Here’s what Natural England hasn’t told you about this year’s hen harrier brood meddling scandal

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.

16 thoughts on “Here’s what Natural England hasn’t told you about this year’s hen harrier brood meddling scandal”

  1. Great work Ruth. I’m lost for expletives… As an aside, how much is this disgraceful sham costing and who is picking up the tab?

  2. It appears that NE hen harrier project at all levels from fieldworker upwards are unfit for purpose. They may need reminding that they work for us as our taxes pay their wages. They dont work for private shooting estates. Glad theyve moved some of the hen harrier team on to pastures new. I suspect though theyve left enough incompetence in the team for some more monumental failures next year

  3. They are incompetent they didn’t have a clue what was happening at these sites because they don’t do the necessary field work, this situation would never have happened on the uu estate which is run by the rspb because the field work is done correctly, natural England couldn’t run a piss up in a brewery and we allow them to be involved in such an important issue

  4. Presumably they thought that by taking the older brood the male would then more than adequately provide for the other, younger, brood. Shows that they don’t have all the answers.
    I would imagine that, ordinarily, the reaction of a brood-meddled pair would not be closely monitored, unless they were in the minority of breeding birds wearing satellite trackers. However, the male’s reaction to the situation in this particular scenario would appear to suggest that robbing a nest of its entire contents can have a significant effect on the adults. This humanitarian aspect of the whole farcical business caused me concern from the outset, it being very different from relocations involving Ospreys, kites etc. where, usually, only one young is taken from the donor pair.
    Maybe a serious lesson will be learned from this shambles, so bringing the whole sorry saga to an abrupt end. In any event, I fail to see how the relocation of just 8 young from 2 nests is going to have any significant beneficial effect on the distribution of the species in England, especially as the donor and release estates are no great distance apart. They’re simply playing games – presumably at our expense – and it’s high time it was stopped.
    A final point – very well done to the keeper whose sterling efforts in the situation in which he found himself both saved the young birds and avoided NE having egg on its face from ear to ear. I hope that he has been suitably rewarded.

  5. The overseeing “board” should all resign over this but of course whoever they are now they will not because they care not for harriers just this crap and unnecessary experiment to appease the bloody ignorant DGS proponents, Who think harriers eat nothing but grouse and this experiment confirms their prejudices rather than enlightens them. Whoever did the “fieldwork” should also not work with harriers again or indeed any schedule One bird. I thought NE couldn’t get any more incompetent or awful but yet again they prove me wrong, what the hell will they do next year!

  6. NE is starting to resemble the USFW servive that in many states simply exists to further the bloodlust of the ranching/hunting industry

  7. Truly shocking. Surely they can’t continue.
    This really does deserve a large splash in the MSM.
    And never thought i would write these words but ‘bloody well done that gamekeeper’.

  8. The whole brood management program is a complete disgrace.
    It starts with an assumption that it is okay to commit a criminal act by intentionally disturbing a wild bird at a nest containing young, contrary to Wildlife and Countryside Act, by issuing a licence to go and interfere with the nest and remove chicks. This section of the WCA was there for a very good purpose.
    The consequences of ignoring this legislation can be seen in the example cited in the blog of the male Hen Harrier abandoning the nests when chicks were removed.
    Brood Management also doesn’t deal with the root cause of the poor conservation status of the Hen Harrier which is illegal persecution.
    By diverting attention away from tackling this criminal behaviour, and in allowing what is in effect another criminal act to take place by interfering with a nest, what message is sent out to those responsible for these abhorrent wildlife crimes?
    How can it ever be acceptable to interfere with Hen Harrier nest sites on land designated with SSSI status, when the whole purpose of that designation is to afford protection to the flora or fauna within the SSSI citation?
    Consideration must also be given to the fact that stewardship grants are being paid to many landowners to assist with conservation work. Money which comes from public finances. Money which should be spent on bona fide conservation work, such as protecting Hen Harriers at their natural nesting sites, and not spent by landowners as a prop to their own interests in the use of that land.

    I would argue, that there are parallels to the way in which DEFRA have conducted Hen Harrier brood management, to the current badger cull program. Again we are talking about a species which is protected by law. Whilst sympathy has to be given to farmers whose cattle are effected by TB, and it is vital a solution is found to the problem. Is badger culling the right solution? A lot of scientific evidence now suggests badger culling is the wrong way to tackle this problem. Just as Hen Harrier brood management is probably not the right solution to tackle the poor conservation status of the Harrier.

