FoI request to Defra

Dear Defra

Please supply me with copies of any communications (emails or letters dated April-September 2014) between Defra and the participants in the Defra Hen Harrier Sub-Group of the Uplands Stakeholder Forum concerning Hen Harriers and/or grouse shooting and/or the progress on the drafting of a joint report.

Thank you,

Dr Mark Avery (


PS Isn’t it a little strange that the search engine on the Defra website does not provide any information on this group when I search for ‘Hen Harrier’ (only a speech by a former grouse-shooting grouse moor-owning Minister and some information on a Special Protection Area for Birds which hasn’t been updated for a year).

Nor does your search engine deliver anything that appears relevant when I enter ‘Defra Uplands Stakeholder Forum’. Are you sure you have such a body? If not, you’d better tell the GWCT because they have been banging on about it for weeks and yet you, Defra, seem to be keeping it hidden from we the electorate and the taxpayers.

You may remember, but if not, I do, that our Prime Minister (at around the time he promised us the ‘greenest government ever’) also promised that ‘Greater transparency across Government is at the heart of our shared commitment to enable the public to hold politicians and public bodies to account‘. I’d be interested to hear how a website that doesn’t return any information on the Upland Stakeholder Forum (let alone its much talked-about Hen Harrier sub-group) meets those standards.

PPS I thought your response to my e-petition on banning driven grouse shooting was execrable.


It’s not very complicated…

1408 p001 cover_with comp v2.indd…they kill





…so that

  • Photo: Tim Melling

    Photo: Tim Melling

    they can kill our Red Grouse.




And this is a ‘sport’ and a ‘business’?




Show your abhorrence at the slaughter in our hills and call for a ban to driven grouse shooting - sign here and spread the word.

Yesterday evening, this e-petition became the 8th most successful ever aimed at Defra and is only four months old.  Thank you everyone who has shown that they care – now go find a friend or two!



Selfridges – please withdraw Red Grouse from your Food Hall

Dear Selfridges

I am glad to hear from some of your customers that you are reviewing the sale of Red Grouse in your Food Hall – this is an excellent move on your part. Well done!

You are probably aware of the report from the Ethical Consumer magazine which highlights the environmental problems with intensive management of moors for Red Grouse shooting (but if not, see here and here).

Intensive management of land for driven grouse shooting involves the killing of large numbers of native wildlife (some of this killing  – of birds of prey – is completely illegal), damage to protected blanket bogs, discolouration of water supplies (and therefore higher water bills for all), erosion of carbon stores in peatbogs and increased flood risk in downstream areas. See here for a brief resume of the evidence.

turn-your-back-on-grouse-logo-webYou may also be aware of the advice from the Food Standards Agency on ingestion of lead in game food.

And you may have noticed that M&S decided to withdraw grouse meat from its stores because it was unable to prove that its suppliers were sticking to the law and did not want to be associated with an industry that profits from wildlife crime (see also here).

These matters are of increasing relevance because this year only four pairs of Hen Harriers nested in England (there should be over 300 if they weren’t killed illegally by grouse shooting interests) and already two of the young birds fledged this year have disappeared in suspicious circumstances consistent with them having been shot.

Does your business really want to be associated with such an industry?

Over 17,000 people have signed an e-petition to ban driven grouse shooting in the last four months because they feel so strongly about it.  So the nature-loving public will look with interest at your decisions on whether or not to sell Red Grouse in your store.

I, for one, promise to spend £100 online with you if you withdraw Red Grouse from your store for the next three years.


Yours sincerely


Dr Mark Avery

not currently a customer but willing to become one if you do the right thing.



Natural England – are you still there?

Photo: Kositoes via wikimedia commons

Photo: Kositoes via wikimedia commons

Natural England – for people, for places, for nature.

NE, you have been studying Hen Harriers through satellite-tagging for 12 years and yet despite a hard-hitting report A Future for the Hen Harrier in England (2008) you have remained strangely silent about the worsening status of the Hen Harrier in England for six years.

In that report you point squarely at criminal behviour as being the main problem facing the Hen Harrier:

‘Whilst evidence of persecution is irrefutable, it should be noted there is no proof linking incidents to particular individuals, as proven by the lack of successful prosecutions. This in no way diminishes the effect of criminality. We believe that whilst illegal killing continues to be a widespread activity both in this and in
neighbouring countries, the prospects for the Hen Harrier’s return to its former range and numbers unaided are slight.’

Why is my national statutory wildlife conservation organisation not commenting with authority on the parlous state of the Hen Harrier in England today?

Do you not care? Do you care but do not dare? Have you been completely muzzled by Defra?  What exactly is NE for?

Please show some backbone and give the people who pay your salaries an update on the status of, and threats facing, this bird for whom you are the statutory agency with most responsibility for its status in England.


