I can’t decide whether I think Natural England is incompetent or institutionally corrupt. Maybe it’s both? Have a read and see what you think.
Following on from the blog I wrote on Monday where it had become apparent that Natural England had altered the terms of its hen harrier diversionary feeding licence to permit the feeding of hen harriers during the incubation period instead of the nestling period, and that this was done at exactly the same time that North Yorkshire Police were investigating the Swinton Estate for alleged disturbance of hen harriers after an employee, accompanied by a Natural England employee, was observed apparently diversionary feeding hen harriers during the incubation period (here), there are now further developments.
According to a news article in today’s Ends Report, Natural England has claimed that it rewrote the guidelines “as a matter of course, not as a reaction to the news of the nest at Swinton Estate being fed earlier than usual”.
I’m going to reproduce the Ends Report news article here because it contains a fascinating statement from Natural England which leads on to more questions about what, exactly, has been going on at Swinton Estate over the last few years.
Here’s the article:
Natural England has denied it changed its guidance on the feeding of hen harriers after the police launched an investigation for the alleged disturbance of breeding hen harriers through diversionary feeding without a licence.
If licensed by Natural England, landowners are allowed to provide substitute food to hen harriers near their nesting sites to reduce predation of red grouse.
One of the conditions of such licences had been that diversionary feeding may only begin once the hen harrier’s eggs have hatched.
But in April, two individuals were filmed at Swinton Estate grouse moor in North Yorkshire, apparently placing out food for the breeding adults as part of a diversionary feeding scheme. This was during the incubation stage, when the hen harrier’s eggs had not yet hatched.
Raptor conservationist Ruth Tingay lodged a Freedom of Information request with Natural England, which revealed that Swinton Estate did not have a diversionary feeding licence in 2021.
According to Natural England, this meant that technically there has not been a breach of the CL25 licence, “because a licence hadn’t been issued”.
Therefore, the wildlife regulator said it was not in a position to take enforcement action and the case was instead passed to North Yorkshire Police for an investigation into alleged offences under the Wildlife & Countryside Act.
However, Natural England then changed its guidance in May to allow diversionary feeding during the incubation period.
Tingay said Natural England had been “sneaky” in “rewriting the rules at the same time as your star grouse shooting estate is under police investigation for alleged hen harrier disturbance because hen harriers were being fed during the incubation period”.
However, responding to these allegations, Natural England said the guidelines were changed “as a matter of course, not as a reaction to the news of the nest at Swinton Estate being fed earlier than usual”.
The regulator said that the guidelines were changed in relation to the welfare of the birds, and that new evidence suggests that feeding once the birds had a full clutch of eggs “did not increase the risk of desertion”.
According to Natural England, the research – funded by NatureScot – shows that even installing a camera 30cm from a nest with eggs or chicks did not result in any failures that could be attributed to the nest visits.
A Natural England spokesperson said that the nest at Swinton Estate that was fed early has now fledged five chicks, and that the estate has helped feed 28 chicks successfully in recent years.
“Feeding earlier in the breeding process helps get the young birds off to a good start in their lives,” they added.
First of all, I’d like to see ‘the research’ to which Natural England refers and how it has been applied to an assessment of disturbance from diversionary feeding. As far as I’m aware, installing a nest camera is a one-off event and once in place, depending on the type and model, shouldn’t need to be re-visited during the breeding season if the camera card has sufficient memory, but perhaps at the most, once or twice. Diversionary feeding, however, is a repeated, daily event that can occur every day for several months and is therefore much more of a disturbance risk than a one-off installation of a nest camera. The two activities are not comparable in any way, shape or form.
Secondly, I am especially interested in Natural England’s claim that ‘Swinton Estate has helped feed 28 [hen harrier] chicks successfully in recent years’.
Why is that of interest? Well, because the numbers just don’t add up.
In separate FoIs to Natural England I had previously asked them for copies of the diversionary feeding licence CL25 return from Swinton Estate from 2019 and 2020. These were the two freedom of information requests that Natural England considered ‘too complex’ to be able to respond to within the standard 20 working days and they added a further 20 working days to allow time for dealing with this ‘complexity’ (see here).
I’ve since had replies from Natural England and here’s what they told me:
Swinton Estate was not registered for the use of a diversionary feeding licence in 2020 so there is no licence return. [Yep, that’s really complex, I can see why NE wanted 40 working days to tell me about it].
It’s a very interesting response because my sources allege that Swinton Estate WAS diversionary feeding a hen harrier nest in 2020 after the nest on a neighbouring estate was brood meddled. I have submitted a further FoI to Natural England on this – did Swinton Estate diversionary feed hen harriers in 2020 and if so, was Natural England aware of it and if so, what, if any, enforcement action was taken? If no enforcement action was taken, why not?
Swinton Estate did diversionary feed hen harriers in 2019 and did submit a licence return, and here is a redacted copy of it:
There are several things to note:
There is no registration number, but approval to use the CL25 licence was approved by [redacted]. Who was that, and why wasn’t the estate registered in the normal way?
At the nest where diversionary feeding took place, the licence return states, ‘unsuccessful during the incubation period’. Does this mean that Swinton Estate was diversionary feeding during the incubation period – which would have been a breach of the licence conditions in 2019? And if so, did anyone at Natural England pick up on this from the licence return and was there any enforcement action? If not, why not? I have submitted further FoIs to ask about this.
You’ll note then, that according to Natural England’s paperwork, Swinton Estate diversionary fed five hen harrier chicks in 2019, none in 2020, and five this year according to the quote in the Ends Report article. That’s ten hen harrier chicks in total.
I know from a further FoI request to Natural England that Swinton Estate has not registered to use a CL25 licence other than in 2019 and the licence it has belatedly received for 2021.
So how come Natural England told the Ends Report that ‘Swinton Estate has helped feed 28 [hen harrier] chicks successfully in recent years’???
Either somebody at Natural England can’t count, or this estate, owned by Lord Masham, Chair of the Moorland Association, has been diversionary feeding without a licence for a number of years. Has Natural England been turning a blind eye?
Let’s see what the current batch of FoI requests throw up.