    In both the Hen Harrier brood management and Badger culling programs, have DEFRA been persuaded down a particular path by political pressure and interference? In both cases, are the programs more about politics, and protecting vested interests in the countryside, by manipulating legislation through licensing schemes, rather than upholding existing legislation and adhering to unbiased scientific evidence?

    The State of Nature report in 2019 is compelling evidence that the way the UK has been managing the environment and countryside is wrong. Those in the countryside charged with its management, can not say they have been doing this well, when the State of Nature report makes such grim reading.
    Until there is acceptance that part of this problem lies with the “vested interests” operating within our countryside, effective solutions will not be found to properly protecting the natural environment and wildlife. (There will always be pockets of good practice- but nothing on the scale of what there needs be to restore nature to healthy levels across the entire country.)

    It can be argued that as DEFRA and Natural England are subject to political interference by government Ministers, (Ministers who are susceptible to pressure from vested interests.) then neither DEFRA or Natural England will ever truly be in a position to follow the best independent scientific evidence and research. Research which should be focused on the well being of the nature, rather protecting the veiled interests of those who want to exploit the countryside and environment for their own gains and self interest.
    (The emergency authorisation of the use of neonicotinoids in May this year, for use in sugar beet production is another example of political interference overruling scientific evidence and legislation which banned their use)

    From my understanding of the brood management program I would suggest that this project falls firmly into the category of project rooted in political interference rather than one based on sound conservation principles.
    With the current crop of politicians appearing more interested in their own political careers than actually doing public good, then it doesn’t bode well for the Hen Harrier, and all the talk from government about wanting to enhance nature and the natural environment is just noise!!!

    1. “The emergency authorisation of the use of neonicotinoids in May this year, for use in sugar beet production is another example of political interference overruling scientific evidence and legislation which banned their use”

      That is utter nonsense. If you do not understand a subject, it is best not to comment. Cultivated sugar beet is not allowed to flower, so the emergency use was justified to meet an otherwise urgent situation. The scientific advice *was* to permit emergency use.

      1. Keith,

        I don’t think you understand the point that I am making.

        As regards commenting on subject I do not understand.

        Firstly, I understand in 2013 following advice from EFSA the use of certain neonicotinoids (imidacloprid, thiamethoxam, and clothianidin) was severely restricted, so that they couldn’t be used on plants which attached pollinators such as bees.
        In 2018 the EU finally banned the outdoor use of theses neonicotinoids (- imidacloprid, thiamethoxam, and clothianidin) due to the dangers they presented. Consequently, the approval of these substances has now expired.
        The approval of another neonicotinoid, thiacloprid was withdrawn on 3 February 2020.

        Following the ban, some EU member states granted emergency approval of the banned neonicotinoids for sugar beet production. – EFSA are currently carrying out research as to whether justification of this emergency approval is necessary. I understand EFSA will report back later this year.

        Other scientific research has been conducted particularly focused on sugar beet production, and residues of neonicotinoids left in the soil after harvest, and whether this supports or refutes the position taken by the EU Commission regarding their use.

        When the UK pledged to back the EU ban on the outdoor use of thiamethoxam, a government spokesman admitted that the weight of scientific evidence indicated the danger that use of neonicotinoids posed to pollinators and the environment.

        However, details of this research is irrelevant to the point I am making about political interference. I understand the current position of EU Commission is a ban on the outdoor use of certain neonicotinoids. Whether that position changes due to further research doesn’t detract from the fact that their outdoor use is currently banned.

        The attached is a quote from the Guardian newspaper-
        “The government gave emergency authorisation earlier this year to a product containing the neonicotinoid thiamethoxam, sanctioning its outdoors use this year because of the threat posed by a virus after pressure from the National Farmers’ Union and British Sugar.”

        (Thiamethoxam is one of the neonicotinoids the EU commission banned for outdoor use. I can find nothing in the information provided by the EU that this ban is subject to whether the plant on which it used is allowed to flower or not? The ban would appear to applicable for all outdoor use, and this would appear to cover its use in sugar beet production.)

        This statement in the Guardian would suggest political interference to grant emergency authorisation in the use of neonicotinoids for sugar beet production, was due to pressure from vested interests in the countryside. (NFU and British Sugar)

        The emergency authorisation didn’t negate the risks that this neonicotinoid posses to certain species of wildlife.

        I believe that emergency authorisation had to be granted by the government, because use of this particular neonicotinoid is currently banned for outdoor use by the EU Commission, and the UK government pledged to support this ban. The emergency authorisation didn’t revoke this ban, but only allowed its use in certain circumstances.

