Natural England’s shady approach to IUCN guidelines on hen harrier reintroduction

Earlier this week I blogged about how Natural England had been planning, in secret, to start a captive breeding programme for hen harriers, with the intention of releasing the progeny in to southern England as a way of boosting the UK hen harrier population, which has been in decline for years thanks to the ongoing illegal killing of this species (see here).

The proposed reintroduction isn’t news – this has been on the cards since 2016 when DEFRA published its ludicrous Hen Harrier Action Plan (and when Natural England was caught out claiming spurious justifications for the reintroduction – see here) – but the captive breeding element is new, and is a direct result of potential donor countries in Europe refusing to donate harriers to a country that clearly can’t look after the ones its already got.

And although the captive breeding element is highly questionable from an ethical standpoint, it’s still not the main issue here. The main issue has always been, and remains to be, the concept of releasing hen harriers in one part of the country as a massive distraction from dealing with the scandalous level of persecution still inflicted on this species in other parts of the country (namely on driven grouse moors).

[An illegally killed hen harrier. Photo by Ruth Tingay]

Reintroduction projects need to meet all sorts of criteria before they can go ahead and DEFRA advises project managers consult the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Guidelines for Reintroductions and other Conservation Translocations as part of their preparation.

These IUCN guidelines are built on decades of conservation knowledge and experience and provide a ‘route map’ for achieving a successful reintroduction. One of the fundamental principles of these guidelines is deciding when a translocation/reintroduction is an acceptable option. Key to this is:

There should generally be strong evidence that the threat(s) that caused any previous extinction have been correctly identified and removed or sufficiently reduced‘.

Now, in the case of the UK hen harrier population, which is in long-term decline according to the most recent national survey conducted in 2016 (see here), it is widely accepted that illegal persecution continues to be the main threat to survival, limiting the species’ distribution and abundance in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and England.

So the threat has been ‘correctly identified’, as per the IUCN guidelines. It’s indisputable (unless you’re a spokesperson from the very industry that’s responsible for this organised criminality). There are more scientific papers identifying and confirming the threat as there are breeding pairs of hen harriers in England – including the most recent research, co-authored by Natural England staff, which demonstrated the ongoing, widespread illegal killing of hen harriers on British grouse moors (here).

But has the ‘correctly identified’ threat been ‘removed or sufficiently reduced’ for Natural England to proceed with its reintroduction plans? Well, that’s where it all gets a bit shady, in my opinion.

Natural England has been downplaying the persecution issue for a couple of years, particularly when its staff members have been trying to persuade potential donor countries that persecution really isn’t an issue in southern England (e.g. see here and here), although the RSPB has vigorously disputed this claim:

And of course there’s also been the suspicious disappearance of a satellite-tagged hen harrier called Vulcan (here) (which according to an employee of the National Gamekeepers Organisation was likely a ‘set up’ by the RSPB (here!), and then there’s the recent and on-going police investigation into alleged bird of prey persecution nearby (see here).

So it was interesting to see a copy of Natural England’s Hen Harrier Southern Reintroduction IUCN Assessment, dated January 2020, and released to me last week as part of a bundle of documents released under a Freedom of Information request, to understand just how Natural England is attempting to explain away the real and present threat of persecution.

Here is the document:

First of all, Natural England is pointing to two datasets of confirmed raptor persecution incidents to show that persecution is an issue in counties far away from the proposed release site in Wiltshire.

The first dataset cited (published by DEFRA on behalf of the Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group, RPPDG) has been widely criticised as being inaccurate and out of date (see here) and is unsupported by two members of the RPPDG: the Northern England Raptor Forum (here) and by the RSPB (here).

The second dataset is much more reliable, as it’s compiled using rigorous scientific quantification by the RSPB, but even then, it only includes confirmed raptor persecution incidents, i.e. where there is a corpse and supportive evidence to identify the cause of death (e.g. x-ray, toxicology report). The database cited by Natural England does NOT include ‘probable’ or ‘possible’ raptor persecution incidents. So, for example, the vast majority of the 52 hen harriers known to have been killed or have disappeared in suspicious circumstances since 2018 (here) would NOT be included in this database of confirmed incidents because many of them, without a corpse or satellite tag, would have to be classified as being ‘probable’ persecution incidents. It’s ironic that these incidents would be excluded, given it was Natural England’s own commissioned research findings that identified missing satellite-tagged hen harriers as most likely to have been illegally killed on or near grouse moors (here).

