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.