        This emergency authorisation for the use of a product containing thiamethoxam was challenged by environmental groups due to the dangers it posses to pollinators, and I understand consideration was even given to legally challenging the government over its emergency authorisation.

        I understand another application for emergency authorisation was turned down in 2018 due to unacceptable bad consequences the use of neonicotinoids would have had.

        I accept my knowledge on the subject of neonicotinoids is limited, (I am not a scientist, but I am capable of researching and reading published information on this subject). I think I have sufficient understanding of the subject and how it relates to my comments regarding how vested interests can use political interference to manipulate rules and regulations.

        So returning to my original argument.
        The salient point in all of this is that, the EU Commission believes that scientific evidence supports the ban of certain neonicotinoids due to the danger they pose certain species of wildlife. Despite this ban, the UK government authorised emergency use due to pressure from those with vested interests in sugar beet production.
        The wildlife and Countryside Act makes it a specific offence to intentionally disturb a wild bird at a nest containing young. It would appear vested interests in the driven grouse industry have successfully influenced politicians to implement a Hen Harrier brood management program and grant licences to remove chicks from nests on grouse moors despite all the risks this entails, the fact that such an act would ordinarily be illegal under the WCA, and despite all the evidence that such a program will not tackle the underlying problem of Hen Harrier persecution. Even breaches of the conditions of the licences do not appear to have been well managed.

        This manipulation of the rules, and regulations due to political pressure from vested interests undermines confidence that legislation trying to curtail the activities of those vested interests will ever succeed.
        This also suggests government departments are prone to political persuasion in how they conduct their business and implement the rules when it comes to dealing with vested interests.
        This appears to be applicable to the Hen Harrier brood management program.

        This could also have serious consequences for those hoping that the introduction of regulations and licensing to the driven grouse moor industry will end raptor persecution associated with grouse moor management. The “devil will be in the detail”, and regulations could be crafted in such a way that it makes it extremely difficult to revoke a licence, even when raptor persecution is suspected; or the regulations are riddled with “get out of jail cards” which ensure “vested interests” are protected.

        You might not agree with my comments, but if you are going to claim they are “utter nonsense” or that I don’t understand a subject, then please provide information as to why you take this position. Ruth’s blog is a very good forum in which share knowledge and ideas, and hopefully from this we can all better understand why raptors are so heavily persecuted, and what steps need to be taken to tackle this.

        1. “I understand the current position of EU Commission is a ban on the outdoor use of certain neonicotinoids. Whether that position changes due to further research doesn’t detract from the fact that their outdoor use is currently banned.”

          But you are ignoring the fact that there has been 21 emergency authorisations for the use of clothianidin, imidacloprid, thiamethoxam and thiacloprid on sugar beet crops granted by EU Member States (Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, Spain, Finland, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovakia).

          And yes, the EFSA will report back on the scientific justifications in each individual case later this year.

          But that is no different to what the UK Government has also done to meet an urgent situation (where the emergency approval is also subject to review.)

          There are many reasons why the emergency authorisations were made, and none of them were due to ‘political interference’ and none them ‘overruled scientific evidence’ or ‘overruled legislation’, otherwise the emergency authorisations would be illegal, and they are not.

  9. “In both the Hen Harrier brood management and Badger culling programs, have DEFRA been persuaded down a particular path by political pressure and interference?”

    Yes.

    And how significant is it, now, that Natural England is run by a former parliamentary candidate of the Green Party?

    Natural England have long been subjected to political pressure. And it isn’t just Hen Harriers and Badgers which have suffered from recent political pressure, but also Bats. But the party which first set in motion, and established in its statutes political oversight of its decision-making, was – of course – the Labour Party of Tony Blair:-(

  10. How much longer do Hen harriers have to put up with their already persecuted lives, without having their nests “legally” thieved? It’s a totally pathetic state of affairs – publicly funded help to increase grouse numbers, only to be shot out of the sky by a tiny minority of people who care not a jot for the Hen harrier.
    He whole situation makes me feel sick.

  11. Personally I am not suprised that the keeper did a great job to help those chicks along. If only their “programming” could be switched en masse then raptors would have the best, most loyal and most fanatical protectors they could wish for. A bit like Arnie in Terminator 2, compared with Arnie in Terminator 1.

  12. By taking chicks from one nest, are the meddlers narrowing the genetic range of released birds? Whether this might influence survival ability or subsequent breeding fitness is beyond my ken.

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