Hen harrier reintroduction to southern England: Natural England suggests persecution not an issue

Natural England has been planning a so-called ‘reintroduction’ of hen harriers to southern England since 2016, as part of DEFRA’s ludicrous Hen Harrier Action Plan.

We’ve blogged about this ‘reintroduction’ for three years (see links at the foot of this blog) and its recently been in the news again as a young satellite-tagged hen harrier called ‘Vulcan’ disappeared in suspicious circumstances close to the proposed reintroduction release site in Wiltshire (see here), indicating that this is not a safe location to rear and release young hen harriers.

This morning on BBC Breakfast News the RSPB again voiced its concerns about the planned reintroduction, citing the loss of hen harrier Vulcan in Wiltshire and arguing that until the issue of illegal persecution has been addressed, any young hen harriers are likely to be killed. You can watch it here (starts at 1:21:08 and ends at 1:23:29; only available until 08.30hrs Monday morning). The RSPB interviewees included Nick Bruce-White (Regional Director RSPB South West) and Tony Whitehead (RSPB Press Officer) who couldn’t have been clearer: “The only limiting factor [for hen harriers], let’s make no mistake about this, is illegal persecution“.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Natural England has continued to court favour with potential donor countries and we’ve been sent an unbelievable powerpoint presentation, which we believe was delivered to European harrier experts at an international conference in October 2018 by Natural England’s Hen Harrier Reintroduction Project Manager, Simon Lee. It’s basically a plea for donor birds and an apparent reassurance that donor birds will be safe in England! Honestly, this has to be seen to be believed:

Download the PDF presentation here: Simon Lee presentation HH reintro to southern England

According to Simon, there’s been “a gradual recovery [of hen harriers] across Scotland and Wales in recent decades“. Er, except for the results of the 2016 national HH survey which showed population declines in each country, and a whopping 27% decline in Scotland since 2004. Losing over a quarter of the population in just 12 years isn’t what we’d call “a gradual recovery“.

Also according to Simon, prior considerations [for the proposed reintroduction] included ‘understanding the reasons for loss’ and that those “factors are no longer present“:

So, having earlier noted in his presentation that ‘human persecution’ was a cause of the species’ historical decline, Simon is now suggesting to potential donor countries that illegal persecution is no longer an issue.

You couldn’t make this up. Although it looks like Simon did.

And if this presentation was given in Oct 2018, as we believe, Simon must also have been fully aware of the findings of Natural England’s hen harrier satellite tag analysis, which was completed last summer and is due to be published imminently under the title: ‘Patterns of satellite tagged hen harrier disappearances suggest widespread illegal killing on British grouse moors’.

And now with the suspicious disappearance of hen harrier Vulcan near to the proposed reintroduction location, will Simon / Natural England be updating the potential donor countries about the continuing threat to hen harriers in the UK and advising them that the planned reintroduction won’t be going ahead because its simply not safe to do so?

UPDATE 8pm: The RSPB has tweeted the following information about confirmed raptor persecution crimes within 25km of the proposed reintroduction site:

UPDATE 23rd September 2020: Large police operation investigating raptor persecution near proposed release site for hen harriers (here)

32 thoughts on “Hen harrier reintroduction to southern England: Natural England suggests persecution not an issue”

  1. Saw the BBC interview this morning and cheered when the RSPB interviewees gave such robust answers about the problems the Hen Harriers face in England. Methinks Simon Lee needs to take off his rose-coloured specs and see the world as it is in Black and white.

  2. I do hope Natural England has consulted and gained the support of those shooting estates south of their Parsonage Down reintroduction site, Stockton Shoot in the Wylye Valley, for example? NE wants to get hen harriers to nest in cereal crops (where, of course, nests could be trashed by farming operations) and those shooting estates are arable farms with narrow, chalk grassland valleys (where they do the shooting).

    Seems like a lot of potential to create a new area of conflict, rather than create a ‘safe’ population away from driven grouse moors.

  3. Hopefully these donor countries aren’t as dumb or devious as NE.
    If the reasons for loss are no longer present then there’s no need to introduce them FFS! They would colonise the lowlands within decades and then we would have the problem of them nesting in cereal crops but great we need to take on lowland persecution too.
    The main if not only qualification for climbing up the ladder in NE seems to be wilful blindness and utter stupidity.

  4. In order to be able to tick the box, NE must have fully investigated persecution in the reintroduction area. There must be report that can be obtained through FOI? It will be interesting to see how wide they cast their net.
    If they haven’t undertaken an investigation then they are as bent as we suspect they are.

