A few days ago I was informed that there may have been a suspected breach of a hen harrier diversionary feeding licence last weekend, on a grouse moor in North Yorkshire.
Observers were monitoring what they believed to be an active hen harrier nest. Their observation position was approximately one mile from the nest site so as not to disturb the breeding attempt.
During this period, they observed and filmed a buggy carrying two individuals, being driven towards the nest site. It stopped and one person got out and appeared to be placing something on top of a fencepost, before returning to the buggy and driving towards the nest. Both individuals exited the buggy, walked in to the heather to the nest, flushed off a very agitated female hen harrier, did something at the nest that wasn’t clear (one individual was crouching down and the other appeared to be taking photos of the dive-bombing female) before returning to the buggy and driving away.
[Screengrab from the video footage, filmed from approx one mile away, showing two individuals walking from the buggy towards the hen harrier nest]
I’ve been told by a number of people that this was a gamekeeper and a Natural England employee, but I have been unable to verify this. I understand that the nest contained five eggs that the female was incubating.
It was suggested to me that before visiting the nest, one of the individuals had been setting out food as part of a diversionary feeding strategy, which is encouraged as part of DEFRA’s Hen Harrier Action Plan. However, the licence that permits diversionary feeding (CL25) sets out quite clearly that diversionary feeding can ONLY begin after the eggs have hatched, and not before:
I don’t know what the exact reasoning is behind this restriction of not being permitted to provide diversionary food prior to the chicks hatching but an educated guess would be that it would limit unnecessary disturbance in the vicinity of the harrier’s nest at a highly sensitive period, especially as the licence notes that red grouse are unlikely to be taken by hen harriers during the incubation period, so diversionary feeding shouldn’t be necessary.
The restriction may also be related to the fact that as a general rule of thumb, most raptors, if disturbed, are more likely to desert their nest during the incubation period than they would be had they reached the nestling period, presumably because they’ve invested much more in the breeding attempt by the nestling stage.
However, the reasoning behind the restriction isn’t really the issue right now. The issue is that there has been a potential breach of a licence condition. Here’s what Natural England’s CL25 licence says might happen if there is a failure to comply with the terms and conditions of the licence:
I contacted North Yorkshire Police to ask whether a potential licence breach would be enforced by the police or by another agency. A police spokesperson told me that Natural England would be the enforcement agency and it was also confirmed that yes, this licence breach had occurred last weekend.
The police spokesperson said that NE had given assurances that the individual concerned ‘had been spoken to’ and that ‘the activity had ceased in accordance with guidelines’. Natural England apparently said there was ‘no malicious intent in any activity’ although it’s not clear how they assessed that.
Interesting. I’ve written to Natural England today to ask them about any potential enforcement action they may be taking against this estate for failing to comply with the terms and conditions of the licence.
My money is on there being absolutely zero enforcement action taken, given Natural England’s track record of happily working in cahoots with the very industry responsible for the hen harrier’s catastrophic decline in England in their scandalous hen harrier brood meddling conservation scam.
Actually, I wonder whether this nest will be targeted for brood meddling this year and if so, whether this ‘extended’ diversionary feeding (and who knows how long it had been going on?) will be mentioned to the Scientific Advisory Committee scrutinising the supposed rigour (ahem) of the brood meddling trial?
UPDATE 4th May 2021: Grouse-shooting estate under investigation for alleged breach of hen harrier diversionary feeding licence (here)