Following my blog on Thursday I did phone the NE helpline to ask where I could find the information promised by their Minister, Richard Benyon, in his Parliamentary reply (see Thursday’s blog to catch up on this subject  – and read the comments there too).  The people I spoke to were very helpful and mentioned that I wasn’t the first person to be asking about this subject – so I directed them towards my blog.

I received an email later in the day asking whether this report was what I was after, to which I had to reply that they would have to ask their Minister that question, but if this was all they could find then it probably was.

This report is a good report – its title is particularly good; A future for the hen harrier in England?  The question mark is of great importance here as last week’s news suggests that the answer to the question might be ‘No’ and I notice that the question mark falls off in other mentions of the report on NE’s website (funny that).

It was refreshing to read what the government’s nature conservation advisor in England (those were the days when NE was much more than a ‘delivery body’ for government) said then about the hen harrier.  Here are some quotes:

  • evidence of persecution is irrefutable
  • we have observed masked and/or armed individuals in the vicinity of nest and roost sites and recorded activities likely to disturb birds at or near their nests
  • we have nevertheless found direct evidence that Hen Harriers have been persecuted
  • we have, for instance, been looking into the disappearance of six Hen Harriers at an autumn roost known to us in the northern uplands. The anecdotal evidence of deliberate persecution given to us in confidence by a local land manager correlates with the information provided by the last known location of a number of birds that were being radio-tracked by project staff
  • a number of birds, including six birds fitted with satellite transmitters have been tracked from the Bowland Fells into parts of the North Pennines managed principally as driven grouse moors, and have not been recorded subsequently
  • in three incidents nests had been destroyed by illegal burning
  • we have also come across eight instances where other birds of prey have been shot, poisoned or disappeared on sites where Hen Harriers have been observed

It probably just slipped the Minister’s mind to mention any of that in his Parliamentary answer.

I have a lot of time for Richard Benyon, I encountered him many times whilst I worked for the RSPB, and I remember him saying some very nice things about me when he heard I was leaving the RSPB, for which I thanked him at the time (and thank him again here), but is he looking like a biodiversity minister when he deals with these issues or does he look like a fellow grouse moor owner?

Mr Benyon is a past trustee of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust although it was quite a long time ago (1994-97) (as is another of his fellow Defra Ministers, James Paice; from 2003-09) and I would put £100 up to 1p that the GWCT has members, supporters and funders with grouse moor interests in the north of England (those are odds of 10,000 to 1 on).

Mr Benyon himself appears to have some grouse moor interests.  In the Register of Members’ Interests he properly declares ‘rural land and property in Inverness-shire’ and this appears to be at Glenmazeran. Glenmazeran is an estate which has signed up to being against bird of prey persecution which is good to see.  And a Richard Benyon from Glenmazeran isn’t terribly keen on windfarms we discover (at least, not in his back yard).  You can go and stay at Glenmazeran Lodge for a spot of flyfishing and grouse shooting.

And so it may come as little surprise that Mr Benyon is not keen on the idea of vicarious liability for land owners (but I am – please sign up here).  And we still await Defra’s response to my FoI and EIR request for information about any role (there may be none) that Mr Benyon played in the Walshaw Moor affair.

I wonder whether Mr Benyon has been shown the map of hen harrier movements from the NE study.  I’d like to see this map please.  Just a map of final resting locations of harriers whose transmitters ceased to work would be interesting enough given that we are told that some of them which were being satellite tracked disappeared in grouse moor areas.  Which grouse moor areas were these, please?  Can we, the funders of this research, please see the map?

The point is, Minister, you didn’t properly answer Fiona O’Donnell’s question did you?  You didn’t mention disappearance of birds.  You actually said that hen harriers wander around and then return to breed – are you sure that is entirely truthful?  Don’t some of them end up legs-up in the heather of grouse moors? Your answer was misleading in my opinion simply on the basis of what  the report actually says.   I am sure you did not mean to mislead, and you may not ever have seen the report yourself and you may not realise that the report had such a lot of mentions of illegal persecution but you didn’t mention it at all.

But the report itself was pretty guarded in what it said.  It is now time for NE and Defra to be more open about what that study suggests is happening to hen harriers and where it is happening.   Did the tracked harriers all disappear while flying over TESCO car parks – if so we should be told as TESCO sites are clearly very dangerous for them? Did the hen harriers tend to disappear over Forestry Commission woodland – if so we should be told as this gives us a strong clue about the reasons for the declining population of the hen harrier in England? Or do the hen harriers tend to disappear when flying over grouse moors, or even some particular  grouse moors?

Come clean please, Minister, on what that NE study actually found.



