What you need to know about the satellite tags fitted to the brood meddled hen harriers

Just when you thought the hen harrier brood meddling trial couldn’t be discredited any further…..it turns out that three of the five brood meddled chicks have been fitted with a new, untested type of satellite tag which showed reliability problems right from the start of the trial.

A further five hen harrier chicks, unrelated to the brood meddling trial, were also fitted with these new tags this year (by Natural England), including hen harrier Rosie who was reported ‘missing’ on 17th September (see here) but whose tag started transmitting again three days later (see here).

As far as we are aware, these new tags have not previously been deployed on any harrier species in the UK.

What the actual f….?

It’s anybody’s guess why the project team chose to deploy a new type of tag for the brood meddling trial. The type of tag selected for any animal movement research project will depend on a whole host of things, not least the type of research questions to be addressed by a project (e.g. do you need long-term coarse scale data or do you need shorter-term high resolution data?) but also technical issues such as your study species’ size, weight and ecology as well as tag size, weight and functionality, and there is always the issue of affordability and most definitely reliability.

[A selection of satellite tags on display at the police/researcher satellite tag workshop held earlier this year – photo by Ruth Tingay]

There are a number of tag manufacturers competing in a tight market and competition is high – researchers talk to one another about the tags they’ve been using, the pros and cons of each tag type and which manufacturer’s tags are out performing the others. Tag technology is constantly developing and improving and sometimes researchers will decide to take a risk to test out cutting edge tag technology and novel attachment methods – this is how research advances and methods improve and it’s generally a good thing as long as feedback is widely available to the scientific and technology community from which to learn.

However, if you’re running a politically sensitive research trial where understanding the fate of your study species is crucial (i.e. Natural England’s hen harrier brood meddling trial), and you need to compare survival rates with those of hen harriers tagged in previous years, it is utterly incomprehensible, both politically and scientifically, to elect to try out a new type of tag for that trial because then you have no basis for confidence in the tag’s reliability. It’s completely bonkers!

The hen harrier brood meddling project team agreed to test new tags in the brood meddling trial, apparently for a higher resolution of tracking data. The potential for the tags to fail to provide relevant data was identified as a risk in the Brood Meddling Project Plan and yet still the project team agreed to press on:

We know from an FoI response that at a project team meeting on 27 August 2019, it was noted that there had been unreliability issues with the tags when the chicks were still in the release aviary (the team thought the aviary’s wire mesh may have caused an issue) but there was still an issue with at least one of the harrier’s tags post-release from the aviary:

We also know that in early September news of the tags’ unreliability had reached the gamekeeping community, as evidenced by this gamekeeper’s post on social media. This is a huge worry. Who told the gamekeepers the tags weren’t functioning properly? Talk about giving them a green light to attack! ‘It’s ok lads, you can shoot the harriers this week ‘cos the tags aren’t working properly so they’ll never know it was you’.

We contacted Natural England to ask whether there was any truth in the claims of tag unreliability and to their credit they responded openly, confirming that two of the tags had been malfunctioning but were now back online, that NE hadn’t been concerned about the harriers because they still had ‘eyes on’ the birds in the field so they knew they were ok, and that NE would be talking to the tag manufacturer to understand the issues.

The issue of tag reliability (or in this case, unreliability), cannot be over-estimated. It’s huge. When these three brood meddled hen harriers, along with HH Rosie, went off the radar in September it was completely reasonable for the public and the police to assume they’d been illegally killed because their disappearances fitted the suspicious circumstances of so many before them (at least 72% of all NE-tagged hen harriers have either been illegally killed or presumed to have been killed on grouse moors, according to authoritative research).

We now know Rosie hadn’t been killed – just that her tag had temporarily stopped, for unknown reasons and for an unknown period of time. Perhaps the tag data have already provided a clue to the cause of this (e.g. low battery voltage) but the project team hasn’t commented so we don’t know.

But what of the still missing three brood meddled hen harriers? Can we be sure they’ve been killed? No, we can’t. It’s highly plausible, of course, but it’s equally plausible, knowing what we now know about these particular tags’ unreliability, that the harriers are actually fine but their tags have just stopped functioning for unknown reasons. Will this uncertainty affect Natural England’s decision to issue another brood meddling licence in January?

This situation is obviously unsatisfactory on many levels, not least for the scientific integrity of the brood meddling trial – it’ll be interesting to hear what the scientific advisory group has to say about all this.

Why didn’t they stick with the tags previously used to monitor hen harrier survival? Sure, like any tag those tags also have constraints but their known reliability is excellent (94%) and of course using the same tag type ensures consistency when trying to compare across studies.

And if you think you’ve heard everything there is to hear about the shambolic brood meddling trial, you’re sadly mistaken…..

23 thoughts on “What you need to know about the satellite tags fitted to the brood meddled hen harriers”

  1. I’m a cynical old squirrel, if you wanted to do something to discredit ALL tag data, especially in the eyes of laymen, wouldn’t it be just the thinjg to use unreliable tags in a high profile trial. The ‘tags are unreliable’ headline it generates is what sticks in the public view

    1. I was just about to post a very similar comment. It’s as though this unreliable tag has deliberately been chosen for those very reasons.

      And now (if it hasn’t happened already), Rosie can now be targeted and killed, and the “unreliable tag” can be used as an excuse.

      What the hell is Natural England playing at?

  2. That’s my view too Secret Squirrel. They are seeking to undermine the credibility of one of the most damning pieces of evidence against them. This will gain credence in the majority of their followers and will flood online conversations and blogs with what will be “fake news” as accurate detail is not something that hunting commentators or their followers prioritise … indeed, many, and probably most, of their criticisms are based on inaccurate presentations of otherwise solid research.
    This has their sticky fingerprints all over it. I guess it’s getting serious now. They must be extremely worried to pull a trick like this.