So not only is Natural England being highly selective in the datasets it has chosen to support this claim that persecution isn’t an issue in southern England, the other main claim made in its IUCN assessment is that hen harriers released in the south of England won’t travel north to the deadly grouse moors of northern England, Wales and Scotland. Here is the claim:

This is an astonishing claim to make. Obviously, I was interested in the reference that Natural England cited to support such a claim: (NE 2019a). However, when I looked up the reference I found it refers to Natural England’s intermittently-updated summary table of the fates of tagged hen harriers (here).

This table doesn’t support Natural England’s claims at all! If anything, it shows that young hen harriers wander widely during dispersal, throughout the UK, so there is no supportive evidence whatsoever to suggest the incidence levels of hen harriers released in southern England roaming into northern upland areas (persecution hotspots) ‘will be low’. What complete nonsense this is!

The fact is, nobody knows what those released hen harriers will do, but if they follow the behaviour of other young dispersing hen harriers they will wander widely and will be at significant risk of being killed if they go anywhere near a driven grouse moor. I wouldn’t fancy their chances if they turned up at some commercial pheasant and partridge drives either, given the persecution suffered on some shooting estates by Montagu’s and Marsh harriers.

It’s no wonder Natural England has wanted to keep its plans under wraps – this is shady stuff indeed.

16 thoughts on “Natural England’s shady approach to IUCN guidelines on hen harrier reintroduction”

  1. My experience is that Hen Harriers used to arrive in Suffolk in the winter, but were rarely, if ever, present in the breeding season. It was thought that they moved south from Northern England and Scotland. A strong flying bird of prey, why is it thought that they would not move to areas where persecution is taking place? Solve the problem by licensing moorland shoots and suspending the licence if there is evidence of persecution.

  2. Time for a bit of Wild Justice, I think. There’s also the implicit acceptance that a HH moving north near to a driven grouse moor is in grave danger.

  3. What is not mentioned is the fact that it is public money being spent to create this facade seemingly to prevent others thinking that some of the richest men both in the UK and in the World, are prime movers in creating the conditions for the extinction of an indigenous bird of prey.
    Thius highlights a problem that should be given equal prominence in the struggle against wildlife crime. That is that parts of the supporting Government research bodies are as corrupt as the politicians, the businessmen and the gamekeepers who appear to be doing by far the killing on the ground

  4. I guess thats why we donate to Wild Justice. Sue the Natural England boss for maladministration, get the National Audit office to look at the waste of public funds.

  5. Excellent stuff – always impressed by how you repeatedly pick these things apart.

    I would be interested to see the IUCN response – any idea when that might appear?

  6. There is a National Nature Reserve run by Natural England near me. It’s a raptor persecution and wildlife crime hotspot!

    I recently found snares near a badger sett on the Reserve and reported it to the Manager who told me that part of the terms of the lease were that the local gamekeepers from the shooting estate adjoining the Reserve can set traps and snares and shoot ‘vermin’! I was staggered at this outrageous clause.

    I note that there is no information about the permitted use of traps, snares and guns on the proposed project site on the Reserve. I feel it might be worthwhile checking that situation out. You might be surprised at what you find!

    1. Hi Lizzybusy, I think I know which so-called NNR you are talking about. It is a pleasant and interesting tree lined valley but in no-way is it a nature reserve, as you righly say. I can hardly think of a worse place to be a bird of prey, a fox, a badger, an otter, a corvid, etc. Wasn’t there an effort to ban public access on Open Access Land (wooded & semi-wooded area) within the NNR during the shooting season? If the NNR down south has similar deep-pocketed and greedy shooting interests on it’s doorstep, then the captive bred HH’s had best remain in their aviaries or they won’t last 6 weeks. Simply sticking a sign up saying ‘Welcome to …… NNR’ is a sham without the grit to stand up and protect the wildlife within it.

  7. Yes this is not like Golden Eagles where the adults have small territories, Hen Harriers roam far and wide in all age groups although some less than others.
    Some of the tagged routes i have seen show that some birds do breed close to their release site so if they can survive each winter they could survive to breed in the lowlands and each pair that breeds will be a huge fan-fare in the scheme but it misses the whole point. As someone pointed out years ago this is a scheme to try and change the ecology of a whole species. It is plainly unethical and a shit load of birds are going to get killed in the publicity campaign. All to pacify some bastards with guns.

  8. In their report, Natural England are admitting that illegal persecution is the one the main reasons for the poor conservation state of the Hen Harrier, and one of the chief difficulties for the birds recovery.
    They accept the fact that this persecution is taking place in the northern upland areas. Areas predominantly used for grouse shooting.

