Just wondering…

Photo: Gordon Yates

The RSPB is being criticised by the usual suspects (The Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail and also the shooting press) for the number of Hen Harrier nests that failed on its watch last season. We’ve been through this several times recently, including getting the Daily Telegraph to correct its earlier version and to apologise for it.

For the RSPB account of the year – click here.

For the Natural England account of the year – see here.

A brood fit for meddling? Photo: Ian Newton
Photo: Ian Newton

The fact that six out of nine nests with which the RSPB was involved failed, and one of these was on one of its nature reserves, certainly doesn’t look great. In fact it’s a bit suspicious. But not, to my mind, in the way that YFTB has suggested.

Let us just consider the nests from which male Hen Harriers disappeared. I don’t think there is much dispute that there were five such nests – four at Bowland and one at Geltsdale.

All of the failed nests (whether they were ones where males disappeared or not) were near grouse moors. None of the successful nests was on a grouse moor (I don’t know how many were near grouse moors – maybe all of them for all I know).

The RSPB was involved with 9 Hen Harrier active nests from which 5 males disappeared.

What is the chance that a male Hen Harrier will disappear from an active nest? Well, we’ve already heard from an experienced wildlife photographer who has never seen it happen!  But it must happen now and again because Hen Harriers don’t live for ever. According to the BTO male Hen Harriers have an annual survivorship of about 72% per annum. So that means there is a 28% chance of any particular bird dying each year. In the two months when attending an active nest, say, the chance of a Hen Harrier dying must be, on average, about 5% then (assuming various things).

So, if you have 9 nests with RSPB involvement, and males disappear from 5 of them, the probability of that happening by chance is something like 0.05 x 0.05 x 0.05 x 0.05 x 0.05 x 0.95 x 0.95 x 0.95 x 0.95 x 126 = about 0.00003 (or less than three in a hundred thousand).  [As I wondered – my original version wasn’t right – but the right version is an even smaller number! thank you for the correction].

So, if there is such a tiny chance that, given the survival rate of male Hen Harriers, you would expect that many males to disappear from the nine nests, either RSPB involvement is a spectacularly bad kiss of death for Hen Harrier nests (which seems to be YFTB’s view) or something else is happening. [And, of course, removing the 2 successful FE nests with which the RSPB had an involvement would make the chance of 5 males disappearing from 7 nests even less likely – I think it is about 1 in 1,000,000].

hen harrier by Abbie Harrison-Evans
By Abbie Harrison-Evans

I think something else is happening. I do wonder whether males from the nests with RSPB involvement were deliberately targetted so that there was the possibility of producing headlines of the type we have seen. I have no idea who might have done this. But I wouldn’t rule out coordination of this type of activity.  All it requires is that male Hen Harriers in Bowland and Geltsdale are illegally killed and we know that that sort of thing certainly goes on on some grouse moors by person or persons unknown.

And it would be even better if a few pairs were left, deliberately, to survive on or near grouse moors for comparison – remember the Telegraph started with a 6-0 story.

Now, I know that watches of harrier nests by RSPB and others are done from a distance of many hundred yards (depending on terrain) and that in some cases cameras are put a bit closer to the nests.

The chances of disturbing a male (rather than the female who, of course, is at the nest throughout) through nest-guarding is very very low. Not zero, but getting pretty close to it. But this is what some in the shooting community have suggested has happened – not just to one nest but to five of them.

This is entirely lacking in credibility to my mind.  If one nest failed because of disturbance I’d be very surprised – gobsmacked in fact. If it did fail, I’d expect the male to be seen in the area afterwards rather than disappear. And I’d expect, all other things being equal, the female to be more likely to disappear than the male. For five nests to lose their males – for the males to disappear – is indeed highly suspicious.
So suspicious that it does make me wonder whether they were deliberately targetted. And deliberately targetted to produce lurid headlines and stories of the sort for which the Telegraph had to apologise.

So was there a smoke-filled room (there are very few of them these days) somewhere, some time last winter, when this plan was hatched? Was it a cunning plan? Or is that just fanciful? If you were in any such smoke-filled room, then please do get in touch.

What do you think?

And if you can correct my maths I’ll be very grateful – although I am sure that the general thrust of this blog will remain unaffected.

Photo: Gordon Yates
Photo: Gordon Yates



27 Replies to “Just wondering…”

      1. Do you accept the conclusions of Natural England following their 2008 Hen Harrier report that, ” the critically low breeding numbers and patchy distribution of the hen harrier in England is a result of persecution – both in the breeding season, and at communal roosts in the winter – especially on areas managed for red grouse or with game rearing interests.”