  3. Why are we still even dealing with the shooting community, NE, et.al. Just go all out for a country-wide blanket ban on driven game. If they want to shoot, let them do it like real men do it – rough shooters, wild-fowlers, etc.

    1. The problem with wild fowling and rough shooting is that the former involves getting up before dawn and sitting freezing you whatever’s off in the chance of getting a few brace, whereas the latter involve a degree of fitness and skill to walk and stalk you prey.

      No they require skill, neither present hundreds of targets that even the most unskilled person can hit, neither proved vehicles to access the shoot and neither are geared up to a lavish luncheon with copious amounts of alcohol.

      1. Having watched a wildfowler off Thorney Island blast half-a-dozen cartridges at a Teal he managed to wing but not to kill many years ago, I decided there and then that there is no justification for this activity. Birds flying hundreds or thousands of miles to overwinter in the UK deserve better.

  4. RP – who is on the ‘Project Board’ shown in the forth column (which presumably, is the group / individual responsible for the action relating to Risk (No 6) of Sat Tag Failure?

    Also – unbelievable – No 7 “Sat tag data”. The ‘Project Board’ and the Moorland Association appear to have been jointly responsible for this. The identified risk seems to be “Risk that data, available to those taking part in the trial is either used to persecute birds or to undermine the trial.” (What!) Then, it appears that the proposed solution is, amongst other things, for the “Eyes and ears on the ground report any suspicious visitors to areas where know tagged birds are to police”. (Jeez. An old Wildlife Officer told a friend of mine that the gamekeepers were his eyes and ears in the countryside. I sure hope the that that’s not what that ‘solution’ is referring to.)

    Like you say repeatedly – you couldn’t make this up! How on earth could Natural England possibly have approved a project with risks like that regarding the honesty and integrity of the partners!

    Natural England isn’t fit for purpose.

    1. We’ll be revisiting the composition of the Project Board in a future post but for now, suffice to say it includes representatives of Natural England, Moorland Association, Aberdeen University, International Centre for Birds of Prey, and GWCT. In other words, orgs with skin in the game and with a vested interest in the trial/results.

  5. Goodness me, when you design a scheme to whitewash the intensive shooting industry why would you choose new untried tags ?
    I mean it’s not as if you knew that this would suit your partners and undermine the basis of tag data !
    What a surprise !
    What a gift to the criminals – you can even mysteriously re – discover birds.
    Perhaps not as they will of course be blasted out of the sky anyway.
    And our taxes are paying for this farce.
    As I’ve said here many times it is sad but true that these sacrificial birds will not die in vain as they will eventually put the criminals out of business.

    Keep up the pressure !

  6. Upon reading this my initial thought was also “what an excellent strategy to muddy the water.” So I concur with previous comments.

  7. This is utterly appalling, words don’t fail me, I just can’t repeat them in public.

    Why on earth weren’t the tags that we know and trust used? A little bit of the cynic in me is wondering if sub-standard tags were fitted deliberately in order for them to fail. Before this was announced I was beginning to think something along these lines. Yes far fetched I know, and I don’t really believe that could have been the case, surely not, but just thinking aloud outside the box, wouldn’t it be convenient for the deniers to be able to dismiss the reliability of satellite tags.

    Totally agree with other comments, this has all the hallmarks of a conspiracy to discredit tag data and render their use unworthy in future. For this the whole ‘Board’ should be taken to task, they are the ones that are discredited, the brood meddling scheme is a failure and should be ended forthwith.

    Sent from my iPhone

  8. This is completely scientifically unacceptable and those who made the decision to use this tag are guilty of stupidity at the very least. Data will be incomparable with previous data. the unreliability provides a get out clause for the dark side and their minions. Put simply a complete fuck up.
    The BM trial has been a complete and disgraceful farce from inception and should be dumped forthwith, better it had never seen the light of day.

    1. Just shows it was never conceived as a ‘trial’ and even at as late a date as when the tags were sourced, it still wasn’t thought of seriously as a ‘trial’.
      Another argument for Mark’s lawyers when they go to the appeal since their pretence that it was a trial allowed them to get away with this mad scheme.
      I also prefer the stupid, incompetent angle to the conspiracy theory. Yes i wouldn’t put it past most of the ‘Project Board’ but to assume that everyone involved is so totally corrupt is a stretch, in my opinion.

  9. Perhaps it’s a rouse by the game shooting industry to try to discredit historic Sat- tag data? What better way to do that than to use tags with known reliability issues? How many of their supporters will question the industry if they imply all tags have the same issue?

    Or perhaps it’s rouse to ensure that meddling continues for another year? What better way to achieve that than to use tags with known reliability issues so that the trial has to continue to account for those issues, especially seeing how the trial has been under scrutiny since before it began.

  10. It has been verified that the tag that has restarted is on a Hen Harrier, not been moved to something else that will move around a bit, hasn’t it

  11. Bit off topic here but these below are the kind of tracking devices we need in the future. Of course they have to be reliable and they would also have to be affordable enough so we can tag scores of Hen Harriers.
    But these tags appear to be tracking the movements without intervals. We will know for certain where they are killed. Sooner or later technology will bring the criminals and their bosses down.

  12. I’m assuming that NE are running a control validation, with some of the new gadgets in use adjacent to older types. So the work would be ongoing and they haven’t released the data yet because it’s not complete. I’m aware that GPS gadgets may cause mutual interference if too close together, so perhaps not on a bird.

    I’m sure that would be the scientific method. They do science, don’t they?

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