Please comment on the recent disappearance of two satellite tagged Hen harriers from the Forest of Bowland

Please update us on the results of the 12-year study that you have been carrying out with our funding.  In particular, how long do the satellite tags you use usually last? When they stop transmitting, what are the usual suspected causes of failure?  How many of the tags stop transmitting on or near grouse moors and is this what would be expected from chance or is the incidence of failure higher?


Natural England – for people, for places, for nature? Really? Do something that will convince us.  Prove it!

And meanwhile, please sign this e-petition to ban driven grouse shooting.



Sky and Hope

Photo: Jude Lane, RSPB

Photo: Jude Lane, RSPB

The information that two young Hen Harriers (named Sky and Hope) have gone missing has been a talking point between Guildford and Sheffield – and beyond!  I know that because I was giving a talk near Guildford on Wednesday evening and another in Sheffield on Thursday evening.  At each, people were very concerned and surprised about these sudden disappearances and they should have been concerned but not surprised – we know that the scale of loss of Hen Harriers is immense. However, the story of where (roughly) and when (roughly) these birds went missing has struck home to birders and nature conservationists in a way that the cold scientific facts have not.

The rate of loss of Hen Harriers must be immense otherwise we would have lots of Hen Harriers nesting in England! Simples!

Remember, there should be c2,600 pairs of Hen Harriers nesting in the UK each year and there are more like 6-800 in reality.

Remember, there should be c500 pairs of Hen Harriers nesting on driven grouse moors each year and there are more like five each year.

And remember, there should be c330 pairs of Hen Harrier nesting in the English uplands and this year there were four pairs.

And we know, because Hen Harriers move around a lot in the winter, and settle to breed often far from where they were born, that heavy illegal persecution on the breeding grounds, added to killing of birds at roosts, is enough to cause these ‘discrepancies’.

The uplands of England are an enormous crime scene and the only people killing Hen Harriers are those associated with grouse shooting. No-one else gives a fig about Hen Harriers!  How many more birds will be tracked to ‘catastrophic tag failure’ before our politicians wake up to the fact that they must act?

The satellite tags put onto these birds are, in many ways, a great leap forward – but in some ways they aren’t. Here are three thoughts around that area.

1. BASC were quick to put out a press release, moistened with tears of sadness, over the loss of these birds. BASC would rather we all held our tongues and didn’t talk about these birds’ disappearance until more evidence comes to light.  However, it is a bit unlikely, though not impossible, that any more evidence will come to light.  We know where and when the tags stopped transmitting but we don’t know why. However, it is very (very, very) unlikely that they stopped working through some technical malfunction. And it is very (very) unlikely that both birds were grabbed by a Fox and taken underground – few Foxes are clever enough to want to send researchers the wrong way like this.  No, the most likely explanation, the working hypothesis, is that the birds were killed and the tags destroyed.  That might not be what happened, but it is the most likely explanation.

And BASC, whilst telling us all not to speculate, released information into the public domain about the location of one of the disappearances that I don’t really see that they should have had.  Surely the information on what is known about the locations where the birds disappeared should be a matter between the police and those tracking the birds?  Where did BASC get this information and why did they release it? Duncan Thomas who works for BASC in the north of England is, as BASC point out, a former wildlife crime officer.

The rest of the BASC press release is simply the usual nonsense saying how much the whole world loves Hen Harriers and how there is a non-joint non-plan available for their conservation.  No-one could regard the BASC press release as helpful.

2. It would be easy to calculate how likely such rapid disappearances of juvenile Hen Harriers might be if Natural England only published the data from their 12-year study of Hen Harriers.  What, I wonder, are the lifetimes of other satellite-tags put on Hen Harriers? How do the signals behave before signal failure? Given that our taxpayers’ money has been funding more than a decade of research on this subject why is Natural England not making a statement - based on their studies – of their thoughts on this subject? Why the silence? Why the non-emergence of the data?

We should expect our nature conservation agencies to be talking about these matters, openly to the taxpayers for whom they ultimately work (and by whom they are paid) not remaining silent. NE are researching this very subject – do they have nothing at all to say? How craven!

3. The information from these satellite tags is more detailed than ever on the timing and location of the birds’ disappearance – but we don’t know who held the smoking gun. In fact, we don’t know with complete certainty that there was a smoking gun in any particular case, but we do know that over all.

I’d have to ask my former colleagues in the RSPB how with even such detailed information on losses, and even if we have 100 such cases, they could possibly lead to licenses for grouse shooting being removed if such licenses existed?

No, licensing of grouse shoots is bound to fail.  These losses of two tagged Hen Harriers, so quickly after they fledged, bring home the scale of the problem but they don’t point to a better way of solving the problem of criminality in upland Britain than banning driven grouse shooting. The people carrying out these crimes are increasingly being called ‘the untouchables’ – because although the shooting community admits that they are responsible for illegal killing of protected birds, and despite the fact that we know the biological impacts of this illegality, and despite the fact that we are learning more and more about where and when it occurs – the perpetrators don’t feel the least bit disposed to changing their ways.