  5. NE is just trying to make themselves look good, in fact, they just make themselves look more and more ignorant, d the situation would be farcical if it wasn’t so tragic.

  6. A classic example of wilful blindness. Either that, or the project officer is not up to the job. I’ve always thought that trying to establish crop nesting birds, given all the continual management problems that this would entail, is a basic nonsense even without the likely threat of persecution. Let’s hope that potential donors have more sense and knowledge than NE and are not persuaded to assist.

  7. Firstly, it’s not really about Natural England, but Natural England’s political masters. Natural England has been subjected to repeated budget cuts under this government, and it’s obviously been made quite clear to them that if they want to avoid more budget cuts, then they better do and not do what the government and it’s ministers want.

    In 2008 when not under the control of the grouse shooters best mates, Natural England had no problem laying the blame for the decline of the Hen Harrier in England, on grouse shooting interests.

    I can’t understand the rationale behind introducing Hen Harriers in Southern England. Anyone familiar with Hen Harriers will know they range far and wide looking for ideal breeding territories, and their first choice are upland moorland i.e. the habitat used for grouse shooting. Only when all these territories are full, will they use second and third choice nesting habitat. They are found in farmland etc, in Europe, because they are not being heavily persecuted in their first choice breeding habitat. I cannot for the life of me think why it is believed the Hen Harriers will hang around. They are not Red Kites. You only have to see the amount of distance that the tagged Hen Harriers have ranged over, when they’ve been killed, to realise that these are not birds which remain in the same spot. Even if if the odd pair were induced into breeding in the south, I reckon these birds and their offspring will soon venture north to upland moorland, where they will be killed along with the others.

  8. There is a much easier plan for NE to champion.

    Re introduce Hen Harriers into the Yorkshire Dales, Upper Nidderdale, North York Moors and the Peak District.

    It would be a guaranteed success as long as people with guns in these areas stayed within the current laws of this land.

    1. Absolutely logical and therefore exposes the hypocrisy of this whole 2 pronged scheme.
      The lowland introduction is a sop to the driven grouse moors, pure and simple.

  9. ‘ Greater assurance that juvenile and adult winter dispersal will be southerly (to France and Spain) ‘

    Why should that be a consideration?

  10. I’ve never been a fan of this proposal ever since the idea was first mooted way back in the days of the Hen Harrier Dialogue, probably around 2010. We thought we killed it then. It is simple really the shooting lobby at that time and probably now wanted to deflect attention from the undoubtedly organised attempts to exterminate Hen Harriers in Northern England because of their alleged effects on grouse numbers, so lets have a population away from grouse moors. If of course we could, and we could if government really put their minds to it , solve the persecution problem this is an irrelevance. Harriers of their own free will if left alone would eventually colonise those places in the south that THEY deemed suitable to nest in.
    This is still either a deflection exercise ( which none of us should support) or an admission by NE and DEFRA that they have either no bottle to solve the persecution problem, no wish to or it is in their opinion unsolvable. I say to France, Spain and indeed any other potential donor DO NOT DONATE YOUR PRECIOUS YOUNG HARRIERS, THERE IS A VERY GOOD CHANCE THEY WILL HAVE SHORT LIVES BRUTALLY ENDED BY PERSECUTION.
    To NE and DEFRA on the rare chance they are listening I say put your heart into solving the problems on grouse moors, if we were to all work together and gave of our very best we could solve this problem criminality.
    To the grouse shooters and their employees, solving the problem is easy in your hands just stop killing harriers!

  11. Oh dear, is Simon Lee naive or just failed to look at the real life statistics? If he is is so confident, then he needs to underwrite the project (assuming he could drive it through) and he should be accountable for outcomes and waste of public funding? Some Natural England staff really do need to come out of the civil servant bubble into the real world?

  12. Let’s hope that no-one releases any kites in southern England. It’s a species that is highly vulnerable to persecution so the RSPB data clearly show that a kite reintroduction would have no chance of succeeding. If anyone were to release kites in the south then hopefully the lack of spread from Wales into England because of illegal persecution will not be cited as one of the reasons for proceeding. Short memories all round and spurious reasoning for opposing this project.

    1. On many things Ian you and I have agreed but not this one. Most raptor workers including me are opposed what we have always expected of NE is the acknowledgement that persecution in the grouse moor areas of the north is the problem and that is where solutions should be applied. This scheme is a deliberate distraction and should not be supported.

    2. Ian – do you acknowledge that they are trying to get hen harriers to nest in cereal crops, where they’ll be vulnerable to harvesting and other farm operations? This is called an ecological trap – and an unusually severe one. It’ll require on-going, costly intervention to ensure at least some nests survive.

