are by the police and the CPS / Crown Office, I will remain a member.

    1. I completely agree. The RSPB are in a difficult position. They need to be able to work in partnership with the police in areas of wildlife crime. If they show by releasing too much information they may well be put in the position of not being able to work in cooperation with the police. Think back to how the memorandum of understanding which has the potential to undermine any prosecution. The individuals know to have discussed the issues which led to that document made clear that they were blaming the RSPB for the document being necessary – as if!
      They are perhaps too timid at times, but if we did not have them tagging birds, working as hard as possible against all the interests who are trying to keep them out, as well as harriers, where would we be?
      They have my full support.

  12. Once again well done RPUK. Good luck to Nick Lyall, he has one huge job on his hands to convince ordinary folk that RPPDG is fit for purpose.

    I went straight from reading this article to the BBC website where they are reporting on Defra’s honesty when dealing with badger culling.

    “Dr Iain McGill, a veterinary surgeon and director of Prion Interest Group, told BBC News that claims by Defra that the badger cull in Somerset and Gloucestershire were working were not supported by scientific evidence.

    “According to Defra’s figures, they claim that they calculated that the incidence [of TB in cattle] has reduced.

    “But their calculations are unclear and deliberately opaque. And, indeed, the current situation in the cull zone says there is an increased prevalence.

    “So, either their figures were calculated on an extremely inaccurate basis and they’ve got it very badly wrong, or they have actually gerrymandered those figures to make it look as if the incidence is falling when the evidence clearly shows that the prevalence has gone up.

    “Badger culling has not worked. They are issuing barefaced lies in this matter.”

    Same old, same old Defra. At least we know what we are all up against – Gove and Coffey, Anderson et al.

    Keep up the good work ; it is very much appreciated by an audience that gets wider and more knowledgeable by the day.

  13. Yes, very well done indeed.
    All very British. The present plutocratic ascendancy almost makes one pine for the days in the 1930s Depression when moorlands were arguably for a while just places where civic authorities got their water and Ramblers and the Workers Travel Association held protests so that the ‘trespassers will be prosecuted’ signs (“Wooden Liars”; referred to by Tom Stephenson) should be removed. The ecological devastation was not thoroughly understood back then and 1930s half-clammed remnants on hill farms could not subsist on a few sheep and must ferret for rabbits for food on the lower fields. The present day revival of traditional garb, and men dressed as gamekeepers, should not hide the profit structures of international wealth impacting the hills.
    I see a lot of skill is needed to thread the British bureaucratic ‘boondocks’ (all credit to those who keep their nerve) – meanwhile spate rivers increasingly pour through communities who bear the cost downhill, and soil structure and soil nutrients vanish into thin air or clouds of smoke. Raptors become symbolic targets for hard-nose politics.

    Phil H

  14. Corruption is rife amongst the motley shooting mob. They don’t like their FUN to be disturbed. xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx


    1. I’ve never been sure whether it is corruption or just plain old indifference that lets this sort of thing reach into the heart of both DEFRA and politics in general.
      One thing is for sure after this. Utterances from the MA’s Amanda Anderson should be very carefully treated because they may be just so much gaseous effluvia.

  15. Well done RPUK, great job again. Just on one point, it’s a bit difficult to tell from this post alone, but it seems likely that NE are using excessive redaction to evade the legislation.

  16. Surely using the words ‘Masons’ is not a problem? Sadly there is evidance it is ripe in even conservation bodies. By the way how many Buzzards killed by license and other means in 2018? Evidance from Norfolk show that no license is needed when an estate can have 80 – 100 pairs of Grey Partridge and a Pheasant shoot which breeds its own birds from 1 cock to 6 hens and in total has 8 – 10 species of bird of prey breeding.

  17. Hi RPUK

    I’m sending you, via email, some suggested legislative amendments I’ve forwarded to the Scottish Grouse Moor Management Group. Whilst I appreciate that these are specific to Scotland and concern legislation, I hope they might be useful as proposals on best practice that Police Superintendent Nick Lyall might be interested in and the shooting reps on the RPPDG might want to address.

    Keep up the incredible work. You are a total inspiration!

  18. Nick Lyall and RPPDG have been re-assuring us on Twitter that a new approach will prove their seriousness about tackling these issues.Although many of us are incredibly frustrated at how long effective action has been delayed so far, I am happy to judge them now by their actions and their results. I suspect that they themselves know they will lose all credibility if the talk is not backed up by results soon.

  19. There was have the real agenda of these types laid out in all its ugliness – same crowd wonder why more and more of the public have no time for them??!!

  20. It is my view that the subterfuge resorted to in this matter warrants a formal enquiry. Who was behind the attempts to conceal the truth as to what was said about the Marsh Harrier situation and what was the objective? To put it bluntly, it stinks! It makes one wonder how long such things have been occurring. A combination of the two forthright individuals representing the RSPB and NERF, respectively, and the unstinting tenacity of RPUK have revealed what a sad state of affairs existed in the RPPDG’s affairs. Very well done to all concerned. As has been suggested elsewhere, maybe some of the others involved should be considering their positions. Best of luck to the new Chair – looks as though he’s going to need it.

  21. Like most (all?) here if I said what I’d really like to say then the sensible people a RPUK would render it as xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx etc., etc. Just fill in the blanks!

  22. This confirms what the well-informed already know, that many of the moorland estates wish to eliminate all raptors but would prefer to do it under a legal blanket. That way they can be even more brazen about their activities. Well done for your tenacity in revealing the truth. It concerns me, though, that it was obviously such a struggle to prise out the necessary facts.

  23. Great example of how to put smoke up to prevent the truth coming out.

    Oh yes you did….
    Oh no we didnt ….
    Etc etc

    And the truth becomes lost and hidden within a mountain of words.

    This tactic is used continually by strategic players within the game bird sporting industry.

    That’s why they want meetings, forums, and protocols.

    Police NWCU and NE are part of the problem not any solution.

  24. Its quite clear that the shooting groups on the RPPDG feel that their role is to obfuscate, block and otherwise prevent any real progress. Unless they are prepared to change immediately they should be kicked off. As to Amanda Anderson yes we know she acts as the MAs spin doctor much as Gilruth does for GWCT but after this one is not sure that if the truth walked up to her and slapped her in the face ( wonderful thought) whether she would recognise it or not.

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