Bits, some bits

  • went to London on the train from Peterborough on Thursday and saw 3 cuckoos
  • got a reply from NE re Walshaw Moor – will blog later this week
  • spent ages on Friday evening looking at a lone wader in vegetation and gloomy light wondering whether it was a Temminck stint – and it wasn’t, it was a common sandpiper.
  • am working on some essays which will appear on the website of a well-known wildlife NGO in June
  • in London, had lunch with a lady from publishing and dinner with a lady from nature conservation
  • really liked this article by Mike McCarthy
  • was commissioned to write a few words for Gardens Illustrated – watch this space
  • this day last year I was birding near JFK airport in New York
  • went out after midnight to see whether ‘my’ two nightingales were singing on a nocturnal visit in BTO nightingale survey – heard one male, presumably unpaired, singing his broken heart out.
  • tomorrow’s blog will return to the subject of radio-tracked hen harriers
  • even if you read it on Friday – have another look at Giles Bradshaw’s Guest Blog – there are lots of very thoughtful comments on it now.

Really wild?

This new magazine is available in WH Smith, all good newsagents and Sainsbury’s (I bought my copy in Wellingborough Sainsbury’s).

I bought it because I have a column in it  – flick through to page 21 please – but then read it because it’s a really good read about nature at home and abroad.

You’ll find David Lindo, Northshots and grizzly bears in this’ launch’ issue.

Give it a try – and come back and buy the next issue in a couple of months’ time.

My column – the macho nature of twitching and birds you’ll never see? You do know the story of the Wake Island rail don’t you….?



Guest Blog Don’t shoot! – by Giles Bradshaw.

Giles Bradshaw owns a small farm near Exmoor.  He campaigns for the law to be changed to allow for non-lethal dispersal of wildlife using dogs and for a wide-ranging ban on cruelty to wildlife.


A gamekeeper was recently prosecuted for breaking the Hunting Act near Spalding.  The court heard that he was found using terriers to flush foxes from their dens.  Mr Bycroft’s actions were within the law except for one crucial aspect.  He had written permission to flush the foxes and good reason to do so under the law.  However he failed to kill the pregnant vixen but rather placed it in a small barrel in order to relocate it.  He was fined £525 for not killing the fox.

Some time ago the hedgehogs of North Uist won a reprieve from being culled.  They were found using dogs and then relocated to the mainland – if this had been in England the use of dogs would have meant they had to be shot.  I face a similar problem when using my dogs on my farm in Devon.  In order to prevent deer congregating and causing damage in areas I have coppiced,  I patrol the area with my collie dogs.  My advice from the police and the Government is that under the Hunting Act I am allowed to do this.  However the deer must be shot as soon as possible.

I am writing this blog to try and persuade people that it’s wrong for the law to require wildlife to be killed in these circumstances and also for law enforcers to allow me to break it due to its utter idiocy.  I’d be especially interested in hearing any comments from people who support the current legal situation.
The main organisations supporting the current legal situation are the RSPCA and The League Against Cruel Sports (LACS).  The argument for the deer I flush having to be shot was articulated by the Government with LACS and RSPCA support when I took it to court under the Human Rights Act.  I felt that having to kill wildlife interfered with my peaceful enjoyment of my property.  They countered by saying it was necessary to prevent my dogs chasing and killing the deer.
My dogs have never, and could never, kill a deer, wild deer quickly outrun them.  Even if they were capable of such a feat there would be other more humane ways to prevent the deer being killed than killing them.  One could call them off or flush the deer with the dogs on a lead.  I have never killed a deer in my life.  I have no gun.
What makes matters worse is that deer come in herds.  When LACS prosecuted the Quantock Staghounds in 2007 the judge ruled that they should have had enough guns to kill the entire herd if one were present in the woods. This ruling does conform to the twisted logic behind the law because shooting just one or even nine out of ten deer would be an ineffective way of preventing the remaining deer from being chased.  I am not against all killing of wildlife but to me gunning down a herd of running deer is cruel and barbaric in the extreme because there is a high wounding risk.  If one waits till the herd is standing still before taking them out then the dogs clearly won’t be chasing them any more so it is even more stupid.
I greatly enjoy what I do, I live on my farm and feel I should be allowed to carry on as long as I am not harming wildlife.  To comply with the law I would have to go to great trouble and expense in hiring expert marksmen and it would turn a peaceful activity conducted in harmony with nature into a heart wrenching bloodbath.  In a word it would be cruel.
To me the Hunting Act is a deeply flawed piece of legislation because it fails to discriminate between non cruel and cruel activities.  What makes an activity cruel is not whether dogs are involved or not but whether undue suffering is caused.  People should have a legal duty not to be cruel when they conduct their business and this requirement should apply to hunts, farmers and conservation bodies alike.
There’s a simple way to achieve this and that is to define cruelty and make causing it illegal in any way without exception.  This is precisely what a law proposed by the Labour Lord Donoughue seeks to do.  Whatever the future of the Hunting Act I feel that the idea of banning all deliberate cruelty to wildlife should unite, not divide, all bodies involved in wildlife issues from the Countryside Alliance through the RSPB to the RSPCA and LACS.