    3. You are very naive if you believe this proposal is anything other than to focus minds away from the extermination of the species on the grouse moors in the north. That is where NE’s focus should be. It’s quite clear to everyone else where the problem lies and its there that it needs to be addressed.

    4. I agree. Persecution should have been dealt with before any raptor re-introduction. Then we would have kites over grouse moors.
      Success is not the golden thumb rule, the IUCN guidlines are.

      1. Look at it this way. If the Black Kite re-introduction had happened on its own with none anywhere else in the UK, would we be claiming it as a success because it is surviving and sustainable. If it was a government initiative it would be claimed as a success. That is how the lowland Hen Harrier scheme is going to look, with all the added farming problems.
        Yes why not have two problems instead of one to cloud the issue. I am sure the grousers would love that.

    5. The only thing spurious here is your ‘concern’ over what is quite clearly an appeasement to the very estates committing such raptor crimes. Please, Ian, tell us all why they aren’t being reintroduced in to the Peak District and other northern moors, where they have preferred habitat? I won’t hold my breath for an answer from you.

  13. What the hell is going on in the minds of people who participate in this ridiculous project? Could it be that they are simply enhancing personal finances in a dark corner of the science world? It’s quite mysterious that some con-artist pseudo-scientists can pose as true experts on harriers, even those who rarely see the birds, but positively sinister that putative qualified scientists can believe what they preach, no matter how incredible. As far as I’m concerned the only sincere scientists involved are those who are working in the real world of honesty and sincerity, almost all of whom are highly sceptical of the rationale adopted by their ‘enemies.’ When will they understand that the honest people, especially those who love the birds or are working on the ecology and conservation of the harriers, are the only true experts? It’s time for the gloves to come off.

    1. One would hope that the first thing the donor country would do would be to contact the RSPB for advice.
      It could be that the other countries don’t have such a bought so called ‘independent’ agency as NE and so think ours can be trusted. Surely everyone in Europe who reads a newspaper knows that we can’t be.

      1. Yes I will buy it, Ian is a knowledgeable ornithologist, that we disagree with him over this one issue does not detract from that, I already have his Red Kite book and I see another is in the offing, I’ll probably buy that too. I found the first both very informative and enjoyable. I even have one of your books John, although there is no doubt we would disagree rather a lot about various Bowland issues!
        If you are reading this Ian I have quite a lot of harrier information some of which you may not have, get in touch if you are interested.

        1. May be that is the point. Why would any one want to write a book when he has no knowledge of the species but what he can gather from other people. Yes Paul you have the knowledge so why not do your own book ?

  14. Puts me in mind of the King’s New Clothes, and it’s very easy who thinks that they are very smart and who is not afraid to say ‘what clothes’ !

  15. I am utterly gob-smacked that the presentation claims that the whole aim of the lowland re-introduction was ‘to establish a crop-nesting population’ highlighted in red with no other aims given.
    Sorry for being so slow here but i had presumed that the aim was to get them nesting in the rough grazed or wilderness areas of southern England. I used to watch Montagu’s Harriers and Hen Harriers in Jutland, Denmark and there they bred in reed beds and rough grassland. I presumed that NE were hoping that the introduced birds would NOT nest in cereal crops although obviously protect them if they did. To deliberately aim for them to breed in cereal crops is utter madness but of course they aren’t going to breed in crops if there are better habitats available no matter how far they roam.
    A quick look at the Benny Génsbøl book Birds of Prey tells me for Montagu’s in Denmark ‘Many nests destroyed every year during hay harvest’. The same book tells us that cereal crops are a recent adaptation of Hen Harriers. It is not their primary habitat even in Europe. BWP does not even mention cereal crops as a habitat. I cannot for the life of me think why anyone in their right mind would be trying to encourage a species to breed in a last-resort habitat which will cause problems with farmers and need extra conservation efforts to protect the nests.
    They are trying to change the behaviour of a species solely to appease the grouse shooting hobbyists.

    The worst thing about that Power Point presentation is what they omit.
    This is the only mention of persecution. I have not missed out or edited these bullet points, the second follows the first without a gap!
    ‘• Population declined significantly from c.1830 due to land use changes and human persecution
    • Gradual recovery across Scotland and Wales in recent decades’
    Anyone reading this would assume persecution is a thing of the past.
    This is spin-doctoring of the highest level and it is not from the grouse lobby but the agency which is supposed to protect our wildlife. We need Tony Juniper fast!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s