      2. I saw your letter to the Times, Andrew. Pretty shoddy and disreputable don’t you think, trying to imply the RSPB is responsible for the dire situation Hen Harriers are in? To pursue your ‘thought experiment’ of the names Hen Harriers might use to refer to conservationists a little further, I’d suggest that they would reserve far less complimentary terms to apply to those who remain intent on wiping them off the moors of northern England and Scotland and the mealy-mouthed apologists in the grouse shooting industry who try to shift the blame elsewhere.

      3. This would only be a far fetched scenario if it depended upon the guilty parties having a reasonable level of intelligence rather the determined malice we all know they are capable of.

  1. This is what I surmised some time ago on this blog following the disappearances of the male birds and I have little doubt that this was a deliberate tactic.Perhaps we need to get some friendly press onside with this version-after checking with our legal advisers! It seems like the RSPB are wary of legal implications,although this never seems to bother the opposition.Then again, the opposition have many friends,allegedly,in the legal sector!

    If we submit the information re missing birds that were tagged and the areas they went missing,together with our version,perhaps the public will be able to come to their own conclusions.There is clearly only one group of people who have much to gain by the killing of these birds and it is not the RSPB!

  2. Peter’s final sentence says it all -only one group gains by the killing of Hen harriers !

  3. Brilliant! So next season lets save a lot of effort time and money and NOT have RSPB involvement in nests. Year on year this will clearly save the hen harrier in England and it “Will be the Mail/Torygraph wot done it!”

    Won’t it?

  4. What a fascinating documentary this would make – YFtBs, pathetic complaints to the Charity Commission, trying to silence a very capable and popular presenter, ignoring scientific studies, extremely suspicious ‘disappearance’ of FIVE birds and a rabid, media smear campaign against a major conservation organisation. Draw the lines between the dots and difficult to avoid conclusion a co-ordinated and very nasty attack on those who put natural heritage above recreational slaughter is taking place. What a bizarre and disturbing tale this is – warrants and needs treatment along the lines of the hard, hard hitting ‘You’ve Been Trumped!’

  5. Come on Mark, you’ve liked some of my tweets where I claimed this week’s ago.. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that something sinister is going on here.
    We’ve all seen the overt lengths certain groups have stooped to in order to discredit RSPB. We’re talking about criminals here, my bet is they’ll sink a lot lower covertly to further their own agenda.

  6. I’d just like to see the geography – which should be fairly simple and uncontentious: where are the RSPB protected harriers and who owns the land they are on, and the surrounding land out to whatever distance male HH are known to forage. One thing that is quite clear is that the chances of HH setting up home in England on an ownership that is both large enough to contain them completely AND in friendly ownership is very, very low indeed.

  7. Mark. Much as this is perfectly plausible, even likely, I would beware saying something like “Whoever has targeted RSPB sites, and left non-RSPB, grouse moor sites alone,” since this could easily be construed as “paranoid hysteria.” Imagine this as a game of cards and the gun lobby have played their hand. You must play your hand very carefully indeed and never fall into the traps that the gun lobby want you to. Remember you are playing cards with obnoxious little shits.

  8. Gerard: ” this could easily be construed as “paranoid hysteria.”” – unless you are someone like Owen Patterson, or James Delingpole, no it can’t, as the opening paragraph shows the probability of it happening by chance.

    We should not be frightened to use the probability argument to a broader audience. I know the public are not comfy with number, but they will accept such an argument, especially as it comes from a group used to using science, and the argument seems intuitively right. They would be very sceptical if someone like Botham came out and deployed figures that were counter-intuitive.

  9. Oh, come on , Mark! Let’s stop being naive ! The combined experiences of Paul Irving and myself, ( as contributors to this Blog at various times ) plus those of Bill Hesketh and Bill Murphy from Bowland, over a twenty year period within which we’d all confirm such activities are as closely planned as were major initiatives in the Second World War!!! Male birds are “watched back” to areas they’ve found productive for prey and simply taken out. It’s not complicated. Neither is putting heather fronds over a nest of eggs or sticking a heather frond stem into an egg/eggs, discharging a fire arm near to a nest being incubated and an absolute plethora of other methods of preventing breeding success. Let’s stop making excuses and come out and condemn those responsible in sound terms instead of playing by the Queensbury rules !! Having been involved directly for twenty years, endured the civilized condemnations and lack of real action and, having been retired for fifteen years and now enduring the mealy mouthed criticisms coming forward, it’s about time things changed, non governmental organizations boned up , declared war and stopped playing the blame game and started to mix it!!
    I’m sorry, but this must sound very cynical, but the situation has got worse since the early 1980’s , not better. Read my various Blogs http://www.birdingodyssey.blogspot.com/
    over the last three or four years. Working groups and their reports, undisclosed results from tagging by DEFRA, condemnation , but little more, from various organizations, a heavy reliance on a review by the Law Society with hopes for the adoption of Vicarious Liability, but nothing happened. More is needed against a situation which in my experience, not opinion, has existed for 35 years.