    Even one of the more enlightened landowners in the north, and a man known for his conservation work is quoted as saying “I couldn’t be more positive about having a pair of hen harriers nesting at XXXXX, but I would be terrified of having a colony because it would make grouse shooting unviable”.( case studies)

    What does such a statement actually mean? How should these words be interpreted?

    I understand Hen Harriers breed in colonies. Unless I am totally mistaken and understand nothing about wildlife- for Hen Harriers conservation to be successful, then they need to form colonies in order to breed successfully.
    If even the more conservation minded landowners are “terrified” at the thought of Hen Harrier colonies, what hope have they on the darker moors were raptor persecution is rife?

    If Hen Harriers are introduced in the south of England, will this bias against Hen Harrier colonies simply replicate itself in the areas where Hen Harriers are introduced or try and colonise?

    The prejudices which exist in the countryside are frequently deep rooted, widespread and hard to eradicate.
    TB in cattle and the way this has impacted on badgers is a prime example.

    The issue for me is that Natural England is a publicly funded body. It is accountable to the public.
    Whilst all methods to improve the conservation status of the Hen Harrier need to be considered.
    The evidence all suggests that illegal persecution and failure to protect nesting and roost sites remains the biggest obstacle for recovery.

    So wouldn’t it be better to spend public money on eradicating the criminality, and seek ways to assist and convince landowners that having Hen Harrier colonies can contribute to the success of the business models they have for the land they own?
    Hen Harriers will only truly recover when every landowner welcomes their presence, and does everything possible to protect and assist them forming breeding colonies.
    Is that really too much to ask for bird that is continually on the verge of extinction in this country?

  9. Just to add further weight to my argument.
    We would not tolerate “no go areas” in our inner cities or urban areas, where the inhabitants could not go about their lawful business safely and without molestation from the criminal fraternity.
    Where such areas exist, policing becomes a priority and large amounts of public money is spent on regeneration to eradicate the causes of the criminality.
    What we wouldn’t do is relocate law abiding people, and in effect admit that the criminals rule the area and have won.
    If such a strategy is the norm for dealing with crime hotspots where humans are the victims, why isn’t this replicated when dealing with wildlife crime?
    Shouldn’t a similar strategy be adopted by Natural England when tackling the crime problems in our countryside?

  10. But the RSPB tweet proves the opposite of what is intended. Although persecution in the proposed release area does occur, it is not at a level that would threaten the success of the project. Most of the species listed in the tweet are doing fine despite some losses to persecution. Isn’t that the key point? We can all agree that persecution in the uplands is the main problem for HHs but I wouldn’t expect it to be a problem in southern England. Or at least not at a level to threaten the project.

    As for captive breeding, I simply don’t understand how that can be seen as a viable option. There are so many difficulties and problems with that approach, which is why similar projects tend to use young taken direct from the wild. I’d be amazed if enough birds could be reared in captivity to supply a release project. It will eat up some funding but surely won’t succeed.

    1. How many released hen harriers need to be killed from each released cohort for the population to remain stable but too small (and therefore non-viable without on-going supplementation) or to have a negative growth rate, Ian? Presumably you know the answer given your first paragraph. How do you know illegal killing, in-combination with other events leading to deaths, won’t be sufficient?

    2. And Ian, your comment that the favourable status of say buzzard, barn owl Etc is favourable despite the documented killings displays your basic misunderstanding of population ecology. Whereas the numbers of hen harriers will be tiny and from a single source in the early years, buzzards, for example, are common in this wider landscape with ample recruits entering the population across the whole region. Those other species have escaped the persecution trap that is preventing hen harrier recovery in England and could well be enough to prevent their establishment from a single release source population, when combined with other mortality causes. Ian, you need to learn something about sources, sinks, species recovery and reintroduction biology. You must have learnt a bit from your work on red kites and great bustards.

      1. Recently buzzards have been regarded as “the arable farmer’s friend” as they prey on species that eat the crops, such as rabbits and small rodents. I believe that the one time they are killed is by idiots who will shoot anything with a bird of prey profile, including the helpful ones, like buzzard and red kite.

  11. What they are proposing is exactly how grouse moors etc operate.
    Breed and release then shoot.
    There is a rabid approach to the problem by both sides. The problem will only be solved by the introduction of real time tracking of birds and rapid response by police and wild life agencies. The more people we have on the moors and farm land watching these magnificent birds the better.

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