The scandalous hen harrier brood meddling trial lurched onwards again this year, with reports that two nests were ‘meddled’ with (i.e. the chicks were removed under a licence issued by Natural England, they were raised in captivity, and were then released back in to the wild, to be illegally killed on a grouse moor somewhere in England, Wales or Scotland, e.g. see here and here).
Regular blog readers will know all about DEFRA’s hen harrier brood meddling trial but for new blog readers, hen harrier brood meddling is a conservation sham sanctioned by DEFRA as part of its ludicrous ‘Hen Harrier Action Plan‘ and carried out by Natural England (NE), in cahoots with the very industry responsible for the species’ catastrophic decline in England. For more background see here.
A blog reader who wishes to remain anonymous sent me this photograph of one of the HH release aviaries on a grouse moor in the Yorkshire Dales National Park in July this year. Look at the state of it! It’s no wonder European countries won’t ‘donate’ hen harriers for a proposed southern reintroduction project if this is how we treat our own supposedly protected species!
The young hen harriers that were taken from their parents and shoved inside this structural monstrosity came from the Swinton Estate in North Yorkshire. I won’t publicise the name of the estate they were removed to in case the young birds are still hanging around there but this estate is within the Yorkshire Dales National Park and although it’s not an estate with a bad reputation for raptor persecution, some of it’s near neighbours are absolute shockers with a long, long, long history of poisoned and shot raptors being found on their grouse moors. God help the four young hen harriers released here.
As a side issue, a condition of the previous brood meddling licence (here) was that it was recommended that ‘Brood managed hen harriers should not be released in sight of burnt heather strips where possible‘. I don’t know if that condition still applies in the current licence (I haven’t seen the latest version) but if it does, it appears to have been ignored, judging by the photograph of the release aviary. Ignoring licence conditions seems to be a running theme when it comes to Hen Harrier meddling, doesn’t it?!
But that’s not the main focus of this particular blog. Something else happened this year during the brood meddling trial and seeing as Natural England aren’t being very forthcoming (surprise, surprise, when are they ever?), I’m going to write about it because I believe this information should be in the public domain, especially as this is supposedly a scientifically-rigorous trial (ha!) and at the end of the five-year trial period, there will need to be a public consultation on any decision Natural England / DEFRA makes about whether brood meddling is wheeled out as a standard (mis)management option. The public should have access to ALL the information, not just the bits that Natural England decides to share.
For example, on 13th August this year Natural England wrote the following about this year’s brood meddling trial:
‘In 2021, trial interventions were approved at two nests: one in North Yorkshire and one in Lancashire. All eight chicks from these nests have been successfully reared to become healthy fledglings and released‘.
That was it. The full extent of what Natural England thought we ought to know about the brood meddling trial this year. It’s pathetic. We’re not five. We don’t need the fairy story approach, (‘and they all lived happily ever after‘) we want details (albeit not any details that would compromise the safety of the released hen harriers).
We do know a little bit more – Dr Mark Avery and his legal team continue to try to hold Natural England to account on hen harrier brood meddling and Natural England released some more detail to them (see here), but I noted without surprise that Natural England had still not revealed the almighty cock-up that happened at one of this year’s two brood meddled nests.
So here’s what happened, according to numerous sources.
Two nests were brood meddled, one in North Yorkshire (Swinton) and one in Lancashire.
At the Lancashire site, the male was polygynous. In other words, he was providing food for two different females at two different nests. The fieldworkers should have known this because the male had been previously satellite-tagged. One nest was further ahead than the other in terms of breeding chronology and this would be considered the ‘primary’ nest, the other one the ‘secondary’ nest.
When it came to making the decision about which nest to brood meddle, ‘someone’ (and I don’t know who, see discussion below) decided to brood meddle the primary nest, where the chicks were at a more advanced age than the chicks in the secondary nest. So the chicks from the primary nest were removed and taken in to captivity, and the chicks in the secondary nest were left alone.
However, this brood meddling (removal of the chicks) at the primary nest caused such disruption to the male that he immediately took off and flew from the area, abandoning not just the brood meddled nest, but also the secondary nest where his second female was still present with chicks, all of whom were reliant upon that male to provision them with food. He didn’t return – apparently his satellite tag data confirmed he had abandoned all breeding attempts at these sites and had moved on.
A gamekeeper was instructed to provide additional supplementary food for the secondary nest and I understand that all the chicks managed to fledge successfully with this extra support. It would have taken an enormous effort and I suggest that Natural England and DEFRA officials owe that gamekeeper a massive drink because his/her efforts have saved their blushes, as well as those harriers. I can’t imagine the gamekeeper was thrilled about having to spend so much time provisioning these chicks (it’s a beautiful irony) and even if s/he had wanted to do them in, they wouldn’t have had the chance given the panic that a potential nest failure would have caused to everyone involved with the trial and the subsequent attention they’d have paid to that secondary nest. Nevertheless, full credit to the keeper for his/her efforts supporting the chicks to the fledging stage. That was a job well done.
So who decided to brood meddle the primary nest and not the secondary nest? According to the original brood meddling project plan, the decision on which nest to plunder is made collectively by the Project Board:
I’m pretty sure the make-up of the Board no longer looks like this. I understand that Rob Cooke and Adrian Jowitt have both been moved from hen harrier work and are doing something else. Steve Redpath took early retirement so presumably isn’t still involved as a representative from Aberdeen University. Jemima Parry Jones is still involved – she’s the licence holder so is central to all decisions made about brood meddling. Is Adam Smith still at GWCT? He may be, but if he is he’s flying low under the radar these days. Philip Merricks is no longer at Hawk & Owl Trust. Amanda Anderson is still a key player at the Moorland Association but Robert Benson is no longer Chair – that role is currently taken by Lord Masham of, wait for it, the Swinton Estate!
Here’s the flow chart of decision-making that the Project Board must follow, also from the project plan:
I doubt Natural England will offer any voluntary insight in to this year’s calamitous actions but it’ll have to include the details in the annual report the brood meddling team is required to provide, and also report the details to the scientific advisory panel.
It’ll be interesting to see what they make of this on-going fiasco.