    All this is resulting in is campaigning efforts linked to gaining members, endless blogging by people and promoting of the issue that leads to nothing ( sorry friend, but I’m pissed off ). Elevated publicity is great, and I admire the efforts of those involved, BUT some organization needs to confront the Establishment, weigh in and start naming names and areas involved. Within the tenure of the current Tory Govt nothing is going to happen, witness the comments to your petition. I’m sorry, but somebody needs to bare their teeth.

    1. Yes, why can’t names be named? The landowners of the grouse moors where birds have disappeared must be known – I don’t understand….. can’t they be called to account? There can’t be too many legal implications of naming landowners and their moors along with a few facts about where hen harriers have disappeared – can there?

      1. Jane – well I guess the problem might be that male Hen Harriers range widely and may have gone anywhere.

        1. nothing to stop naming all the landowners within foraging range and saying ‘it has to be one the land of one of these people’. Perhaps the good eggs (if there are any), might then stand up. Still think my idea of 24hr drones to follow HHs is a good idea, if it’s practical!

          1. I suspect that 24 hr drones would not be practical. Arguably they would introduce a degree of disturbance that might well provoke nest abandonment and even if they didn’t would certainly be portrayed as doing that by YFTB and their ilk.

          2. Further to the previous comment, I believe that the rules surrounding the use of drones require that the drone should remain within sight of the pilot which is normally taken to be within 500 metres horizontally. A foraging hen harrier would quickly be outside this limit.

    2. Perhaps pertinent to some of John Armitage’s comments, there is a puzzling statement in a recent blog by Martin Harper (http://www.rspb.org.uk/community/ourwork/b/martinharper/archive/2015/09/18/walshaw-moor-a-turning-point-for-england-s-uplands.aspx) in which he says “the scale of environmental damage means that (the) status quo is not an option. While some call for a ban, we continue to call for licensing of driven grouse shooting to secure the environmental benefits provided by well managed moors”.

      Given that his next sentence states that “The drive for intensification has a cost measured in lost wildlife and a landscape that is worse for our water supply and is compromised as (a) store of carbon, boosting the release of green house gas emissions”, I am not at all clear what RSPB perceives as “the environmental benefits of well managed moors”. That Martin states that there are benefits, suggests that there is a version of moorland management for driven grouse shooting that RSPB is, or would be, supportive of.

      1. Yes bit alarmed RSPB seems inconsistent on broadly non conservation issues re grouse moors. Even IF they can continue without compromising conservation objectives what about social ones, higher water treatment charges, probable increased flood risk and definite conflict with initiatives that would reduce flooding such as ecological restoration of watercourses. I don’t think grouse moor owners are very keen on trees and beavers. Similar scenario with driven pheasant shooting – have the RSPB looked at full Eco assessment, amount of grain and soymeal used to raise and support pheasant numbers, energy used heating pens? No right making unqualified remarks about conservation benefits of shooting until this has been done.

  10. The usual sickening cynical hypocrisy and downright lying from the shooting world.These are the same people who have reduced the harrier population – never very large after the Victorian bloodletting got underway – to a mere 5 or so pairs..and then they blame the RSPB for getting them killed!..Ask them why there are only a tiny handful of birds in the first place….strangely enough, there’s still plenty of habitat with food in their favourite environment, that shooting has created for them – managed grouse moor.

  11. Is short eared Owl not a protected species! Interesting that John Armitage only mentions a few people with records of massacre on Bowland! Why not the full list! Was part of his wage not paid for by the UU to protect these birds! Remember the court case against the others! What was all that about! And the meeting in Parliament with one Labour MP against another claiming every thing was rosy on Bowland. And the documentary that followed and the producer that never got another job. Where is the warden who saw the 2 harriers shot in Norfolk? Some say he now lives in New Zealand! Do your readers know that!

  12. Just two insurmountable problems at the moment.
    We have crap politicians.
    We have crap press putting the shooters side.
    Politicians if they were so minded could sort this out before the next breeding season.
    How quickly did they ban aircraft acrobatics after the aircraft crash near Brighton.The next day I believe.

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