Natural England utterly compromised on tackling hen harrier persecution

Hen harrier Asta, a young, satellite-tagged bird being monitored by Natural England, met a brutal and sickening end on a grouse moor in County Durham in March 2021 (see here).

Her wings were ripped off so that her satellite tag and harness could be fitted to a crow, presumably done in an attempt to deceive the authorities that Asta was alive and well, as the satellite tag continued to transmit data as the crow flew around the countryside.

It’s not known if Asta was alive or already dead when her wings were torn off.

The crow was found dead a couple of weeks later in a lowland area of North Yorkshire and a police investigation was launched when it became apparent the tag and harness it was carrying had originally been fitted to Asta, and could only have been removed from her, intact, if her wings had been pulled off.

Thanks to blog reader Alan Gregory (@Barneygregorawg) who has shared these photos of Asta, as he puts it, ‘enjoying her brief life patrolling the Durham moors‘:

The level of depraved brutality involved in this crime is quite shocking, even to those of us who have become hardened to the relentless illegal killing of birds of prey in the UK. It’s virtually impossible not to look at these images of Asta and imagine the horror she faced at the hands of her killer.

The calculated deviousness of whoever committed this crime deserves the full attention of the statutory regulator, Natural England, and widespread publicity about the lengths these criminals will go to hide their ongoing, appalling violence towards this species and other birds of prey.

What we have instead is, 18 months on, Natural England still refusing to draw attention to this crime even though the police investigation has closed. Natural England has been contacted by a number of journalists this week but is refusing to comment about Asta, let alone issue a statement of condemnation, but has quite happily permitted a staff member to appear in a propaganda video put out by the Moorland Association singing the praises of the grouse-shooting industry for its fake tolerance and acceptance of the hen harrier.

And it’s not just this crime that Natural England is shying away from talking about. Since 2018, at least 72 hen harriers have either been illegally killed or have ‘disappeared’ in suspicious circumstances, most of them on or close to driven grouse moors (see here for the list). Many of these birds were tagged and monitored by Natural England. And yet I haven’t seen any statement from Natural England about this appalling figure. Instead, I’ve seen great media prominence given to the number of breeding harriers, the number of chicks fledged, the number of nests brood meddled, and statements from Natural England of ‘great progress‘ being made but no detail provided about how many privately-owned grouse moors have been involved.

Natural England is supposed to be the statutory conservation agency but it is utterly compromised by accepting financial bungs from the shooting industry with a contract clause preventing criticism from Natural England (see here).

It can’t expect to be taken seriously when it continues to avoid talking about the ongoing and illegal killing of this species on driven grouse moors.

[Cartoon by Gill Lewis]

18 thoughts on “Natural England utterly compromised on tackling hen harrier persecution”

  1. So many of the Government resources we used to rely on are now fatally compromised. The channels no longer function as they should … and this might always have been the case given the odd exception. Those who do not speak out today will be compromised themselves shortly.

  2. Simply horrific, depraved and intentionally deceitful. The criminal who did this should be imprisoned for a long time but we know it won’t happen. I wonder what he is planning next?

  3. Also interesting that both Friends of the Earth and the Green Party stay silent on their ex-leader being Chair of Natural England since 2019.

  4. Words fail me. Except to say this. To us these birds are beautiful creatures of nature. To these fake cowards they are, and probably will always be, ‘just birds, what’s the all the fuss about?’ What hope is there for these poor birds? Thanks for all you do in exposing this.

  5. Natural England’s stance is totally deplorable.
    How can we have any faith in such an organisation if they do nothing about such atrocities? It is an illegal killing. What do they think it was?
    It does seem that driven grouse moors can get away with murder, and so it would appear: ‘Since 2018, at least 72 hen harriers have either been illegally killed or have ‘disappeared’ in suspicious circumstances, most of them on or close to driven grouse moors. Many of these birds were tagged and monitored by Natural England.’ That is more than mere coincidence. Obviously they are not monitored closely enough. This is a sad indictment of Natural England.
    The horrendous, inhumane death of a glorious raptor, Asta, should be a case for the police surely?
    And whomever was part of this death should be heavily fined and given a lengthy prison sentence.

  6. NE are totally compromised on Hen Harriers to the point where they are no longer working with independent raptor workers and haven’t been for some time. This is to appease grouse estates, yet it was those very people that were vital to NE when they first really got involved in harriers in 2002. Questions that ought to be asked of them.
    How many nests were there on tenanted moors excluding the Forest of Bowland and how many succeeded, of those that failed how many were investigated by the police?
    For each region how many were on private grouse moors with and without brood meddling and/or feeding? How many were reared in each category for each area? How many failed and how many of these were investigated by the police?
    Why is brood meddling counted in the successful nests it should be listed entirely separately as these nests are failures to the parents.
    How many non grouse moor nests were there, how many were successful, how many failures were investigated by the police and how many young were reared?
    Given the still high persecution rates shouldn’t a greater sample of naturally reared young be tagged?
    Is it true that when a tagged bird is on a grouse moor or its near vicinity the moor owner is told and why?
    Who is finding the nests NE staff, independent raptor workers or the estates?
    If you are not asking these questions RP how do I?