And therefore, the only way to stop this shocking wildlife crime is to ban driven grouse shooting - so please sign here to ask government to do just that.


Sunday book review – National Birds of the World by Ron Toft

mo8ZUWnCjySCaMudLt4BsQAWhat is your national bird? Come to that – which is your nation?

David Lindo is exhorting us all to vote for a National Bird to see whether the Robin remains our top choice so maybe it is worth having a look at what other nations have chosen.

Which country has chosen these species as their national birds (answers at end of this post):  Andean Condor, Goldcrest, (Eurasian) Blackbird, Dipper and Rufous Hornero?

Here are some of the easier species to allocate to their territories: Venezuela Troupial, St Vincent Amazon, St Lucia Amazon, Grenada Dove, Puerto Rican Spindalis and Taiwan Blue Magpie. And then there is the Kiwi for New Zealand and the Kagu for New Caledonia.  Some countries go for the species that only they can choose – but would we really want the Scottish Crossbill. a species difficult to see (especially if you live in Cornwall) and difficult to identify – as our national bird? And it would have been ‘all change!’ had Scotland voted ‘Yes’ last week.

US states all have gone through the same process and there is a block of six western states that all chose the Western Meadowlark, a group of five southern states that chose the (Northern!) Mockingbird and a range of six northern states who have the Cardinal.

Where territories are choosing a bird to represent them they almost always choose a familiar bird that many will have seen (and probably liked) or a ‘special’ bird which has relevance to their part of the world even if it isn’t that well known by the population, or even if it is extinct (Dodo, Mauritious). However, South Dakota have the Pheasant (a game bird introduced for shooting purposes from another continent) and the French chose the cockerel (or Indian Jungle Fowl),  a tasty domesticated bird most-oft encountered on a menu).

This book was much more interesting than I expected! It got me thinking about why we like some birds, and some wildlife, more than others.

The book is well-illustrated and has a pleasing mixture of information about the birds and the places – but it tells us, between the lines, quite a lot about ourselves.

And those species? Andean Condor – Bolivia, Chile, Columbia and Ecuador; Goldcrest – Luxembourg (such a little bird for a little country); Blackbird – Sweden; Dipper – Norway and Rufous Hornero – Argentina.

National Birds of the World by Ron Toft is published by Bloomsbury, as is Mark Avery’s A Message from Martha .






Saturday cartoon by Ralph Underhill



I was pleased to see that FoE are sticking up for beavers. What a shame that Defra are not.

Bees, buzzards, badgers, beavers…

‘It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment.’ Ansel Adams



Photo: Kositoes via wikimedia commons

Photo: Kositoes via wikimedia commons

Our e-petition to ban driven grouse shooting is the 21st most-signed of all those e-petitions, on all subjects, directed at any government department, that is still open for signature.

It is also in the top 0.5% of the most-signed e-petitions (open or now closed) on the Westminster government website ever.

So that’s pretty good – it’s quite eye-catching for politicians. Of course, if you are a UK citizen, and haven’t signed already, and do sign now – then it will be even more eye-catching!

Please sign here - and ask a friend to sign too.


Here is a whole lot more information for you to consider.



Last Mitford sister dies


As I am currently near Chatsworth, I listened with interest to the news of the passing of the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire yesterday.

Although I never met her, I did have a letter from her on my office wall for several years.  The RSPB had done a huge recruitment mailing, and my name was at the foot of the letter.  The Dowager Duchess had received one of our letters inviting her to joint the RSPB.

I don’t have the letter to hand, but these are pretty much the exact words with which the Dowager Duchess was moved to respond ‘There is nothing that would persuade me to join your organisation which has done so much harm to the countryside through your protection of, and releases of, birds of prey‘.

In May, the RSPB offered a reward for information leading to a prosecution when a female Goshawk was found dead with two broken legs on the Chatsworth Estate.


Vote for Bob

avatar2The RSPB would like us to ‘Vote for Bob‘ who appears to be a Red Squirrel.

Is Bob promising:

  • an owl for everyone?
  • a Red Squirrel for everyone?
  • nuts for everyone?
  • pointy ears for everyone?
  • no grey days at all?

I’m not really sure – Bob is like real politicians in being just a little vague about what he stands for.

But what he actually stands for is a better deal for nature. The more of us who vote for Bob, the more politicians might realise that we care and therefore, that they should act.

So, even if you wish Bob were Roberta. or a Hen Harrier not a squirrel, or were a little less nutty, or had some better defined policies (like this one), or were an all-NGO proposition rather than an RSPB-only squirrel, then please do Vote for Bob!