Maybe no harriers in England? Lead poisoning suspected. And a bit of wuthering.

The news that there may be no hen harriers nesting in England this year is sad but this day, if it has come, was going to come soon.

Of course, extinction in England is a bit of an odd thing as England is ‘just’ a line on a map and on other sides of that line, in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and indeed France and elsewhere on the continent of Europe, there are harriers flying around not realising that their English brethren have gone ‘extinct’.

It’s not the last one that matters, except symbolically, it’s the fact that there should be a few hundred hen harriers in northern England that matters – because even in the good years in the last couple of decades the best recorded numbers have been in the low double figures rather than low treble figures.

It’s the hundreds of missing hen harriers that is the outrage not the loss of the last one.

The RSPB has called for action from government to include a plan endorsed by landowning and shooting organisations.  Well, that would be nice.  But it isn’t going to happen in my opinion as we’ve all been around this circle many times before.  RSPB is going to need to come up with something a bit more imaginative than that, I fear.

And, by the way, whatever happened to those radio-tagged hen harriers that Natural England was tracking?  Where did they all end up?  May we see a map please?  Has the Minister, Richard Benyon, seen the map?  Does he recognise any of the estates on the map? Has he ever gone grouse shooting on any of the estates on the map?  Did the last hen harrier fly out of England with the map in its talons instead of a fistful of grouse?

We know the answers to some of these questions because the Minister, Richard Benyon, was asked a Parliamentary Question earlier this week by Fiona O’Donnell MP:

Fiona O’Donnell:To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs what the findings were of Natural England’s project to fit hen harriers with radio or satellite transmitters between 2002 and 2012; and if she will place in the Library any reports on this project submitted to her Department.

Richard Benyon: Natural England has undertaken intensive studies of the movements of hen harriers since 2002, as part of its hen harrier recovery project. The preliminary results have already been published in a report available on Natural England’s website and I have arranged for a copy of the report to be placed in the Library of the House. This was based on the results of tracking 106 English-born hen harriers fitted with radio or satellite transmitters in the period 2002-08. This work showed that hen harriers travel over large distances and some individuals range widely over both upland and lowland areas before returning to traditional upland heather moorland sites to breed. Since 2007 a further 13 birds have been fitted with radio or satellite transmitters as part of a PhD study of the hen harrier in England, part-funded by Natural England. The data collected from tracking these birds are currently being analysed. The work will be published as part of a PhD thesis and, if appropriate, submitted for publication in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

Fiona O’Donnell: To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs what steps her Department has taken to reduce persecution of hen harriers under the Wildlife Crime Priority for raptor persecution.

Richard Benyon: DEFRA co-chairs the UK wildlife crime tasking and co-ordinating group, where it has supported the inclusion of raptor persecution as a wildlife crime priority for the last four years. The hen harrier is one of six priority species for wildlife crime action.

In 2011 DEFRA stepped up its involvement by participating in the police-led raptor persecution wildlife crime priority delivery group. The group’s objective is to raise, community trust and awareness to encourage intelligence and incident reporting, which should in turn lead to prevention and enforcement activity for raptor persecution.


I’ve looked on the Natural England website and I can’t find anything meaningful about this study.  I may be looking in the wrong places – all I did was go to their website and put ‘hen harrier radiotracking’ into the search engine there so I could easily have missed a study which radiotracked hen harriers.  I’ll have to phone the Natural England enquiry line, Telephone: 0845 600 3078 (local rate), between 0830 and 1700 tomorrow to ask them to point me in the right direction.  If you are interested in this subject then you might want to do the same.

My guess, is that the NE study shows that a lot of birds disappear, or their transmitters cease to function, in areas managed primarily for shooting, mostly grouse shooting, in the north of England.  It’s only a guess of course, and it could be that there is something in the air that prevents the transmitters from working in such places – my guess would be lead.  But it’s just a guess and I can easily be proved wrong by a map.  Let’s see the map, please.

And while I am at it,  I’d like to remind NE that while they said that they needed another 20 days to fulfill my FoI requests I can’t see any reason why they couldn’t have put a few reports in the post quite some time ago and I expect them to arrive tomorrow.  I shall be making a formal complaint on their lack of fulfilment of any of my request if these documents do not arrive by the end of the week.  Sorry – but you are, in my opinion, just mucking me about.