Natural England accidentally lets slip more alleged shenanigans with hen harriers at Swinton Estate

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.

21 thoughts on “Natural England accidentally lets slip more alleged shenanigans with hen harriers at Swinton Estate”

  1. Why am earth would you install a camera 30 cm from a nest and risk desertion while profoundly narrowing the field of view ????????????? 30 cm ?

    1. The SGA has made a big deal about a hen harrier nest on a grouse moor that’s had a camera trained on it ‘to see what really happens’.

    2. 30cm would miss out a large part of the nest surroundings, and therefore anything approaching, like people and animals.

  2. NE report full of holes. Incompetence definitely but incompetence driven by institutional corruption, which means they have to cover their tracks every time you (Ruth) try to investigate. I dread to think what practices would be happening if they weren’t under your scrutiny. The deeper you dig the deeper they sink. It’s shameful.

  3. What a nest of Worms! Interestingly there appeared to be NO Hen Harrier nest on Swinton Estate in 2018 indeed had not been so since 2012 when Bowland Betty died on the estate and prior to that the last known attempt to local raptor workers was 2007 when both adults disappeared from a part incubated clutch. Although a pair did briefly display on the estate boundary in 2008. Our information for 2019 is that the estate hosted 3 nests, one meddled, one fed and one failed during incubation ( male disappearance) This estate has an absolutely awful reputation and record of reported raptor persecution going back years and not confined to Hen Harriers, xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx As for visiting Harrier nests without a licence and knowingly so, if any others did this the answer is simple——– prosecution of those concerned and that is what should and for many of us must happen. Another huge dent in that tiny entity NEs integrity and reputation.

  4. It’s great you are persevering with this Ruth.It reminds me of my various F.O.I’s in relation to the Walshaw Moor estate when N.E have either ignored them all together or have given the estate permission to do things in retrospect such as altering a water course, putting in tracks and Grouse butts into deep peat amongst other things.It appears N.E do this on a regular basis.

  5. Given that our governance is now corrupt from top to bottom, it is no surprise to see it permeate to this level. [Ed: rest of comment deleted. You’ll no doubt understand why]

  6. I would like to think they are simply incompetent but given some of their utterances/activities in recent times I’m increasingly turning towards institutionally corrupt.

    1. I think Natural England are institutionally corrupt and this is the evidence. They moved the goalposts a few times to accommodate the Moorland Association and too avoid prosecution – well done trying to get to bottom of this

      For years as a consultant ecologist I have been critical of Natural England as not fit for purpose. So much so I had a threatening email from NE for criticising them on Social Media ‘reminding me about my licences’

  7. Well done holding them to account.
    The whole thing just stinks.
    Unnatural England – time to disband – you are unfit for purpose and colluding with the grouse moor owners.
    Can’t all the wildlife NGOs merge into one? What clout that would have against this scandalous statutory ‘provision!’

  8. As if any more proof was needed,time after time this Mickey Mouse organisation called uNatural England yet again appeasing the grouse moor estates ! What a surprise.They are not in the slightest bit interested in protecting Hen Harriers,but bowing to these powerful estates,It Absolutely Stinks.

  9. no sympathy, they bring this all on themselves by not being competent, open, honest and transparent. Even if the licence change was genuine, their lack of awareness as to how it would be perceived is testament to how unfit this project is. This is just one estate and there is a whole list of failings. How many other estates are they monitoring, diversionary feeding and brood managing? It would be a reasonable assumption that the same level of incompetence is consistent throughout their work across other sites. If I was that bad at my job I would expect to be relieved of my duties

  10. Given the vagueness of their information, it would be helpful if NE could provide a definition of “recently”.

    For example does it refer to the same time period on a Swinton licence as they talk about in a Wiltshire IUCN assessment?

  11. It makes you wonder what also goes on at the other Estates they (NE) are involved with. Pure speculation (not talking about Swinton), but from any Estate/keepers point of view if they daren’t shoot them due to too many birdwatchers/raptor monitors knocking about, it makes sense to consider ways to try and draw them away from the prime grouse beats the year round, by feeding and/or keeping a bit of rough long heather for roosts on the poorer ground. I don’t know enough about Harriers, but if you were to put baby rabbits / dead small birds on the same wall tops every day, I’m guessing they would soon learn to habitually feed off them.

  12. Whoever is “managing” the Hen Harrier recovery project for NE based on their emergency plan has either lost the plot or has far too little understanding of the whole thing in the first place. Do they understand where and how HH live and nest, have they any experience of it? Have they any idea how estates work and has the estate a true grasp of NE and its licencing arm function. I ask because the whole thing looks from a distance as if nobody at any level knows what the hell they should be doing, it is a complete and utter farce, heads need to roll. The two originally filmed at the nest may be innocent victims of incompetence above them in the case of the feeding and licencing, although the NE staff member must be aware that you do not linger at a nest with eggs, it should all have been done (what ever it was) in the fleetest of visits with barely stopping. That this wasn’t true in itself casts doubt on that NE persons competence and whether they have the appropriate knowledge to work with harriers or enough confidence to pre explain to estate staff how any visits must happen. All come out of this coated in the glutinous muck of ignorance, stupidity and incompetence. As one who has as part of monitoring/protecting visited many harrier nests I am appalled beyond measure by this and somebody in NE ought to be feeling the same and get it sorted because for 3 years on this estate you have looked complete and utter idiots.

    1. Paul V Irving stated :-
      “All come out of this coated in the glutinous muck of ignorance, stupidity and incompetence.”

      Given the longstanding problems that Hen Harriers have had, and the failure of NE’s involvement, one has to wonder if the ignorance is actually a case of “WILLFUL IGNORANCE” at some level(s).

  13. Supplementary feeding should never be used on harriers sitting eggs it’s pure madness, to put the sitting bird off eggs every day is just asking for trouble, natural England just don’t have a clue, why should the bird always suffer to appease the grouse shooters

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s