    1. Paul,

      I wonder if you’re aware of this excellent website where you can ask statutory agencies and authorities questions? https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/ It is public and anyone can see the state of any official response you receive. I’m not suggesting it will get answers but it’s another avenue to use to try to secure transparency in the operation of a public funded body. It also helps raise the profile of the illegal activity to other audiences.

      I would however (obviously) bow to RP/Ruth’s expertise and experience in such matters and I simply offer this as a potential option to think about.

      Take care and stay safe all, Nimby

  7. This incident is disgusting, as are the crimes against hen harriers list regularly on this blog. Natural England’s policy on harriers is disgusting. Why isn’t Tony Juniper ashamed of himself. I don’t know how he sleeps at night.

  8. A bittersweet memory for the photographer. A funny coincidence that the best view I ever had of a harrier (it drifted 10ft over my head and crossed back & forth in front of me – seemingly unbothered I was there) was a few years ago not far from the area we are focussing on. I am convinced it was Marc, another tagged one that bit the dust a few weeks later. When that happened I shrugged my shoulders at the time but I seemingly didn’t forget it completely, and it was perhaps one of the many cumulative things that made me decide to stop ‘just shrugging my shoulders’.

  9. As much as I love the cartoon by Gill Lewis, I wonder – if the artist were to do it again, whether the two main characters would be in quite the same position? (although Mr Juniper would still be on his knees one way or the other)

  10. In 2017 the Select Committee on the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 published a paper regarding the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 . The Act effectively created Natural England. The Committee asked the question as to whether the Act was still fit for purpose, effectively casting a spotlight on NE.

    In that paper there was some criticism made by a number of witnesses of NE and it’s ability to carry out it’s role.
    Amongst the criticisms, the RSPB identified-
    “NE was intended to be an independent champion for wildlife; however the structures under which it was established restrict its independence. The agency is reliant on government for its funding and reports to government rather than parliament, this already raises the potential for NE to be influenced by political priorities”. (para 90)

    The Select Committee stated – “Non-departmental public bodies, while playing a part in the processes of national government, should operate at arm’s length from Ministers and departments. We share the concerns of witnesses who have told us that Natural England no longer has a distinctive voice. We urge the Government to recognise these concerns, and to take steps to enable Natural England to operate with the appropriate degree of independence”. (para 94)

    Has much changed since 2017?

    Given the issues suggesting NE is influenced by political priorities, and the lack of commitment by the current government to acknowledge and tackle raptor persecution or the embedded crime which operates throughout so much of the countryside, then it is perhaps not surprising that NE doesn’t openly speak the truth about what is really happening.

    1. What an excellent post!

      I have direct experience of Natural England having its arm twisted by Government to completely reverse a decision it had taken at a Public Inquiry. As a result, the Planning Inspector was ordered to reconvene the Public Inquiry, whereupon Natural England again appeared but swapped sides:-(

      Local press headline: Environmental campaigners lose powerful ally.

      I tore them apart under cross-examination, but the Inspector said he simply had to take Natural England’s position, because they were the statutory body.

  11. Let me suggest that if Therese Coffey is going to become deputy PM, that Natural England is going to become even more compromised. As I’ve often said to Mark, the problem is not so much with Natural England itself, but the political control of it. I am not guessing here, this is from the horse’s mouth so to speak. I know that in theory it is an independent body, but the reality is it takes its instructions from the government. Which is why I was totally baffled why Tony Juniper took the chairman’s job, because there was nothing he could really do, and he has just flushed his reputation down the toilet. Be under no illusions, because if NE did the right thing here, heads would roll and NE would probably end up being abolished. Remember, there are already plans to absorb it into Defra. We must think that NE has any ability to do anything that the government does not want it to do, regardlless of legal obligations or its remit.

  12. At the end of the day NE is a government controlled department which is controlled by ministers who are mostly part of the establish. Decisions are made by a nod and a wink in the club or the corridors of Westminster. How we defeat these people is a big question.

    1. “At the end of the day NE is a government controlled department…”

      Yes and no. Technically, Natural England is the Government’s statutory advisor for the natural environment in England. It is an ‘arm’s length’ executive non-departmental public body, sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs.

      There are 295 ‘Arm’s Length Bodies’ – such as HS2 Ltd and the Supreme Court of the UK – and they are aggregated here, with their relationships and expenditures (for 2020):

      Click to access Public_Bodies_2020.pdf

      But some arms may be shorter than others:-}

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